D Smoke opens up about "Black Habits," his victory on Netflix's "Rhythm + Flow," and the importance of creative songwriting in the season premiere of "On The Come Up."
The new season of On The Come Up has arrived, and setting things off is an extensive conversation with Inglewood rapper, writer, and overall student of the game D Smoke. Having gained instant attention for his captivating victory on Netflix's Rhythm + Flow, D Smoke quickly solidified his presence with the release of his debut album Black Habits. From there, it became clear his songwriting and creativity were operating at an elite level. But that's not to suggest D Smoke was an overnight success -- in reality, he's been living and breathing music since childhood.
Despite being a newcomer to the game, D Smoke's come-up feels different than many of his peers. At thirty-four, already boasting an impressive resume working behind-the-scenes as a producer, D Smoke's experience in the music industry has helped him strengthen the focus of his own vision. When he was first approached by Netflix to participate in Rhythm + Flow, he confirms that Black Habits was already seventy-five percent done. The talent was always there -- he simply understood the importance of wisely charting his path.
Be sure to check out the first episode of On The Come Up featuring D Smoke, as well as a complete transcription of the full interview below.
HNHH: D Smoke, How you doing?
D Smoke: I’m doing good man, how are you doing?
Can’t complain, honestly. Thank you so much for doing this, taking the time. I really appreciate talking with you.
It’s a pleasure man.
I wanted to congratulate you on all the recent success. Taking down Rhythm + Flow, and Black Habits is a fantastic body of work. You should be proud of that.
I’m very proud, man. I couldn’t feel better about what we did this year.
Definitely, and the year's not even done. There’s still time.
Something I really wanted to say, too, off the bat, was the writing on the album was so well put-together, it really was clear that for a new artist -- quote-unquote new, I know you’ve been doing this for a long time -- you know what you’re doing.
I had been writing for a minute in different capacities, you know. Writing for other artists, writing literature, my time in the classroom. I definitely wanted to capture that in the music.
I think you succeeded there. For those who might not know, can you walk me through your family’s history with music and how that played a role in your artistic development at a young age?
Absolutely. So, my family’s musical background starts with my grandmother. She grew up playing in church, singing in church. Her father was a pastor, and then when she became an adult, she was always touring, singing in clubs. She was one of those singers that had to enter through the backway because she was singing in clubs where she couldn’t actually hang out. And then somebody discovered her, so to speak, and she had an opportunity to get signed. She actually sang “Midnight Train To Georgia," among other songs, you know, before it came out. But she was in the studio and they were like, "Alright, we want you to sing it like this," and she was like, "Oh, no, baby, I’m gonna sing it how I sing it," you know what I’m saying? And they were like, "Alright, well if you’re not going to listen you can do your thing," and she was like, "Thank you, goodbye."
So it started with her, my mother and my uncle both do music professionally. My uncle, he’s a bass player. He played for like, Chaka Khan, Prince, he toured the world with everybody. He played behind Destiny’s Child, you know, you name it, he probably played for them. So as a youngster, coming up, I was always in the middle of jam sessions and church services where the people on stage, killing it, were my family. Seeing that instilled something in me like, I can do this, you know? You never question yourself when the people who raised you are doing it at the highest level.
So that was my musical upbringing. My mom sat me down and started teaching me piano as early as six years old, so that was the start of it. By ten years old I’m writing raps and songs and stuff, and by the time I’m thirteen, I’m making beats. My first thing when I went to college, I started my own independent label and built a studio and all kinds of things. I’ve just been at it throughout my entire life. Now, I’m thirty-four years old and, you know, we gettin’ it. I kind of was groomed, me and my brothers, and my cousin Tiffany, we were all groomed to do this.
Very cool. I read that you were also a Music Theory teacher in high school?
Yes. The last teaching job I had, I taught at the High School for Recording Arts. It was a recording arts school, and they had one out in Minnesota, at the heart of where everything kicked off with the Black Lives Matter movement round two. But they started one out here, and I was teaching Music Theory, I was teaching Music Engineering, as well as Financial Literacy and all kind of other stuff. But I’m a Spanish teacher by trade, that was my first teaching gig.
