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From 7,000 followers to 1.6 million on Instagram; D Smoke’s rapid rise to success seems almost too good to be true. The Los Angeles rapper became a household name after winning Netflix’s “Rhythm + Flow.”
His love for his family and his neighborhood won the hearts of viewers all around the world. With a background in teaching and education, Smoke now uses music as a means to continue his educational endeavors — without being too preachy. Through his lyrics, he recounts his upbringing as a young black man in Inglewood in a way we all can relate to.
The “Fly” spitter states explains, “Even though my audience may start off as overwhelmingly mature because they’ll be the first people to understand it, but the young people that do connect — like in the same way I grew up on Outkast. Their primary audience wasn’t the same people as the Snoop’s and Dr. Dre’s at the time, but for the few young people that caught on to it, it shaped them in a different way other music may not have.”
And he’s not your average rapper. He’s taught and mentored students at various high schools in the city including Inglewood High, Westchester, View Park, and more. The subject? Spanish. It was at UCLA when he transitioned from Business Economics major to Spanish, the latter of which he excelled in and found the most useful.
REVOLT caught up Smoke at Soho Warehouse DTLA to talk about music, his community, working with The Game, love of speaking fluent Spanish, and more. Read below!
Talk about your roots in Inglewood. What did you see growing up?
It was two different sides of the same coin. You have all the love and nurturing in the world, in the household, the musical family. But, pops was locked up. When you stepped outside, you were subject to the elements, whether that be gang-banging, etc. Our parents never hid their history of addiction to drugs with us. By the time we could remember, they had just recently kicked the habit. But, they never hid that from us, so we were exposed to that.
Again, it was a whole lot of love. A very Christian family, mom and pops were both ministers. Of course, older brother banged. Cousins were gang members. It was this dichotomy where you got all this hood influence with all this love and artistry all wrapped together.
Talk about growing up in musically inclined family and playing the piano on top of rapping.
Yes, my family’s musical. What’s funny is the churches are the music academies, but for people who don’t have money. I’ve never gone to a music school and neither had my mom, but she’s real proficient at piano. My musical IQ is high because of gospel music, because of my association with the church and that being a place where I can learn and practice. That’s the first stage I was ever on. But, the faith too withstands the things we went through in our career and in our personal lives.
My homie named Chiz was my first rapping partner. He died of lymphoma cancer. It was a moment where I had to really decide, ‘Do I want to keep doing this?’ In that element, just the mindset to continue working through it and having the faith that it’s going to end up as something. That’s a direct result of my upbringing as well, or maybe I’m just stubborn as shit. We weren’t going to quit.
At what point did you realize the music thing was for real?
I knew early on. My brothers and I signed as kids, it was a little boy group. At that moment, we knew, ‘Oh shit, this could get big at any moment.’ If you’ve ever read the book The Alchemist, the prophet Melchizedek calls it beginner’s luck. To get you hooked on the idea of your dreams, when you first set out to do it, you have the most luck. Then, somewhere along the way in the middle, it gets crazy and you have to decide to continue.
For us, it was us being signed at an early age. Our uncle giving us a whole studio. Stuff we didn’t have to pay for, we just inherited it. But then, as adults, it got to a point where now you got to choose it for yourself and grind through it. We always knew it could be something big, but when to a degree where it’s sustainable for everybody? Because my goal was to have my whole family be able to do it and live off of it.
Being a lyricist with something to say, do you feel real hip hop is hard to be seen nowadays?
When you stand for something, you have to be better at it then someone who’s just there to be there. To have a message, you definitely need to know your craft. Otherwise, it’s so easy to write it off. People can enjoy coonery, bad coonery even. People enjoy it in whatever form: ‘Oh look at this person make a fool of themselves.’ It’s clickbait. But in order to deliver a message, you have to be really good at it or else you’re not going to be listened to. That’s for me, too. I’m not going to listen to nothing preachy unless it’s dope and it’s believable.
What was the biggest takeaway you had auditioning on ‘Rhythm & Flow’?
One person has to follow their heart and stay true. There’s times in the show I said, ‘No’ to production because they’ll give me instructions on what to do on camera. I said, ‘You can’t tell me what to do on camera.’ One in particular was ‘go out and hype up the crowd, interact with the judges, then turn and tell the DJ [to] start the track, so I could perform.’ So, you had people making fools of themselves before they ever presented what they did. That’s just my opinion. The other contestants are going to be like, ‘Who you callin’ a fool motherfucker?’
