Music

D Smoke Brings The Violence Back To Rap On The Triumphant ‘War And Wonders’

When Inglewood rapper D Smoke says that hip-hop isn’t violent enough, I know exactly what he means. See, D Smoke is an old soul — and old enough to remember the times in rap when voices like NWA, Ice Cube, and Tupac Shakur ruled the airwaves. So, he isn’t talking about mainstream rap’s obsession with “opps” and the near-constant threats and menacing in lyrics promising bloody retribution against hazily defined, likely hypothetical enemies.

Instead, his philosophy can best be summed up by his aggressive single “Shame On You,” from his newly released sophomore effort, War & Wonders. “Two times for n****s that ain’t gon’ lose,” he barks on the song’s militant chorus. “Three times for n****s that break wrong rules / One time for n****s that paid those dues / Listen, if you ain’t getting it, then shame on you.” See, D Smoke comes from a different vein of rapper, one more focused on using his influence to do good in the community than on being a billionaire. Think early Cube, “Changes” Tupac, or more recently, Nipsey Hussle.

It was evident from his opening bars on the Netflix series Rhythm + Flow (which helped launch him to the level he’s since reached) that he had a peculiar outlook and wasn’t going to take a typical rap journey. It became even more evident on his soul-washed, family-focused, Grammy-nominated debut album Black Habits. It’s rare to see a new artist nominated so quickly for a prestigious award — yes, the Grammys are still prestigious until further notice — but Smoke, an industry veteran as a producer and songwriter with a musical family that includes TDE crooner SiR, took the changes in stride.

Now, on War & Wonders, he aims to bring that violence back to hip-hop; not the gangbanging, opp-pack-smoking, shootouts-over-drug-money type violence, but the roll-up-your-sleeves, hitch-up-your-pants, defend your turf from encroaching outsiders and internal degradation variety. Over lunch at The Farm of Beverly Hills, D Smoke laid out his world view, including how it’s changed on the album, the work he hopes to see in his hometown as massive developments threaten seismic social upheaval, and whether or not he’s switching teams with the Los Angeles Clippers moving in down the street.

I would love for you to expound on what the title means to you, how you came up with it, and how that relates to the music that’s going to be on the project.

War & Wonders is my body of work that captures the struggles and the battles that we go through, both literally, like the war in the streets in Inglewood, and also just the internal battles that we fight. And then the wonder is for those of us who are strong, that stick it through, what we experience on the other side of that. The bliss, the joy, the love that we experience. So it’s going to capture the duality of what it means to be D Smoke — the D Smoke that grew up fighting in school, but also the D Smoke that had a 4.0. The D Smoke that went to UCLA but was rapping and handing out mixtapes his freshman year. So it allows me to just be all of who I am, and the music is just, it’s dope. What can I say? I’m in love with this project.

Yes, sir. I love that you spoke about the duality of growing up in the hood and getting out and going back to the hood and taking in the differences. We have so many examples of that. Why do you think that resonates so much with rappers who come from LA?

Man, it’s a lot that people don’t understand about how the hood operates, right? People, they see the gang bang and they see the red and blue. They see Crenshaw and Manchester versus Crenshaw and Slauson. But what they don’t know is that the same ones that’s in the streets will also push the talented few or the talented many, but they’ll push the gifted ones into whatever they’re gifted at.

If you’re a baller in the hood and you pull up with a basketball, asking for a pistol, they’re going to be like, “No, this ain’t yours. The ball is yours.” Right? If you’re a scholar in the hood, they’re not going to let you put a gun in your backpack, they’re going to be like, “No, fill that up with books.”

So part of War & Wonders is painting that all-around picture of what it means to come up in the hood, giving the OGs and the gangsters more love than this one-dimensional depiction of them, that music sometimes gives. Because the gangsters are the mentors too. A lot of times gangsters are more attentive than some of the professionals. The professionals ain’t got time for you. The gangsters are present and they’re not just the mentors to young gangsters. They’re the mentors to the young scholars, too.

And all of us have those who look out for us. So when we’re talking about Inglewood and we’re talking about duality, it’s not just the duality of being D Smoke. It’s the duality of being anybody from the world because nobody is one-dimensional. I know gangsters that’ll make you laugh like they’re Kevin Hart. And then if shit go down, they’ll turn around and be more ready than any soldier. So that’s why I love War & Wonders. It just puts things in perspective in a way that I think music should.

Yes, sir. In terms of growth or… I don’t want to say growth because it’s never growth, right? It’s change. Change is the key. How would you say things have changed for you since Black Habits to now? And how would you say that change has expressed itself on Black Habits versus War & Wonders?

First and foremost, the world has changed. This music is coming from a place and a time where everybody in the world is experiencing an unprecedented degree of new challenges, right? How everything operates is different from how we move through the world. Whether it be the mask-on/mask-off argument or how we approach prioritizing our health. We’re in a completely different world altogether.

So, whereas Black Habits was a family story, War & Wonders is a community story. And I always view myself starting very close to home and slowly expanding. So, War & Wonders has moments where we talk about Inglewood. One song, I’m talking about a youngster that I lost while I’m in the classroom, and then I find out he passed. And I tell that story of me growing up with him and then having to find out that he got lost to the streets. But then, of course, having recently gotten married, there are moments of just love on my project. And even J. Cole, at one point, said, “This is the part that the thugs skip. Young n**** never had love.”

And you know what’s funny? They don’t.

They don’t skip it! They don’t skip it.

That’s the thing they want more than anything.

So War & Wonders is that project where they get bits and pieces of both sides. But we’re in a very different place. We’re in a different world than we were in when Black Habits came out. And so I also think, with the world changing so fast, if we don’t take on an attitude of resistance, or an attitude of strength, or a willingness to fight if things don’t work for us, we will be on the losing end of that.

