Following the release of Dave East’s “Karma 3,” we caught up with the lyricist to talk about the project, his writing process, and the albums that inspired him.
The duality of karma is fascinating to reflect on. It comes for us all, manifesting in unexpected ways. As an existential concept, karma can simultaneously strike fear and spark inspiration; those who live by a violent moral code can feel its effects, as can any given law-abiding citizen. It’s no wonder that Dave East has found himself drawn to the deep philosophical possibilities of karma, so much so that he has built a long-running musical series dedicated to its exploration — the latest of which to arrive being his brand new album Karma 3.
A talented writer with keen attention to detail, those familiar with East’s work have come to appreciate his authenticity. The replay value comes from a desire to gain a deeper understanding of his character, of his overall story-so-far. His albums are designed to be a window into his world, served in hour-long visits and powered by confident East Coast lyricism. The likes of which have been co-signed by some of the game’s most respected OGs, from Nas to Styles P.
Following the release of his third addition to the Karma saga, we caught up with Dave East to unpack the project, as well as his ambitious plans for the future. Be sure to check out our entire conversation below — but not before stepping into Karma 3 for a deeper understanding of the man behind it.
Def Jam Recordings
HNHH:Hey, what’s up Dave, how are you doing?
Dave East: I’m chilling man, how you doing?
Not too bad. Congratulations on the album drop. How are you feeling about that?
Thank you! Real good, it’s doing numbers.
How do you feel in the time following an album release, what’s the vibe like? Does it feel like a weight has been lifted or is it kind of back to a new kind of grind?
I’m just glad I was able to get some music out. It’s real good to be able to drop music, you know, with the pandemic and everything that’s going on. I’ve never really been able to drop a summer project. A lot of my projects drop in the fall, winter time and I haven’t dropped nothing since December with Survival. I just felt like it was a good time to drop some music.
I wanted to ask you about the concept of karma especially. What makes that theme of karma really resonate with you so deeply?
I’m a firm believer in the universe and what you put into it, whether it be good or bad, will come back around.
Yeah, definitely. I find it interesting that something like karma can apply in a negative and positive way, you know. Do you think about that duality a lot when you’re writing?
Yeah, you the Yin/Yang, the balance of life, the good, the bad, you know, it all comes full circle and karma in one word I feel like it covers all of that.
For sure. It’s one of the rare things that you could be afraid of and inspired by at the same time.
At the same time, right.
When you were working on this project what made you decide that it was going to be a continuation of the Karma series?
I’m a big fan of the series, in movies and music. A lot of people were really supportive of the first two, Karma 1 and 2 so I just thought it was something dope for my core fanbase. That’s why I ran with the title, but I changed it from a mixtape to an album. Just based on the records and the way I put it together, it was more like an album than the first two.
Cool. What’s the distinction for you between a mixtape and an album?
Honestly, I approach them kind of the same but you know with a mixtape, you may have other people’s beats on there. I might just be rapping, [Laughs] know what I mean? It might not be no real focus on the song. I might not get as personal on a mixtape, you know. So that’s kind of how I see it, I make the albums a little more personal.
On that note, you’re a songwriter who is not afraid to get vulnerable on a record, was that something that you found difficult at first? Getting to the point where you can put yourself out there on a record and maybe say something you wouldn’t have shared otherwise.
Yeah, yeah, I think that just comes with time. Seeing the reaction from the fans over the years, how they relate to a lot of my personal things that I do speak on. So it just came with time. Me just getting more confident and just growing older, maturing and feeling like I’m at a point in my life where now I can speak about these topics, you know.
Yeah, definitely. Were you a private person before your rap career kind of?
All my life, very private [laughs]. But with this shit, it’s hard to be private. You know, it’s hard.
Yeah definitely. Social media alone really changed the game. When you were growing up just as a rap fan there was no social media.
