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A best new artist nominee at 35, D Smoke is both a music lifer and the longest of longshots

D Smoke.
D Smoke describes his Grammy-nominated album “Black Habits” as “a family history, a story of triumph through mad hardships.”
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

The first time Grammy-nominated Inglewood rapper D Smoke interacted with Cardi B, she was judging him on the 2019 premiere episode of the Netflix competition series “Rhythm + Flow.” Wearing a brown knit cap and utilitarian cover-alls more suited for a mechanic than a wannabe rap star, he had just performed his opening freestyle rap to a four-judge panel that also included Snoop, Chance the Rapper and T.I.

Commenting on his janitorial outfit, Cardi B expressed surprise at D Smoke’s bilingual skills with a back-handed compliment: “You really impressed me, because when I saw you, I thought you was gonna mop some floors.”

Cue audience laughter.

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Little did she know that D Smoke nearly stepped away from “Rhythm + Flow” a day before production began or that he would soon metaphorically mop floors with the competition by winning the reality show’s no-strings-attached $250,000 prize money. Nor could she have predicted that a year later, he’d earn two Grammy nominations in the best new artist and rap album categories for “Black Habits,” an independently released concept album based on his family’s life growing up in Inglewood.

His G-clef neck tattoo is proof of a life devoted to musical achievement. But attaining it through a reality show was not part of the plan, D Smoke says during a recent Zoom call from his loft in downtown Los Angeles.

“My trajectory has been different. Given my experience on ‘Rhythm + Flow,’ I was thrown into a high level of visibility in a way that most artists kind of climb their way into,” he said.

Born Daniel Farris, Smoke, 35, could barely be called a “new” artist at all. In fact, by the time he tried out for the Netflix show, he’d been building a professional foundation for more than two decades. That experience was apparent as he decimated the competition: He successfully strategized each on-air challenge with the forethought of a chess grandmaster.

Rapper D Smoke, who is nominated for two Grammy Awards, performing as part of NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” series.

Growing up in Inglewood, he and brothers Davion and Sir — the latter of whom is signed to Top Dawg Records, home to Kendrick Lamar — gained insight into the business as adolescents in the early ‘00s, when they signed with DreamWorks Records as a sibling R&B vocal group called N3D. They were raised by a mom, Jackie Gouché, who earned a living as a professional singer — she toured with both Michael Jackson and Anita Baker — and a dad who rejoined the family after being imprisoned on drug charges for the first nine years of Smoke’s life. His return home made all the difference — “Prison push-ups for your pecs and next it was burpee,” Smoke explains via rhymed couplets on the song “Like My Daddy.”

The track ends with his father, Ronald Farris, speaking into the microphone. “When I came home, the most important thing to me was to be a father to my sons,” he says. “I did also feel I had a unrepayable debt to my wife for holding on, for not replacing me, you know, not letting my sons call another man daddy — and so even being good to them is being good to her.”

A multi-instrumentalist, D Smoke attended UCLA and majored in Spanish. After college, he got a job teaching Spanish at Inglewood High — while simultaneously writing songs and building a social media presence as an artist.

Understanding the market potential, the artist harnessed his bilingualism to write and rap verses in both English and Spanish. Via one-minute Instagram videos and social media tagging, he and his team were successfully building momentum. Enter the producers of “Rhythm + Flow.” “They said, ‘Hey, we see what you’re doing. You might want to consider this,’” Smoke recalls.

Consider was the operative word. By this point, the artist had a solid following. More important, he understood that most reality shows are built on manufactured drama. One verbal flub or confused facial expression could be exploited by drama-addicted editors and suddenly, his brand is tainted. “I was in it for the long haul,” he says. “The last thing I needed was a bad moment in a reality show.” After being assured that their project had more positive intentions, he signed on.

Ten episodes later, D Smoke had beaten the competition, banked a quarter-million and landed representation with WME. He’d already finished about half of “Black Habits,” and his win fueled further confidence as he pushed toward conclusion. Released in February, the project features appearances by brothers Sir and Davion, mom Jackie, Snoop Dogg and Jill Scott, among others.

D Smoke
A former high-school Spanish teacher, D Smoke writes and raps in English and Spanish.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Smoke describes the album as “a family history, a story of triumph through mad hardships. And the beauty of my story is that it’s so many people’s story. I was born in the ‘80s. Pops went to jail for drug-related charges, and Moms was doing the single mother thing while pursuing music on her own.’”

“Black Habits” is dense with experience and wisdom that comes with being a 35-year-old artist in what is too often considered a young man’s game. Age, in fact, became a point of contention when this year’s rap album Grammy nominees were announced. Filled with thirty- and fortysomething veterans including Nas, Royce Da 5'9,” Freddie Gibbs and Jay Electronica, critics complained that Recording Academy voters seemed out of touch with popular young rappers such as Pop Smoke, Lil Baby and Da Baby dominating the charts.

Noting that few people express surprise when country or classical artists in their 30s are nominated, Smoke says his veteran peers have earned their kudos. “Music should reach people on multiple levels,” he says. “Sometimes I just want to be entertained, and that’s cool. But I know that it’s a win for so many people when artists who have content and speak with a sense of conviction and honesty and truth about their experience and the experience of people who look like them.”

He adds, “It’s a beautiful thing when so many artists with that kind of voice get recognized.”


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