Updated: May 5, 2020
by Mike Scarfo:
After an emphatic win on Netflix's new hit music show Rhythm & Flow and release of his debut album Black Habits, former Inglewood High School Spanish and music theory teacher D Smoke continues to inspire and educate on a scale much bigger than the classroom.
From the Concrete Grew a Rose
You've probably heard this a million times, and while I am incredibly biased as to what I am about to say, it is still 100% true: being a teacher is a very difficult job. As a teacher myself, I say this not to look for sympathy or a pat-on-the-back; I could have gone into any profession that I wanted to, so there is no need to feel bad for me. I genuinely wanted to be a teacher when I decided on a career path. The reasoning is obvious for most: summers off of course....
All kidding aside, anyone that is over the age of 18, no matter how you felt about school, I challenge you to honestly say you didn't have a teacher, coach, or administrator that impacted you positively in some way, shape, or form. I am not ignorant or blind to the fact there are obvious flaws in our country's educational system, but that is a conversation for another day. The one constant you cannot argue is the reason why teachers choose to teach in the first place: they want to change the lives of kids for the better. That is what education is truly all about, preparing each new generation for the world that is in front of them while encouraging them to pursue their dreams. A truly exceptional teacher is able to do both.
34 year-old high school Spanish and music theory teacher Daniel Anthony Farris (also known as D Smoke) from Inglewood, California impacted the world before he ever stepped foot on a stage. Growing up with a father in prison and surrounded by gang violence at every corner, he had a burning desire to give back to the community that shaped him as a man (not to mention the desperate need of positive role models in their schools). One of the most valuable lessons he has taught to his students did not happen in a classroom: competing on Netflix's new hit hip-hop show Rhythm & Flow is one of the best examples of taking risks and following one's dreams.
D Smoke Wins Season 1 of Rhythm & Flow
While first watching the show, I became enamored with D Smoke's story. Not only did him stating he was a teacher during his audition peak my interest, but there was something about him that screamed "superstar" right away. Whether it was his unmatched charisma or admirable authenticity, it was hard to not root for the guy. He acted the part. He looked the part. You knew right away he was going to make it to the finale. And that's without even mentioning the surreal musical talent he possesses.
D Smoke performs hit single "Last Supper" en route to winning Season 1 of Rhythm & Flow
D Smoke sifted through the first few stages of the competition seamlessly: he was a major standout in the cypher round, was triumphant in easily the toughest Season 1 head-to-head battle rap match-up against Colorado-based rapper Old Man Saxon; I was so mad that these two were paired up, but again, a conversation for another day. The latter rounds involved creating an original track paired with a music video, where Smoke truly started to shine. He showcased a polarizing video titled "Let Migo" where he depicts themes of social injustices and racial oppression. To this point in the competition, he had wowed the judges with his rhyme scheme, flow patterns, and imagery in his bars. What makes Smoke even more unique as a musical artist is his ability to switch back and forth rapping in English and Spanish on the same song, or even the same verse; as judge Chance the Rapper notes, his verse on "Let Migo" not only rhymes in Spanish, but incredibly, the English translation rhymes as well.
His attention to detail was paramount to anyone else in the competition. He was yet again impressive on stage, performing with Miguel in the collaboration round. He followed that up with one of the most moving and passionate performances of the entire first season in the sample round with his original song "When the Kids Pull Up". Despite forgetting the last half of his second verse, the brilliant storytelling through his visuals and delivery are truly on par with some of the West Coast greats such as Kendrick and Ice Cube, to name a few. In an age where mainstream music often lacks substance and rides trends, D Smoke has proven that honest, real lyricism will always be timeless. He has taken the "teacher mindset" with him in his music. He wants to educate us and open our eyes.
D Smoke samples George Clinton's "Atomic Dog" and blows away the judges in the sample round
A Destined Star Is Born
Since his statement win on the show, Smoke has received critical acclaim from numerous moguls in the hip-hop and music industry. T.I., Chance, and Cardi B all claimed that Smoke would be a highly coveted artist to seek out for collaborations from here on out. West Coast legend and fellow California native Snoop Dogg could barely wait to get in the studio with him, as he shows up as one of the highlight guest features of D Smoke's debut album Black Habits (review below). California native and TDE producer Sounwave claims D Smoke is one of the most hands-on artists he has ever worked with, stating "he came into the studio with a BPM already in his head". Smoke can exceptionally play multiple instruments, including guitar and piano. His musical prowess and ear for melody and rhythm truly gets more impressive the more you listen to him.
While it is no shock that D Smoke is rightfully receiving this praise, the most surprising piece of his story is how this didn't happen sooner. D Smoke is in fact the younger brother of TDE singer SiR, and their mother sang Gospel music professionally as well. It feels like this moment was destined for Smoke given his family tree. But maybe it wasn't the right time until now. Perhaps Smoke was destined to change the lives of his students before he was meant to change the lives of the rest of the world. A moment like his performance alongside brother SiR at the 2019 Soul Train Awards is just one example of it.
SiR and D Smoke deliver a special performance together at the 2019 Soul Train Awards
D Smoke's Debut Album Black Habits: Review
D Smoke's debut album Black Habits depicts much of his story growing up in the projects of Inglewood, California. Yet, this album is much more than that at the core; Smoke is able to successfully share many stories of being black in America. As Black History Month has just come and gone, there was no album more fit to have released this past February. Like I said earlier, timing is everything, and this is his time to shine. D Smoke has arrived, as he releases one of the best West Coast hip-hop albums of the last few years.