King Los told me, “Embrace your darkness.” Because showing people that is what will make them accept and embrace your light. They know you have the light to offer. Be all the way honest with them.

Royce da 5’9″ — and I understood exactly what he was saying — was like, “Rap music is not violent enough anymore.” And you think about violence in the broader sense of the word. It’s not just walk up and slap somebody. At its root, it’s the willingness to go against something that’s opposing you. And so War & Wonders has that kind of energy on it.

The people who are more critics than listeners might be like, “What’s D Smoke doing?” But the people who listen for the intent and follow through here in the project, they going to respect the fact that we took that stance and made that approach to this project because the world needs it. People don’t need to shrink. This ain’t a time to shrink. It’s time to grow and get big in the midst of everything we’re experiencing in the world. Because when these things happen, everybody needs an advocate, and you’re your first advocate.

I got a sense of that on one of the recent singles, “Shame On You.”

“Shame on You” got that energy.

What are some of the things that maybe you wouldn’t have expected or that other people wouldn’t have expected to have changed since Rhythm+Flow?

I don’t think that people expected my success on the show to automatically amount to a successful career in music. And that’s because there hasn’t been evidence of that with the exception of American Idol.

Show’s been on the air for 20 years.

Exactly. Exactly. And we could probably name five that we still know. Clay, Fantasia, Kelly, Ruben, and that’s where my list stops.

My mom loves Fantasia!

But from The Voice or Making the Band, we know funny moments.

We know cheesecake.

Right. Exactly. So Dylan, Dylan, Dylan.

Dylan, Dylan.

So one thing that people didn’t expect is that amounting to what we had. I always knew that it was the work, the plan, and the vision that would result in that. And nobody had to tell me that, it’s just me being older and having had really big looks and moments of success, and then having gone back to being like, “Okay, I’m back in the classroom teaching again, because I got to call somebody and ask them to put a song I produced on an album,” versus me stepping outside and being like, “I’m going to plan another tour.”

So all of those experiences led to me choosing to be my own artist. And that’s how we got here. Some of the unexpected things that I experienced personally, I’m grateful for the amount of attention that comes. That’s cool. That’s what young artists aspire to experience. It’s just little stuff: like sometimes people don’t know how to have respectful boundaries of a human being. So getting physically grabbed. I don’t respond well to that. And it’s not big dudes that will do it, it’s older women who be like, “Boy, ain’t you…” Like they your auntie. But grab you physically.

They’ll be excited.

And you’re like, “Ma’am, God bless you, but please don’t grab me, because…”

Where I’m from, I react different.

It’s like you got to relearn how to live. You live differently, you move differently. And that’s the part that you don’t see, people making those adjustments, even within their family. I’ve had to teach family members how I prefer us as a family unit to behave on social networking. We no longer post vibes. We no longer say, “We’re over here right now.” Because people follow my family members.

There’s lots of talk about Inglewood in the news lately because of certain developments coming from organizations like the Clippers. How do you feel about some of the stuff they’re doing, as someone from Inglewood?

The thing is, I wish they connected with me a little more on those things. I have some ideas, and I hope… I can’t wait to get with Ballmer about this community. If there’s a stadium being built, then there needs to be a center being built. Every stadium should have a center for the youth. Within three miles, two miles of it.

Close enough to walk.

Close enough. Because there’s so much money and it’s just a small fraction of what it takes to operate that, to build something like a YMCA, or like a Boys and Girls Club, that’s also run by somebody from that community. And so that’s a conversation that I’ll continue with me and David Gross, having the boxing gym close. It’s not far, it’s outside of Inglewood, but it’s within the vicinity, to kind of initiate. So it’s just socially and culturally responsible to put something there for the youth. And that’s a conversation I’m going to push for. But I’m open to being informed on what they are doing in the community.

Which LA team do you root for the most? Because you’ve performed for one, but I need to know.

I’m a Laker fan, a Laker fan. But put it this way: I grew up a Laker fan, and I’m still a Laker fan. But I’m an all-teams LA fan, all-LA teams fan for basketball. I happened to be in the stadium the night that the Clippers beat the Heat. They came back from like 25 points at half-time. I performed that night and I witnessed one of the greatest comebacks I’ve ever seen live in person. When I performed, I didn’t know that that was going to happen. I’m performing at half-time at a time where the score is so bad some people are leaving at half-time.

Those are the long-time Clipper fans.

Exactly.

We’re still traumatized.

It’s like, “I don’t want to witness it today. I’m trying to spare myself.” But I said, “How many of y’all know this game ain’t over yet?” And then, the song was “No Commas.” I said, “Ain’t a dollar sign tag on some peace of mind, jack / We could take a loss, we gon’ get it right back.” And they went on to win the game. But just to experience that upfront personally, you just got to have respect for that degree of heart that goes into it, and feeling like I contributed something to that game.

Oh, they definitely took something out of that.

So, I have to root for them.

Where do you see D Smoke being next year, a year from now? Are you looking at another Grammy nomination? Are you looking at a world tour? What’s the ultimate goal? Where do you find yourself?

Gosh, the Grammy nomination is outside of my hands. We are submitting ourselves for consideration. So we’re confident that the project is beautiful. If they respond to it, cool. If for some reason they see a different group of people that are qualified, or they connect with different bodies of work, that’s cool too. Because I know fans are going to feel about this project. I know it’s something that they’re going to want to experience in person and we will get back outdoors, both in the States and abroad. We’re excited about that. And that’s within our control. So if it happens, that’s dope, super dope. It was dope when it happened this time. But I feel like this project competes with anything that I’ve heard and anything that I’m going to hear, for the year to come.

War & Wonders is out now via Woodworks and EMPIRE. Get it here/

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