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Drake's Big Break -- And Beyond

of the Oakland Press

» See more SOUND CHECK

Making music has been a “process” for Aubrey Drake Graham, something he only started doing about five years ago as a sidelight to his high-profile acting career.

Turns out he’s a quick study.

Performing as Drake, he’s racked up six Top 20 singles, three of which — including “Forever” with Eminem, Kanye West and Lil Wayne — have hit No. 1 on the Billboard rap charts. He’s been featured on songs by Alicia Keys, Timbaland, Trey Songz, Jamie Foxx, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne, who signed Drake to his Young Money Entertainment label. His 2009 EP “So Far Gone” is nearing gold sales status.

And this is all before Drake has released his first album — “Thank Me Later,” which is still being recorded but is due out June 15 and is one of this year’s most highly anticipated releases.

So when he put out a single called “Successful” last year, Drake clearly knew what he was talking about.

“Sometimes it’s surreal,” says Drake, 23, who first came to fame playing paraplegic jock Jimmy Brooks in 138 episodes of the Canadian teen drama “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” “But it’s been great. You get to meet people you look up to and you have stories to tell people for years to come.

“My biggest thing, man, is I just want to be well-liked. Being the new guy on the scene, it’s ... a hard place. Everybody wants to comment on you or hate or find a reason not to believe. I feel like when you do something great, people don’t have much to say ’cause they can’t say anything negative, and when you do do something negative, people just can’t wait to call you out.

“I’m just happy for the success I’m having, and if I just stay focused and make my music, I feel like it’ll all work out all right.”

Music is part of Drake’s bloodline; his father, African American musician Dennis Graham, played drums for Jerry Lee Lewis, and his uncles include Sly & the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham and Memphis music stalwart Teenie Hodges. Drake was born in Toronto and stayed with his mother, a white educator, after his parents divorced when he was five. He was raised in the well-off and predominately Jewish neighborhood of Forest Hill — where Drake was bar mitzvahed — and began acting in high school at Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, though he didn’t graduate.

The “Degrassi” role — which Drake, a self-described class clown, got through a classmate’s father who was an agent — put him on the entertainment map and unwittingly spurred him to pursue music.

“Being part of an ensemble cast was great, but it just didn’t feel like what I was meant to do,” Drake explains. “I just had this strong desire to be a leader, and in that environment there were true stars on that show — and I wasn’t one of them. It never really sat right with me.

“I’ve never been able to sit idly by and watch life pass, so I just started getting out there in the Toronto music scene and make my own place.”

He did so quickly. Working with producers Boy Wonder and D10, Drake started courting attention for his music with two mixtapes — “Room For Improvement” in 2006 and “Comeback Season” in 2007 — as well as songs posted online. “Nobody in Toronto’s really rapped like this before,” Drake says of making his mark. “The fact that there was a hook in (his songs) that was catchy was very different there. A lot of people were like, ‘He doesn’t even sound Canadian. He sounds American!’ ”

Not surprisingly, then, Drake started making inroads below the border. His song “Replacement Girl,” with a guest appearance by Trey Songz, made Drake the first unsigned Canadian rapper to have a video shown on BET. And since it also featured Drake freestyling over Lil Wayne’s remix of “Man of the Year,” it soon came to the New Orleans rapper’s attention; he subsequently invited Drake to join him on tour, and the two began recording together.

Drake was the subject of a bidding war by the time he released the original version of “So Far Gone” in February 2009, but he had no intentions of signing anywhere other than with Wayne’s Young Money label.

“One of my biggest things is about loyalty,” he says, “and Wayne put himself out there in the beginning, when he didn’t need to, to sort of prove to the world I was somebody to pay attention to. There were so many labels offering me so many different things, but I just felt it was right to keep it with the people who I started with.

“And, yeah, my situation with the record label is great. Aside from anything financial is just the fact I get to do what I want. I have a lot of freedom as an artist, and that’s rare these days. That’s one thing I thank Wayne for giving me.”

The now-incarcerated Lil Wayne certainly did his part to keep Drake visible while he’s been making “Thank Me Later,” taking the younger rapper on tour with him last year and featuring him on a couple of tracks from the “We Are Young Money” compilation. Drake, meanwhile, suffered a bit of a setback when he suffered a knee injury on stage last July — “Sitting at home in your apartment and having a doctor come over every day and eating healthy and going to the gym — there’s not much of a rap album to be made off that,” he notes — but it did give him time to continue to hone in on what he wanted to do with the album, even as a revised version of “So Far Gone” debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 in September and he appeared on the song “Un-Thinkable (I’m Ready)” from Alicia Keys’ “The Element of Freedom” album.

“I just want to give people a musical experience,” says Drake, who’s released one single, “Over,” from the album while another, “Shut It Down,” a collaboration with The-Dream, has leaked on the Internet. “I like to open up the minds of the fans in my genre.”

Jay-Z, k-os and, of course, Lil Wayne have also been tipped as guests, while Drake also promises that the set will feature “a couple of guests that may be very much surprises for a hip-hop album,” including Kings of Leon on a song called “Fireworks” that he’s been performing during shows on his current “Away From Home” tour.

All of that means Drake’s musical plate is full to overflowing, but he has not consigned acting to his past. In fact, Drakes says, he’s concurrently plotting his next move in that direction.

“I’m working on that right now,” he confirms. “One of my best friends in this industry is Jamie Foxx ... so hopefully we’ll get to do a movie together. And I’m a big Judd Apatow, comedic timing fan. I love all those movies that they do.

“So, yeah, I really want to get back into acting. It’s definitely something I’m interested in and always will be, along with the music.”

Why he's already a big deal

Drake’s first album, “Thank Me Later,” isn’t due until June 15, but here’s how the Canadian rapper has already made his mark on the music world ...

“Replacement Girl” — A single from his 2007 mixtape “Comeback Season” that made him the first unsigned Canadian rapper to have a video show on BET

“Digital Girl (Remix)” — From Jamie Foxx’s 2008 album “Intuition.”

“Best I Ever Had” — R&B and Rap chart-topper From Drake’s 2009 EP “So Far Gone.”

“Forever” — A 2009 collaboration with Eminem, Kanye West and Lil Wayne for the companion album to the LeBron James documentary “More Than a Game.”

“I’m Goin’ In” — Featuring Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy, also from Drake’s 2009 EP “So Far Gone.”

“Every Girl” and “BedRock” — His two Top 10 contributions to the 2009 “We Are Young Money” compilation.

“Say Something” — From Timbaland’s 2009 album “Shock Value II.”

“The One” — From Mary J. Blige’s 2009 album “Stronger.”

“Un-Thinkable (I’m Ready)” — From Alicia Keys’ 2009 album “The Element of Freedom.”

“Over” — The first official single from “Thank Me Later,” already in the Billboard Top 20.

The “Camus Consciousness Tour” featuring Drake, k-os and Francis & the LIghts plays at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 15, at the Meadow Brook Music Festival on the campus of Oakland University, Rochester Hills. Tickets are $30 pavilion, $15 lawn, with discounts for OU students. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com. The tour also stops on Wednesday, April 14, at MSU Auditorium in East Lansing. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 for MSU students and $25 for the general public. Call 1-800-942-7866 or visit www.asmsu.msu.edu.

Web Site: www.palacenet.com

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