The Hip-Hop Scholar


Duane Johnson is carrying a history book and a 12-inch vinyl single--the symbols of his double professional life--as he walks across the campus of Inglewood High School.

"When can I be in your video?" jokes an administrator as Johnson passes by.

A female student shouts, "I saw you in a magazine the other day, Mr. Johnson."

"Which one . . . the Source?" Johnson acknowledges playfully.

"Yeah. De-far-ee," she responds.

"That's me. De-far-i, De-far-i," Johnson shouts back, emphasizing the long "I" sound of the last syllable of his rap MC name.

"It's funny," Johnson whispers later, still mildly surprised at his newfound fame. "I don't even know who that girl is."

Though Johnson, 27, might not know everyone at the school, where he has taught for five years, he's hoping that the entire student body and rap fans across the country will soon be familiar with his name--as well as his thoughtful lyrics and rugged beats.

After toiling for years as a rapper on small Oakland-based ABB Records and performing in clubs around Los Angeles and the Bay Area, Johnson, who teaches world history and geography to ninth- and 10th-graders at Inglewood High, already has released a single on Warner Bros.-distributed Tommy Boy Records and has an album, titled "Focus Daily," due out in January.

The single, "Never Lose Touch," a piano-propelled track name-checks his mother as inspiration and boasts of his own will to realize his dreams, is in keeping with the generally positive theme of the album. The collection percolates with a street urgency and gritty musicality that recalls Brooklyn duo Gang Starr's jazz-funk beats.

Applying Class to Lyrics of the Streets

Some rappers draw on a history of petty crime and drug dealing to paint cinematic portraits of the urban black male experience. But Johnson, a hip-hop scholar, if you will, is a streetwise product of the hallowed halls of academia, and that background is reflected in his rhymed verse.

After obtaining a bachelor of arts degree in sociology from UC Berkeley in 1992, Johnson received his master of arts in education at Columbia University's Teacher's College in 1993. Between parent-teacher conferences and staff development meetings, he has found time to pursue the musical goal that has been a personal dream for more than a decade.

"I think that now I'm even more ready [than ever] because I've done my thing independently. Things are precise," Johnson says during a recent interview at a Silver Lake restaurant. "When I was a young man, every song I did [I thought] was hot. 'But was it mixed right? Were all those little things together?' I wasn't thorough back then and I knew it in my heart to be true."

To make it all happen, Johnson followed a hectic schedule during the six months it took to record the album. He would leave school at 2 p.m., then go to the studio until 3 or 4 a.m., sleep for two or three hours and go back to work the next morning.

"The energy comes from me and all my ancestors before me," says Johnson, whose mother, Sandra Walker, has been a teacher for a Head Start program in San Fernando for 20 years. "It's a drive, a spirit," he says, of his own determination to become a recording artist. "I fight the hard times."

A Best-Kept Secret Is Revealed to Label

Johnson battled through years of record company talent scouts who turned away his demos before he released a 12-inch single, "Bionic," in 1996 on ABB Records, a small record label established by friends. The record was well-received on college hip-hop radio shows and the ensuing attention solidified Johnson--or Defari--as an emerging underground artist.

Elliot Wilson, music editor at the Source, one of the nation's top hip-hop magazines, heard the single on college radio and has been looking forward to an album by him ever since.

"A lot of cats have a lot of hype behind them like Canibus and Mos Def, and I'm not saying that [they] are not talented," Wilson said. "But Defari is one of those best-kept secrets. His ability to inform without sounding preachy is what sets him apart and that's what you need as a good teacher--the ability to communicate without losing your audience."

Chris Atlas, who does rap promotions at Tommy Boy and was instrumental in signing Johnson to the label, said he was confident in the rapper's talent and intellect.

"There's not many artists who can go beyond the music," Atlas said. "He's a teacher and articulate, but still can kick it on the block with the homies and rock a crowd."

Officials at Inglewood High are equally as impressed with Johnson's talent as a moonlighting musician as they are with his commitment to the students.

Edward Brownlee, an Inglewood assistant principal, said Johnson has worn many hats at the school as a former assistant basketball coach and as a current instructor of advanced placement classes for college-bound students.

"He [sets] a very high level of academic challenges for the children," Brownlee said.

And as for the music, Brownlee added, "He's just getting better in the classroom because the kids relate to him and relate to the music he makes."

Growing up shuttling between his mother's home in Pacoima and his father's in Venice, Johnson attended Montclair College Prep in Van Nuys but found time to get involved with the legendary Soul Brothers, a crew of acrobatic dancers who showcased their nimble footwork at various Los Angeles clubs and hip-hop talent shows in the late-'80s.

During his college years, his devotion to the music swelled as well as a newfound commitment to mentoring and tutoring inner-city youth in the Acorn projects in West Oakland and at Berkeley High School.

"I consider myself someone who definitely has some role-model responsibility," he says. "Some folks are trapped in a job and don't care for the kids. I care for the kids first."

Still, he realizes that he may have to make a choice at some point--rapper or teacher.

Tommy Boy's Atlas believes response to the single is strong enough to give Johnson's debut album a chance of selling between 200,000 and 300,000 copies.

Johnson's scheduled to return to Inglewood this fall, but he acknowledges that he's been thinking about taking a sabbatical if the album really takes off.

"I am a man who walks the Earth and I have aspirations," he says. "I teach, but this rap game is right now and when it pops, you got to roll with it because if you don't you'll miss the ride. [I] don't want to sit back later and say, 'Damn, I wish I would have.' "


* Defari is scheduled to perform Sept. 17 with De La Soul and Slick Rick at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. 9 p.m. $22.50. (213) 848-5100.

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