The way most of us met Dennis Graham was indirect. Before we laid eyes on the man and his remarkable mustache, we were introduced to the Memphis native via the work of his son, Aubrey Graham, better known to planet Earth residents as Drake. From the beginning of his career — literally, from the very first track of his first studio album — Drake has put his father right in his lyrical crosshairs: “My dad called me up knowing that I still listen/ And he’s still got his foot out, guilt trippin’/ It’s been years, though, I just learn to deal with it,” he raps on “Fireworks” off 2010’s Thank Me Later. Even on one of the rapper’s latest releases, “Two Birds, One Stone,” Drake continues to paint a portrait of Graham through unflinching vignettes that often show a rocky, but immensely formative relationship.
“It was good to hear some things,” Graham admits about Drake’s lyrics. “We had a discussion about some of the things that were said, and it’s all good. Because I know why he was doing it. He explained to me why, so it made it alright.”
And it hasn’t dampened the sheer joy of watching his son rise from aspiring actor to one of the world’s most recognizable creative voices. “He did what I always thought I would do,” Graham says. “I always thought that I would be that big star, and I never made it. But Drake did it and I felt like, by him doing it, I had made it.”
But now Graham is finally making an honest run at his own solo career, with a new single and album to follow. In many ways, he was just as — if not more — positioned for fame than Drake.
He was raised in Memphis (Graham won’t reveal his exact age) with music in his blood. His uncle was Willie Mitchell, a producer who worked for the Memphis soul label Hi Records, perhaps best known for his work with Al Green. His cousin, Teenie Hodges, would grow up to be a prolific guitarist and songwriter for Green, too. There’s an incorrect factoid out there that Graham’s mother babysat Aretha Franklin. It was actually his grandmother and Tina Turner, he says. But it seems Graham was never very far from talent, including his own.
He taught himself to play the piano, guitar, and drums as a kid. Raised by a single mother to the sounds of B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Little Johnny Taylor, and Sam Cooke, Graham often had to be resourceful. His first drum kit was a converted tin bathtub. His cousin accompanied him on the cardboard box.
Graham has pretty much been in one band or another his whole life. Around age 18, he lucked into a gig drumming with Jerry Lee Lewis. He was hanging out at a Memphis club called the Hot Air Balloon when Lewis’ drummer walked across the street for a beer and cigarettes. Problem was, he didn’t have any cash. “So he robbed her. He pulled a pistol out,” Graham recalls. “I’m glad I didn’t go to the store with him.” Instead Graham walked upstairs to deliver the unfortunate news to Lewis that his drummer was currently a fugitive. He ended up covering that night, and would continue to work with Lewis whenever the two crossed paths.
Graham eventually moved to Toronto. He met Drake’s mother, Sandi, after a set one night at Club Bluenote. When Drake was about five — right around the age his parents split — Graham remembers bringing him onstage to play the tambourine. He was a regular at jam sessions between Graham and Teenie Hodges. “It’s in [Drake’s] blood,” Graham says plainly.
When Drake was around nine years old, Graham remembers his son proposing a $5 bet. “I’m going to do more music than you ever did. I’m going to do more movies than you ever did,” the younger Graham said confidently. His father agreed to the deal. He finally paid his debt in 2009. Thankfully, Drake did not charge interest.
But it seems the bet might not officially be won just yet. Just over a month ago, Graham released his new single, “Kinda Crazy.” The video should be out in February or March. Is there more on the way — an album, perhaps? “One hundred percent,” Graham says before correcting himself: “One thousand percent.” Despite a brief moment of social media indigestion, where Graham threatened over Instagram to unfollow anyone who didn’t buy his single (he insists it was a marketing technique, a form of “reverse psychology,”), he says he’s pleased with the song’s reception.
“Kinda Crazy” is probably not what most expected, especially critics looking for an easy punch line. Graham’s deep and surprisingly warm voice drapes over a slow-burning ‘90s instrumental, ripe with slick electric guitar picking and cascading piano that, when combined, form an undeniable sonic aphrodisiac. It’s got a fur-coat sensuality about it, and shows the bones of what could be an interesting album — one which might just feature a very special guest verse. “[Drake and I will] eventually get around to doing something together sooner or later,” Graham says.
The work he’s done so far apparently already has Drizzy’s seal of approval. Graham loves that he can share his work with his son now, and the crossover star has apparently been returning the favor. Graham has heard most of his son’s secretive new project, More Life, which prominently features Graham himself on its album art. He affirms it is “worth waiting for — trust me.” Anything else he can share about it? No luck — Pop’s been in the game too long to fall for that one: “You’re trying to get me killed.”