The multi-Grammy-award-winning rapper Drake has had two shots at fame — and nailed them both. He first came to prominence in the teen soap Degrassi: The Next Generation in the role of Jimmy Brooks, a wheelchair-bound character he played for seven years. After leaving the show he became one of the biggest rappers on the planet after signing a deal with Lil Wayne’s label Young Money Entertainment. He is rarely out of the headlines, whether it’s for dating Rihanna or Jennifer Lopez, founding his own label, OVO Sound, or fronting the NBA’s Toronto Raptors as the team’s global ambassador. It’s no surprise that Jay Z labeled him as the Kobe Bryant of hip hop.
Musical — and Jewish — Upbringing in Toronto
Born Aubrey Drake Graham on October 24, 1986, in Toronto, Canada, Drake grew up with music in his blood. His father, Dennis Graham, was a drummer for the legendary rock’n’ roll star Jerry Lee Lewis. An uncle, Larry Graham, played bass for Sly and the Family Stone. Drake says that his mother, Sandi Graham, also hails from a “very musical” family — his grandmother babysat Aretha Franklin. Drake comes from an eclectic and unique ethnic and religious background. His father is an African-American Catholic and his mother is a white Canadian Jew. Speaking about his personal identity, Drake says: “At the end of the day, I consider myself a black man because I’m more immersed in black culture than any other. Being Jewish is kind of a cool twist. It makes me unique.”
Drake’s parents divorced when he was five years old, and he was raised by his mother in Forest Hill, an affluent and predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Toronto. He attended Jewish day school, had a Bar Mitzvah at age 13 and observed the Jewish High Holy Days with his mother. “My mom has always made Hanukkah fun,” Drake recalls. “When I was younger, she gave cool gifts and she’d make latkes.” Despite his Jewish upbringing, Drake says he felt isolated at Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, his virtually all-white high school. He has said that “nobody understood what it was like to be black and Jewish,” but added that “being different from everyone else just made me a lot stronger.”
‘Degrassi: The Next Generation’
It was one of Drake’s classmates at Forest Hill who gave him his start in the entertainment industry. “There was a kid in my class whose father was an agent,” Drake would later explain, adding: “His dad would say, ‘If there’s anyone in the class that makes you laugh, have them audition for me.’ After the audition he became my agent.”
Shortly afterward, in 2001, Drake landed a role on the Canadian teen drama series Degrassi: The Next Generation. The show followed the dramatic lives of a group of teenagers at Degrassi High School, and Drake played the part of Jimmy Brooks, sometimes dubbed “Wheelchair Jimmy,” a basketball star who becomes permanently wheelchair-bound when he is shot by a classmate.
Drake dropped out of school to pursue his acting career, only graduating from high school in 2012. He starred on Degrassi for seven years (2001-2009), earning a Young Artist Award in 2002 for best ensemble in a TV series, among other honors. The show quickly developed a devoted cult following — “There are very few subtle Degrassi fans,” Drake has said — propelling him to celebrity status in Canada, even while he remained relatively anonymous in the United States.
From ‘Degrassi’ to Signing With Lil Wayne’s Music Label
While he was still appearing on Degrassi, Drake began attempting to cross over into the world of hip hop. He released his first mixtape, Room for Improvement, in 2006, achieving modest sales of approximately 6,000 copies. He followed that with the 2007 release of another mixtape, Comeback Season, on his own October’s Very Own imprint (later to be shortened to OVO). This included Drake’s first hit single and music video, “Replacement Girl,” which was featured as the New Joint of the Day on BET’s popular hip-hop TV show 106 & Park. More significantly, the song contained a version of Brisco and Flo Rida’s “Man of the Year,” which featured Lil Wayne. Drake decided to leave Wayne’s verses and hook intact while he provided the rest of the lyrics himself. This caught the attention of Jas Prince, son of Rap-A-Lot Records founder James Prince, who decided to play Drake to Lil Wayne himself.
In 2008, the producers of Degrassi overhauled the cast, eliminating Drake’s character. Without his steady source of income, and not yet making significant money as a rapper, Drake was on the verge of looking for a day job. “I was coming to terms with the fact that … I might have to work at a restaurant or something just to keep things going,” he remembers. But early in 2008, he received an unexpected call from Lil Wayne, who asked him to board a flight to Houston that night to join his Carter III tour.
After touring and recording a number of songs with Lil Wayne, Drake released his third mixtape, So Far Gone, in February 2009. It featured the infectious single “Best I Ever Had,” which peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart, while “Successful,” a collaboration with Wayne and Trey Songz, went gold and made Rolling Stone’s “25 Best Songs of 2009” list. Since then, Drake’s barrage of catchy, R&B-infused hip hop songs have dominated radio airwaves.
