The 3 train operates from the southern end of East New York, New Lots Avenue, in Brooklyn, to the city’s northern end, Harlem–148th Street. If you get off the train at the 148th Street-Lenox Terminal stop, walk five blocks, and pass a nearby park, you will arrive at 143rd Street and Lenox Ave.
Dave East, 31, spent most of his life between East Harlem and Queensbridge. The cover for his debut album, Survival, released on November 8, is a photo of East sitting on the corner at 143rd Street and Lenox Ave. He wanted the album art to represent Harlem; to represent where he’s from. It also pays tribute to one of the earliest supporters of his rap career, Huddy 6 (born Andre Hudson), who died in a car accident in October 2010. East wanted to memorialize Huddy, defining how fans will look at Survival before they press play.
“He [supported] me when I was first trying to get into rap,” East says of Huddy, who was a local celebrity and promoter in the Harlem rap scene and close associate to Cam’ron. “He was telling me to do my shit. I wanted to get a picture on his block.”
Shortly after visiting the corner where East shot the image, I link up with the rapper at Capsule NYC off 125th Street. He is heading to a private, invite-only dinner with Dapper Dan, and needs to purchase a Paper Planes outfit for the occasion.
In the back of the store, East sits in a lounge chair with his hoodie up. Today, he’s wearing the NBA x Pink Dolphin collab, draped in a New York Knicks slam hoodie and mesh shorts with matching navy blue bandana slip-on Vans. Just three days before his album release, East is excited for Survival to come out, finally.
“The majority of my projects have been one-worded,” East says of the title selection. “Paranoia, Karma. I wanted to follow that same trend but with a word that could put all [those feelings] in one. You go through all those different emotions as you survive.”
Most rap fans are already familiar with Dave East (born David Brewster Jr.), having built his reputation as a lyrical sharpshooter with a notable cosign from Nas. But a debut album hits different. Leading up to the arrival of Survival, East consistently released street albums, dropping a total of 14 projects since 2010’s Change of Plans. Some rap fans might call this strategy flooding the market. It’s probably more accurate to say East is a student of hip-hop, raised in an era of releasing street tapes to get your weight up. There’s value in having a lot of music out, and East understands how his output has translated to a loyal fanbase.
“It’s dope because I had fans since Change of Plans that [will now] get Survival and hear my growth,” East says. “A lot of times I’m like, ‘Damn, I should’ve waited to drop an album and not put out mixtapes.’ But when I reflect on [my decision], those mixtapes helped me build a grassroots fanbase that’s going nowhere. People tattoo my lyrics, my face, all that. That’s forever.”
Dave East doesn’t render surface-level details of his life in his music, but he has talked about fallen cousins Malik “Freaky” Carter (“I'll Do Anything”) and Marcus “Mugga” Johnson (“Traumatized”), hustling to make pocket-change, and serving time in jail, a minor setback that led him to take rapping seriously.
“My whole life was geared toward basketball,” East says of transitioning from playing AAU ball with Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley to becoming a professional recording artist. “So when that didn’t work, and I got locked up, I felt I had let my family down. Not just myself. I had let my mom down, my dad, my brother, my sister, her kids.”
East went to work immediately upon his release from jail. He sharpened his craft through repetition, hoping someone would see how he was heating up in New York. Eventually, East got the attention of Nas’ brother, Jabari “Jungle” Jones. While he was living in Queensbridge, Jungle took a liking to East’s 2014 mixtape Black Rose. “Once he peeped how serious I was about it, he put Nas on,” East says. “Nas changed everything for me.”
In the summer of 2014, East signed to Nas’ Mass Appeal. With the label, he released Hate Me Now and Kairi Chanel, both essential pillars in his discography. Two years later, in 2016, East saw an opportunity to take another step forward, partnering with Def Jam for the release of his debut album. But instead of delivering his official introductory project, East released two entries in his Karma mixtape series, an EP entitled Paranoia: A True Story, and Beloved, a collaborative project with fellow New York emcee Styles P.
As East began work on Survival, he studied the first albums of his favorite artists. Specifically, how they delivered an unforgettable statement with their introductory body of work. Nas’ Illmatic, Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Cam'ron’s Confessions of Fire, and then Big Pun’s Capital Punishment.
“It was no extra tapes for you to become a fan, it was just albums,” East tells me of his revelation. “That comes with a certain energy. That comes with, ‘This is the first time the world is about to hear me.’ I put that in my mind. I rapped on this album like it’s your first time hearing Dave East.”
East wanted Survival to contain all of the story arcs of his life—trapping to make ends meet, growing up in Harlem, and the meaning of family—but he had to make sure they were presented as a complete motion picture.
On the Swizz Beatz-produced and DJ Premier-featuring “They Wanna Kill You,” East digs deep into his fear of dying young. “Need a Sign,” featuring Teyana Taylor, finds East’s father describing “the best of times” and “the worst of times” in Harlem. “I needed a sign,” his father says. “Need a Sign” serves as the centerpiece of Survival, bringing listeners to a time and place where hitting rock bottom only made the Brewster family stronger. More relatable stories, like on “On My Way 2 School,” “Seventeen,” “Mama I Made It,” and “Night Shift,” paint a fuller picture of Dave East the man.
Following his performance at Rolling Loud in New York in early October, East told Revolt TV about a joint album with Nipsey Hussle that never materialized. East and Nipsey were more than collaborators; they were close friends. Just days after Nipsey was murdered on March 31 in front of The Marathon Clothing store in Los Angeles, East held a candlelight vigil in New York. Footage of the peaceful gathering can be found in part five of his documentary Survival Series.
During a listening session for Survival at the Mass Appeal offices in October, East revealed “Penthouse” was initially a Nipsey Hussle record—which is why listeners can still hear his ad-libs. And then there’s “The Marathon Continues,” which features Snoop Dogg.
“Snoop came to New York,” East says. “We started working on a project. I went to his studio in LA; we did about eight records. He came here, we did a joint and shot the video on 125th Street. I took him through the Eastside, all through Harlem. [We were] running around three, four in the morning. It was fire. I said, ‘I did a song on my album, talking to Nip. If you feeling it, I don’t want you to even rap on it. Just speak your peace to Nip.’ He said, ‘No question nephew.’”
East says he “almost cried” after Snoop played the record for him in Ice-T’s dressing room on the set of Law & Order: SVU where Snoop was shooting his cameo.
“To the people that didn’t know him, it crushed them,” East says. “For the motherfuckers that was around him and [vibed] with him and befriended him, [his death] will never go away. And for Snoop, he lost Pac. Then Nip. That crushed [him]. That was something me and him could relate on. Fuck rap. We had a real love for that man.”
What’s next for Dave East depends on how his fans and hip-hop at-large receive Survival. East isn’t interested in chasing hits. If Survival is the debut album Harlem has been waiting for, his hard work and loyalty to home will be validated.
“I started to tell myself, ‘What are you gonna leave on the game if you get in it?’ If you get the opportunity, who are you going to be?” East concludes. “My whole thing [has been] keeping it authentic. Let me talk about stuff you can go back and trace. I made none of that up. I was there. They say bad experiences create the best art. I’m a firm believer in that. The more negativity, the more bullshit you go through, it helps that canvas later. You got more shit to talk about because you went through something.
“If my whole life was sweet and my [parents] were filthy rich, what would I rap about? There would be nothing. I’m thankful that shit was rocky, and shit was how it was up to a certain point. That drove me to change it.”