Dave East: A Survivor’s Mentality

Fresh off the release of his debut album, Dave reveals how he survived his youth, heartbreak, homelessness, and the test of the hip-hop industry’s time.

The mental and physical stamina of David Brewster Jr. was fortified well before the world knew him as the Harlem-bred rap artist and newly-emerged actor Dave East. 

Dave grew up in a loving two-parent household as the middle child between an older sister and younger brother, spending his adolescent years split between New York’s East Harlem and Queensbridge. A self-described “hothead,” he found himself engrossed in daily sibling rivalries with his little brother, and engaged in typical teenage trouble at school. He admits that there was no rhyme or reason to his rebellion, other than a natural inheritance of his temperament from his Bajan father.

“I think it's just in my blood,” he explains of this disposition. “My father's temperament was different, and I grew up seeing that. Seeing how he reacted to certain people in the street. And to me, he was like the picture of a man. Anything he did I felt like that's how a man [was] supposed to react.”

(Photo: Kevin C. Spence)

Kevin C. Spence

(Photo: Kevin C. Spence)

As we sit across the table from each other, it’s difficult to imagine him in this phase. Dave’s deep, husky voice is rich with gruff, but reserved. Four braids hang down the sides of his head. The significance of his seemingly simple grey sweatsuit becomes louder when he turns around and the word “Crenshaw” is revealed across the back of his top. His ensemble is from the newly-released The Marathon Clothing and Fear of God collaboration, in remembrance of hip-hop’s fallen angel and Dave’s close friend, Nipsey Hussle—also the subject of a special song tribute titled “The Marathon Continues (Nipsey Tribute).” 

“It's just me telling him how he influenced me and letting a n***a know I appreciated him, you know what I mean? All the game he gave me, all the game he gave to the game. Just the inspiration he left. Like, thank you for all you do, my n***a. I ain't get to have that convo with him. So I put it on a beat and ended the album like that.”

Dave’s hands, trimmed with tattoos, are gently laced. His eyes, shielded with a pair of reading glasses, tend to look down when he speaks—not from intimidation, but to channel his thoughts. These habits appear to be subtle reflections of a more level-headed Dave at 31-years-old. But they’re also a sign of his humility, presumably an extension of the central theme of his debut album, Survival. 

BET spoke with Dave about the survival codes of the rap game, the sentiment behind his unreleased project with Nipsey, and the makings of his most personal album to date. 

BET: Why were you so angry in your youth? In a two-parent household and with two sibling bonds, what could have impacted that?

Dave: That was already embedded. My pops used to be different. I remember a time we were on the highway on the FDR,  and somebody cut him off. He followed him and all that. Pops was on big bullsh**.

I seen that early. And he ain't really go for no bullshit even with [me and my siblings]. You couldn't just tell my pops anything. Your story had to be solid because he from the streets. I think it was that, and just me. I was hot-headed from him. I think my pops was the reason for that. It was hood sh** and stuff like that, but it wasn't nothing wrong in my household that had me just mad or nothing. Sh** was cool. I just naturally had a hot temper.  I didn't really go for sh**. I'm cool now, though.

BET: You definitely seem more collected now. Some people probably wouldn’t even believe it.

Dave: Some people know that side. I feel like I got way more to lose now. Back then, I felt like, ‘What’s the worst that could happen? I’m going to get locked up? They gonna kick me out of school? Who cares. So what? I’ll go to another school. I’ll get out of jail. Now, I have a brand. My name is connected to so many people. I have my own child. I don’t know who is watching my every move for inspiration. I had to meet Nas to tell him that. He didn’t know that I was inspired by him since I was 13 or 14-years-old. 

You gotta meet these people for them to even know that. There’s a million kids who’s not going to ever meet me. So, whatever picture they have of Dave East, I want it to be solid. I want it to be something they can look up to. As much as I say I’m not a role model— that sh** sound cool— in the back of my mind, I know that I am. 