No social media. I was reading magazines. Source magazine, XXL, it was just magazines all the time there wasn’t no internet. I mean there was, but I was only using it for like Napster and shit to download music.
Napster, oh yeah for sure! I had Limewire, that was crazy.
BearShare and all that stuff.
That was one of the first big game-changing events that I remember. Just looking at how the music industry completely shifted after that. I think it left a lot of people completely scrambling. A lot of labels were like “how do we adapt to this?” On a different side of it, it must be strange for the artist to always have to adapt to social media and having everything you say, you know, just be archived for, all intents and purposes, forever.
Right. It’s weird man, it’s weird. I guess we signed for it so you got to take the good with the bad.
I guess so.
I think social media is a gift and a curse. It’s definitely a good platform to get direct with the consumer, you know what I mean, as far as artist-to-fan? Like, it’s definitely a place where you can directly speak to your favorite artists and stuff like that but like you just was saying, the saving and the archiving and the screenshotting and all of the different things. You may feel one way at this time of the year and speak on something and then you don’t feel that way no more but they’ll take you to the cross over statements you made. So I just feel like it’s a gift and a curse.
I guess the good thing about it is that people just forget about the bad stuff in like a week anyway. There’s so much content now.
There’s so much content where they don’t really have too much time to really linger.
I wonder if social media was around during that classic era of hip hop in the mid 90s/early 2000s, if it would’ve changed any artists careers at all.
I think so.
Def Jam Recordings
It’s kind of crazy to think about. Look, I’ve noticed on this album and other albums of yours, you’ve really built up a lot of successful, creative relationships with collaborators from all over the place. The South, west coast, obviously the east coast. What’s the key to building creative trust with you?
I need to be a fan of your music first and foremost and secondly, the vibe we catch, in person or from afar. A lot of people I meet, we link online. I keep up with them, they keep up on what I got going on. But to me it’s all about the vibe. If I really can’t vibe with you then it makes no sense I’m making no music.
So you’re keeping up with a lot of artists as a fan I guess, right?
Yeah, everybody that I feature on any of my projects I’m a fan of their work.
Cool. So I mean obviously you’re a big hip-hop head yourself. What are some of the artists and records that really have shaped you that you could think of off the top of your head?
Life After Death by Biggie. No Way Out Album, Diddy. Shit, All Eyez On Me, Pac. Doggystyle, Snoop. Capital Punishment, Pun. S.D.E., Cam, A Gangster And A Gentlemen, Styles P. There’s so many bro.
Cool. When you’re working on your own music, particularly an album, do you have a specific approach to the pacing? That’s something that I’ve always appreciated is how an album unfolds as it goes. Do you put a conscious effort into structuring your albums and your tracklists on a musical level?
Yeah, I like to change the mood up. I always think of it like if you’re going somewhere in the car and take the ride, you know what I mean? Like a good movie, a good movie is gonna make you laugh, make you cry, you might get mad. It might just bring you through a rollercoaster of emotions. And all of my favorite albums, a lot of them that I just named, that’s how they structured them. Whether it was interludes or whatever, they all kind of brought you to their world. So thats what I like to do with my projects. For an hour long, or however long you’re listening to me, you come to my world for a while.
So there must be specific importance to songs like the opener or the closer, you know, those might have particular importance to you, right?
Yeah, I feel like, just you know setting the tone for the project and closing strong. You know what I mean? I compare a lot of things to basketball, playing ball, and you wanna start the game strong, you wanna finish strong.
Definitely. So, the albums that you just named and the albums that left an impression on you were the ones that bring you into that artist’s world. How did you develop the skills as a writer to immerse people into your world so successfully?
Just time and doing it over and over. Repetition. Always doing it to the point where I don’t even write anymore, I been doing it so long I just write it in my head. I don’t even put it on a piece of paper or in my phone anymore. So you know, just tryna perfect my craft and what I feel like I’m good at. I’m not trying to master anybody else’s craft — it’s my own.
