By Andrew R. Chow
October 23, 2019

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Rhythm and Flow.

The first season of Netflix’s hip-hop competition show Rhythm and Flow has come to a close, and judges Cardi B, Chance the Rapper and T.I. have crowned a winner: D Smoke.

The bilingual Inglewood, Calif. rapper employed dense flows, probing protest lyrics and a mastery of several instruments to rise above his competitors in the finals, which included the Atlanta firebrand Londynn B and the versatile Providence, R.I. striver Flawless Real Talk.

In the series finale, Cardi B gushed about D Smoke’s performance, saying, “I really see a star.” She then mimicked a phone call to another famous rapper: “Hellooooo, Kendrick Lamar! I have a friend for you!”

But Cardi B probably didn’t realize that D Smoke has already crossed paths with Lamar in the past, opening for the rapper in West Hollywood eight years ago. Since then, D Smoke has split time as a musician and an educator, teaching high school students while also quietly racking up songwriting credits and recording his own music.

“I’ve worked hard to put myself in a position to just be prepared for something like this,” D Smoke told TIME after his win. In a phone conversation, the rapper talked about his musical background, his initial skepticism about appearing on Rhythm and Flow, and how he plans to spend the $250,000 cash prize.

Musical roots

D Smoke comes from a family of musicians: his mother is a piano instructor and a professional singer, while his brother is SiR, the R&B singer who is signed to TDE, Kendrick Lamar’s label. More than a decade ago, D Smoke and his other brother, Davion Farris, won an American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) award for co-writing Jaheim’s 2007 song “Never,” which peaked at #12 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. He would also earn songwriting credits for songs by the Pussycat Dolls and Ginuwine.

But D Smoke never committed to music full-time: after attending college at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), he went back to teach Spanish at his alma mater, Inglewood High School, after he was personally offered a job by the school’s principal. “I got bit by the bug—it was beautiful work,” D Smoke said. “It was rewarding, every day. I think it gave a lot of positive inspirational energy for me to put into my music.”

While D Smoke held down a day job, he continued to write music for other artists, record his own mixtapes, and perform with his brothers in their group the Woodworks—which opened for Kendrick Lamar at West Hollywood hotspot Whisky a Go Go in 2011. D Smoke also co-founded Woodworks Records, an independent label, with his uncle; a 2011 video shows D Smoke singing a Stevie Wonder song with his family.

D Smoke said that while he strived for mainstream success, he sometimes felt at odds with the industry’s demands. “I didn’t want to compromise certain values just to get quicker looks prematurely,” he said. “And being a thoughtful artist and having a very specific story and a commitment to my community, sometimes it feels like that road is longer.”

Seizing an opportunity

Last year, D Smoke was working at the High School For Recording Arts in Los Angeles—where he taught music engineering, English and financial literacy—when he learned about an opportunity to appear on Netflix. “When I found out that they were doing auditions, I was in the classroom and I shared the opportunity with my students—and they encouraged me to go for it,” he said.

D Smoke was initially skeptical of the concept, especially given that existing hip-hop shows either focused on lifestyle (Love & Hip Hop) or rap battles (The Rap Game.) “I asked a lot of questions prior to agreeing to doing the show because I wanted to make sure it allowed for true artists to shine,” he said. “I like the way they incorporated all the different elements: standing up for yourself in the cypher, holding it down in the battle. And then, what do you do in the studio when you get to create from scratch with a producer—and how do you represent your hometown? Are they going to come out to support you on short notice?”

D Smoke aced the initial audition–despite Cardi B insulting his outfit and Snoop Dogg trying to rattle him—and moved calmly through through the cypher round. In the battle round, he faced a major test when paired up against the rapper Old Man Saxon, who had also had decisively won over the judges with his unique swing-influenced and verbose approach. “For them to pair us up, we felt like, ‘This is an unfair battle,'” he said. “We shared that frustration immediately.”

After a tight face-off, D Smoke beat his friend—and in the next round, he impressed the judges with a music video condemning police brutality. D Smoke’s hometown, Inglewood—a city of about 110,000 in Los Angeles County—has has faced scrutiny for a recent history of police shootings—and recently received a backlash after the Los Angeles Times reported that the city was destroying its police records of shootings. “Inglewood is not a large community—somebody always knew the victim,” D Smoke said. He also recalled a time when he was pulled over by a cop and interrogated while riding a bike through the neighborhood. “The cop was completely out of protocol because I wasn’t breaking any laws,” he said. “I’m on my bike, I shouldn’t have to answer those questions.”

D Smoke’s poignant video, “Let Migo,” pushed him into the samples round, in which he flipped the funky George Clinton classic “Atomic Dog” into a contemplative jazzy ballad—a risky decision, especially given that most of his competitors specialized in catchier and more exuberant forms of rap like trap or drill. “I knew that it being competition-based, so many people are going to be like, ‘Bring the energy!'” he said. “But I knew that a slow song was going to be a creative advantage in the end, because it would stand out as a change of pace.”

In the season finale, Smoke performed a new song, “Last Supper,” in front of a live audience, in which he showed off his jazz chops on piano before re-staging Jesus’s last meal with dancers and delivering a tense verse about friendship, loyalty, and the struggles of communal uplift. He was met with a standing ovation and a showering of praise from each judge: “You don’t necessarily believe that in a workspace like this, you’re going to find someone you ‘believe in’ believe in,” Chance the Rapper told him. “I have no doubt that you are well on your way to being a superstar.”

‘It’s somewhat surreal, to be honest’

Last year, D Smoke was in a classroom; now, he’s about to meet rap icons on an equal playing field. He said that he has collaborations with Chance the Rapper, Cardi B and T.I. “in the pipeline.” He is in conversation with well-known producers—including Lamar’s collaborator Sounwave—and is taking meetings from labels, although he hopes to stay independent, just like Chance the Rapper did before him. “I don’t explicitly plan to sign,” he said. “I feel like with this degree of exposure, a committed team and a strategic plan, we can, in a similar fashion as Chance, reach peaks in music.”

As for the $250,000 prize? “I know there’s going to be a couple scholarships that go out to some kids from my high school,” he says. “I’m going to give some to my momma. But it’s not so much about spending it as investing it and using the publicity to bring in more checks of that nature down the line.”

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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