When Dave Burd was casting the role of GaTa on his TV series “Dave,” he had only one actor in mind for the job — even though the fellow in question wasn’t really an actor.
Based on Burd’s real-life experiences as an aspiring white rapper named Lil Dicky, “Dave” relies on the authenticity of its depiction, according to Burd; the show works only if it nails the finer points of the hip-hop domain into which this jester-ish outsider has so eagerly sought entrée.
So it made sense that to portray his onscreen hype man — an essential figure in rap tasked with stoking a crowd’s excitement — Burd would turn to … his actual hype man: Davionte “GaTa” Ganter, who’s been playing gigs with Lil Dicky since shortly after the release of the rapper’s breakout viral track “Ex-Boyfriend” in 2013.
“The relationship between the two of them, it just couldn’t be faked,” said “Dave’s” co-creator, Jeff Schaffer. Added Burd of his naturally magnetic pal: “GaTa behaves as though he’s a star. Anyone who meets him is like, ‘Is this dude famous?’”
But if it was one thing to expect GaTa to bring his ample charm and live-wire energy to “Dave,” it was quite another to predict that the gangly South Los Angeles native would become the comedic series’ emotional heart. And yet that’s just what’s happened thanks to a deeply moving performance — his first outside of music videos — drawn in part from his own real-life experience with bipolar disorder.
“I always knew I could make people laugh, but I’m not gonna lie — I never thought I’d be able to make people cry,” GaTa, 33, said in a video chat from his apartment in Koreatown, where he’s been hunkered down during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dressed in a black T-shirt, with a pendant spelling out “M-O-M” dangling from a chain around his neck, he sat on a sofa next to a pillow designed to resemble a mixing console; on a wall behind him hung two plaques commemorating platinum sales of Lil Dicky’s music.
“I wake up and look at those every day like, ‘Man, I gotta get one of those,’” said GaTa, who started rapping while a student at Audubon Middle School before honing his skills as a hype man.
His big moment as an actor — one that elicited a passionate response on social media — comes in the fifth episode of “Dave,” which premiered last month on FXX and averages around 5 million viewers a week, the network says. The episode follows Dave, GaTa and their crew as they prepare for a concert, intercut with vivid scenes of psychological turmoil (including a breakdown in a shoe store and a subsequent hospitalization) from GaTa’s past; it climaxes with a stirring monologue in which GaTa, his voice cracking, tearfully explains his condition to the group.
“Sometime I feel crazy, sometime I feel lazy,” he tells them, to which Lil Dicky’s manager (played by Andrew Santino) replies, “I’m glad you told us — and I think it’s pretty cool that we’ve got the first hype man that’s clinically depressed.”
Anyone already watching “Dave,” in which the strongest scenes have a loose, improvisational vibe that captures the intimacy of the friendships at its core, has discovered by this point that the show is more complicated than Lil Dicky’s penis-joke-filled catalog suggested it would be. But GaTa, who’s shown more than once taking his meds, steers the series into new emotional territory; he’s a gentle but irrepressible striver who’s unafraid to put his feelings on the line, and his empathetic presence establishes a tone that “Dave” continues to explore through the season finale scheduled for April 29.
Also: He’s hilarious, as seen in a sequence where Dave guides GaTa to the finished basement during an overnight stay at his parents’ house. “Damn, this s— is hard as hell, bro!” GaTa exclaims as he takes in the cozy middle-class surroundings. “Look at the decor — you got it laid out for a P.” Then he heartily recommends that he and Dave hit the club even as he snuggles fully clothed into a pull-out bed.
“The guy literally has never acted before, never taken an acting lesson, and now people are talking about him like he should win the Emmy for best supporting actor,” Burd said with an admiring laugh, and those people aren’t wrong.
Raised by an aunt he refers to as his mother, GaTa got into hip-hop through West Coast giants like Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and 2Pac. But it was Da Brat, who found success as one of a handful of female MCs in the mid-1990s, who inspired him to rap. “When I saw her, I was like, ‘Hold on, man — I’m about to try this,’” he recalled. “She gave me the extra push.”
A few years after high school, he met Tyga, then a rookie L.A. rapper, and formed a label called G.E.D. — for “grinding every day, getting every dollar, getting educated daily,” GaTa said — with a third friend, Schoolboy Q. GaTa went on tour as Tyga’s hype man, enjoying “a lot of wild nights” as they “went to every state more than three or five times.”
“We really been through it,” he said. “Doing sold-out concerts, having girls run up to us with their boobs to sign them.”