Would say there was ever a song where you were actually nervous to release because you felt that you were bringing people to a new place that they might not have been expecting?
Yeah, I got a record called “Don’t Shoot,” and this is before all of the recent protesting and all of that. I forgot exactly what project that was on, but I believe that was the outro. I kind of altered my voice on the song to sound like a little kid up until me being an adult. What I went through in my own life with police. I feel like that was an eyeopener and a year or two later after that record, we protesting and rioting and looting and all the things I was kind of saying we were on the verge of.
It’s hard to watch this happening, you know, everything’s that’s going on in the world.
We’ve seen this before though. It’s just like a movie. We’ve seen cities on fire since the beginning of time, man. I just feel like it’s so shocking because of where we’re at with technology. It’s 2020, cameras everywhere, and it’s still inhumane shit taking place. I think that’s the shocker, that you could go on your phone and see a cop kneel on somebody ‘til they die, know what I mean? Or shooting an unarmed person for no reason, you could just see that shit right on your phone.
You gotta have a level-head to stay sane sometimes.
Like you gotta focus on you and yours, man. That’s the only way. If everybody individually does that, we can come together and be stronger. But the focus on the next man or the next woman, that ain’t gon’ help nothing.
Definitely. But yet, you know, people just can’t help it sometimes. I guess everyone’s gotta weigh in on everything. But one thing I did notice too that I find, as a hip hop head myself, I find now a lot of people are starting to recognize the power of a rapper’s voice. You have Kendrick Lamar winning the Pulitzer Prize. That’s the first time that’s ever happened and I think now on a cultural level you have people starting to appreciate the writing that rappers are capable of. Did you ever feel that as a lyricist yourself that you weren’t getting credit or lyricists in general weren’t getting any credit for their writing ability?
Uh, kind of. It’s kind of spread out. I feel like I get my credit, but I feel like the true lyricists, they get their credit after the fact. From Biggie to Pun, all of em, they was considered the greatest lyricists and all after they passed on. So I feel like the real lyricists that really got something to say, the shit that’s gon’ really shift the culture when you’re listening to it, it’s rare that they get their flowers now while they’re doing it, you know what I mean?
Yeah, for sure.
We more in a club, dance-driven, more of a melodic, autotune type of era. There’s nothing wrong with that but it kind of waters down the lyricism aspect of hip hop. That’s not really in demand like it once was.
I hope that changes at some point. I think there are positive signs that it’s kind of shifting away from that. You see things like the music you’re putting out. DMX’s got something in the works. Griselda’s been kind of killing it lately too. There’s a lot of emphasis on this type of stuff, you know, which is a positive sign in my opinion.
Yeah, I feel like there’s always gonna be a lane for that. That’s where hip hop came from, so I feel like as many news lanes are coming out and all these younger artists are getting rich, that’s super dope. Any way you can feed your family off of a talent off something that might’ve been a hobby or something like that, that’s always dope. But I feel like the lane and lyricism is always there and that’s why you’ll always hear that from me. I’m always gonna think about what I’m saying.
It’s that attention to detail. You really paint a vivid picture, so, I’d like to applaud you for that.
I always think about it, if you put my music on and close your eyes then you see what I’m talking about. That’s always been a constant effort of mine when I go in the booth or when I’m listening to a beat, I want you to see it. Cause I could see it, I know what I’m talking about, I see the shit I’m saying. I be wanting whoever’s listening to it to be able to see that shit with they eyes closed.
Yeah, definitely. Do you have ideas in your head before you hear the beats and you look for beats that match those ideas, or you get inspired when you hear the beat?
Sometimes I have a topic that I be wanting to speak on without a beat, but nine times out of ten, the beat does it for me. The beat triggers different emotions, so certain beats bring out the real heartfelt shit, other beats will bring out some grimy shit, other beats could bring out something where I wanna talk about my daughter, something a little, lighter, you know. Depending on the production, that’s what really triggers different emotions out of me.