BET: I think there’s a misconception that young people who look up to men from the streets and join gangs are mainly looking for a sense of belonging and protection. Would you say that was the case for you?

Dave: I ain't gonna say I felt like I needed some type of belonging. But it's dudes in my same set that I know like that, who didn't have their moms and pops, you know what I'm saying? But I had all of that at home. So, it was more because this is my everyday crew. We fight together anyway. So at the end of the day, I'm gonna get down because this is the majority. Like, the majority rules.

I felt like I was standing out with basketball. It saved me for a while. The hood knew that. But then once that [wasn’t] working, I'm back in the streets. I'm back around n****s every day. So it's like, you gotta pick a side. 

(Photo: Kevin C. Spence)

Kevin C. Spence

(Photo: Kevin C. Spence)

BET: Ball was your first love. You played in high school, then in college at Towson University, so it was promising. Why did you end up leaving?

Dave: I was at the University of Richmond first where I got a full scholarship. [Basketball season] started, it was all good. So me and one of the [team] captains – he was a senior, I was a freshman—we used to riff all the time.

He had little slick sh** to say. Little remarks and sh**. So, I popped on him in the locker room—that temperament sh** I was talking about. They suspended me from the team. Whenever you transfer in schools, the basketball coach could put in writing that you either can't go to another school in the state or another school in the conference. So, he said I couldn't go to another school in the state because I had another scholarship to George Mason University. He dubbed that. So I was out of a scholarship. I had to leave. I came back [to New York], and was just working out in the gym, hoopin'. Then I got a scholarship to Towson.

Towson was cool. I was there two years. But the focus there was different. The whole team was smoking. Everybody was drinking, and we was losing like a motherf**ker. My love for the game started to die. I wasn't really feeling it no more. I just stopped going. I was like, I'm done with this sh**.

BET: Where you are in your career now, would you ever try basketball again?

Dave: I don’t know. That’s mad work. I ain't gonna front. might be something that's fun. You know how I treat ball? Say it's like you had a crush. You had a crush on somebody at like 16 or 17. It could have been your girl, your first love. And then y'all fall out, or she do you dirty, or you do her dirty—whatever. Then you don't see her for 10 years. Based on how she pulls back up [determines whether I'd return]. You know what I mean? Oh, that sh** hurt me when I couldn't play ball no more. And I wasn't injured.

BET: That’s an interesting thought given your talent and opportunities. As a man, would you say that you were a product of your environment or a product of your choices?

Dave: Both. I think it's based on what's going on in your household because I was a product of both my environment and my own choices. Regardless of what was going on in my crib or what I was being told, I knew right from wrong. But then I go outside, and now I'm doing what everybody else is doing. I'm trying to fit in. So I would say both depending on where you at. My mom ain't raise no n***a that was supposed to be in no gang or nothing like that.

BET: You’ve discussed being homeless before. What was everyday life during that period?

Dave: First of all, I wasn't in my mom's [home], and then, I'm jumping around so, I got a key to this crib and that crib. I hope I could get into this building. I got clothes over here. Like I was moving around like that. I might have all my sh** over here and I might fall out with that person. Now I'm f**ked. I tell n****s all the time: the bodegas kept me alive many nights. I ain't know what was going on. I could go up in there and get a good sandwich or a beef patty. Like I could go get right. I feel like all of that sh** really humbled me because I was just [previously] on a college campus [playing basketball] where it was sweet. I had a meal card, and I could go to the little cafe and get busy. At that point, I was scrambling.

(Photo: Kevin C. Spence)

Photo: Kevin C. Spence

(Photo: Kevin C. Spence)

BET: What would you say your definition of survival is as it relates to you and situations like that?

Dave: My definition of survival is not not letting no obstacle stop where you're trying to get to, or derail your route. No obstacle that came my way done made me fall back or knocked me off my grind. I can remember the times my mom was telling us, 'I got us franks and beans this week.' This week? Like not tonight, but this week. I can remember that, but then I knew it was gonna be a time when we was going to have some bomb sh**. So just them making me feel like it was nothing wrong with that. It was nothing wrong with being f**ked up. This sh** happens. You got ups and downs in life. And my parents taught me that shit early, you know what I mean? Sometimes she just rocking. Sometimes she'd be f**ked up. But in those times when it's f**ked up, you can't get too down and when the sh** is lit, you can't get too up.

