Eleven years after the hit Nickelodeon sitcom Drake & Josh ended, Drake Bell is still balancing singing and acting. But now, at 32 years old, Bell is taking his music career into some unexpected places.
Following a rockabilly-style album in 2014 — Ready Steady Go!, Bell’s first LP since 2006 — the singer released a sultry dance-inspired EP titled Honest last year and introduced a more grown-up image, complete with a shirtless album cover and steamy videos like the one for “Rewind.” “The response has been really cool,” Bell says. “There hasn’t been much, ‘Uh, what is he trying to do?’ It’s all been, ‘Wow. I didn’t even know he made music, why is this a bop?'”
Earlier this year, he explored hip-hop and Latin sounds with two tracks this year: the Lil Mama-assisted banger “Call Me When You’re Lonely” and the spicy “First Thing in the Morning.” Now he’s even rapping in Spanish on his latest track, “Fuego Lento,” which he describes as a a tribute to his Latin fan base. “In Latin America, ‘It’s Only Time’ and ‘I Know’ went to No. 1 — it’s a whole different world,” Bell says. “Here, they’re like, ‘What’s your name?’ at Starbucks and I’m like, ‘Drake’ and they’re like, ‘Haha, like the rapper.'”
Billboard caught up with Bell to dive a little deeper into his Latin and hip-hop influences as well as his more grown-up image — one he says shouldn’t come as a surprise to fans.
What inspired the Spanish lyrics and Latin vibe of “Fuego Lento”?
I’ve never sung in Spanish. Every time I go down [to Latin America], if I’m just like “Buenos Noches,” the crowd goes insane. I was like, “I have to sing in Spanish for the fans down there. It’s been too long — they’ve been so loyal to me, and I haven’t given them anything in their language.” We got together with a buddy from [Latin pop-rap group] LOS 5, and he helped out.
[Fans] just can’t believe it when I speak to them in Spanish on stage. So for them to be able to come to my concerts and sing a part of my song in their language? I can’t wait to play it live because they’re all just going to lose their minds.
Did you have to learn a lot of Spanish before writing and recording the song?
I go to Mexico constantly, and I’m always trying my hardest to speak the language when I’m there. I speak enough to kind of get around. I have a pretty good accent — at least that’s what people tell me. [Laughs.] It was really just having somebody in [the studio] going, “The accent is a little off here, pronounce this a little like this.”
So you’ll do better than Justin Bieber’s Spanish fails.
But there wasn’t as much verse as Justin’s in “Despacito.” He had a lot more to say — mine was, like, four bars of eight bars or something, so it wasn’t as much to learn. But yeah, I know the lyrics to this one.
Another genre you’ve been exploring recently is hip-hop. What led you to that?
I hang out with a lot of people who listen to that kind of music, so I’m surrounded by it constantly. It’s funny, because a lot of people are like, “What is this coming from?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” It’s just that what I’m writing now is influenced by who I’m hanging out with, and what they’re doing is cool.
I think [hip-hop is] kind of the new punk rock, you know what I mean? I grew up loving punk rock and anything that was anti-establishment. Listening to all this new music, it’s sort of coming out of these artists. Yeah, it’s hip-hop, but I think the attitude is more punk rock. If you go to a Lil Xan show, kids are dressed like when I was a kid going to punk-rock shows and going to Hot Topic. It’s this angsty, rebellious stuff that’s coming out. I like the beats, and the melodies are cool.
But I assume you’re not planning to become a full-on rapper?
It’s like, Post [Malone] is more melodic — his songs have melodies and structures. Even Xan is not straight rap. Rich the Kid, that’s what I like about this stuff — they’ve got have hooks, they’ve got melodies, they’ve got really interesting production. I think that’s what’s turning me on about it. But no one has to worry about me coming out trying to be like Biggie Smalls.
You’ve introduced a more risqué image recently, with shirtless photos and music videos that feature sex scenes. Were you worried about how it would be received?
I wasn’t thinking about it. I kept playing “Rewind” and I was like, “I just see sex. I just see people riding around on a bed and dancers doing the same movements as the people in the bed.”
I was screwing around with the photographer [on the video set], and was like, “Dude, I don’t care, I’m naked already, let’s just shoot some pictures.” Then I was like, “Wait, these are actually cool.” My publicist was losing his mind. [Laughs.] It just happened artistically. It wasn’t some big us sitting back and going like, “We’re going to shock the world.”
I think people could see it as you trying to erase your Nickelodeon past, but it’s also been 11 years since Drake & Josh ended.
You hit the nail on the head. It’s the stigma of: “If it has any overtones of sexuality or sexiness at all, then it must be a complete antithesis of anything he ever did when he was on Nickelodeon!” I don’t want people to think that I was sitting back [thinking], “How can I erase my past by shocking the world?” It was just kind of an artistic progression of everything that I was doing anyway.
If we were still doing Drake & Josh, the Drake Parker character would probably be doing a music video where he had his clothes off and was simulating sex with a girl in a music video. That’s probably what he would be doing when he’s actually making records and has moved out of his parents’ house and has a real career as an adult. It’s the same thing — all artists go through it. It’s like Justin Bieber, [people say], “What, cute little Justin Bieber is going to come out and be sexy now with abs and muscles? Yeah come on, please.” Then all of a sudden he comes out and you’re like, “Oh, he’s sexy and I want to touch it.”
So this is the natural evolution of your kind of character on Drake & Josh.
It only makes sense! I was on a red carpet and a girl asked me, “Where did this new bad boy that gets the girls image [come from]?” I’m like, “I don’t know, I’ve been doing it since I was 15 on Nickelodeon, that’s the character.” There’s episodes where I literally make out with a girl, and then I look at the girl next to her, shrug my shoulders and start making out with her. Yeah, I didn’t have my shirt off, and I wasn’t having sex with the girl on a music video. I was a boy then.
I get it when they ask Josh [Peck], “Oh Josh, where’d this new hunk come from? You’re so good looking now, your body’s so great and you’re in such good shape,” because that wasn’t what he was on the show. But when they’re like, “Where did this new Drake come from?” I’m like, “Have you seen my show?” It’s like asking Mark-Paul Gosselaar, “So when did you start getting girls and become the cool guy?” Like, “Have you ever seen Saved By The Bell?”
So now that “Fuego Lento” is out, what else can fans look forward to from Drake Bell in the near future?
I’ve got some crazy collaborations that I’ve been doing with Tank God, who did Post Malone’s “rockstar.” I was working with Cassius Clay, who did Rich the Kid’s record. Some of Lil Xan’s crew. I don’t even know if it’s going to be a full album or if I’m going to do these little things as a pack — it’s kind of all over the place. But the thing about me is I don’t have an A&R person telling me what to do, I can get directly to the fans. They’ve all been super positive, and now, it’s just getting the word out more, getting people on board.