Dave East Talks Relationship With Nas & Major Label Deal: 'People Don't Get Signed by Def Jam Every Day on My Block'

Donald Traill/Invision for Hennessy via AP Images
Dave East performs at Griffin on Oct. 2, 2015 in New York City.

Inside Extra Butter, a boutique streetwear store off Delaney and Orchard Street in New York's Lower East Side, on Thursday night (Sept 29), a chorus of congratulations could be heard for Wayno Clark -- the manager to Harlem rapper Dave East, and the face of the management company Triangle Offense. Clark had just signed a joint venture with Def Jam Records, a union being celebrated during East's listening party for his forthcoming project, Kairi Chanel. 

A few hours earlier, East announced he was the latest addition to Def Jam’s roster, in a new partnership with Triangle Offense and his previous label home, Nas’ Mass Appeal Records -- a deal helmed by Clark and Steven "Steve-O" Carless. The building was wall-to-wall with East’s Harlem homies, industry figures, and fans (including Atlanta rapper Jeezy) who came to relish in the moment.

East made his way through the crowd around 9 p.m. with a bottle of Rosé in hand. Wearing dark shades, a considerable number of gold chains, a white bandana with a dark blue skull-laced pattern, and a grey polo with black jeans, East reiterated to the audience that this was a big moment -- not only for himself -- but for everyone who supported him since the beginning. "It’s on for real this time," he said. "I feel like a lot of my shit been heard, but it is definitely gonna be heard."

For the 28-year-old rapper, who was included in the 2016 XXL Freshman Class, his latest offering Kairi Chanel (which dropped Sept. 30) is his strongest material to date. East effortlessly delivers street tales alongside veterans 2 Chainz (“Can’t Ignore”), Cam’ron (“S.D.E.”) and Beanie Sigel ("The Real Is Back"), while also penning songs about social injustice for the first time (closer "Don’t Shoot"). Kairi Chanel is dedicated to his newborn daughter, who was born on March 9, the same day as The Notorious B.I.G.’s death nearly two decades earlier. He named his tenth mixtape after her because he recorded the majority of it during his girlfriend’s pregnancy, inspired to show fans that he’s consistently growing as an artist and a man.

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Looking back at his journey from Change of Plans -- his debut mixtape, released in July 2010 after he served a six-month jail stint in Baltimore -- to becoming a major label artist, East remembers honing his craft until he got noticed by a New York hip-hop legend. "If Nas wouldn’t have heard [my music], I would have still been doing what I was doing,” he tells Billboard. "It wasn’t a strategic plan. It was just more of, 'I am going to keep going until someone sees this shit. I’m going to keep doing videos, freestyles, mixtapes, get my whole fan base up and somebody gonna hear it.' Then, lo and behold, it was Nas. So I was like, 'Yeah, it wasn’t a waste of my time.’”

While rising artists at East’s level seek recognition for their independent hustle, many project an image of building their movement organically without major label backing. East sees this differently, choosing to publicly acknowledge his Def Jam/Mass Appeal joint venture as a win. Other New York rappers who have signed big deals this year include Desiigner (G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam) and Manolo Rose (Warehouse Music/Roc Nation). 

East believes it’s just the logical step forward for artists who want to better their lives. "People don’t get signed by Def Jam every day on my block," he relates. "I wouldn’t tell nobody to sign no slave deal or sign your life away or nothing like that, but if the deal is right and if it benefits you, you’d be a fool if you did not take advantage of it."

Nas signed East to Mass Appeal after hearing his critically acclaimed mixtape Black Rose in October 2014. During his tenure with the label, East dropped Straight Outta Harlem and Hate Me Now, the latter of which was an official release under Mass Appeal, last October. By the start of 2016, East says him and Wayno were in talks with Def Jam, agreeing to the deal (and subsequently announcing they signed last month) after building with the label’s top brass (like Steve-O) and feeling at home with the "family feel" of their team. East also spoke with Nas and received his blessing, thus extending their relationship to his Def Jam debut, which will be executive produced by the Queensbridge rapper and is slated for release in 2017.

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Nas and East aren’t your typical mentor-mentee pair, as East explains they talk about more than just music. “We talk about regular life," he says, noting how they trade unfinished records for each other's input or discuss different ways to eat healthy. "We just go off each other’s vibe like that." He even asks the hip-hop veteran about his ability to remain looking youthful. "I always ask him how he looks so young for so long and different investments," he says. "That’s big bro."

As East preps his yet-to-be-titled album, he’s excited to potentially work with new labelmates like Alessia Cara and Logic, both of whom he's a fan of. Though 2017 remains a few months away, he wants to challenge himself in making different records, experimenting with sounds and getting in the studio with songwriters. East also looks to talk about fatherhood, workshopping a song idea about how much his daughter means to him with soul singer-songwriter Marsha Ambrosius. He’ll probably find a way to pay tribute to Nas, too.

To East, his music is all about showing his fans the new experiences he’s soaking in. "You’ll hear the growth just from me living, traveling, and making more money and doing different things," East says. "I’m just providing for my family in a better situation.”