It’s 10 A.M. on November 24, 2020. Thanksgiving is just two days away, and Inglewood, California-bred rapper D Smoke is driving with a car full of family and a trunk full of guns. D Smoke and the fam are on the way to the gun range. As far as he knows, the highlight of his morning will be basking in familial unity amidst a pandemic that has ripped families apart.
He’s no more than five minutes into his trek when his phone rings.
“I get a call from Greg [Johnson] on my management team saying, ‘Congrats… You’re Grammy-nominated for Best Rap Album,” D Smoke told Okayplayer. “I was like, ‘Oh shit.’ It really hit. And then I went, “Oh shit!” It was beautiful.”
The guns in the trunk were closer to the front of D Smoke’s mind than an award nomination because they were tied to what got him to the Grammys in the first place: home. Not just home as in the Inglewood streets that helped teach him life, partly, by threatening to take his from him. Home as in the writing team he formed with his brother SiR, his cousin Tiffany Gouché, and Davion Farris, all of whom were on their way to the gun range, as well. Home as in the piano lessons he received as soon as he was tall enough to reach the keys.
Twenty minutes after the initial call, his phone rings again. “I get the second call saying, ‘You’re twice nominated. You’re nominated for Best New Artist as well.’ I’m like, What?’ I kinda lost my voice that day.”
Smoke has been walking on confetti for the last two years. In 2019, he won Rhythm + Flow, Netflix’s first music competition show, after being heralded by the show’s judges, Snoop Dogg, Cardi B, Chance the Rapper, and T.I. Months later, he’d released Black Habits, the full-length project where his Grammy nominations stem from. Between then and the day he became Grammy-nominated, he’s been in the studio with Dr. Dre, The Game, DJ Khaled, and BJ The Chicago Kid.
Before he finds out if he’ll become the first rap artist from Inglewood to win Best New Artist, he’ll be reminding the world why he’s here in the first place with the rerelease of Black Habits. The deluxe version of the album, which drops Friday (February 5th) features three new tracks, including “It’s OK,” his first release of 2021. The music video showcasing the multitudes of Black joy, with Smoke leading the way as a protector — a role he’s held throughout his life.
We spoke with D Smoke last month. He talked about his journey to his first Grammy nomination, which hitmaker offered to sign him after he won Rhythm + Flow, and how Inglewood shaped his sound but almost took his life.
From what I saw, you are the first rapper from Inglewood, California to be nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy.
Not Mack 10?
Nah. The Grammys only nominated seven rap artists for Best New Artist during the ‘90s when Mack 10 came on the scene. How does it make you feel that you’re the first from your neighborhood to be nominated for Best New Artist?
It makes me hella proud. I always wanted to put on for the city in a different way. People know Inglewood as a Blood city — as a gang city. Although plenty of that is true, there’s so much more to the city than that. It’s a proud moment to put on for Inglewood on this platform.
Your two nominations are thanks to your album Black Habits. How did Inglewood shape the sound of the music that got you your first Grammy nominations?
That whole project is my family story. We had some real conversations when it came to putting together that project around how much of this do we want to share and how open do we want to be with what happened. I had to talk to pops before the project came out after certain songs were done, and he had to get at me like, “It would’ve been nice if I knew before.” To get recognized for something that is that close to home and personal is really dope. I was cool with the people feeling it and being moved by something that is that real to my upbringing, let alone getting the type of recognition that, in some people’s minds, validates it. It’s unfortunate because I don’t think it should take being recognized by people outside your music for it to be validated.
To that point, how has your relationship with the Grammys changed as you’ve grown through the years?
It was around when I was 18 or 19 when I started to look at the Grammys like, “Oh, we’re going to get Grammy’s before we’re done.” At the time it was me, my brother SiR, my cousin Tiffany Gouche, and my brother Davion Farris forming our company and writing team. We wanted to get Grammys for writing and producing songs for other people because, initially, that was my goal. Then, we started paying attention to who is being recognized. I got an ASCAP Award a few years back for writing “Never” for Jaheim. That was pretty big, but it was so early, I couldn’t understand the magnitude of it. I was only 19 or 20. Around then we started looking like, “This is one of those milestones we want to reach.”Before 18, I just wanted millions of dollars. That’s it. I was like, “I’m going to be a millionaire.” We lived to see that be the case.