Following your heart and being true. The more you’re silent, when you do talk, it’s more meaningful. That’s the approach I took. I’m not going to be over there like, ‘What’s up? How ya’ll doing? I’m D Smoke, I’ve got four brothers…’ No. I said, ‘I’m Smoke and I’m from Inglewood. Play the beat!’
Did you know you were going to win the whole time?
Heck no. A lot of people will say, ‘As soon as I saw you, I knew you’re winning.’ I had no clue because it’s too many variables. It’s a lot of other rappers. I was confident I was going to make an impression every time I stepped up. That’s all I was focused on. But, I didn’t know what would come into play.
You just unleashed the visual for ‘No Commas.’ What inspired it?
I was sitting at a [meeting] with my two managers Greg and Shanxx, because ‘No Commas’ was one of the few songs we recorded after the show finished filming. We’re discussing the plan given we know we’re going to get this great deal of publicity at one point in time. So, we’re setting these definitive goals. They’re saying something that we have to do, I’m like “Period!” It’s easy. We got this in the bag, the hard part’s behind us. I kept saying, ‘Period, no commas.’ So, I built the song around it.
‘We can take a loss, we gon’ get it right back.’ In my head, that’s a good premise. What are we going to get back? What are we reclaiming? At first, I thought, ‘Damn, did they kidnap a kid?’ Man, that’s kind of heavy. Then, I’m like, ‘Okay they stole a car, but we can play it as if the car has a name, so we don’t give it up until you see us do the heist?’ That’s where the video idea came from. We flushed it out, started calling around to see who’s interested. These were all people that I knew. I saw them in the video like, ‘Man, if ya’ll different personalities came together, ya’ll would be a cold crew of girl goons.’
‘Fly’ is such a vibe. Talk about getting your older brother Davion Farris on it.
Davion Farris has worked with Mars from 1500 or Nothin’ several times. Mars is my G. He’s a good dude, musician like me. We’re in the studio, I told Davion I’m going in with Mars. They work together, so Dave’s like, ‘Okay I’ma pull up.’ Mars’ artist was there, so the first song we all got on, I did a verse, King Dream did a verse, Davion did a verse, then the hook. But, when I got with Mars that day, I was under the impression that it’s my session. I said, ‘Okay we gon’ put on another beat, two beats one night, and I’m going off on this one.’ I told him upfront.
Davion being the older brother, he doesn’t listen. Davion goes and writes this verse. I’ve already knocked out two verses and a hook, I’m loving it. I’m like, ‘Give me the files.’ Dave’s like, ‘Hear this verse that I did.’ I’m like, ‘Bro this one’s going to be for me, it’s for my project.’ He’s like, ‘Just hear it out,’ then he sang it for me. I’m like, ‘Shit, that’s so dope. Alright record it.’ I fell in love with it.
I can’t front. I had every intention of being like ‘‘Fly’ is me’ because my inspiration was talking about the moment of winning the show. I thought about releasing ‘Fly’ when the show came out. ‘Fly’ could have been on Inglewood High, the project we just released. The day the show comes out, we drop, ‘Are we flyin’? Are we lifted? Are we soaring…?” Which to me, would’ve been a dope moment, too. That’s why I felt selfish about it. This is me celebrating this moment. When he did that, I realized this moment isn’t just mine.
Where were you with followers when you started the show — before you hit a million?
Right before the show aired? I was at 7,575. Within a week of the finale airing, I was at a million. Right now, I’m at 1.5 and I should be at 1.6 any time. We get 20 followers a minute.
Do you spit in Spanish too?
Mmhmm, hell yeah. The whole Spanish world is fucking with it.
You need to get with a lit Latin artist. Is that in the works?
Yes, but my first order of business is not to jump to Bad Bunny. It’s really to get into the community. What Latin artist can benefit from my platform, so it’s an authentic story? Same thing with the hood artists around L.A., the ones that already have strong followings, but the numbers don’t reflect the numbers I have. Mine are TV numbers and some fans. Theirs are all fans.
