ABOVE: SMOKE DZA.
Despite the moniker, Smoke DZA is not a weed rapper. In his own words, he makes “lifestyle music;” though Mary Jane is often the vehicle, Smoke identifies language, imagery, and aesthetic as the end goal. Sartorially, he rocks Polo Rugby nearly all of the time. He passionately reps his home-hood Harlem, refuses to kowtow to major labels, and tours and records like a machine.
After a string of critically-acclaimed releases and sold-out national tours, “George Kush” (as he is widely known) has released his most thematically-cohesive project to date—Rugby Thompson—all with the help of fast-ascending beat-maker Harry Fraud, who produced every track. The album boasts features from fellow smoker Curren$y, underground legend Sean Price, as well as some DZA allies: Action Bronson, Schoolboy Q, A$AP Twelvyy, and Domo Genesis.
Taking in a cool breeze on a rooftop in Flatiron, DZA breaks down his creative process, rehashes his teenage years in Harlem, and assures us he still smokes the fabled Purple Sour.
HOMETOWN: 119th St., Harlem, NY
CURRENT CITY: Harlem, NY [“I’m there every day.”]
EARLY MUSICAL INFLUENCES: I used to re-write Biggie. It started with “Mo Money Mo Problems.” I would switch up the words, make it my own. It taught me a lot about rhyming patterns. Back in the day, 12, 13, just re-writing Biggie and Jay-Z joints. Going with the same cadence, but saying it my way.
HIS DISCOVERY: Johnny Shipes [founder of Cinematic Music Group] found me when I was still battle rapping, like 17, 18 years old. He took me to the studio, and really made me craft songs. He pushed me on an artistic level. And that was 10 years ago, man.
GHOSTWRITING: After my early rap group “Smoke and Numbers,” I was ghostwriting for different artists. I wrote Hi-Tek’s whole shit. He owe me some paper. Hi-Teknology 2; that’s all me. Everything he rapped, Smoke DZA rapped. And I have a couple of homies that I wrote for… good friends.
HIS MENTAL STATE FOR RUGBY THOMPSON: Recording this album, I was in the middle. In a good space, but definitely still in a fucked-up place. Financially, good, living well. But I’m still viewed as the “weed rapper” guy. “New Jack” was the record that was the rebellious “I can do anything you think I can’t do” and “I’m better than everybody you think is hot.”
ON HIS LOVE OF PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING: I didn’t know New Jack [the professional wrestler who appears in the music video] before we shot the video. We reached out to him, played him the record, he loved it. Sent his number, I called him. He told me a bunch of ECW stories. Then he came through and we shot it.
I’m a huge wrestler fan. I drop little Easter eggs about it here and there. I was born in ’84, but my parents were big wrestling fans. They introduced me to it, but they don’t even watch that shit anymore. When Roddy Piper retired the first time, they stopped watching.
ON FUTURE VIDEOS: I’m trying to shoot a video for every song. I’m working with Nicholas Heller some more. I think we’re going to shoot Rivermonts. A lot of good things coming along.
DOESN’T WRITE ANYTHING DOWN: I stopped writing five years ago. But that’s not something I talk about. Most rappers brag about that shit, but that’s just a part of my creative process. If you’ve been rapping as long as I’ve been rapping, you shouldn’t have to write anything down. You have to perform it anyway, so you just always have it on your mind.
ON MAKING “LIFESTYLE” MUSIC: We [rappers like DZA and Curren$y] don’t get enough credit for that. We’re great storytellers. “Lifestyle” music is a story about a day in the life. Whatever I was doing that moment, however I felt at that exact time, whatever reference we drop… that’s just how we feel at the time.
HIS “JET LIFE” BRETHREN: Around the time that Curren$y was working with Ski Beatz in the [DD172] dojo, I was there. Trade and [Young] Roddy came through, and we used to do little shows in the gallery and shit. We’ve always vibed. Trade is my guy. As well as Roddy.
At South by Southwest, me and Roddy we’re playing a celebrity basketball game. Roddy is fucking amazing. That’s my man. I love Roddy. I made the mixtape Cuz I Felt Like It after listening to Good Sense.
GROWING UP IN HARLEM: That’s something that’s not emphasized enough. I’m from 119th. But we call it 911. It’s my street backwards. We call it that because everything in my neighborhood is backwards. It’s our Ground Zero. I came from nothing. That’s why I tattooed it on my hand, so I always remember where I came from.
Growing up on 119th was rough. There’s a lot of other shit going on. Trying to pursue your dreams, sometimes you get sucked into the other shit that’s going on. But it’s also inspiring. There are a lot of MCs that come from around that way. I used to battle a lot. That helped me with confidence. Being from Harlem, you have to have confidence. In anything you do. You have to always strive to be number one. It’s crazy seeing A$AP Rocky where he is now, too. We’re worldwide. He’s from 116th. But Harlem has changed. Harlem is becoming Soho. They’ve got Aloft hotels, banks on every corner, Italian restaurants, nice wine places. Harlem is very diverse. Best places to eat: Jimbo’s. You’ve got Amy Ruth’s, Sylvia’s is still around. Red Rooster is pretty good. Devin’s is uptown, good seafood. Get some broiled salmon. I fucking endorse that.
UPCOMING SMOKER’S CLUB TOUR: July 13th. That’s where the money is now. But I do a lot of one-offs. And I do a lot of independent deals. You don’t really see a lot of money from the back end of that, unless you sell a substantial amount of records. Touring is how you get to touch your fan base. I’ve been blessed to be touring for the last three years, and being able to see more money, and see other places, and meet new people.
STICKING AROUND AFTER SHOWS TO THANK THE FANS: A lot artists can’t do that. It’s about the music they make, the fans they attract. For us, we do cool music, so we attract a lot of cool people. The vibe is more Woodstock-ish than a concert. So it’s cool after the show to stick around and shake hands, and sign shirts, sneakers, Rugbys, Raw Papers or whatever they want. We always want to give the fans—whether it’s $10, $20, $70 —what it’s worth. It’s our way of saying “thank you.”
THE LEGENDARY GREEN: I still smoke Purple Sour. Whenever it’s around. Shout out to Shiest Bubz. That’s the king of the Purple Sour. The creator of the strand.