BET: What about in the rap game? What’s the survival code?

Dave: I feel like it's not a rap game. I feel like it's different lanes in this sh** now.  I don't even know how to explain this sh**. You got your extra n****s. Over the top n**gas. Then you got your 'fallback' n****s. They might be a little more conscious. Those are your Kendricks, your J. Coles. I feel like it's lanes to this sh** now. It's not [just] one way to be. There’s no blueprint no more. 

BET: 'Survival' comes two years after 'Paranoia'.

Dave: That was an EP, too. 

BET: I wanted to clear that up actually…

Dave: You know what it is? In the game today, I feel like anytime you are a known artist or you on a label, anything you drop –unless you call it a mixtape— they take it as an album. Then I had Chris Brown on the sh** and French Montana. The features were album-worthy. But those are all people I have relationships with that just did the music with me. So Survival is my first project that I went into it saying, “This is my album.”

BET: I think what people respect about your discography is that every project reflects a specific period in your life. Does this album stay the course, or are we in for a surprise with some of the tracks?

Dave: It's way deeper. It's just way more details about David. Before this Dave East sh**. That's what survival was really. I feel like once your face is seen or you hit the masses and motherf**kers know you from that first day on, that's who you are to the world. Everybody else knows the person you were before that happened. Leading up to that point, those are the people that know you. And I want to paint that picture.

BET: Some people don’t know this, but you and Nipsey were planning a compilation album together. You were about six songs in.

Dave: Yeah. We might have had more than that. 

BET: What do you want to do with those songs?

Dave: I don't know because this sh** weird. That was my friend. I know it might be dope for the fans and for the people that love Nip, and love what I do, and love us together. The only reason I would do it is to get whatever was made from it and give it to Emani and Kross. But I can't do no videos for it. That would make it weird. And to know we actually spoke about the sh**. We wanted to do a tour with it. We used to say, 'Yo, we going to only feature Snoop [Dogg] and keep this sh** on some Crip sh**.' We used to have them convos. So, I don't even like listening to them songs. To put them out, I know I'd have to go through a whole process with that and have to revisit that too much.

That's hard to keep revisiting. That was super dark. That sh** just happened with Nip after I thought life was all good. I made it, I'm out the hood, my money up. Whoever with me now that I f**k with—we here. So I just don't want to revisit that too much. It would be dope for the fans. But that probably will be some sh** that's in the vault for when my daughter gets older.

BET: Are there any artists who you wish could have made this album that didn’t?

Dave: I wanted to get the Jay-Z and Nas record. I got Timbaland on the album. He produced on the record called ‘17.’ He did a joint with Hov and I had the verse on it. But Timbo ain’t let me leave the studio with it [Laughs.] He kept the record. So, I called Nas like, ‘Yo! I got a song with Hov! Timbaland produced it! It’s lit!’ I guess it just didn’t work out. At the time, Nas was going on tour with Mary [J. Blige], so I couldn’t get the verse. 

I think something like that would have to just be a little more organic. Like, we all together or I got the record and then I pull up on one or the other.

BET: Ultimately, what do you want to achieve with 'Survival' that you haven’t with other projects?

Dave: I want a Grammy! Or at least to be nominated. That's all. Just put my name on it and I want to go sit down with my mom at the Grammys. That would be nice. More than anything, I want it to live. I want this shit to be dope. Ten years from now I want to be doing a Survival tour. Even15 years from now. I just watched Nas do an Illmatic 25th anniversary. Like, who music is out right now. Are they gonna be able to perform it 25 years from now? That's what matters. Them the n****s that you don't forget. Everybody could get on the billboard charts. Everybody could get hot. Who was the n****s that you gonna remember, though?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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