As your star has grown, I’ve seen photos of you rub shoulders with the likes of Diddy, Snoop Dogg, and DJ Khaled. Any advice they gave you about making it in this industry?
I wish I could tell you they told me this specific gem, but the common thread that I’m getting, which is both reassuring and frustrating, is “You got it. Keep going.” I’m like, “Damn, man. Tell me that the answer is three times a day you call these three people (laughs).” Other than working hella hard, reinventing myself, studying, and always trying to improve myself, I can’t really tell you what the key is. Learning from greats, raising the bar, building my own standard of what I feel is dope coming from my studio. Other than that doing those things, I trust in my gut. So, when people who have surpassed where I am and all they say is, “You’re doing it. Keep it up,” I’m like, “Thanks… is there anything else?”
You were also in the studio with a few of those people I mentioned yet I don’t see any collaborations released between someone like you and Khaled. What were you working on in 2020?
Man, if I tell you, I’d have to kill you (laughs). Nah, I’ve been getting it in. Some of the pictures are moments where it was a press play, meeting, and respect. Some of them were deals put on the table. Khaled offered to sign me and it was a whole ‘lot of respect there. I told him what the goal was, we stayed in contact, and he told me, “Whether you take the deal or not, I couldn’t not offer it to you. It’s a good home over here.” I was like, “You ain’t got to tell me anything about what you’ve accomplished. I’m well-versed. However, I have to try out my wings on this one as a visionary of my own.” I don’t know what would’ve come doing it that way. We still haven’t done certain things we want to do with radio. Perhaps we would’ve had a big radio single and done some other things. But, there are people with big radio singles not in the same position as us and a radio single doesn’t always amount to the type of respect to make people continue coming to your shows. With our goal being longevity, we wanted to do it our own way. Khaled and I weren’t creating at that time. We did chop it up. That photo was before Black Habits came out. That was January 2020. He saluted it and played me some things that could easily fit where I’m headed. We’ve had a follow-up convo since then, so we’ll see what happens.
I know the Grammy’s isn’t a source of validation for you, but after winning Rhythm + Flow, is there a moment that made you feel as you’ve finally arrived?
Moreso than the nomination, when you talk to people and you realize you’re having brotherly homie-to-homie moments with legends, that’s when you’re like, “This is different.” They’re talking to you with no cameras around or audience. Snoop [Dogg] pulled up to the [“Gaspar Yanga“] video shoot. One, he didn’t charge me to be in the video. I have paid for studio time at his spot to show, “I do my own business. We can do this exchange so you know your engineers are paid for, your space is valuable, and that I understand that.” For the video, I didn’t pay anything, he brought this Black-owned food truck to feed the ‘hood. He was in the middle of Inglewood with all the Bloods outside, and he’s taking pictures with them. The Bloods there tell him, “Ain’t shit happening today. We got you.”
That day, before he came outside, he told someone, “Tell Smoke to come over to say what’s up.” We chopped it up before we started filming. He’s rolling up right there, starts smoking, and I’m thanking him for pulling up. He tells me, “Smoke, you got me in the middle of Inglewood (laughs).” I told him, “I know, but we’re solid.” He told me, “I’m going to show you how to solidify your legacy.” There’s nothing in the game Snoop hasn’t accomplished. Those moments feel surreal and make me think, “OK, if I’m not where I dreamed of being, I’m in that realm.” That’s beautiful because I have far more years grinding towards it than I do existing in this space.
We’re going on our second complete year post-Rhythm + Flow. I’m 35 and I’ve been doing this since I was 14 and that’s just production, writing, and artistry. Before that, my brothers and I were signed as a young singing group at 10, 11, and 12. I’ve been playing piano since I was six. I was filming Rhythm + Flow at 33-years-old, turned 34 when it hit, and now we’re in a second-year following it.
Last year had many blessings for you, but it also took from everyone. What disappointments did you have in 2020?
