Drew Howard Embraces the Weirdness of Rap

We premiered "Stadiums" from Drew Howard and spoke to the 22-year old ex-Okalhoman about what makes him tick.

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Nov 5 2014, 7:11pm

If you’re paying attention to the rap music coming out of Toronto that isn’t cosigned by the golden owl of OVO, there's a chance you've heard of Get Home Safe. The collective was featured heavily in The Weeknd’s video for “King of the Fall” and consists of three main players: Derek Wise, the menacing rapper trapped in the body of a linebacker; Jazz Cartier, the enigmatic character with a Napoleon complex who barks and squeals his way through verses; and Drew Howard, the final piece of the puzzle who, up until a few weeks ago, had remained silent. Drew’s first offering in years was “Uncle Tona”, a song that’s so carefree and loose, you don’t even notice that the lyrics about "cheetahs and bald eagles" are nonsense until you start to deconstruct them. The video proved to be as whimsical as the song itself, as it showcased Drew participating in activities around Toronto’s Kensington Market neighbourhood such as riding around in a rickshaw, dancing with friends in an alleyway, and completing a quest to the Chinese gift shop. It was an entertaining video with a cohesive theme, but it was also a marked departure away from the grizzly and dark aesthetic of the videos we’ve seen from Drew’s fellow Get Home Safe members, feeling more like a daydream than the spastic nightmare sounds of Derek Wise’s “Awkward” or Jazz Cartier’s “Switch”.

Originally from Toronto, Drew Howard had felt out of place amongst his peers, a fact that was made clear to him when he moved to Oklahoma where he attended elementary school. “I was in class one day when I was 16, and the teacher asked me a question that I didn’t hear properly, so I said ‘pardon me?’ and he was shocked, he was like ‘wow you have such great manners!’ So I definitely knew that I was, not necessarily an outcast, but that I stood out.” This feeling of not fitting in with the slowed-down midwestern sensibilities of Oklahoma, combined with a love for Lil’ Wayne, would be what attracted Howard to rap music. “When I heard “Go DJ”, that’s what motivated me to start rapping. I just saw the level of entertainment in the music, the way it engaged me. It made me look at rap like ’yo, this doesn’t have to be angry, it could be fun too.”

Drew began playfully writing rhymes and rap battling his fellow classmates during lunch at school, a process that eventually led him to record some of his verses and post them online, which attracted the attention of a manager who saw potential in the young rapper. This manager connected Howard with D-Pryde, a Filipino-born Toronto rapper with a huge online following, catapulting Howard’s fanbase in the process. “We had this one song called “Huste” that had like 1.2 million views or something, so I performed that with him in New York, Boston, and Toronto. That was my first time performing for an audience.” But Drew’s involvement with D-Pryde painted him unjustly as a bubble gum rapper with no edge or character, an artist that looked and sounded generic and unmemorable. Fortunately for Howard, another relocation for his family meant that he’d be returning home to Toronto, this time to live with in the city. That’s where he connected with the other members of Get Home Safe, and where he learned that the best way to create music was to embrace the fun and weird side of his personality that he had always been forced to hide.

This personality is the driving force behind Howard’s current music and creative aesthetic, with his embrace of weirdness physically manifesting itself onto Howard in the form of hoop earing, clumped hair that branches wildly, and left-field fashion choices that make Howard look like an ill-equipped tourist. But outside of the cosmetic transformations that have befallen Howard since his early days, there are also artistic changes. Gone is the generic staccato flow that led to comparisons to artists like Big Sean. In its place, Howard experiments and employs a number of vocal registers, bouncing from a low moan one second before rising into an airy melody. It’s music that causes you to mistakenly think that there’s more than one artist on the track, and gives you an overwhelming feeling of fun and whimsy. It’s an interesting reincarnation for a rapper who’s only 22 years old, and one that will be judged on both its own merits, as well as comparatively to the rest of the Get Home Safe collective.

Your rap name is Drew Howard but you refer to yourself as 88 Camino.
88 Camino is my nickname. Everyone in Get Home Safe has a nickname. Derek is Tripp Fontaine, Jazz is Jacuzzi La Fleur, I’m 88 Camino. I came up with it because 88 is an infinite number, it looks the same in any direction. And “camino” means journey in Spanish, so when it comes together it’s an infinite journey. It’s just basically my ideology and perspective on life—it’s an infinite journey.

When did you start rapping?
Around 16 or 17, in my fucking closet. Literally, in my closet because I was too shy to do anything out loud, so I was just in my closet writing bars and rehearsing them in the back of my closet back when I lived in Oklahoma. I moved there when I was eight years old and stayed there until Grade 10 when I moved back to Ajax.

How did you link up with the Get Home Safe guys?
My friend Tyler brought me to a house party in the middle of Parkdale, and those guys were all there in the middle of the room in this mosh pit, and I immediately fucked with the positive energy. After the party, they invited me back to their place at The Palace and we partied until the sun came up listening to rap music and just having a really good time. I was starting to be over there so much, commuting from my student house in North York, that I began crashing on their couch. Then, when one of the rooms became available, it just made sense for me to move in. Soon after, we started officially making music as Get Home Safe. That was around summer of 2012.

How did surrounding yourself with Get Home Safe influence the way you made music?
It just opened me up to like a bunch of new things. New music, new experiences. Everything that I learned that year was like nothing I had ever experienced before. The entire reason behind me calling my new record “Uncle Tona” was because [Get Home Safe DJ] Tona put me onto a new wave of music, all of which inspired what I make today. Plus there’s the whole competition thing—when you’re in the studio with Jazz and Derek, you want to make sure that your shit doesn’t just meet the standard of Get Home Safe, but goes beyond it. Plus they’ve just given me more experiences to draw from and make music about. I can base my music on my lifestyle, it’s honest.

Are you a perfectionist?
Well, I don’t think any of my songs are “perfect,” but if you ask anyone in the group who takes the longest, they’ll all say me. I can write a song pretty fast, but when it comes to recording there’s always something that I think can be altered or fixed. My producers and engineers get frustrated sometimes when I’m working with them, but it’s for the best.

How does your old music sound compared to your new music?
Terrible. And just me looking back, it’s just terrible. I’m not going to be ashamed because thats just a part of my growth.

But you deleted all your old stuff off Youtube right?
Yeah I did.

Why? If you’re not going to be ashamed of growth then…
Because my old shit isn’t what I want people to see when they search my name. I don’t want that to be their first impression of me, I wanted “Uncle Tona” to be their first impression. I don’t want them seeing stuff I’m not proud of, but also it was a part of my growth. I definitely wouldn't be where I am today without the old music.

Did you have any self doubt before you released “Uncle Tona”?
Not really. I’m so confident in that song because everyone whose musical opinion I value really loves it. I recorded it about a year ago and it still hasn’t gotten old or stale, so I knew that meant something. I’d personally call it a classic.

Slava Pastuk likes cheetahs and bald eagles - @SlavaP