A few short hours after our meeting with rapper/reality TV star D Smoke, The Game would bring him out at his sold-out show at the Novo to perform “Cross On Jesus Back” — a standout off Jayceon’s final album, Born 2 Rap. But he’s humble and patient so; despite his breathtakingly full schedule, we sit down at the brand new Soho Warehouse in downtown Los Angeles the Saturday of Grammy week.
D Smoke is cut from a different cloth. When you grow up in Inglewood, you sit somewhere between the hood and boujee. The majority live in middle-class suburbs populated with families — the other side sees gangbanging, robberies and violence. Born Daniel Anthony Farris, D Smoke found his outlet in music.
Farris is not only a rapper, he’s also a recording artist, producer, MC, teacher, mentor, Netflix star and, most importantly, a proud member of his community. Fame didn’t just fall into Smoke’s lap, he had to work for it. He had to fight for his dreams, experiencing and enduring the hardships and obstacles that come with being an African-American male from Inglewood. Smoke didn’t just overcome them, he embraced his reality and takes pride in showing the youth that they can too.
With a strong belief in God, Smoke is able to preach to the choir via hip-hop. Having won the Netflix reality series Rhythm + Flow, with celebrity judges T.I., Chance the Rapper and Cardi B, it wasn’t only his ability to rap or make music that made TV audiences swoon — it was his story, message, dedication, passion, authenticity, love for his family, drive… really his entire image.
While Smoke comes from a musical family, his upbringing was tumultuous, to say the least. As far back as Farris can remember, his father was locked up. He briefly recalls his father returning home a couple of weeks after his fourth birthday party, only to get locked right back up. He did two separate sentences that ultimately totaled more than six years.
“The second time, he’s supposed to be in for a total of 17 years, but his time got cut,” he says. “The sentence was 17 years, so if he served half of that, it would’ve still been more than what he actually ended up serving. He was addicted to crack cocaine. He was doing all kinds of shit to sustain his habit.”
His older brother banged, direct cousins banged — and Farris’ parents never hid their addiction from him and his two brothers, Davion and Darryl (SiR from TDE). It was these experiences that led him to become more spiritually-aligned.
“It’s not your energy, it’s true positive energy that comes from God,” Smoke says. “Inspiration comes from God, creativity comes from God. When you’re aligned with sound spiritual principles, you’re more equipped to protect that energy and give that off more regularly — even in situations all kinds of other energies are thrown at you. When you inspire people and instill in them values and principles that allow you to maintain that, despite what’s going on around them, that’s a major calling. That’s the role of an educator too.”
Meanwhile, Smoke’s mom Jackie Gouché would go away on tour for weeks at a time, singing background for major gospel artists such as Michael Jackson, Gladys Knight and Tina Turner. Mrs. Farris wrote world-renowned gospel songs, including “My Help,” which was recorded all over the world (and re-recorded by CeCe Winans). This dual existence consisted of love and music in the house, mixed with the scrapping, fighting and wilding out outside.
Smoke was signed by DreamWorks at 11 years old alongside his two brothers, as a boy group called N3D (Davion, Daniel and Darryl), but they were soon dropped.
“We hadn’t released a project,” he says. “We were going to Johnny Gill’s house for voice lessons regularly with his brother Randy Gill. We were in the studio, halfway through a project — had some good stuff, but ended up getting dropped.”
Rather, they took matters into their own hands and created their own independent record label at the house with themselves, their cousin Tiffany Gouché, and a couple of homies. Fast-forward to 8th grade, his uncle Andrew Gouché (Prince’s last bass player, who toured or years with Chaka Khan) dropped off an entire studio set up at the crib. While most kids played in middle school, they’d make beats and record and create their own music at the house.
Maintaining straight A’s throughout high school, a 17-year-old Farris graduated and entered one of the city’s top schools, UCLA, that same year. Initially a Business Economics major, Farris fell back on Spanish merely because he was good at it (plus he knew it was useful). Two years later at 19, he got signed to a publishing deal with Warner Chappell. From there, he penned songs for major artists, such as “Never” for Jaheim, “Takin’ Over the World” for The Pussycat Dolls and “Why Just Be Friends” for Lloyd.
“You’re still asking people to select your creative property and put it on their project versus controlling what gets put out, which lead all of us to prioritize being artists versus pitching songs to other people,” Smoke explains.