How did that Music Theory knowledge come to be implemented in your hip-hop music? Because I think when people think of music theory, they might have their own preconceived notions about it, but I was just curious— when you’re making beats, specifically, or talking with other producers, does your musical background really come out?
I mean, for some people it makes me hard to work with because I’m nitpicky. Some people work on formulas. Like "Oh, this is what’s happening, this is what’s popping, this is what we do." Whereas I’m like, This is what we can do, you know what I’m saying? Let’s push the envelope. Let’s change that chord, let’s drop out everything in this section and then build it up here. But for people who are extremely good at what they do, they always welcome those creative collaborative opportunities.
It’s the people who got the one-trick ponies, they’re threatened by an artist who’s like, I see something bigger and different. But the legends in the game, they’re like, "Okay, for sure, let’s do it. I’ve been looking for a creative challenge." Music theory is just about being exposed to enough to do something different and know when you can bend and break the rules.
I also saw you mentioned that you wanted to be a producer from a young age, and that was something you became aware of based on the musical upbringing you had. What was one of the first lessons that really stuck with you when you were working on songs for other artists rather than yourself?
Got you. One of the things that stuck with me is, like, when you’re the producer and not the artist, to a certain extent, you’re at other people’s mercy, right. Because at the end of the day, the artist wants to do something specific, and you might win with them once, and then the next time around, they might be like, "I want to try something new with this new young production team," or whatnot. So what really pushed me and my camp, my brothers, my cousin, to be our own artists, was when we’re writing all these dope-ass songs and people are like, "That’s crazy, but I don’t know what I’d do with it." We started to just realize, you know, that’s our music, that’s our creative property. That’s what kind of pushed us to want to take it into our own hands— not wanting to be at the mercy of the next artist, deciding whether or not they want to work with you.
When you were honing your own songwriting craft, all the while you were coming up is one of hip-hop’s musical capitals of the West Coast. Personally speaking, I came up listening to hip-hop from Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, DJ Quik, artists from the West who really changed the game, sonically, in so many ways. As someone who came from there, what was the impact of having all these musicians putting out music at the time that you were coming up?
Absolutely. The West Coast, it was rich with so many artists, so many producers. I paid attention to producers, like, one of my favorite producers coming up was BattleCat, DJ Battlecat, the great. People who know, know what his contribution to the West Coast sound is, not was— still is. And I had one song on my last project that he produced along with Lawrence from 1500, and then I also have a song that he produced with my boy Siege on this next project. Coming up, when you have a sound that both captures and moves West Coast culture, it’s just, it’s something inspiring.
I was going to Inglewood High, a primarily Blood school, but all of the dope rappers at the time, minus Mack-10 was all Crips. So it was just interesting being like, "Hey man, I don’t know how y’all feel but this shit bangs!" You know, at Inglewood High, getting banged on for knowing how to c-walk and all that shit. Where my oldest brother Ron-Ron, he’s a blood, you know what I'm saying? So it was just, it was that West Coast experience: the music fed it, and it fed the music. It’s that relationship. But yeah, I listen to all of that -- Snoop, my favorite at the time was Kurupt. He was just spittin’, you know, and to be that lyrical and that gangster was just like, okay, I fuck with that.
Definitely. One of my favorite rappers in the early 2000s there was like, Xzibit was definitely up there, for me.
Yeah, he was very underrated, I still feel.
Very, very! What you see is what you get now! I remember, as a kid being like, Ooh, I like that. "Bless the child that can hold his own, flesh and bone/ No matter where I’m from, I’m feeling right at home." I remember those lyrics resonating with me.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
I mean part of it is cool, and part of it ain’t. That’s the schizophrenic nature of gang culture. On one hand, you got tragedies happening in the streets that everybody experiences. In my teenage years I lost so many homies. I was a pallbearer five times before I turned 17, you know.
For sure. I'm pretty far removed from Los Angeles culture, and came to discover these things existing through hip-hop music. For example, I’ve obviously heard a lot about the Crips and Bloods and the gang dynamics that exist there, but it's cool to hear how it actually plays a role in the politics of the music.
