Dave East Interview: Harlem legend stays ‘genuine, authentic, honest’ on new album ‘HDIGH’

Photo courtesy of Rafael Medina

A decade into the game, one of New York’s realest rhymers Dave East didn’t get here by taking the easy way out. Shortcuts are a product of failure for the legendary emcee, as East’s new album HDIGH is an immersive, intimate portrait of his upbringing and artistry at every angle.

Executive produced by iconic duo Mike & Keys, East openly tells tales of his youth in Harlem street hustling, the bonds of brotherhood and most importantly, integrity to yourself no matter where you’re at in your life. Bringing in Method Man, Benny The Butcher, Kalan.FrFr, Musiq Soulchild, Anthony Hamilton and others, HDIGH is a collection of thoughts, fears and wisdom from one of the game’s most illustrious lyrical titans.

On HDIGH, Dave details his fears of being killed by a fan similar to “John Lennon” and the trauma that follows fame, diving deeper into his truth, embarrassments, highs and lows all throughout the short, but impactful 9-track LP. Speaking on the realities of finances on “After Taxes” spitting “whatever you make, they need a piece of it,” the soulful “Don’t Let Me Down” with Benny and Steven Young uplifts listeners to find motivation and solace in bad times, rapping “to appreciate the Sun, you gotta embrace the rain.” Dave and Benny trade verses effortlessly with the latter spitting “what’s more important, your family or your sanity,” summing up the sentiment of HDIGH near the end of the record.

While HDIGH is unapologetically East in every regard, he reveals on the outro “Gregory Hines” that he doesn’t “want to do this forever,” but wants to set up his family for life by doing so. With much more to say, East alluded to another record in the same vein as HDIGH, striving to let listeners know that on each track, he gives his 100% honest truth and effort.

“I didn’t really want to draw it out too much because it’s this particular part of my life that I’m speaking on. I still got more to talk about from that. I didn’t want to give it all to this body of work. With it being 9 tracks, that was my whole thing. I felt like I didn’t want to have any skips. I didn’t want no filler records. I wanted every record to live on his own and do its own thing, but it all fits the same body of work.”

Dave East to Our Generation Music

Ultimately, East got to where he is today by staying “genuine, authentic, honest” and by doing it “his way,” he told OGM — regardless of the many tribulations he’s gone through. Continuing to persevere, there’s still so much more that lies ahead for East. Check out our conversation with the NYC emcee below.

Listen to Dave East’s ‘HDIGH’


This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and cohesion.

JB: With the release of ‘HDIGH,’ how does this album differentiate from Hoffa, the Karma trilogy, Survival — what makes this one unique from everything else that you’ve put out thus far?

Dave East: I feel like I’ve just tapped into a part of my life that I hadn’t spoke on. A lot of my previous projects, I was kind of choking on what was going on in the moment — like my emotional state, or my mental state at the time. But on [HDIGH], I tapped into myself as a kid, before [my career took off]. That’s why I did the rollout with the old pencils with my mother. The whole rollout was just like ‘vintage shit’ that nobody has seen outside of my family. I’m at a point in my career now where I can really just share that with the world. This one was just a little more personal.”

JB: With this album being more personal about your upbringing, why decide to release something like this now as compared to a debut album or your first major label mixtape?

DE: Honestly, I feel like I’ve already shown so much. I’m 10 years in musically, so it’s dope to be able to give this type of project where I’m actually explaining where I’m coming from. Whatever it is I do to make someone support what I got going on, I feel like I owe it to them — to show this side of me. I give the energy of my [upbringing] where I’m speaking on the things that made me — speaking on the music my dad played, speaking on me taking trips back and forth from New York to Virginia when I was in school. I’m just speaking on different shit that I’ve never really spoke on before. I felt like it’s kind of a testament to my own growth. You can kind of start your journey in my music with this tape if it’s your first time listening.

JB: You got Benny the Butcher, Musiq Soulchild, Kalan.Frfr, Anthony Hamilton and other heavy hitters on this record. Mike & Keys handled production on this as well, how did you go about selecting all of your collaborators this time around?

DE: “It was all natural man. I had a relationship with Benny for a while — he’s on ‘Hoffa’ and Westside Gunn curated the art for it. I really respect what [Griselda has] going with their movement. With Method Man on the intro “Unbelievable,” I just felt like it was the perfect time for us to do a record together because of his portrayal on Hulu’s ‘Wu Tang: An American Saga’ series. We got music from before, but I just feel like now it was going to hit a little harder. I actually reached out to Musiq Soulchild on social media… he’s one of the most recent artists I linked with. I was such a fan of his and I was like ‘I want no one else on this record.’ It turned out he was a fan of me. It wasn’t on no industry shit, and I was hoping he knew who I was. I grew up to Musiq Soulchild in my adolescence, same with Anthony Hamilton. So with them, I feel like they’re apart of my world. I needed them apart of what I’m doing. Everyone on it, I felt like I hand-picked.”

JB: With that being said, you got a favorite song off it yet?

DE: “It’s crazy because I’m such a fan of my own shit. I certainly change it up when I go through it, but my favorite record right now off of it is probably between ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and the ‘Gregory Hines’ record.”

JB: With you listening to Musiq Soulchild and Anthony Hamilton as a kid, what have those influences meant to you going into making this record?

DE: “I have lots of influences, both old and new. From Nas to Jay-Z to Kendrick and J. Cole, I feel like these artists bring you into their world. Like if you’ve never been to Queensbridge, Nas will take you there. Never been to Compton? Kendrick will take you there. I mean if you listen to J. Cole, it feels like you’ve always been in Fayetteville with him. If you’ve never been to Harlem, I want to give you that feeling of ‘damn, I’ve just seen everything you’ve just said’ — that same feeling.”

JB: Looking back on yourself 10 years ago, what would be some advice you’d give to yourself? Would you change anything?

DE: “Everything I did, brought me here. I had to go through certain shit to understand myself. Since I was a kid, you couldn’t tell me the stove was hot, I gotta go touch it and see for myself. I needed those feelings to maneuver through shit because they don’t say what you’re signing up for with fame. You never know those [hardships] until your famous.”

JB: As New York’s sound has changed over the course of hip-hop history, the roots Nas, Biggie and Jay-Z have planted will always be integral to the city. What’s that next step for you to continue cementing your own legacy as a NYC emcee on that next record?

DE: “There’s more emphasis on my life at this point. I feel like my life is an open book at this point, now I’m just letting the public in a little bit more because I feel like… I don’t want to be that artist that people learn so much about when they’re gone. I want them to know who I am while I’m here. As much of my life I can put into the music, I’m going to.”

JB: With all that you’ve achieved in your career, what does success truly mean to you?

DE: “It’s the freedom to live life the way you want to live it. Like you can wake up and you’re in control of your day — you got no one breathing down your neck for anything or hanging on a clock. You can just breathe and you’re not stressing over day-to-day BS.”

JB: On “Gregory Hines,” you end the album by saying, “I don’t want to do this forever,” but there’s a purpose there to take care of your family. What do you hope to get remembered by when your career is all said and done?

DE: “That I did it my way. I did this shit the way I wanted to do it. I want to be remembered by someone who was told that he couldn’t do it, and did it. I was forced in a corner of ‘not supposed to do it,’ and I overcame that. I felt like everything was against me as far as just succeeding in this. I just had a overwhelming passion for this, a drive for something that I wanted to do. And I’m still doing it.”

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