Although he’d already gotten signed and was writing songs for major artists, he took on the director position at SHAPE. During that two-year term, he somehow managed to keep writing songs. On his way out from a meeting with Debra Tate who was also his principal at Inglewood High, she offered him the job. She said, “When you done with UCLA and want a real job, come holler at me.” He took her up on it, going on to teach Spanish at Inglewood High for two years.
Inglewood Unified School District board president D’Artagnan Scorza says, “D Smoke is an inspiration and an example of excellence to many of our youth here in Inglewood. As an educator and an artist from our community, his story shows that when we return to and invest in our neighborhoods, we can build hope and opportunity for the next generation. As a talented storyteller, he shows how uniquely suited he is to shine light on the struggles we face while making sure we see the potential that exists within ourselves and each other.”
Smoke taught at Inglewood High School, Morningside High School and View Park Preparatory High School on Crenshaw and Slauson (across from where Nipsey Hussle’s store was). “For a year, I was across the street from Nip everyday,” he says. “I used to walk to Hungry Harold’s for lunch just to get out of the classroom. One day, I went over and bought me some Crenshaw shirts. This was before they remodeled, it was just a T-shirt shop. Couple of Inglewood homies came with me because they’re like, ‘We walking with you. We ain’t gon’ let you go over there by yourself.’”
He then taught at Augustus Hawkins High School, and at the High School for Recording Arts. All throughout his journey teaching, Farris remained a hungry artist, saving every penny he could to invest back into his artistry. Releasing visuals over the course of years, he always knew his music was somewhat different.
“It wasn’t edgy because it was vulgar or because it was super racy, it always had content,” he says. “I feel like something that’s different requires a visual so that people can better understand it. All major artists came out at some point with some backing so my goal was to make it look like we had a label behind us, even before we did.”
Then came Rhythm + Flow. The Netflix show reached out to Farris early winter of 2018. At the time, he was doing a series called “Run the Subtitles (RTST),” which saw him rapping over familiar beats. “West Coast beats that people heard before… classics! I was rapping English and Spanish and putting subtitles. We got a couple of notable shares: Jill Scott shared something she liked. Tyrese shared something.”
But when DJ Battlecat shared, DJ Moonbaby (who was familiar with the producers of the show) caught wind of it. She told him, “Hey, this kid might be dope for your show.” They reached out and said, “Fill out the application.” From there, he still wasn’t sure whether or not he’d do it. At one point, he actually told them he was going to pass.
“Because there was no precedents set for the show,” he says. “I didn’t know if it was going to represent me well [because it’s reality TV]. I believed I was going to do well with or without the show, so the last thing I needed was something cheesy on my record.”
While Smoke had to take the main stage in front of music’s biggest names — Cardi B, T.I. and Chance The Rapper — he kept it 100, stating the only judge to give him the wow factor was Snoop Dogg. “Cardi, Chance and Tip are big artists, but they’re not from where I’m from,” he says. “So if I’m representing me, then they’re audience members to me. Because I’m teaching them something, I’m bringing them something they’re not familiar with. Whereas Snoop’s from where I’m from, so me stepping up and presenting this new energy — the only person there who can critique whether or not what I’m doing feels authentic, is Snoop.”
Regardless of the fame and followers, Smoke remains grounded and humble. His goal, at least once a day, is to forget he’s famous. “The reason is the awareness of how many people know you or a certain level of fame changes your thought process,” he says. “Now you’re outside of yourself. When you forget, you’re more in tune. You’re more relaxed.”
His solution? Simply spending time with the people he’s known long before the show. But even Smoke is cautious when it comes to his day ones, making sure they never see him in any different light.
“One of the challenges of achieving a certain degree of fame is having to tell people who you know and love, how to remain the warm, chill, comfortable people they were prior to.” he says. “The last thing you want is your family who you go to for refuge, to behave the same way that an excited, frantic fan would — who doesn’t really know you.”
With younger brother SiR joining the TDE family, Smoke respected his situation and let him shine — although Top Dawg was familiar with him because Smoke went on the road with SiR, playing keys at his sold-out shows. But SiR states he’s always been the leader of the pack.
“He’s a year older than me and our relationship has grown so much over the years,” SiR says. “Dan has always had my best interest at heart, and wouldn’t hesitate to let me know that himself [chuckles]. Being so close in age has always driven us to work hard to keep (everything) competitive, but Dan has always had an extra gear that we all admire. His biggest asset is his work ethic. He’s relentless. If he wants it, it’s only a matter of planning and time.”
