As far as vices go, swigging Italian pre-dinner aperitifs doesn’t touch the behavior of Drake’s mentor Lil Wayne, who chain-smokes blunts and once consumed the promethazine-and-codeine mixture known as “syrup” daily. Drake and Lil Wayne are from different worlds – Wayne grew up in the destitute New Orleans neighborhood Hollygrove, and his music is littered with references to guns and drugs. But their music relationship is remarkably fruitful: Since first meeting in the spring of 2008, the two have collaborated over a dozen times.
After Jaz, the son of Rap-a-Lot Records CEO J. Prince, played Drake’s early music for Lil Wayne, an excitable Wayne flew him out to Houston the next day. “He was high out of his mind, getting these big wings tattooed on his body on the tour bus, for like six straight hours,” Drake told me. “And out of nowhere, everyone got on the bus and the bus started moving. I just kept my mouth shut. Rolled for like a week, ended up in Atlanta. That was the night we made our first bit of music together.” (In March, Lil Wayne reported to jail after pleading guilty to possession of a weapon. Drake has said of Wayne’s sentence: “I think that for eight months a lot of us will have to work a lot harder to keep hip-hop as exciting as it’s been for the last two years.)
Wayne’s co-sign gave Drake instant legitimacy, critically important for the tween-TV vet; in return, Drake has made Lil Wayne’s crew of hangers-on, Young Money, commercially relevant. Young Money’s “Every Girl” cracked Billboard’s top ten last summer too, mostly hanging five or six spots behind “Best I Ever Had,” and the bawdy-but-sweet verse sung by Drake did a lot to put it there.
In July, Drake became a major-label artist. Universal Motown beat out Warner Music Group and Atlantic Records in a protracted bidding war for distribution rights. (Technically, he’s signed to Lil Wayne’s imprint Young Money Entertainment.) With independent success as leverage, Drake negotiated remarkable terms for the post-file-sharing industry: all publishing rights to all his songs, 75% of his overall music sales revenues, and a $2 million advance.
Around then, the Drake obsession swung into gear: There were daily minutiae reports on MTV’s news site (Sample headline: “Drake On Dating: ‘I Like Older Women, Period'”), People gossip-mongering (no, he was not sleeping with Rihanna) and the LA Times reports on his finances. When he tore his ACL back in August, a DrakesKnee Twitter feed was created to offer personal missives, in rhyme form, from the much-scrutinized joint.
The hip-hop elite bought the hype. Kanye West offered, unsolicited, to direct the video for “Best I Ever Had” video. (The offer was accepted, and a nonsensical cleavage parade was produced.) Later, West joined Lil Wayne and Eminem on Drake’s “Forever,” a contribution to the LeBron James documentary, More Than a Game. (Oh, LeBron’s a pal too – he’s texted Drake advice on how to handle the knee rehab.) Jay-Z, during a Halloween show at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, brought Drake out to perform; for the first time in a long while, Jay played hype-man. On Blueprint 3‘s “A Star Is Born,” Jay flat-out passes him the baton, rapping, “Drake’s up next, see what he do with it.” So how does a twenty-three-year old, formerly squeaky clean, teen soap vet deal with being heralded as the next coming of hip-hop?
Video for “Best I Ever Had,” directed by Kanye West
In person, Graham is attentive and sedate. (Polite, too — later in the night, when we switch rides to a Range Rover, he finds the remains of a cheap cigar used to roll a blunt in the car, and quickly brushes my seat clean.) This may well be him in his pre-eccentric-superstar-asshole phase, but, for now, he’s genuinely humble, if self-assured. He says cheesy things like “I have memories to last a lifetime,” but makes them sound heartfelt.
So I shouldn’t be surprised when he identifies himself, without mitigation, as a Jew, but I am – even for a typical suburban-Jew hip-hop-nerd like me, it’s hard to fathom a mainstream African-American rapper speaking publicly of observing the high holidays. To his credit, Graham is as straightforward in person as he is on record.
“I went to a Jewish school, where nobody understood what it was like to be black and Jewish,” he says. “When kids are young it’s hard for them to understand the make-up of religion and race.” He recalls being called a schvartze, repeatedly. “But the same kids that made fun of me are super proud [of me] now. And they act as if nothing happened.” He wears a diamond-studded Chai (prominently displayed on his Vibe cover) and plans, at some point after the release and promotion of his debut, to travel to Israel. He says his mother has expressed hope he’ll marry “a nice Jewish girl.” As far as public acceptance goes today, by all accounts, religion has been a complete non-issue.
What Graham’s touchy about, though, is Degrassi. When I bring it up, personal manager Oliver jumps in. “By the last season,” Oliver measures me, “he was always late. He’d be in the studio till six, call time was at six thirty.”
“I was in so much trouble with the producers,” Graham adds, sheepishly. “I had like three and a half strikes against my name.”
For the uninitiated, the arc of Graham’s character is classic Degrassi: In season four, Jimmy Brooks goes from the basketball court to a wheelchair after being shot by a Columbine type; he eventually finds peace through painting and T-shirt design. In one episode Jimmy also raps, triumphantly, at the talent show. In Canada, he’s just as well known for acting as music. Stateside, it would be as if 90210‘s Brian Austin Green left David Silver behind to achieve real-life hip-hop legitimacy. “Degrassi was never something I saw as potentially ruining [a music career],” he says. “It was a great TV show. It had a cult following.” Last summer, during a prominent freestyle on Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 program, he even shouted out Degrassi High.
Degrassi‘s Jimmy Brooks never played basketball again.
Graham got the part after his first-ever audition; he was on the show for eight years, leaving in 2008, not by choice. (The producers overhauled nearly the entire cast.) At that point, his music industry experience consisted of two largely ignored mix tapes. Right before the release of So Far Gone, Graham was “teetering on getting a regular job. I was coming to terms with the fact that, okay, people know me from Degrassi, but I might have to work at a restaurant or something just to keep things going. The money from that show was very small. And it was dwindling.”
Next: the conclusion of Heeb‘s interview with Drake: “They can’t help it / and I can’t blame ’em / Since I got famous / bitch, I got money to blow.”