One of my favorite songs you ever did was “Russia,” I can only imagine hearing that beat for the first time.
Soon as I heard “Russia,” that was one of them like — yup, load that up, load it up, lets go.
It’s clear to me that you’ve developed quite a strong set of principles. I was wondering, what’s something you look for and how should somebody act when they want to earn your respect?
To just be yourself, man, thats number #1 with me. Be who you are, you know what I mean. And I feel like it shows when someone is trying to be something they’re not or doing it for clout or for a reason — just be yourself. I feel like that’s the best advice anybody could ever get. Be the best you that you could be.
How long were you rapping before you first started getting any kind of momentum? Was that something that you always wanted to do, cause I know you were into basketball as well.
No, I started rapping seriously maybe at 21, 22, and then I signed to Nas at 26. So maybe four years of just grinding, doing videos, freestyles, putting out all types of miscellaneous records, mixtapes, maybe 4 years of that. Then I signed with Mass Appeal in 2016, did a few projects with them, then we partnered up with Def Jam in 2017. I’ve been blowing up since then.
That must’ve been something, signing with Nas. Can you walk me through how that went down like what you were thinking when that deal was starting to come together?
That was amazing to me man. Just growing up in the same area, going back and forth from Harlem to Ravenswood and Nas being from Queensbridge, I’ve always kind of like, idolized from a distance. Once I knew that was a true thing and he was really interested in me being a part of the label he put together, it made me wanna go harder. I knew I had a shot at doing what I really wanted to do with music and pushing my own career. All I really needed was a co-sign. I needed somebody to acknowledge me, let me know they know what I got going on and let the world know that they see what I’m doing. After that I ran with it.
For sure. I mean you’ve been accepted by some of the game’s most respected. Like Nas, Styles P comes to mind, you guys did a whole album together.
P, that’s my favorite rapper, so that was crazy to me.
Yeah, you must’ve been pretty happy about that happening too. That’s a big milestone.
Before I let you go I have to ask about Wu-Tang: An American Saga. There’s gonna be a generation of kids who come to associate you with Method Man based off your role in the Wu-Tang series. What does that mean to you to be part of that Wu-Tang legacy?
That’s super dope, bro, that’s priceless. I don’t know, I’m just very appreciative to be a part of that. Shout out to the whole Wu, the love they showed me. That’s all the big bros man and to be able to really learn as much as I did about their come up, it just inspired me even more for my own shit. I’m just glad that I was a part of that and that world, or everybody that seen it, I got good reviews, you know what I mean, for that being one of my first real acting situations.
Is that something you’re looking to continue doing and get more involved in is the acting side of stuff?
Yeah, I love the acting.
Well look, I mean congratulations on the album. What’s next for Dave East right now?
Me and Styles, we working on Beloved Part 2, we gonna do a sequel to the first album. A few more scripts are coming in so I’m just keeping it moving. I got about 2 other projects that I’m 75-80% finished with. Karma was just the one we were gonna let fly first. But I used the quarantine to my advantage. I buried myself in the studio, just putting the vibe back into my sound and it helped because I’m not ripping and running. There’s no clubs, no shows, so I can really put that time into music. That’s why I really feel like Karma 3 is resonating like it is, cause of the focus I was able to put into it.
Yeah, for sure. I don’t quite know what’s going to happen with the live shows and the concerts but I mean, hopefully you get a chance to play those songs at some point live. I think they’d get a good response.
Hell yeah, man, all the Karmas gonna go up when I perform live, so, I definitely was looking forward to performing these. But you know fingers crossed maybe the world’ll open back up but in the meantime, yall can blast that shit in your crib, in the car.
Thank you so much for taking the time! The album’s great, and I’m looking forward to hearing these next projects as well. Congratulations!
I got you man, I appreciate it bro. Stay blessed.