I had to mourn not going on tour. I’m careful about mentioning that because it sounds selfish. A lot of people are mourning a lot more than lost professional opportunities. But, for me, the irony is something I had to process. I’m like, “I had the biggest moment of my life and I can’t get outdoors to reach the people who want to connect with me.” I’ve been on tour with other people and have seen what it means to connect with people who are moved by your music. I’ve yet to have that opportunity. It’s not the same as being in front of a crowd of people who know your lyrics, and I still look forward to that.
As you said, Inglewood has a history of gang-related violence. Are there any life or death situations you found yourself in growing up that could’ve led to you not even being here to become the Grammy-nominated artist you are now?
Before 11th grade, I used to do a whole lot of walking. In 11th grade, I got my car. As soon as I hit 16, I was like, “I’m whipping.” I actually got my car before 16 and had to wait to be able to drive it legally. So, before 11th grade, my homies and I would mob together to certain places. We’d call each other the night before, like, “What are you going to wear?” If we show up and both accidentally are wearing a gang of blue, we’re like, “Shit.” This one day we were trying to be neutral, but we had blue on. Part of why that was the case was because we knew we were walking to the homie’s house who lived in this crip neighborhood, so we should’ve been solid. It wasn’t gang attire, but if you were in a car pulling up, you’d notice us. It was four of us. One of us had on a red tee and we’re looking at him like, “You’re going to get us sweated. At the very least, you’re going to get us banged on. They’re going to pull up like, ‘Who are you?’”
So we’re just chopping it up, clowning, and this car pulls up the street fast. Then, they hit this U-Turn screeching the tires. We just think they’re doing donuts… we thought we’re getting a show. They stop and two people in the back sit up on the window seal with the thangs on them and start banging like, “This boo-boo-boo-boo-boo. F this, F that.” I’m not going to say any gang names, but they thought we were from that neighborhood because they came from another neighborhood looking to put in work over here. They never hopped out. If they hopped out, we’d think, “OK, they might jump us, or we might fight.” They never hopped out and we saw in their hands they had them thangs on them. So, we froze because it happened fast and we were still trying to process it. It was also as if that moment was in slow motion because I can see the look in their eyes, and I realized they’re talking to us.
We put our hands up and stare at them because if they were going to do something they were going to know exactly who they did it to. I remember looking at one of them like, “Oh shit, he go to school with us. That’s ol’ boy.” I’m looking at him like, “Yo!” Then, he realizes it because nobody ran. That’s the craziest part about it — nobody ran. When ol’ boy saw it was us, he damn near panicked. He was like, “Nah, that ain’t them.” He hopped back in the car and is grabbing them like, “Nah!” The driver pulls out and one of them was so amped, he’s still banging out the window. They pulled off and we look at each other like, “What the fuck just happened?” Then we run. We were about 14 years old. That was only one instance. That taught us you’re better off confronting something head-on, so people can look at you and process it. You think you’re supposed to run from danger, but you’re really supposed to face it and say hello to it (laughs).
The Grammys Awards were postponed until March 14th. What are your plans for that night?
I wish I could say I have some elaborate plans and all of that (laughs). I know we want to figure out what we’re wearing. We don’t know if it’s digital or in-person. If it’s digital, I’d imagine they’ll do a digital red carpet like what they did on the BET Awards and a few other things. So, we have to discuss what that plan is. I have some ideas, but I don’t know if those ideas are going to be for the Grammys or are going to be for a music video. I want to be with my family watching to find out because that’s how I celebrate now. My goals have so much to do with what longevity and reinvention look like. That’s how I think about the future. Celebrating becomes hard because when you celebrate you are already in a space of thinking you arrived. None of this stuff is arrival. But, when I want to allow myself to enjoy the moment, I surround myself with people removed from the grind. They light up with unfiltered, uninhibited celebration. When SiR began winning before me, I was like, “Let’s go!” There was so much hope I got from watching him win; watching him go on tour; seeing from close proximity; him taking me on tour. All while he had this weight of having to be SiR in front of people yelling “SiR!”
I’ll be around my family to figure out who beautiful the moment is one way or another. One thing is fasho’: When they say “nominees” they fasho going to say “D Smoke” with some big names.
Banner Photo Credit: Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images
Keith Nelson Jr. is a journalist who has covered hip-hop, technology, and movies/TV for VIBE, Revolt, Digital Trends, Flaunt Magazine, and more. Follow him @JusAire
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