Tonight Drake plays Vector Arena in Auckland. Half his life ago he played Jimmy Brooks on Degrassi: The Next Generation. Duncan Greive watched his first appearance on the show to see where it all began. //
Imagine if Frankie Adams quit Shortland Street and became Lorde. That’s basically what happened for Canada when Aubrey Graham left the Degrassi universe after eight seasons and 100 episodes. Within a few months of disappearing from the teen drama he had released So Far Gone and he was off and running.
The main thing you need to know about Degrassi is that it’s an after school special, a show designed to teach impressionable teens about life’s trials in a controlled environment where government-approved messages about drugs, sex and friendship are the inevitable consequence of transgression.
This is somewhat different to the world of Drake’s songs. On Degrassi, when his girlfriend takes ecstasy Drake breaks up with her. That is unlikely to happen in real life. On Degrassi, Drake gets shot and ends up wheelchair-bound and impotent. In real life Drake is Bentley-bound and mostly raps about how sad he is from too much sex. Most importantly, on Degrassi Jimmy raps and it is terrible. Not so much with Drake.
Despite the clear differences between Drake and Jimmy Brooks, his acting career lasted as long as his rap career has to date, and you can still sense the actor in him. It’s everywhere from his excessively well-enunciated lines on the otherwise excellent So Far Gone, to his actorly humourlessness about his craft and image.*
I’ve always been curious about his pre-global ubiquity life, particularly the way it impacts on his rap persona. It makes him independently wealthy from his mid-teens (mogul), but unavoidably impacts on our ability to plausibly buy him as tough (actor). I watched the entirety of his Degrassi debut to get a sense of how Drake began, and what Jimmy Brooks was like. Here is what I learned:
Firstly, Jimmy’s a pass-first point guard in the opening credits. There he is above, looking around for the open man.
Turns out Jimmy is the open man! He shoots – he scores! This would not prove a recurring theme in Drake’s basketball career.
The episode is like a mini-version of that excellent Reece Witherspoon movie Election, except it’s set at Intermediate and there’s no comedy or drama to speak of. Jimmy is tangential to the main arc, and is basically a smiling doofus henchman to his best mate and alpha-bully Spinner. (They are still friends IRL, because no new friends etc).
This is his first non-credits appearance on the show. Spinner just successfully bullied a pair of Form One / Year Seven girls literally taking their first steps into school. Jimmy, full of homoerotic bully-kinship, gives Spinner a ‘you old rogue you’ look. It’s wonderful.
Later, for reasons which are never fully explained, Jimmy and Spinner kidnap TJ, this kid who’s been cajoled into running for class president as a seventh grader, thus tipping the earth off its axis because the position is generally reserved for eighth graders. They do this so that TJ can be bribed to withdraw from the race in private. The need for him to be kidnapped so that the exchange can occur is never particularly well explained. Maybe it only exists so we can see the patented Drake ‘seriously?’ sneer for the first time.
His final on screen moment also includes what might be his first line on the show. He sure looks like he’s yelling something above, during the climactic speeches prior to the voting in the student election. It kinda gets lost in the general cacophony though.
And that’s it. Maybe 19 seconds of screentime. Brooks would grow into one of the series’ most pivotal characters, including famously getting shot by a sweaty longhair, an occasion so intense it required Imogen Heap’s ‘Hide and Seek’ to be played, as was mandatory in teen dramas at the time. It’s a boring and inauspicious debut, but in his perfect teeth and proud hairline you can see the ridiculous yet entirely irresistible star he would become.
Watch Drake’s first episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation below:
* I feel like the above might come off as more cynical about Drake than I mean to be. To clarify: I love Drake. He’s probably my second favourite rapper right now and listening to him makes me want to start a small-medium enterprise and contribute disproportionately to the local economy. But I just find him, his lyrics, and his image funny as hell. I have listened to ‘Headlines’ 1000 times and think Big Ghost on Drake is incredible. Both those feelings exist inside me.