A bidding war for Drake’s signature followed and in mid-2009 he inked a record deal with Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment. The start wasn’t auspicious – he took a tumble on stage during the America’s Most Wanted Tour in July the same year, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament and requiring surgery. However, it would only be onwards and upwards from then on.
‘Thank Me Later’ Goes No. 1, ‘Take Care’ Wins Grammy
On June 15, 2010, Drake released his first full studio album, Thank Me Later, which debuted at No. 1 on both American and Canadian album charts and was certified platinum. His new persona as the cocksure prince of hip-hop (“Last name ever, first name greatest,” he brags on “Forever”) seemed to clash with his middle-class Jewish upbringing and former career as a teenage soap star.
Nevertheless, Drake attempted to fuse these seemingly incongruous stages of his life into one persona. On the December 2009 cover of Vibemagazine, he sported a diamond-crusted Chai, a hip hop-style shout out to his Jewish roots. And in “The Presentation” he raps: “Who’s Drake? Where’s Wheelchair Jimmy at?” With Jay Z and Kanye West both contributing to the album, the answer to “who’s Drake?” had to be “rap royalty.”
In November 2011, he released his second studio album, Take Care, which included the songs “Headlines,” “Make Me Proud” and “The Motto.” The album was universally acclaimed, winning the 2013 Grammy award for best rap album, among several other honors. Greg Kot’s review in the Chicago Tribune perfectly summed up Drake’s unique appeal, pinpointing the difference in subject matter and soul-searching honesty that separated Drake from his peers: “Drake, the melancholy hustler with a conscience, is back drunk-dialing former girlfriends and mourning the ones who got away.”
Mo Fame, Mo Problems: Feuds With Chris Brown, Meek Mill
Although his career was flying high, Drake hit a few rough patches in his personal life. He and fellow entertainer Chris Brown became rivals for the affections of singer Rihanna, and the pair’s bitter feud erupted in violence during the summer of 2012 at a New York nightclub, resulting in injuries to several onlookers. Both Drake and Brown found themselves facing legal consequences for their actions. The professional basketball player Tony Parker, a male model and two women — all hurt in the brawl — were among those who filed suits against the performers. Brown later referred to the event during a guest appearance on a remix of Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like” (“One on one, what you scared, bruh?” he rapped).
Around this time, Drake settled another legal matter out of court. He reached an agreement with former girlfriend Ericka Lee over her contributions to the song “Marvin’s Room.” Lee had sued Drake in 2012, seeking credit for co-writing the track. He was also sued by Rappin 4-Tay and the estate of the jazz musician Jimmy Smith. Squabbles with other artists have also peppered his career, although they haven’t derailed it. A verbal feud with Tyga was one thing, but he also got into a beef with rapper Meek Mill when the latter alleged that Drake was using a ghostwriter for a track they collaborated on. Drake recorded two diss tracks directly aimed at Mill, “Charged Up” and “Back to Back” in a single week in 2015. A diss war also started in 2016 with Joe Budden, while the internet rumours that always dog an artist of Drake’s standing have also alleged that he’s had beef with Kanye West, Jay Z and more.
‘Views’ Album Tops Charts, ‘Hotline Bling’ Earns Grammy
Personal obstacles never seem to sidetrack Drake for long. The 2013 song “Started From the Bottom,” from his critically acclaimed 2013 album Nothing Was the Same, reflected his personal struggle for success. “I just wanted to make it known that I did work really hard to get here and it wasn’t just a fluke and it wasn’t easy by any means,” he explained to MTV News.
After releasing a pair of mixtapes in 2015, including a collaboration with Future, Drake followed with his fourth studio album, Views, in the spring of 2016. The album was an instant success, debuting at No. 1 and spending 13 non-consecutive weeks atop the Billboard charts. Among its hit singles was the sultry “Hotline Bling,” which earned the artist Grammy wins for best rap song and best rap/sung performance in early 2017 (and sparked countless memes due to its memorable video inspired by the artist James Turrell). After the ceremony he took swipes at the Grammys for shoehorning him into the rap category. Speaking in an interview on Apple’s Beats 1 the day after the awards, he said: “I’m a black artist, I’m apparently a rapper, even though Hotline Bling is not a rap song. I won two awards but I don’t even want them.”
As his rap career moves forward, Drake hopes that his unconventional rise to hip-hop fame will continue to be an asset, not a hindrance. “This whole thing is unusual at this point,” he has said, “so we’re just rolling with the fairytale vibe.”
The “fairytale vibe” continued in May 2017 when Drake was the big winner at the Billboard Music Awards. He took home 13 awards — including top artist, top male artist, top Billboard 100 album, top Billboard 200 artist and top hot 100 artist — breaking Adele’s record for artist with the most wins in one year.