SiR adds, “At this point, we’re all extremely proud and happy for everything happening in his life. His success is our success. We’re all excited to see what the future holds for Smoke.”
Older brother Davion is also an artist, featured on Smoke’s recent single “Fly.” Smoke loves to recount the story behind the making of the record, which showcased the euphoric feeling of him winning Rhythm + Flow. Initially, he intended on “Fly” being his song, entertaining doing a third verse on the already three-minute long record.
“That feeling: ‘Are we flying? Are we lifted?’” he says. “Is this really happening? I did both verses, loved them already. Because it’s a slower song, we could of left it at two. Davion was there, he’s been on his notepad. He’s like ‘ay man, let me just sing you what I got.’ Reluctantly, I said ‘alright, go ahead.’ He sang his idea: Word for word, it’s just hard. The melody’s beautiful, it fit right in. I told him to knock it down”
They did it all that one night, with no additions. “Fly” is located smack dab in the middle of Smoke’s critically-acclaimed new release Black Habits, a 16-track album that over time got darker than what he initially wanted to release.
“I did that intentionally to give my audience some depth prior to doing a lot of the inspirational things that I naturally do,” he says, speaking in advance of the record’s release. “There’s still inspirational moments, beautiful artistic moments, but I wanted to release a project that really dug deep first so we can grow from there. Black Habits isn’t a title that’s conclusive, that you know what it’s going to be about once you hear it. I like art that raises a question more so that answers it. It allows me to touch on different nuances on what it means to be black: the good, the bad, the ugly.”
Most recently, Smoke returned back to Inglewood High for a pep rally, which he described as “beautiful.” And the first thing he did when he started doing interviews after the show was announce a new scholarship in the city. “I didn’t ask them first, we just set it in motion and it happened,” he says. “I believe that’s how things work. The principal and I were close so we kept following up, then the district caught wind of it and got behind it. We’ve since helped them out, built out with their attendance campaign. Did things to change the culture and the district.”
The point of the pep rally was to inspire the kids to reprioritize their academic endeavors, and also to announce the scholarship. Smoke hopes to be a light shining on the students in situations where people would normally turn their backs. With incredible support from council members, the faculty,and students — along with SiR — the scholarship will be given out to graduating seniors, with an essay as part of the application.
A favorite among the Netflix community, Smoke is honored to be selected as the face of their Black History Month campaigns, culminating with a performance on the Netflix campus. “That relationship’s always going to be a priority because not only in the filming of the show, but following the show and the editing stages. I started to meet the actual people responsible for not just making the show, but seeing it all the way through.”
At this point of his bubbling career, Smoke just wants to tour. A lot of times, artists create their audience by touring, and then tour again — whereas the show created the demand for Smoke. “A lot of places that now we’d be… smart [chuckles], to go interact with people,” he says. “It’d be a beautiful experience to be able to reach those people who feel connected because they saw us on a show. A lot of people’s response when they do interact with us is the energy they receive for me in person is a lot like what they see on the show — or what they think I’d be in person, which is a high compliment because it speaks to my authenticity on the show.”
Smoke plans to do a full run in the States before hitting Europe, South and Central America, Australia, Asia, Antarctica, a lot of places in Africa — the whole world. But selling out shows is nothing new. Before Rhythm + Flow, Smoke served as SiR’s musical director, opening for Miguel on the War & Leisure Tour. The biggest takeaway? How to stay healthy on the road.
Doing 33 shows in 45 days, “you almost have to be like an athlete, because it’s one game after the next,” he says while snapping his fingers. “Also the importance of seeing people face to face, giving them the chance to see you deliver your art live, in person.”
Putting together the shows was something he’d been doing for a long time. Even tracing back to his smaller shows in Inglewood, he’d play that quarterback, orchestrating role — exactly why SiR asked Smoke to play that role with him.
With his own live performances, Smoke will be on stage with a live band, incorporating musicianship that’s seemingly innate within him. “I like transitions,” he says. “I like when things flow together so you can keep people in one moment, and flow right into another moment. Those are the things I want to make sure we give them when we’re designing the set.”
Smoke wants his legacy to be that he inspired people to be their greatest self. “There’s always a next chapter to whatever it is that’s going on… there’s always a brighter side to it,” he says. “I want my legacy to be that anything is possible, that God is real, and that nothing is final.”
Smoke is slated to return to his stomping grounds at UCLA to headline a show for Black History Month on February 25. Fans can also look forward to the “Lights On” visual featuring fellow Inglewood native Issa Rae and Danny Trejo.