As the rising tide of alternative hip-hop washes over the music landscape, distinction has become less of a preference and more of a virtue for new artists.
Such is the case for Inglewood’s D Smoke, whose musical versatility and linguistic duality sets him apart.
Born Daniel Anthony Farris,’ his passion for knowledge, art, words and music dates back to his childhood growing up in a musically-inclined family. Here, D fostered his songwriting and piano-playing skills, which brought him to the education world as a Spanish and music theory teacher at Inglewood High School. One of his most incomparable artistic appeals is especially bred from this experience, as D captivates his audiences with Spanish bilingualism in his raps. “I still consider myself a teacher,” he says. “I just do it in a different medium now.”
Hence, D’s educational profession never strayed him from his course toward a wider music stage. 2006 saw his first studio project release, Producer of the Year, before entering as a contestant (and, eventually, the inaugural champion) of Netflix's highly-raved 2019 music competition series, Rhythm & Flow. This victory set the perfect stage for his Inglewood High debut EP to arrive on, which D released shortly after. Setting another stage for 2020, the “Last Supper” artist is now launching the decade with Black Habits.
The full-length project, unleashed on Friday (Feb. 7), is one of D’s more contemplative, inner-directed music frameworks, reflecting on the stories, lessons and—as its title informs—habits that shaped his coming of age. BET sat down with D Smoke, who also made his 2019 Soul Train Awards stage debut alongside his brother, SiR, to learn more about the project as inspired by his L.A.-native background, eloquent Spanish lyricism, and powerful storytelling:
BET: One thing I’ve always admired about L.A. is how your communities center the arts, music, sports, etc. to encourage the youth. As a native and former educator in L.A., has that inspired your new music path?
D Smoke: When you look into teaching and inspiring the youth, you have to use things that they can see themselves in. Oftentimes, when you’re working in lower-income communities, you can see they’re not exposed to all of these different careers. Their parents and immediate family members aren’t engineers and architects. So [the youth] can see themselves in music and sports. The challenge as an educator and entertainer is to use the metaphors in music, the arts and sports, like the resilience and determination, to expose that to them in themselves. The beauty of it is that I can make the kind of music that builds those bridges and exposes them to ideas, concepts, ways of thinking and perspectives they may not have had before.
There is so much alternative talent in this generation, especially for hip-hop and R&B. But even with this diversity, do you feel like there’s anything missing?
D Smoke: The interesting thing about that question is that, the way art works, you don’t know something is missing until you get it. People don’t know there’s a space in the industry for someone who is not a native speaker to speak Spanish in his music and build those bridges to cross over. In some circles it’s even a sensitive thing to play classical music and then rap. So, people didn’t know there was space for it until they got it. I know what I contribute is new, and I know I’m doing something that hasn’t been done in this way. I know there are others like myself who are gonna come out and do something too, and I’m gonna be like, ‘Dang, I didn’t know I needed that.’ That’s always the goal.
To not only speak Spanish in your music, but also have the ability to eloquently and seamlessly switch into it on a verse, is a masterful skill. What is the writing and creative process behind that lyrical transition?
D Smoke: When I spit in Spanish, I want to do it when people least expect it. I don’t do it in every song, but some songs, I give it to them after like the third verse. It’s after they’re already kinda decided they enjoy the song, then it’s like, ‘Ah, I got something else for y’all.’ There will be an all-Spanish project at some point, too. But overall, I always look to do it when people aren’t expecting it. My background is also in Spanish literature, which I majored in. I was the student who didn’t speak Spanish, though. Everybody else had already spoken the language and they were just reading the literature. I had to fill up the margins with definitions, so it affects my approach to writing. I speak from my experience, so it’s a very black experience in Spanish.
Along with that comes the ability to storytell. I believe that’s one of your strongest appeals lyrically and visually after seeing ‘No Commas,’ and an older video, ‘Fighter.’
D Smoke: Storytelling is key. Similar to how I said that people have to see themselves in the music, when you begin to tell stories, it leaves them with a long lasting connection. I can’t remember what artist said this in their song, but someone said, ‘Every hood is the same.’ I bring that up because in every story you tell, there are so many people that connect with it in a way that doesn’t come with a song that’s just about one topic. Like, [*sings*] ‘Girl you make me feel so good,’ versus, ‘I woke up in the morning, gotta thank God/ I don’t know but today feels kind of odd.’ People begin to follow the story and it’s always inspiring to be able to tell the story.
I take it you use this same approach with the visuals?
D Smoke: When it comes to my visuals, I’m super passionate about the visuals and I’m more involved in them than anyone I know. For ‘Fighter,’ I worked with a director named Erica Eng. I went to her with the treatment and told her, ‘Look, I want to paint the hood.’ My idea was to retell the story of me in my neighborhood with boxing gloves and how fighting is kind of a platform to grow, challenge yourself, bond, etc. She’s like, ‘We can do that, or we tell another kind of story.’ She presented me with that treatment and we built it out from there. A lot of people you see in my videos, I also cast them myself. Like, I can name the people in the videos [*Laughs.*]
For ‘Little Red,’ it’s also people that I know. Even the car we got for wasn’t from a car rental agency. It was the homie who really pulls up with that in the hood. My nephew is in there, too. For ‘No Commas,’ a friend named Jeanine Daniels directed that, but it was my treatment. I did it on PowerPoint [*Laughs.*] What helps me is if I find pictures of the location I want to shoot at so that my treatment can already begin to have the angles and perspectives that I want in the actual video.
For the new project, 'Black Habits,' what new stories can we expect?
D Smoke: Over the course of my entire career, people can always expect storytelling. That has to be a part of what I do, and the artists that influenced me do it extremely well. My favorite rap duo of all time, Outkast, made songs the art of storytelling. I think Inglewood High did a little bit of that from my teaching experience and my experience as a student. This one, we’re going back to my family experiences. It’s going to dive into how we came up. It will be a journey into the good, the bad, the beautiful.
Black Habits follows my family story through being raised by a single mother while my pops was locked up. In the intro, you have [my brothers and I] as kids getting ready for school and saying a quick prayer before we head out. You hear the sirens and an ice cream truck in the background, and a prayer at the end. One of my brothers prays to God that He brings my dad home from jail or something to that effect. You also have my mom, who says these affirmations, and she’s like, ‘What do you do if someone puts their hands on you?’ And we’re all like, 'Make them wish they didn’t!’ So, it’s the duality of instilling values in you, but also expecting you to be strong.
Then the album goes on that journey from aggression to introspection dealing with family, love and relationships to political ideas and experiences connected to our Blackness. I’m just excited about it and can't wait until the world really feels me through this project.
Stream D Smoke's new Black Habits below:
(Photo: Courtesy of D Smoke)