Drake: The Heeb Interview
It’s a brisk October night, and Aubrey “Drake” Graham – Canadian television actor-turned-fledgling hip-hop superstar — is being chauffeured around his native Toronto in a Bentley Continental Flying Spur. A skinny guy in cornrows named T. Rex drives while I sit in the backseat with Drake’s personal manager, Oliver. Drake rides shotgun, fielding a relentless stream of phone-calls. We’re making our way to a downtown Italian restaurant, Sotto Sotto, Drake’s favorite, but as we turn a corner, there’s an unpromising flapping noise. T. Rex slows the Bentley down to a crawl — a flat tire. Irritated, Drake cuts off his phone conversation: “This is like the fourth time that’s happened,” he says to no one in particular. “The guy at the dealership threw in these f—-d up rims.” At the gas station, the three of us pile into a cab (T. Rex stays behind for the car) and Drake turns with a big grin and a shoulder squeeze to addresses me directly for the first time: “So how you doing, man?”
At Sotto Sotto, Drake tucks his 6’2″ frame, decked out unassumingly in baggy jeans and a black hoodie, inside the restaurant’s low-slung alcove. We’ve been waiting for our table for less than a minute yet a torrent of obsequious well-wishers — managers, waiters, bus boys — has already approached. They pump my hand as well, figuring me for a member of the extended entourage, and apologize for the wait. The hostess tells Drake she’ll send over a specific waiter — “Angelo’s your favorite, right?” As soon as we sit, a wiry man bounds over to quickly out-sycophant the others with offers of cocktails and shrimp appetizers. He hustles over a tray of unidentified shots. “It’s light,” Angelo promises. Drake is pleased – “f–k it, let’s get sloshed.” He toasts Angelo and downs the drink..
Technically Graham’s been famous since he was fourteen. That’s when he landed the role of the popular, basketball playing Jimmy Brooks on Canada’s high-school drama Degrassi: The Next Generation. But only since last summer — and the runaway success of his single, the atypically sweet “Best I Ever Had” – has the 23-year-old begun dealing with issues like ill-fitting Bentley rims..
The rise started last winter when he posted his third mix tape, So Far Gone, for free download on his personal blog. At the time, he was unsigned and virtually unknown in America. By the modest expectations new artist mix tapes, So Far Gone was an immediate success; Drake became a steady fixture on in the rap media, most notably on the influential NahRight.com. Gone quickly became much more: By April, without a promotional push, Gone’s single “Best I Ever Had” was getting radio airplay; by the end of May, it cracked the Hot R&B;/Hip-Hop top ten. By July, it was the third most popular song in America..
“Best I Ever Had” sounds just like something hip-hop-station programmers would gravitate towards: a love song with a big fat R&B;hook and just a touch of raunch and bravado. It nails average-Joe details (“know you got a roommate, call me when it’s no one there”) and brims with wide-eyed earnestness (“sweat pants, hair tied, chillin’ with no make-up on / that’s when you the prettiest”). Great pop songs about love don’t need to feel authentic to be great; this one, though, does..
At his unofficial coming out party at New York’s S.O.B.s, Drake performed a much-talked-about set for a rabid crowd featuring industry cognoscenti Talib Kweli, Bun B, Ryan Leslie, Lyor Cohen and Kanye West. As Billboard’s report from the S.O.B.s show put it, “Drake . . . has the biggest buzz in hip-hop right now.”.
Though the speed of his ascendance is surprising, Drake’s background is even more so. His tenure on Degrassi, a well-intentioned, helplessly goofy TV show that routinely tackles after-school-special issues with all the subtlety of Wile E. Coyote’s anvil-deployment technique, is well covered. Less widely known, though, is his religious affiliation: Drake was born to an African-American father and a Jewish mother, who divorced when he was five. Raised by his mother in Forest Hill, a heavily Jewish neighborhood of Toronto, he attended a Jewish day school, and was even Bar Mitzvah’d (the song of the night was Backstreet Boys’s “I Want It That Way”). All of which is to say that, whatever else happens, Drake is already the first-ever black Jewish rap star.
Coming up: “I went to a Jewish school, where nobody understood what it was like to be black and Jewish.”
