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Drake and Florence: art and commerce

Drake and Florence made world-shaking debut albums, made waves on the awards scene, and most importantly, made friends. Stuart Hammond tags along for the ride

Taken from the April 2011 issue of Dazed: 

They come from different worlds, but Florence Welch and Drake have ended up in pretty similar boats. The big thing that they have in common, of course, is being a huge deal in music in the year 2011. They’ve both released debut albums that have sold multiple millions of copies. They both performed to a television audience thought to be somewhere in the region of a billion at last year’s MTV VMAs. They were both “Best New Artist” nominees at the 53rd Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles last month. They’re both feted as dead talented self-made stars. And they’re both 24 years old. Also, they both have amusing full names that sound like the prim principal characters from a Victorian novel – Aubrey Drake Graham and Florence Leontine Mary Welch. Get a load of these guys! 

Florence first met Aubrey in the gleaming aftermath of the VMAs in LA. This was on September 12, 2010, after they’d both run the gauntlet of the ceremony’s dazzlingly weird parade and the giddy pressure of performing for a global audience. There were press-conference interviews, photo opportunities, a backstage party, an afterparty, and an after-the-after party that ended up in a quiet little studio on Sunset Boulevard, where Drake and his tight-knit microcrew were camped out. It was one of the biggest nights of everybody’s lives, but Drake had gone straight back to his place of work. Noah “40” Shebib was tinkering around with keyboards and an MPC; never not making music. We watched a re-run of the awards ceremony on a big screen and all talked it apart. Back and forth there was an awful lot of “you killed it” and “no, you killed it” and “no but, seriously, you are killing it.” For a young guy who’s just bottle-rocketed to the very top of the infamously egocentric rap game, Drake is particularly – almost shockingly – polite and nice. He keeps a really tight group of old friends around him and they are also all polite and nice. There was good weed, white wine, and everybody was happy to meet everybody. 

When Drake came to London in January 2011, it was the first time he had ever played headline shows in England. He asked Florence to do a turn, and so on the second of three London gigs, she appeared unannounced and sung Alicia Keys’s part in the song “Fireworks”. The Hammersmith nights were bananas: London’s Drake-starved fans out in their masses, youth gangs bum-rushing the doors, screaming girls, American superstar-levels of hysteria. Drake rapped and sung over a full live band, but he kept them curtained-off along the back of the stage, the rest of which was reserved only for Drake, who bounded about with ludicrous energy, did a funny London accent and dry-humped the floor at one point. It was a new and truly beautiful moment in the long history of African-American music arriving in London to a feverishly rapturous reception. 

This interview was conducted especially for this issue of Dazed, but I’ll just come out and confess it here: it wasn’t done in very rigorously interview-y circumstances. It was done in a basement studio in Soho, on Drake’s night off in between his London shows. It followed a boozy and quite inappropriately rowdy posh dinner. Florence had just played Drake and his (and Lil Wayne’s) manager Cortez Bryant four of her new tracks. There was much dancing and high-fiving and yet more mutual admiration. Plans for a collaboration were ever-more concretely made. The night before, Drake had been in the studio with The xx, who he is crazy about, who we are all crazy about, who famously remixed Florence, and whose Jamie Smith is scheduled to work on Florence’s forthcoming album, as well as on Drake’s. It’s all becoming one big weirdly happy, mutually beneficial family. In 2011, as far as this lot are concerned, the future of popular music is going to be interesting. 

Okay, let’s talk about money...

Florence Welch: It’s funny because none of my songs have ever mentioned money, but so many rap songs do. It’s weird how you never hear a folk artist going, ‘And then I popped bottles in the club, and then I bought a banjo that cost a million pounds,’ do you?

