MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Hip-Hop star Drake is one of those music artists who’s so big, he only needs one name.
He’s opening his “It’s All a Blur” tour with a concert in Memphis on June 29 at FedExForum. You may already know Drake considers Memphis his home, but even his biggest fans may not know something as simple as his last name — Graham.
We recently sat down with Drake’s dad, Dennis Graham. You could say he’s the “papa” of “Champagne Papi” and he says it’s no accident his son is opening his tour in Memphis.
That’s because, despite growing up in Toronto with his mom, Drake spent summers with his dad in the Bluff City at his grandmother’s home in the Whitehaven area of Memphis.
During the interview, Dennis wore a hoodie from his son’s OVO clothing line featuring a Memphis Grizzlies claw around the trademark owl.
One of the first things Dennis Graham will tell you about his son is how much he admires his business instincts.
“He’s got so much revenue coming in from different ventures that he’s gotten into that it’s just mind-boggling,” Dennis said.
Still, it’s the music that’s made Drake the number-one seller of singles and albums — more than any other artist; more than Elvis, more than The Beatles.
Dennis said his son’s talent is exceptional because his songs tell stories people can relate to.
“Here I am thinking I was going to be the big star, and I didn’t quite make it and vicariously — here it is,” he said.
In fact, at first Dennis said it was overwhelming when his son became the number one artist in the music world. Still, he likes to think Drake’s summers in Memphis influenced his sound.
Dennis remembers the summer drives down to Memphis from Canada. When Drake would want to listen to rap in the car to start the trip, it wasn’t long before it would be his Dad’s turn to choose the music.
“He’d have a little time to listen to his rap and then I would play Johnnie Taylor; Bobbie Blue Band, BB King, Al Green, and he’d listen to it and he got that soul and blues instilled in him,” Dennis said.
Dennis said some of his favorite memories are those summers on Appleville Street, right off the very Shelby Drive Drake made famous.
“I can see him now wrestling out in the yard — wrestling in the den of the house with his cousins,” Dennis said.
Even though Dennis lives in Los Angeles now, he said he’s always with Drake when he comes back to visit family in Memphis. He adds that, after Drake became a household name, there came a time when he finally told Dennis, “Every time I go, I gotta take pictures with my family, everybody’s around and I get sick of it,” Dennis recounted. “So, I finally told them [family members] when he comes [to Memphis] you guys need to treat him like you did when you were playing in the yard together."
"Don’t ask him for pictures or money," Dennis said. "Money’s an issue. Everybody feels like he owes them something. [They’ll say] ‘hey, you’re my cousin and you’re rich? Can I get $10,000. Or $250,000 for a hair salon?’ It was ridiculous.”
Still, Dennis said Drake always is asking about the next trip home to Memphis, which Dennis said is why the city was an obvious choice for stopping first among the 28 cities on the upcoming tour.
"He tells people 'I’m from Memphis,'" Dennis said. "He’ll tell you in a second. 'I’m from Memphis. That’s my home.'”
Dennis Graham wouldn’t tell us his own age, but we do know Aubrey Drake Graham is 36 years old, and, according to Dennis, the two have an unbreakable bond.
“Our love is undeniable," Dennis said. "I mean, like, that’s my heart. That’s my heartbeat."
That bond includes daily phone calls which, Dennis said, are mostly about giving each other a hard time. Although, he admits, the calls can turn serious.
"Some things that have hurt him when he was dating certain people," he said. "We talked about it, and I just let him know he’s got to keep it moving. [A break-up is] not something to let slow you down because it’s nothing you can change.”
The first to admit he was not the perfect dad, Dennis is proud that, with the exception of an occasional public feud with a few rappers, Drake has mostly kept it clean.
He’s avoided glorifying the gun culture in his actions and his songs. Dennis said that’s no accident.
“He doesn’t have that instilled in him," he said. "He wasn’t raised like that. He’s not from the ‘hood’ so to speak. Well, he did live in the hood, but he didn’t acquire that mentality."
Dennis hopes that his influence as Drake's father played a role in that.
“Yes, I definitely talked with him about that," Dennis said. "I said, 'no sir.' Not going to take that route.”
These days, that father-son bond is growing with the addition of five-year-old grandson, Adonis.
“Adonis is my heart," Dennis said. "That’s my buddy and he loves Grandpa Dennis.”
Dennis said a lot of Drake’s fans might not know what a warm-hearted and down-to-earth person he is. Sure, life has changed with the fame — including having as many as 12 body guards around him at any given time.
Still, after spending an afternoon with Drake’s Dad, its easy to see where those qualities of being “warm-hearted” and “down-to-earth” come from.