Started From 'Degrassi': Drake's Ascent From Teen Soap Star to Pop Culture Titan
Drake's credentials have always flown in the face of traditional hip-hop star-making conventions. Bi-racial (Caucasian and black), Jewish, Canadian and former teen drama actor: perhaps not the kind of pedigree that A&Rs typically look for in a modern-day rap titan, but Drake became hip-hop’s ubiquitous multi-million earning inside man by wholeheartedly embracing his outsider status and consistently breaking Billboard chart records with R&B-tinged slow jams and gritty bangers in a music genre that lionizes street culture.
For starters, Drake should be viewed as more of a pop culture phenomenon rather than just another musician cranking out hits. He had set himself apart from most rappers long before he had even inked a record deal by getting his genuine start in the entertainment industry at 15 years old as a popular actor on the seminal Degrassi TV series. The Toronto-produced teen drama is a virtual TV institution that airs in over 140 countries and Aubrey “Drake” Graham just happened to play the popular character of basketball player Jimmy Brooks, appearing in a whopping 145 episodes.
Thus, unlike many indie musicians anxious to develop their audiences with a bottom-up approach, painstakingly looking for creative ways to generate revenue streams, Drake had already been earning steady paychecks as a child actor dating back to 2001. He began unconsciously cultivating an audience as a by-product of his TV teen stardom. His narrative as actor-cum-rapper rings closer to a Mack Wilds or Childish Gambino, both of whom also began as successful actors before attacking the rap and R&B game full force. Drake was eventually able to use some of his Degrassi earnings to help bankroll his early rap dreams, paying out of pocket for early hit collaborations with Trey Songz on “Replacement Girl” in 2007. When the video for "Replacement Girl" premiered on the now defunct BET’s 106 and Park show in 2007, Drake became the first unsigned Canadian rapper to have a debut music video screened on the network in its 27-year history, setting the wheels of rap stardom in motion.
Drake was ultimately able to convert his TV acting fans into new music listeners and slowly but surely earn teen heartthrob status on his well documented MySpace page that boasted a million-plus friends and became a destination for Degrassi fans curious about his music too. While Drake hasn’t done much in the way of taking on major Hollywood acting roles post-Degrassi, he has enjoyed bit roles playing himself over the years in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and Think Like a Man Too. He is still one of those rare rappers who doubles as a legitimate thespian and can, on occasion, display his acting chops like he’s done on Saturday Night Live in 2014 and 2016 to coincide with album promo cycles.
Outside of music industry sightlines, Drake’s long-held affinity and obsession with pro sports, or the sport of basketball in particular, has made him a frequent headliner on the likes of ESPN and Bleacher Report. Look no further than his diehard University of Kentucky Wildcats college basketball loyalty to his choice of attire on the road (he wore a Sixers jersey in Philadelphia). He has become Generation Now’s NBA super fan du jour, wrestling away that crown from Spike Lee (New York Knicks) and Jack Nicholson (Los Angeles Lakers). As the acting global ambassador for the Toronto Raptors, the self-proclaimed "6 God" has taken his relationship with his hometown professional sports franchise one step further than most while still playing the field with his baller besties, LeBron James and Steph Curry.
Thanks to Internet memes who have harped on Drake's every move from his sports obsessions to "Hotline Bling" dances, a rap megastar emerged far away from rap music’s traditional urban epicenters of New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles. Where much of rap's history has been clearly defined by clear cut regional distinctions, Drake has blurred race and cultural lines as a by-product of being born in and growing up in Toronto, the most ethnically diverse city in the world. This noted cultural schizophrenia shows up most recently in his fourth studio effort Views as he flaunts distinct Jamaican lingo in his rhymes (“One Dance”), utilizes Toronto rapper Mo-G's signature “The Ginobili” dance moves (“Hotline Bling”), while rapping in a distinct hybrid rap flow that mixes the cadence of the South (Memphis), where his father Dennis is from, with a distinct Toronto intonation.
Despite the multicultural influences that often show up in his rhymes, Drake’s Jewish identity has always remained a strong undercurrent. He grew up attending homogenous public schools in predominantly Jewish Toronto neighborhoods like Forest Hill, and lived in these same neighborhoods where his mother Sandi rented the bottom half of million dollar-plus homes, which arguably had some influence on his self-identity. There’s no other Billboard chart-topping rapper shooting rap videos in shuls (synagogues) like Drake did with “HYFR” or wearing Hebrew religious symbols on major magazine covers as he once did on Vibe sporting a chai pendant. As far as audience procurement schemes go, Drake has positioned himself as one of the few popular MCs to celebrate and own their Jewishness publicly, which has arguably awakened up a previously dormant rap constituency.
Being based in Toronto, Canada, a country better known for exporting rock 'n roll and pop singers, might have arguably given Drake a slight advantage in his quest for rap’s crown. Comparable to Justin Bieber who was discovered on YouTube and grew up in Stratford, less than two hours away from Drake in Toronto, some parts of Drake’s success lay in the prescient traction he always received on the web. Canadians typically spend a lot more time on the Internet than most citizens in the world, which helped create some of the basic conditions for Drake to build large audience capacity online with his songs and videos, and to go viral very quickly, much like Bieber.
What rappers are attempting to master now, Drake had already mastered back in 2009, releasing free mixtapes off of his teams OVO blog site, and subsequently breaking the 'net with the release of his breakout So Far Gone, one of the most downloaded free mixtapes at that time. Much like Soulja Boy, Drake is one of the first batch of major Internet rap stars, and his recent reported involvement in tech startup app Omni, whose list of investors includes Scooter Braun (Bieber’s manager) only comes as a natural progression. Given Drake’s sports and entertainment business acumen, his dominance of the web -- as evidenced with the Views album cover and “Hotline Bling” memes – and charts, his outsider-on-top status has put him in a league of his own.