Audiofile: Bringing real rap back with Smoke DZA

By Brandon Howard

Although his name implies otherwise, Smoke DZA likes weed—a lot. Though his first full-length album Rolling Stoned, released in 2011 with collaborations with A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar and Big K.R.I.T., was named High Times’ Album Of The Year, Smoke is more than just a rapper to listen to while hitting the bong. 

A Harlem native, Smoke DZA grew up listening to The Notorious B.I.G., Jay Z and Nas, religiously studying their lyrics so he could learn to rhyme on his own. Fast-forward to 2014 and Smoke DZA is playing a 4/20 show with Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa while releasing his own music consistently and touring the world. 

His most recent record, Dream.Zone.Achieve, portrays him as more than someone who just loves getting high. On the three-part album, Smoke DZA chronicles his ambition to be a rapper, followed by the effort, which he calls the “Zone.” The album concludes with the realization of that dream. The album’s first song, “Count Me In,” boasts a heavy trap beat from Lee Bannon in which Smoke DZA approaches the closest thing to a cocky snarl that you will hear from the usually laid-back rapper. “Ghosts of Dipset” features a long-anticipated collaboration with fellow Harlemite Cam’ron, a soulful Thelonious Martin beat and a relaxed, confident flow . 

Along with fellow New Yorkers Joey Bada$$, The Underachievers and A$AP Mob, Smoke DZA and these Beast Coast movement emcees are putting the East Coast back on the rap radar. 

The Chronicle spoke with Smoke DZA over the phone about his process, rap and weed. 

THE CHRONICLE: Where did you get the idea to divide Dream.Zone.Achieve into three acts?

SMOKE DZA: I’m at the point in my career where I want more things to be known [for] other than just the main subject that I always [rap about]. Even though, whether I was rapping or not, I would be smoking weed. That’s just my life. I’m somebody that will rap about s–t that I dream about occasionally, but my s–t is mostly based on my real life experiences. I really deal with reality, which bites me in the ass sometimes. 

CC: In “City of Dreams” you say, “I’m a swag rapper’s worst nightmare.” Is that a knock?

DZA: No, it’s not really a knock. I have friends that do swag rap. I’m just saying I’m a real rapper. A lot of people, unless you’re exceptionally good at what you do, can’t really embrace being a lyricist or can’t really do what rappers are supposed to do…. When I say I’m a swag rapper’s worst nightmare, I’m the person that you really don’t wanna be on a song with. I’m the person you really don’t wanna go back and forth with, because I actually rap and I’m not known for just swag rapping.

CC: Why did you choose to put the weed anthems on the “Zone” part of the album?

DZA: On “Legends In The Making (Ashtray Pt. 2),” I got [Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y] on there, and that’s just a record that I felt had to be done for the culture. That was serving that. I don’t wanna drift away from my fans because I have fans that love me for that, so I have to cater to them as well. So you have records like “Ashtray,” you have records like “Pass Off”…. They still get what they want, and I still get to give them what I want.

CC: How did you get Pete Rock and Harry Fraud to produce for the record?

DZA: Any time I work on my stuff, I’m very producer-driven. I always love to have producers that I respect and I love the sound they bring, and different sounds at that. You can’t compare Harry to 183rd. You can’t compare 183rd to Ski Beatz. You can’t compare Ski Beatz to Pete Rock. They all bring something different to the table.

CC: When you are recording, do you have a regular routine before you go into the booth? 

DZA: Well, my only ritual that I do is light up my weed, smoke my weed and have a certain amount of people around me—the right people, because I don’t like bad vibes. I feed off good energy.

CC: Between you, Snoop and Wiz, who do you think smokes the most weed?

DZA: Well, [I’m going to] say Snoop. Anybody else you would’ve asked me about, I would’ve gave you a political answer, but I’m not even gonna play. Snoop is the guy. 

CC: In your opinion, do you think Chicago has quality weed?

DZA: Chicago’s got good weed, [but]everybody gets good weed, but it’s who you get it from. There’s good weed everywhere. When I’m in the Chi and I smoke on Irene or whatever it is that’s in the atmosphere, I’m good.