After that partnership ran its course, Tyga’s manager recommended GaTa’s services to Lil Dicky, whose career the manager also oversaw at the time. (Today, Lil Dicky is co-managed by Mike Hertz and Scooter Braun, the powerful music-industry executive whose most famous client, Justin Bieber, puts in a cameo on “Dave.”) GaTa showed up to his first meeting with Lil Dicky trailed by a videographer and a woman posing as his personal assistant, which initially turned off Burd.
“But I’ve since learned that in his mind that was just part of the gander,” Burd said.
“I was wiggling,” GaTa admitted. “Trying to impress the new people, let them know I’m a hype man. Image is everything. And hey, it worked.”
Schaffer, who’s also an executive producer on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” said it was clear from the beginning of production on “Dave” that GaTa could easily play himself — and that he could help Burd, also an untested actor, get comfortable in front of the camera.
“The two of them could just go like they were in their own world,” he said.
For the bipolar episode, Schaffer worked closely with GaTa on the set, taking a seat behind the camera and talking through some of GaTa’s memories between takes of his monologue. “He started to go back to that place in his mind, and it all just came out,” Schaffer said. “Those tears are as real as anything.”
Burd said it was strange to want one of his best friends “to dig deep into that pain for the sake of the show.” He knew GaTa “wanted to go there, but I felt …,” he trailed off. “I’m trying to find the word for it.”
“Guilty” was the word Schaffer offered sheepishly. Yet GaTa said he’s proud of his work in the scene, a feeling that only increased after the episode aired and folks began telling him how meaningful it had been to see an experience similar to theirs represented on TV — an experience, he added, not often discussed in the African American community.
“I went to PetSmart the other day, this black lady came up to me and cried — like, ‘Yo, your story touched me. I was gonna commit suicide a year ago, but I wanna say thank you for sharing that. It really helped me through one of these hard times.’”
Dr. Todd Boyd, who teaches about the intersection of race and popular culture at USC, linked GaTa’s portrayal to earlier pronouncements regarding mental health by Kanye West and the Lakers’ Metta World Peace. And he pointed to the dramatic precedent set by Tony Soprano, whose use of a therapist on “The Sopranos” — in a Mafia milieu no less masculine than the hip-hop scene — helped redefine how we think about the relatable TV character.
“Suddenly the kind of character that traditionally has shown no vulnerability is consistently showing the utmost,” Boyd said. “Examples like that weaken the stigma around a diagnosis.”
GaTa’s bipolar storyline also disrupts “Dave’s” susceptibility to the so-called magical negro critique, in which a black character exists in a movie or show primarily to aid the moral development of a white character. (Think “Green Book” or “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”)
“I can imagine being in the room when somebody’s pitching this idea,” Boyd said, “And these executives are falling over themselves: ‘Oh, a nerdy white rapper — let’s build a show around him.’” And indeed “Dave” unquestionably centers the journey of its title suburbanite, for whom inner-city GaTa represents a source of hard-won wisdom about race and privilege.
“In the beginning of the show Dave doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know about the situations that inspire the music he’s trying to emulate,” said Schaffer. “That’s where GaTa was so vital. He helps Dave become a complete human being.”
Yet along the way we come to understand GaTa as much more than a mere accomplice; he’s a multidimensional person with specific problems of his own.
The series derives yet more realism from perfectly turned appearances by hip-hop artists such as YG, Young Thug and Trippie Redd; Travis Bennett, who plays Lil Dicky’s producer, started out as a member of L.A.'s Odd Future rap collective. The detailing can call to mind Donald Glover’s “Atlanta,” the only FX comedy with higher ratings than “Dave”; so too might GaTa’s performance remind you of that show’s Lakeith Stanfield in the role of another trippy-profound wingman to another up-and-coming rapper.
But GaTa, who estimated the accuracy of his onscreen self at 98%, is in the end a wonderfully distinct personality: A cockeyed optimist whose rough ride has only fortified his drive.
Looking ahead to touring again with Lil Dicky — “I can’t wait till this virus dies down so we can turn up,” he said — GaTa acknowledged that performing will likely feel different now that audience members, having seen “Dave,” will know so much more about him. That idea unsettled him at first: “In the music business,” he said, “people are already picking at you.” But he’s begun to think of self-expression as a form of therapy, whether it’s on the show, onstage or in his own music, which sets his laid-back flow over au courant trap beats.
Beyond hip-hop, he also wants to get further into acting. “I can see myself playing a skateboarder or a scientist or an undercover cop,” he said. “Or a computer hacker with me and somebody crazy coming up with codes and saving the world.” To illustrate what he meant, he lifted both his hands to the laptop camera and typed the air furiously.
He was wiggling again, and he looked every bit the part.