As far as vices go, swigging Italian pre-dinner aperitifs doesn’t touch the behavior of Drake’s mentor Lil Wayne, who chain-smokes blunts and once consumed the promethazine-and-codeine mixture known as “syrup” daily. Drake and Lil Wayne are from different worlds – Wayne grew up in the destitute New Orleans neighborhood Hollygrove, and his music is littered with references to guns and drugs. But their music relationship is remarkably fruitful: Since first meeting in the spring of 2008, the two have collaborated over a dozen times.
After Jaz, the son of Rap-a-Lot Records CEO J. Prince, played Drake’s early music for Lil Wayne, an excitable Wayne flew him out to Houston the next day. “He was high out of his mind, getting these big wings tattooed on his body on the tour bus, for like six straight hours,” Drake told me. “And out of nowhere, everyone got on the bus and the bus started moving. I just kept my mouth shut. Rolled for like a week, ended up in Atlanta. That was the night we made our first bit of music together.” (In March, Lil Wayne reported to jail after pleading guilty to possession of a weapon. Drake has said of Wayne’s sentence: “I think that for eight months a lot of us will have to work a lot harder to keep hip-hop as exciting as it’s been for the last two years.)
Wayne’s co-sign gave Drake instant legitimacy, critically important for the tween-TV vet; in return, Drake has made Lil Wayne’s crew of hangers-on, Young Money, commercially relevant. Young Money’s “Every Girl” cracked Billboard’s top ten last summer too, mostly hanging five or six spots behind “Best I Ever Had,” and the bawdy-but-sweet verse sung by Drake did a lot to put it there.
In July, Drake became a major-label artist. Universal Motown beat out Warner Music Group and Atlantic Records in a protracted bidding war for distribution rights. (Technically, he’s signed to Lil Wayne’s imprint Young Money Entertainment.) With independent success as leverage, Drake negotiated remarkable terms for the post-file-sharing industry: all publishing rights to all his songs, 75% of his overall music sales revenues, and a $2 million advance.
Around then, the Drake obsession swung into gear: There were daily minutiae reports on MTV’s news site (Sample headline: “Drake On Dating: ‘I Like Older Women, Period’”), People gossip-mongering (no, he was not sleeping with Rihanna) and the LA Times reports on his finances. When he tore his ACL back in August, a DrakesKnee Twitter feed was created to offer personal missives, in rhyme form, from the much-scrutinized joint.
The hip-hop elite bought the hype. Kanye West offered, unsolicited, to direct the video for “Best I Ever Had” video. (The offer was accepted, and a nonsensical cleavage parade was produced.) Later, West joined Lil Wayne and Eminem on Drake’s “Forever,” a contribution to the LeBron James documentary, More Than a Game. (Oh, LeBron’s a pal too – he’s texted Drake advice on how to handle the knee rehab.) Jay-Z, during a Halloween show at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, brought Drake out to perform; for the first time in a long while, Jay played hype-man. On Blueprint 3’s “A Star Is Born,” Jay flat-out passes him the baton, rapping, “Drake’s up next, see what he do with it.” So how does a twenty-three-year old, formerly squeaky clean, teen soap vet deal with being heralded as the next coming of hip-hop?
In person, Graham is attentive and sedate. (Polite, too — later in the night, when we switch rides to a Range Rover, he finds the remains of a cheap cigar used to roll a blunt in the car, and quickly brushes my seat clean.) This may well be him in his pre-eccentric-superstar-asshole phase, but, for now, he’s genuinely humble, if self-assured. He says cheesy things like “I have memories to last a lifetime,” but makes them sound heartfelt.
So I shouldn’t be surprised when he identifies himself, without mitigation, as a Jew, but I am – even for a typical suburban-Jew hip-hop-nerd like me, it’s hard to fathom a mainstream African-American rapper speaking publicly of observing the high holidays. To his credit, Graham is as straightforward in person as he is on record.
“I went to a Jewish school, where nobody understood what it was like to be black and Jewish,” he says. “When kids are young it’s hard for them to understand the make-up of religion and race.” He recalls being called a schvartze, repeatedly. “But the same kids that made fun of me are super proud [of me] now. And they act as if nothing happened.” He wears a diamond-studded Chai (prominently displayed on his Vibe cover) and plans, at some point after the release and promotion of his debut, to travel to Israel. He says his mother has expressed hope he’ll marry “a nice Jewish girl.” As far as public acceptance goes today, by all accounts, religion has been a complete non-issue.
What Graham’s touchy about, though, is Degrassi. When I bring it up, personal manager Oliver jumps in. “By the last season,” Oliver measures me, “he was always late. He’d be in the studio till six, call time was at six thirty.” “I was in so much trouble with the producers,” Graham adds, sheepishly. “I had like three and a half strikes against my name.”