Throughout the album, D Smoke shares many anecdotes about himself and his family's upbringing through track-listing, including the skits. The album opens with a skit of a mother (presumably depicting his own) making sure her kids pray and tell them themselves positive messages such as "I am smart, I am strong, I am beautiful" followed by a prayer. Another skit later on in the track-listing appears to be his father calling the family from jail, as he tells his wife and kids how much he loves and misses them. While on the surface, negative stereotypical elements of a black family such as fathers being in prison are present, Smoke flips this narrative on its head; he shows strength and unity of his family despite the adversity. Even on Rhythm & Flow, his father discusses being a stay-at-home dad to his kids once he is out of prison, not only a rarity in general, but certainly an anomaly in economically disadvantaged parts of the country. Smoke also proves his family's unity by enlisting two of his brothers as guests on the project: SiR and Davion Farris. SiR shows up on two tracks, the first being the sexy Spanish guitar-led standout "Lights On" which features a smooth, passionately catchy hook by the TDE singer. He also provides vocals on "Closer to God", centered around religion and faith, a theme that appears immediately and throughout the project. Davion Farris contributes an outstanding vocal performance on "Fly" which also features themes of faith and the ultimate question of what happens to us when we die: "we all have an appointment with the man upstairs/I'm just trying to shed these layers like an artichoke" Smoke raps softly over the glossy, heavenly, vocal-sampled instrumental. It is pretty clear that the Farris family's support of one another has allowed their musical talents to reach a higher collective power.
This album is not all about Smoke and his family, though. Rapping through multiple perspectives and layers of storytelling over modern sounds of soul and G-funk, D Smoke provides commentary on numerous systemic issues that affect hundreds of thousands of people. Right away, on the track "Bullies", Smoke showcases decades of racial oppression against blacks and the double standards they face today: "Lookin' at our history, it's a sick story/And they push our line and tell us not to be violent/A crime is to deny people and keep 'em silent" following commentary on black social activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and their refusal to be bullied. Smoke also paints pictures of drug abuse and poverty through the eyes of his "homegirl" rapping in her perspective:
"Educated with a homegirl feel/Devastated when her papa got locked up, she medicated/Anything but needles, stayin' heavy sedated/Numbin' the pain, she couldn't refrain/Wasn't walking with a limp, still usin' a cane".
Smoke uses numerous metaphors and figurative language throughout not only this song, but the entire album. Specifically here, he explains how she is another "anomaly" that survived the drug epidemic, which is a byproduct of bigotry, creating the vicious cycle of systemic oppression. This concept is furthered on the first banger of the album, "No Commas" as Smoke aggressively flows over a noisy percussive beat:
"property value rising, they gon' gentrify/This ain't rocket science, here, let me simplify/We think we owners but we only renters, why?/The system ain't broke it's designed to keep us declinin'".
Smoke is not shy, as he continues his lyrical onslaught on this next track with Uncle Snoop on "Gaspar Yanga", an aggressive bass-heavy banger paired with a choir vocal-sample.
Smoke reaches the height of introspection and perspective on what is definitely my favorite track of the project, "Free". The song is structured in three different time frames, drawing an allusion to Kendrick Lamar's "FEAR" off of his 2017 album DAMN, where K. Dot raps verses from himself at ages 7, 17, and finally 27. Instead of three moments of his own life, Smoke captures hypothetical scenarios of what his life could've been through the lens of past life regression: one life where he is a president during the Harriet Tubman era, one life where he is a struggling drug dealer, and one life where he is diagnosed with cancer. He is able to tie it all together thematically through decision-making and consequences of those decisions; his argument is when you accept your sins and mistakes you allow yourself to be free. Throughout the album he switches back and forth from English to Spanish but carefully executes it without overdoing it. On "Free", a female vocalist translates his bars line by line on the bridge of the track, making for some deep material. It's a beautiful moment you need to hear for yourself.
Of course, with the dark comes light, and D Smoke is not short on providing more uplifting tracks here at all. "Sunkissed Child" mixes some Daft Punk influences on a smooth track featuring the legendary Jill Scott. "Black Habits I" essentially feels like a black excellence track, featuring gorgeous vocals from Jackie Gouche, and the video is even better. Easily one of the major standouts of the project; it speaks for itself. "Like My Daddy" has some light pianos and is an uplifting, yet emotional tribute to his father. Smoke shows off some of his own singing talents on this cut.
D Smoke has proven he has all the musical tools to be one of the most popular artists of this decade if he continues to showcase mature themes in his lyrics and technical rapping ability. He has a true gift in engaging his audience through his authenticity, an important element an artist can possess and something we've talked about on the podcast numerous times. D Smoke has an incredible sense of self-awareness and understands his role as an artist. Black Habits is a socially conscious hip-hop album, possibly one of the best of the last few years. He's been educating the generations to come for some time. Nothing has changed, except now his positive outreach has stretched much, much farther than the classroom.
Overall Grade: A-/91
Best Tracks: Free, Black Habits I, No Commas, Lights On, Fly