Absolutely. I mean part of it is cool, and part of it ain’t. That’s the schizophrenic nature of gang culture. On one hand, you got tragedies happening in the streets that everybody experiences. In my teenage years I lost so many homies. I was a pallbearer five times before I turned 17, you know. So there’s that element that’s real and it’s not to be glorified. But then there’s the element that's like, the street code, and the camaraderie, and just the discipline that you learn from really understanding what respect is, you know? I learned respect from being no stranger to that element. And I didn’t even push a line like that, but I was no stranger to moving around through the city through the Inglewood streets.
Yeah, absolutely. It's like, in art, in general, a lot of people tend to gravitate towards darker and sadder themes. And I’ve heard many times that artists make their best work when they’re talking about things that are upsetting, or depressing or darker themes. I think it’s kind of interesting to be able to remove yourself and actually listen to another person’s pain -- it’s an interesting relationship, honestly.
At the root of it all, when artists are talking about their pain, they’re also speaking from a standpoint of like, "I’m still here." So, even if they never say they overcame it, by nature of them being in the studio recording it, there’s an element of human strength, there’s a subtle element of inspiration behind it. Because it’s like, "I lived to tell about it." So that’s the part that attracts people, like, "Damn, he was there, he was that close to something crazy and now he’s here telling me about it." You get to share in that experience.
Absolutely. So when you were deciding to transition into the spotlight yourself, as a solo artist, when did you decide that you wanted to step up and put D Smoke on the map?
I decided to step up and structure my team and my movement in a way that was really going to level us up. I did that when I looked up and noticed that my family was good. I looked around, years back, and we were not in a good place as a unit. My cousins, my brothers, sometimes we lived all of us together, we slept on floors and blow-up mattresses. So my primary goal at the time was to make sure they were good. When SiR went with TDE, he started touring, and then my cousin Tiffany, she was touring as well, and my brother Davion, he had a loft in the Valley where he was recording and writing for other people. That gave me the room to then be like, Okay, let’s do this D Smoke thing. I positioned myself to move up, to level up.
It sounds like you understood the importance of a good team structure, too. Having a team of people you trust on a creative level, not only on a friendship or partnership level. It comes back to what you were saying with your grandmother, too; she wanted to do things her way and she stuck with that because she trusted her creative instincts. I think the importance of trusting your own creative instincts should not go undervalued. I think it’s good that you surround yourself with a team like that.
So on that note, how did you decide to get on Rhythm + Flow?
I was doing a series called Run The Subtitles. After I structured my team, got my management together, we were like, Alright, we got a dope project already ready -- probably 75% of Black Habits was done-- and at the time we weren’t calling it Black Habits. But we had a lot of that body of work done. Then, instead of dropping it for like, 7,000 people who knew who I was at the time, we were like, Alright, how do I utilize the internet, Spotify, YouTube, these tools, to slowly grow the following?’ So we gave ourselves a year of posting a video every week of me rapping in English, switching to Spanish and putting subtitles in both languages, and doing that as a campaign, just understanding how the internet operates, like what tools we had at our disposal. So I was using hashtags and different things to just get these reshares and people kind of caught wind that it’s like, "Oh, it’s this dude that’s doing something consistently," so they can look forward to it every Friday.
So that started picking up, and after so many people shared it, the producers of Rhythm + Flow caught wind. They reached out and were like, "Hey, we see what you’re doing, submit your application and submit some links of your music videos. "I had all of that ready, so I submitted Run The Subtitles, some music videos I had done in the past, emailed them some mp3s. Next thing you know -- I first auditioned for the producers, then it was that day they called me to be in front of Snoop, Cardi, Chance, and Tip. It just happened so fast, but after that first moment, that’s when I knew like, "Okay, I’m here,’ you know."
When Snoop asked me, "Where you from?" I was like, "Inglewood," and I knew at that moment, based on how it felt to me, like, Oh, we gon’ do this on TV? Okay, fasho! You know, knowing what that was and how that felt, I was like, Oh this gon’ be something different. We in here now,’ just putting one foot in front of the other every round.
