Colorado emo rapper Joshua Dean West’s rough childhood has shaped his body of work, including his latest autobiographical single, “Old Self.”
“I know it sounds weird, but I’m so thankful for the lessons I learned early on,” says the 21-year-old West. “If it wasn’t for living in shelters, being homeless every here and there, just finding my way through all kinds of crazy stuff, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
On the melancholy “Old Self,” West paints a stark image backed with grim lyrics, a melodic piano accompaniment and beats: “I’m still struggling with my old self / .…Childhood was torment / I keep declining, the Devil keeps calling.” Juxtaposing hope and darkness, the song reveals that he sleeps with one eye open, “‘cause the past left scars that are way too deep,” and though he sees light at the end of the tunnel, the closer he gets, the more he keeps running.
West says he was reflecting on his past when he wrote the song. “There was so much hurt and pain I experienced when I was younger that at times, I get caught up with the fear of reverting back to my ‘old self’—someone who was reckless, addicted to Adderall, didn’t take care of himself, said some mean things to people he cared about, and severed ties with good relationships.”
Although West chooses to expose his vulnerability in his music, he says he also worries people will typecast him as being damaged. “But I remind myself that everyone is vulnerable in some space.”
Born in Denver and raised in Grand Junction from age three on, West recalls having a good blue-collar upbringing with a pretty normal childhood until the age of eight, when his father got into a bad accident after riding a mechanical bull at a local club. “He had to have leg surgery and take pain medication, which eventually led to an addiction to opioids.”
West says his father’s health declined because of the pain in his leg. "What used to take him five minutes or less to walk down a street now took him thirty minutes. So that and his addiction led to him quitting his job, which put a real financial strain on our family.”
West’s mother became the sole breadwinner in the family, working at the CoorsTek factory in Grand Junction for the next couple of years. He says she eventually formed a habit of using his father’s drugs and had to quit her job. “Things went downhill," says West. "We turned to food stamps and moved to a Section 8 house in Fruita, Colorado,”
West, who was eleven years old at the time, says things worsened as the new living quarters became an endless party hangout for his parents and their friends. “There were people constantly coming over. We were living in this sort of trap house where there were always drugs and alcohol around and people using in the back of the house.” He remembers eighteen people staying in his parents’ three-bedroom home at one time.
Over the next few years, the unpredictable lifestyle took a toll on West, and at age fourteen, he parted ways with his parents. “I realized the people around me weren’t the best. I wanted a change — something not as toxic.” He moved out, stayed with friends and slept on couches. He says he started doing things he shouldn’t, including skipping school and staying out until four o'clock in the morning: “I was in and out of court for truancy.”
His saving grace amid the chaos was music. West says he drew inspiration from artists like Drake, 21 Savage, Post Malone, Lil Uzi Vert, Trippie Redd, XXXTentacion and more. “I related to these artists' lyrics and their stories. I did a lot of research on them and discovered many had a similar upbringing as mine, which was powerful to me. I saw they were able to rise above tragic things like living in trap houses, shootings, toxic families and drug addiction.”
Wanting to make a change, West moved back to Grand Junction, where he spent six months living at the House, a public shelter that provides homeless youth with short-term housing programs. He eventually moved to Buffalo, New York, in 2015, and shared an apartment with one of his best friends, Sierra Garcia, whom he had met in Fruita. It was during this time that he started putting his thoughts down on paper for song ideas.
“Looking back, I felt going to Buffalo would change my life,” says West. “And it did.”
When he was eighteen, West attended a concert by the late Juice Wrld, who died at 21. At that show, West befriended Buffalonian up-and-coming rap/hip-hop artist HefeBossup backstage, which fueled his desire to make music even more. But during this creative chapter in his life, West’s prescribed medication for treating his longtime attention deficit hyperactivity disorder since the age of five turned to addiction.
“I started taking Adderall five, six times a day, which really hurt me in social situations, because it made me feel dead, like I was a walking zombie," he says. "I was checked out emotionally and would cut relationships off.” Not wanting to repeat the course of his parents, he stopped taking the pills.
“It got to a point where I didn’t want to hurt anymore," he recalls. "I told myself, ‘I’ve got to get my shit together or I’m going to die.’"
West quit cold turkey, without professional help, and in 2019, he moved back to Grand Junction. One year later, he signed up with the local Job Corps, where he finally found stability. He was flown to Utah for training to become a Certified Nurse Assistant at Davis Technical College. There he formed friendships with like-minded creative people on and off campus, including Mac Lee, another talented aspiring artist who goes by the name MacLeeMadelt. The two had chemistry and collaborated on the catchy rap song “4Score,” which is about "doing everything you can to make it in the music industry.”
West, who took on the stage name JoshDeanSavage after a couple of college friends told him he was a 'savage’ for getting away from his troubled past, says “4Score” was built simply using an open space, a Samsung Galaxy S8, a set of plugged-in headphones and a BandLab app — a popular music-creation platform.
“Mac and I went to record it at a gym during a time when it was super quiet, because it was either that or doing it in our room, which isn’t easy when you have roommates.”
In March 2020, West received his CNA certification, which marked a turning point in his life. "It was special," he says. "I felt I was on a good path. And I was the first one in my family to receive a college certificate in many, many years.”
With the demand for health-care workers on the rise because of the growing pandemic, West returned to Grand Junction and started working at a local nursing facility, where he was able to save money. In his downtime, he wrote songs.
“I have 152 songs I haven’t released yet," says West, who made several trips to Denver to record a few of his singles at Side 3 Studios, a state-of-the-art recording facility that established artists such as Kanye West, Travis Barker, Ed Sheeran and Machine Gun Kelly have used.
Collaborating with producer Ryan Alan, an engineer at Side 3 Studios who has worked with Post Malone, Diplo and Charlie XCX, West rolled out the singles “Stayed One,” “Make You Famous” and “Veto,” a song about addiction. The latter became his most-streamed single to date.
“I went into writing this song thinking about how I could make an addiction feel more like a person, because people relate to people, not drugs,” says West, who has been sober for the past three years. In the lyrics “She’s in the right / I’m in the wrong,” "she" is the drug, and the the "I" is the addiction. “It’s really about how you have love for this drug, but you don’t deserve what it’s doing to your brain and body," he explains.
With the help of Alan, who cast a spotlight on West’s studio output, and the rapper’s ability to connect with listeners through his genuine lyrics about heart and struggle, the response has been positive. West has been pleasantly surprised that people have reached out to him via social media and let him know that they related to his songs.
“As intimidating as it can be, I'm really glad to hear that people can see me for who I am as an artist," says West. "I intend to keep releasing material that's true to my story.”
To find out more, visit JoshDeanSavage online.