Drake: One thing I’ve found is that I don’t really like hearing artists who haven’t got money yet singing about money; it makes me feel weird. When an unsigned artist gives me a CD at a show, and I can visually see that they’re in a state where they’re trying to make this happen for themselves, but then they give me a CD talking about all the things that I just acquired? That doesn’t make much sense to me. But I do feel like a lot of people in the hip hop culture, they want to hear about these things – they want an insight into the life… The other day somebody said to me: ‘I don’t wanna hear about your life man, and the fact that you’re depressed and that you like, wanna fall in love and shit; I just wanna hear about what I’m missing out on man! Tell me about how you’re 24 years old and you’re living that life man.’ And in a way, I was kinda like, ‘Well, this person has a point.’

Florence Welch: It’s sad when you see an artist who you really look up to and they do interviews where they’re just moaning about how awful it is to be so famous.

Drake: That is a downer.

“It’s weird how you never hear a folk artist going, ‘And then I popped bottles in the club, and then I bought a banjo that cost a million pounds,’ do you?” – Florence Welch

Florence Welch: I’m always just bleatingly, weepingly grateful for everything that’s happened to me. But I also understand very clearly that I’m just very lucky, as a human, for every day that I’m not in terrible pain or starving. No matter what you’re doing – famous or not – I think you’ve got to be aware of that.

Drake: I kind of envy you in a way. The other day I went out for dinner with a bunch of old friends and they were all just talking about their phone bills, and about having enough money to fill up their gas tanks in the winter in Canada, and I remember all that stuff so vividly; that time in my life when I thought that Toronto was all I had. I was so envious of them for that. 

So you’re jealous of people who have money worries now?

Drake: That conversation with them was so genuine and so authentic, and I was so disconnected from the conversation at that moment, and I realised like, ‘Money is really just not a concern of mine at this point.’ Whether it should be or not; I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m the best person at budgeting. I don’t know if I’m smart with my money. But I can honestly tell you that in my mind, as a young rapper, money just isn’t necessarily a true concern of mine.

Florence Welch: But it’s such a strange thing to happen. I’m 24, and now I sort of have some money. I did my A-levels, but I don’t have any degrees. I dropped out of art school after the first year to do music. But I never made any money for ages. But honestly, if I was a pauper and I was famous for the art, that would be everything. I’d rather that than money. Renown for something you’re passionate about is worth more than anything in the world. I would take being penniless for that because you’ll die and money means nothing. You will vanish! You want to create something that will exist for longer than you will.

That’s more important to you than being comfortable in your life?

Florence Welch: Exactly! Create something that makes people uncomfortable! Do something that makes people feel awkward. You make art to make someone else feel something. I want to listen to something that makes me feel something. You’re trying to touch people. From the grave! You’re trying to reach out, and when you die people will listen to it again.

Drake: I do get a very large joy out of being able to give. I’ve found that truly, one of the most joyous moments of my life was when I found myself being able to buy Forty (Noah ‘40’ Shebib) a car, being able to buy Forty a Rolex. Being able to share the things I enjoy in life with someone else; that is truly a blessing.

Florence Welch: And getting up and begging for money off people just kills me. It hurts you! I’ve done that for so long. It’s a painful experience. So to give it back feels really good. 

Drake: It’s hard to predict where a record is gonna take you, and to think about things like whether you can put a monetary value on a record. I know I’ll never forget the night that I was in LA and I first heard that Rihanna song (‘What's My Name?’) for the first time. I knew then that it was something special. I knew it would be a hit.

Florence Welch: I don’t think anyone expected my record to make any money, it’s a funny thing.

Drake: But it made a lot of money!

Florence Welsh: But it was a slow burner. When it came out, it didn’t go to number one straight away. I think I’m savvy enough to know what’s lucrative, but I literally fuck myself over every time because I know what would work and I know what would be great, but I always think it’s sort of too simple, musically. So I’ll go, ‘Yeah, that would definitely work, but it’s too obvious and I can’t put my name to it.’ And then I’ll obviously want to turn it around, put a five-minute drum solo in it, change the chorus so it’s backwards and then I’ll think about releasing it. I always want to make it interesting for myself. Like, I always think you should put the drums a little bit where people wouldn’t expect them and stuff like that. I’m all about getting number ones!

Drake: Artistic integrity is important when you’re a true artist.