Facing off with Snoop Dogg, I guess as a West Coast guy that must have been-
Oh, it was an epic moment. I knew what it was in the moment— it was a nod. It was like, "Okay, I see you. Now go on and represent." Mind you, I’m not the only one. Everybody went up there and said, "Oh I’m from here, this is my name, and I’m gonna perform for y’all." So, I was the only one that got that question, and there was other people from Cali, probably like eight or nine from this side, Southern Cali. I don’t know what the edit fully said, because I don’t watch the episodes a lot, but I know he said in the moment, "I can tell you got that energy."
That in and of itself was a compliment. It was like, "Go ahead and tell them where you from," more so than like, "Are you my enemy?’" A lot of people think it’s that, but there was no wrong answer. If I’d have said "I’m from something-something, gangsta Blood," he would’ve been like, "For sure, I’m from something-something, gangsta Crip." And we’d have both been like, "fasho’, fasho," but that ain’t my response. It was a nod and I walked off the stage and away from the cameras and I was like, That shit was so hard, that he gave me that look! [Laughs] Out of everybody, he could’ve done that with anybody. It was love.
I can imagine. It’s very clear to me that you had a lot of confidence writing this album. Considering it was 75% finished before you even went on the show, I was wondering, how do you reconcile being so confident in the product that you have made while subsequently putting that artistry on display and opening up to be critiqued by the whole world?
Man, you know what, what’s crazy is I’m my harshest critic. Before Black Habits came out, I was nervous. I was mainly nervous because it was so true to my experience that I didn’t know how people would respond to it. If I’d have done some like, showy, kind of like, "Okay, this is me entertaining y’all, take it or leave it," it’s not them rejecting me, it’s them rejecting the entertainment. But if it’s like, Alright this is me, and then if people don't fuck with that,’ that’s literally like saying, "I don’t fuck with D Smoke, I don’t fuck with Daniel Farris." The vulnerability element made me somewhat apprehensive about dropping it, but, at that point, you just gotta trust your gut that you know through the process, you already fine-tuned it. I’ve heard it so many times and I’ve enjoyed it, so I gotta give people that opportunity to do so. And a lot of people responded well.
For sure. What was it like having your music heard by a lot of demographics who might not have had a deep knowledge about hip-hop, going in? I know Netflix has a massive reach and even some of my family members who know nothing about rap music at all ended up watching the series and getting really invested in it. I was wondering, do you have a lot of fans you would never expect now that Rhythm + Flow has blown up the way it has?
Man, since Rhythm + Flow, I have fans all over the world, like all over the world. South Africa, Australia, Uruguay, Guatemala, Costa Rica, people all over the world are just like, "we love what you do." A lot of people in Mexico are like, "Hey, yo milo que lo que icis des Netflix," you know what I’m saying. Man, that’s love. It’s a crazy experience. But, of course, that’s exactly what I imagined happening, you know, when I set out to do music as a career. I never knew it would take as long as it did, but I’m not surprised at the response now.
Image via Artist
When you were piecing together Black Habits, did you have a vision from the start?
When I was piecing together Black Habits I knew what I wanted to accomplish overall. When I put out a body of work, any body of work, I know how my favorite albums make me feel. So I just wanted to have a body of work that made people go on this journey of self-discovery, so they can kind of reflect on how they view themselves and the world around them. How they approach the world, how they affect the spaces that they walk into. My favorite rap album is ATLiens from Outkast. My favorite rap group is Outkast, period. I feel like the few people who are like them in the way they approach music are daring, they’re honest, they share themselves, they push their boundaries musically, you know, they incorporate live music into their stuff, they’re hood and intelligent at the same time.
I wanted to do all of that in a project, and not compromise the mainstream appeal. Let’s not say mainstream -- let’s say a universal appeal. Those were the things I wanted to accomplish. As the project approaches the end, only after I have a certain amount of music do I say, Okay, what is this called? What is the artwork that captures this? We don’t do that early on, because that will start to kind of just change how you approach songs, when really you need to get that off your chest first, and then see what you have. Because it’s gon’ come out of you, you know what I’m saying? You don’t want to be all in your head and be like, "Oh, I want an album called this," and then all your songs take you in another direction.