G Perico, Mozzy, these real ones, we’re tapping in with them. Putting stuff out to let them know one, these artists don’t fuck with everybody. By me saying, ‘Okay he got these numbers, but they fuck with him tough enough to get on a song, that means he’s really from where he’s from because the blood community, the gang community, they’re connected. If they call their Inglewood homies like, ‘Aye, is he really from…?’ It’s gon’ line up. Those are the stories we tell first and as we build, the Bad Bunnys. After you get a hit, you got to touch down, too, to maintain your legitimacy, so you can get another hit.
Talk about joining forces for the surprise pep rally for the students at Inglewood High School.
I visited Inglewood High several times to stay active in the community. I’ve gone to some football games, a couple basketball games. My nephew plays JV basketball there, he’s in the 11th grade. A lot of the teachers who taught there are still there, while I was a teacher or even when I as a student. The principal who’s my principal is still there…
The pep rally in particular is to kick off a scholarship fund we’ll be building. This year, we’re going to start small, but the ultimate goal is to give out close to $100,000. I don’t know the whole science, but I know this year, we’ll give at least five students $1,000 scholarship. We want the scholarship to be for students interested in language and music, somewhere where those intersect. Or two separate ones and one grand scholarship. SiR’s going to match me, he’s already said that.
How’d you land on the Game’s on Born 2 Rap?
Game hit me with a DM like, ‘Holla at me.’ Hit him right back, shot him my number. He texted me, ‘Smoke what you did for the culture was special bro. You’re making us proud.’ He’s been so consistent, showing me love, respect. If I showed you our texts, it’s just dope. It’s warm to know that somebody who doesn’t need shit from you — he didn’t need no feature. But, he’s so interested in connecting where there should be connections that he reached out.
I didn’t respond right away because I’m learning. I didn’t know what it would mean. This is my first major feature, what does that say about me? Are they going to think I’m a gang member all of a sudden? I hesitated, then he followed up. ‘We’re on a short time frame, let me know one way or the other. Either way, no love lost.’ I said, ‘Fasho, I’m coming in. Shoot me the address.’ Pulled up to the studio at 9 pm, there’s 40 n*ggas in the studio. I don’t mean just dudes — there’s girls, dudes, blunts, drinks, bangers. I’m not talking gang members. He’s playing music it’s crazy.
Plays me the whole album. On my way there, I’m already thinking, ‘I gotta get off!’ But the energy I thought I wanted to give to the project was there already. It’s what he does best, so I had to scale off and be like, ‘Do you.’ Find that space. We went through a couple ideas then finally he did the hook: ‘They put a cross on Jesus back.’ By the time he did the hook, it’s midnight. It went from 40 people to about 20 people. He put it on loop and I started writing. About 30 minutes later, it’s seven people. I started cutting the verse halfway through me being finished. I had enough to know where I’m going, the rest of it I recorded in the booth. Didn’t write it down.
He had left, went home. Went to sleep, so I didn’t know when he’s going to check it out. Especially when I’m recording with somebody else, I like having my man DJ Shanks with me. If DJ Shanxx says, ‘It’s solid, you did that,’ then we leaving because he’ll be like, ‘Nah bro, I don’t feel it.’ Shanks gave me the nod. The hook he wrote is brilliant because it’s so open, it leaves the interpretation up to me. ‘They put a cross on Jesus back,’ so I approached it as that public scrutiny that artists, leaders, teachers go through when they put themselves on a platform.
‘I’m for people’ that can also turn on you. I’ve had that experience at UCLA being a director, thinking I’m creating this family environment. All of a sudden, they find out who I’m dating and they don’t fuck with me at all. I’m talking about, ‘We don’t like who you like.’ These are people I hired, trained, did 1-on-1s, mentored. It made me a lot wiser in the sense that people, whether we fault them for it or not, people are going to be people. They’re acting based on their own experiences, fears, insecurities. That hook hit home because although you could be loved, adored, followed, revered, that mob mentality can sway against you. The first line’s the easiest line once I knew how I was approaching it. ‘How many people endure that judgment? The steeple is meant to usher the presence of higher power.’
Talk about the vibe of your new album, Black Habits.
Ya’ll can expect D Smoke to act up. You can expect me to tell stories, have fun. We got a couple features that are really cool. Snoop Dogg’s on there, Ari Lennox is on there, SiR is on there. Of course, Davion is on there. My mom’s on there, pops is on an interlude talking, so it’s a family affair. It’s very family oriented. It’s very Inglewood and it’s very thoughtful. It’s as mature as I like to be in my music, but it’s enjoyable. It’s a ride.