For the uninitiated, the arc of Graham’s character is classic Degrassi: In season four, Jimmy Brooks goes from the basketball court to a wheelchair after being shot by a Columbine type; he eventually finds peace through painting and T-shirt design. In one episode Jimmy also raps, triumphantly, at the talent show. In Canada, he’s just as well known for acting as music. Stateside, it would be as if 90210’s Brian Austin Green left David Silver behind to achieve real-life hip-hop legitimacy. “Degrassi was never something I saw as potentially ruining [a music career],” he says. “It was a great TV show. It had a cult following.” Last summer, during a prominent freestyle on Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 program, he even shouted out Degrassi High.
Graham got the part after his first-ever audition; he was on the show for eight years, leaving in 2008, not by choice. (The producers overhauled nearly the entire cast.) At that point, his music industry experience consisted of two largely ignored mix tapes. Right before the release of So Far Gone, Graham was “teetering on getting a regular job. I was coming to terms with the fact that, okay, people know me from Degrassi, but I might have to work at a restaurant or something just to keep things going. The money from that show was very small. And it was dwindling.” Up next is Drake’s official debut, Thank Me Later, out June 15. He recorded mostly in Toronto, although he put aside time to work with Kanye in Hawaii. The bulk of production, however, went to his So Far Gone producers and friends. Drake’s first-ever official single, “Over” — on which, true-to-form, he directly addresses the downside to his new-found fame – was released in March.
With all the buildup, though, there’s also been the inevitable backlash: over the past few months Drake’s taken a lot of criticism; there was the purportedly “artistic” video for “Over,” Later’s blurry album cover and Drake’s goofy appearance with Justin Bieber at the Juno Awards. Back in the fall, before anyone has really had a chance to turn on him, I asked him if scrutiny is a source of stress.
“People are so quick to be like, ‘it’s not that hot,’” he answers. “I know, I know, the first day people are gonna hear it and say, oh, that’s not as good as So Far Gone. No matter what.”
“So what do you do then?” All signs point to huge sales numbers; it’s blockbuster or bust. Can he fulfill the ridiculous commercial expectations? Surprisingly, Drake takes the long view.
“The internet has fucked the game up so bad, that if I don’t do it, I’m curious to sit back and watch whoever does. Sometimes, sometimes, I step out of my own shoes and sort of panoramically stare at my situation, the good and the bad. And I honestly can say, the steps we’ve taken, the way that how passionate we are about this…” He trails off. “If Thank Me Later doesn’t do what I think it’s gonna do, I’m very curious to see the next artist, birthed in this internet generation, that will go on to sell millions of records.”
“Nothing is for sure. If I don’t deliver on this album it could be the downfall of my entire career.” Honestly, though — even with the pressures of impending world-wide fame and massive amounts of money (or total failure) on his very young shoulders — he really doesn’t seem too concerned. Though he’d hate the comparison, there’s a bit of Degrassi’s (pre-wheelchair) Jimmy Brooks’ swagger in him.
Angelo keeps bringing shots over. Graham mock-protests — “This is terrible! This is it!” — but keeps swigging. At one point, an attractive woman in her late twenties approaches Graham. They had met before, she explains, at a group dinner at Mr. Chow. Graham does his best to pretend like he remembers. She produces a cell phone picture, and he gives up a chirp of recognition. Apparently, she’s an associate of Vivica A. Fox – she gets Graham’s phone number, and tells him they should get dinner “when Vivica is in town.”
It’s the kind of disingenuous little interaction famous people must have all the time, but it sticks in my craw. Earlier, Graham talked about the troubles of recording Thank Me Later. “It’s weird, to fall into routine. I can’t really write a song unless it’s about me. And sometimes I have to allow myself the moments, to live a little bit.” So Far Gone resonates as the product of a young man, in turns cocksure and terrified, elated and confused. No matter what, Thank Me Later will be the product of a 23-year-old multi-millionaire dealing with flunkies and royalty lawyers. Will Drake be able to squeeze honest music out of that, too?
He’s game to try. “[With Gone], we were so deeply immersed in the sound that we had created. We didn’t know if we had created the most beautiful balance in the world, or if we were out of our minds. To get back there mentally, it’s what I’m trying to do right now — that feeling, like you’re standing on a cliff and closing your eyes and saying, “f–k it.’”