It’s clear to me that you’re a storyteller, and it seems like there are some overarching narratives going on throughout the album. When you’re working on the project, how do you balance telling these stories lyrically while also making sure that the music is telling a complementary story?
You know what, I don’t always approach it that way. Sometimes, if the beat is doing one thing, sometimes I want to do something else. “Like My Daddy” is super West Coast, I could’ve easily been like, "We in the backyard chillin’ with the barbeque runnin’/Homie got a beer/I don’t even got a gun." I could’ve done some straight West Coast music but then I was like, Okay, let’s nod our head while I tell this childhood story and give a nod to my father going to jail and coming back. Sometimes, I let the beat do one thing and the lyrics do something else so people kind of have to find themselves in the middle of it, like, "Okay, I’m moving but I’m hearing what you saying, too." Or if it’s a mellow-ass beat, sometimes I talk some gangsta-ass shit. Then you have moments where you do both. Like, “Seasons Pass” is just a mellow song, mellow lyrics as well. It just depends on how I’m feeling.
Did you feel, thematically, that there was any specific ground that was important to cover on this project?
Absolutely. Thematically, I knew I wanted to capture what it meant growing up in a single-parent household. Early in the album, I wanted to capture that mindset. And it was like, okay, "Bullies." I just went back to when I was a kid and pops was locked up and it was like, "Alright, how do we approach it?" Bullies don’t bully no more after you confront them. Bullies are cowards hiding behind size or a mean mug. I thought that was really important to open the album that way, and I think addressing that allows me to get more thoughtful later in the project because people see it’s not just...you know, for example, Dave Chappelle says sometimes you gotta be a lion so that you can be the lamb that you want to be. So we opened up the project with that, opened up the project with “No Commas” so they can feel that energy, and then later get to some of the thoughtful content that’ll allow people to really see who I am and where I’m coming from.
Those are just things I picked up through school, through listening to Outkast, listening to Jay, Em, Kendrick— people who play with words while still sticking to their topic. I’m a connoisseur of rap. I like all kinds of rap, but the greats will show you that they’re also writers, not just rappers.
In your writing, you use a lot of literary techniques, like focalization, for example, to take on all these different points of view and perspectives, sometimes even very subtly— where did you start developing these kinds of techniques?
Just playing around, you know. I don’t want people to be able to guess every next line, so you set ‘em up, they guess a couple, then you switch it. I had a couple of good writing teachers too, creative writing courses and stuff so it’s like, "Okay, we’re gonna do some internal rhyme here, we’re gonna put in some alliteration." Those are just things I picked up through school, through listening to Outkast, listening to Jay, Em, Kendrick— people who play with words while still sticking to their topic. I’m a connoisseur of rap. I like all kinds of rap, but the greats will show you that they’re also writers, not just rappers.
Well said. I wanted to also ask before we wrap up— I saw you’re working on a book?
Yeah. So I’ve completed a book, the book is finished. I’m gonna go back in and add some touches to it, develop some characters a little bit more. Perhaps add some scenes, or chapters, so to speak. That’s something I’m looking forward to sharing real soon because I think it’s really going to touch the world.
What’s it about? Can’t say nothing?
I can’t really tell you, nope.
Is it fiction?
It is fiction. It has an element of magical realism, afro-futurism, somewhere between my upbringing and my imagination. That’s as much as I can say.
Very cool. I like the magical realism stuff, honestly.
Oh, yeah, it’s gonna be fun. It’s gonna be a good time.
What else next for D Smoke?
What’s next is a project coming up, hopefully before this year is out there will be another full album out, along with a documentary I’m working on. and the book. And the book, you can expect to be either a movie or a series, so we’re still weighing those things out.
Damn. Taking over.
Well, look, man, thank you so much for your time. Honestly, it’s too bad we couldn’t talk more about the rap game in general, you're a scholar of the game! It seems like we have similar taste, too, with the ATLiens shoutout.
Oh, yeah, man, favorite. It’s been an absolute pleasure, man.
Likewise. All the best, be safe, and take care.
You do the same, brother.