Despite how nonchalant he may seem about it, at just 19 years old, D Savage has embedded himself within circles most rappers would kill to navigate. A product of Fairfax Ave—a scene in LA where if everybody isn’t already somebody, they’re all at least trying to be—Savage formed bonds at an early age with folks ranging from clout-chasing cool kids like John Ross to bona fide superstars such as Tyler, the Creator. All by being himself, and all before ever releasing a record.

Now, with millions of streams on SoundCloud and a full-length project on the way, the California native can trace much of his success back to inspiration he found in a particularly special bond with Jack Phoenix, a childhood friend and neighborhood kid with a precocious knack for churning out art. That art, extending past Phoenix’s own life, would become the DNA for streetwear brand Sake, and Savage would become its biggest ambassador and loudest champion.

In 2015, Phoenix was struck by a car in Venice, California. For Savage, the crash was a somber moment in his life but also marked the beginning of a new path in his life. “I never had any intentions of being a rapper until Jack passed away,” he tells Complex, recalling how his career started.

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Sake artwork, drawn and designed back Jack Phoenix. Image via Sake.

According to Savage, Phoenix would draw up to a hundred art pieces a day. In notebooks, on napkins, across walls—any blank space he could fit his ideas on, backlogging them for the day the world would be ready for Sake. That day came as abruptly as Jack’s final hours some months later.

“A couple of months before he passed, I was at the park,” the rapper explains. “I was there all day. He pulls up toward nighttime, and he’s holding an envelope.”

That envelope was filled with money. Phoenix had just received an advanced payment on a collaboration he agreed to work on in collaboration with Mikey Alfred’s Illegal Civilization. Beaming with excitement over what would be his first major release, Phoenix confessed in the moment, “I already got the designs.”

Taken aback by how rewarding the process seemed—cash money for fair work—Savage, then simply known by his government name, Dylan, considered exploring his own artistic ambitions. Crafted on a whim in a friend’s home-studio, “30 Round Clip” was the first and only song he had recorded before Jack's passing. Like most songs created that way—by teenagers aimlessly fucking around to pass the time—it wasn’t intended for official release. Out of boredom, Dylan created the D Savage moniker to live and die on that single track. But Phoenix’s actual death inspired the reluctant rapper to breathe life into the character once more.

“I made the song when Jack was alive, but I never dropped it [until 2016],” Savage explains. “I just sent it around to my friends to listen to and shit. Then he passed away, and I was like, ‘Man, I’m about to go hard or go home with this shit—and I’mma rep Sake at the same time.’”

Recalling the day he and mutual friend/rapper Yung Weej learned about Phoenix’s death, Savage reveals, “I was at school. My stomach turned, and I just started crying immediately. My friends had called me and was like, ‘He’s lost.'"

“They sent me a flier—missing kid, Culver City area. I posted it on Instagram. Everybody posted it. Tyler, the Creator even posted it. Like 30 minutes later, we see on the news there was a hit and run incident. They couldn’t tell who the kid was who got hit in the incident at first, but the shoes he was wearing were Weej’s [so we knew]. We all just broke down.”

The second song the rapper officially released was “Sake,” named after his late friend’s brand. Featuring a guest verse from Weej, the track paid homage to Phoenix’s memory.

Some time after mourning the loss of their friend, the two rappers formed a collective under the moniker Sake World—a phrase now scrawled across the chest of Sake’s most popular tees, written in Phoenix’s signature script.

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Sake brand ambassador Boo wears a white Sake World tee. Photo by Alexandra Bunch.

“We was like, ‘Okay, there’s already Sake. Let’s mix it up for this music shit,’” Savage recalls. “Jack’s dad [Nick Phoenix] was already running the brand, so [Weej and I] had to do Sake World.”

Since adding a few more viral hits to his discography, D Savage has proven “30 Round Clip” was no fluke. On several occasions, the rapper packed out Sake’s flagship store on La Brea for shows alongside artists such as Chief Keef (who has three Glo Gang collabs with the brand) and Joey Fatts—draped in Jack’s designs. 

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Left, Sake brand ambassador Cynda Mcelvana wears a white Glo Gang x Sake tee, right, D Savage wears a red Sake logo tee. Photo by Alexandra Bunch.

The bond between Savage and Phoenix lives on through a collection of tees featuring a photo of the rapper printed on the front of each piece. Younger looking and less weathered than he is now—less tatted, less aged by loss altogether—the image of Savage used for his collaboration with the brand is striking. Knowing the full story behind his connection to Sake, the mood of the black and white graphic seems deliberate.

Eyes halfway open in the print, resembling a mug shot, he seems particularly subdued. But not by weed or lean or any of the other trappings typical of rap life—subdued by the reality that the person in that photo, directionless and unaware of his purpose, won’t have his friend around to witness the transformation he inspired. Describing the drop, Savage maintains the idea is “simple, but not what you’d expect.”

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Cynda Mcelvana wears a blue D Savage x Sake tee. Photo by Alexandra Bunch.
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D Savage wears a yellow D Savage x Sake tee. Photo by Alexandra Bunch.

The left sleeve of the tee shirt reads, “D Phoenix,” a reference to the rapper’s upcoming project—which, in itself, is a reference to the kinship Savage felt between he and Jack.

So far, throughout the dramatic beats of his young career, the memory of Savage’s late friend has remained a constant. The celebration of Jack lives on through the persona of D Savage—be it through heartfelt shoutouts adlibbed on internet anthems such as “I Know II,” or the rapper affirming his boasts by repeating the phrase “on Jack Phoenix” whenever he’s heated on Instagram Live.

With D Phoenix on the horizon—the project and Sake collection—that celebration isn’t ending anytime soon.