Smoke DZA: NYC's Gatekeeper

Harlem rapper’s Rocky path to the mainstream…

Despite having been around for a minute, Smoke DZA’s name isn’t one that those outside of hip-hop circles are familiar with.

Having introduced so many young talents to the scene – fellow Harlem native A$AP Rocky appeared pre-‘Live.Love.A$AP’ on DZA’s ‘4 Loko’, and Joey Bada$$ appeared early in his career on ‘K.O.N.Y’ – it’s about time that the New Yorker is paid his dues. With a freshly released record ‘Dream.ZONE.Achieve’ now doing the rounds, it seems like DZA is getting the best response of his career thus far.

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Smoke DZA feat A$AP Rocky, ‘4 Loko’ (2011)

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Having been in and out of various label situations, ‘Dream.ZONE.Achieve’ is Smoke DZA’s first album released under his own independent label, R.F.C. Music Group. “I hold that at a special place, and I think the people actually notice that too, so the push is way different,” he says of the response to the release.

“I’m really holding the steering wheel,” he continues, “so that’s always a great thing. It’s way more hands on, and there’s way more stuff that actually comes to you. It’s a very cool, unique situation, being around for so long and this actually being my first time doing it. I’m still a brand-new artist because I haven’t broken in a lot of markets, so it’s actually great to be indie right now.”

While DZA is aware that his fans love him for his weed-raps, with ‘Dream.ZONE.Achieve’ he intends to give them a little more: “I have a lot to talk about and I have a very interesting story. I wanted to let them more into my life. There’s really more to me than marijuana. So even with the title I wanted to make it stand out. This is the composition of the music – this is not a f*cking smoke session all day. Of course you can have a smoke session while you listen to the project, but that’s not what I’m catering to on this.”

With so much pressure on rappers to blow up quickly, and DZA still not quite cutting through in the way that many of his peers have, it’s confusing as to why more people aren’t paying attention.

“Blowing up is definitely something that a lot of people are fixated on,” admits DZA. “Because it should have happened already, even coming from me, I feel like it should have happened already. But good things come to those who wait, and it’s happening now, so that’s cool.”

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Smoke DZA, ‘City Of Dreams’ (2014)

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While he awaits the limelight himself, Smoke DZA certainly has no bitterness with regards to the success of his peers. “It’s beautiful to watch your friends actually pop off, especially when you give them a good little rub at the beginning. I guess I’m a kind of gatekeeper in New York, that every New York act that comes out, they actually go through me at some point. And that’s proven, it’s not something clichéd to say.”

Despite being a gatekeeper for the New York hip-hop scene, he often finds himself omitted from discussions about the current revival of the culture’s birthplace. “This is dedicated to all who left me out, all those conversations about New York I wasn’t mentioned in like I moved or something,” DZA begins ‘Achieve’, his new album’s closer.

“I put it in the air for them to get offended, for them to feel funny,” he explains of the journalists and media outlets that haven’t been paying attention. “I feel like people do it on purpose. I take it personally, because I’ve been around working and making myself a staple in New York hip-hop as far as new guys. And when I’m left out, of course that shit is frustrating. I felt like people needed to hear that.”

And it’s not just new artists that respect Smoke DZA’s craft and work ethic. Over the years he has worked with New York staples of multiple generations, including Cam’Ron, Dame Dash and legendary producer Pete Rock. The latter produced ‘Achieve’, following a track the pair contributed to a Funkmaster Flex mixtape last year, although they have known each other a lot longer.

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Blowing up is definitely something that a lot of people are fixated on. But good things come to those who wait...

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“I’ve known Pete for over 10 years,” says DZA of their relationship. “So to actually get to work with him now, and get his respect and get to use a song for my album, was one of the biggest things in my career thus far.” This is a certainly a milestone for DZA and, as the title suggests, a major achievement. Despite knowing Rock for such a long time, it was still something he had to earn.

“I remember maybe around 2003 Jon Shapiro (Jonny Shipes) was managing Pete Rock,” he recalls of the initial connection. “He was DJing and doing different shit, so he used to come around, and he took a liking to me. We used to smoke weed and talk shit and all that. But I was too young to get into the club at that time, so he allowed me to carry the crates to sneak in there. So I’ve known Pete for that long, and to be able to work with him now is f*cking crazy.”

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Smoke DZA feat. Joey Bada$$, ‘Gotham F*cking City’ (2013)

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He also recently reconnected with Dame Dash, whom he had worked with circa 2010 on his ‘George Kush Da Button’ mixtape. “I ran into him at the Mercury Lounge and got everything back on board right there,” he explains. “Conversations lead to pow-wows, and we just started to build.” Dame introduced DZA to Cam’Ron, along with a proposal that the pair should put out a joint project as a gateway to a collaborative tour.

This came shortly after the release of a song called ‘Ghost Of Dipset’, which paid tribute to Cam’Ron’s crew The Diplomats. The track was originally created during South By Southwest 2013, when DZA decided to take a break from being on the strip all day. He took a smoking break in his hotel room and recorded to a Thelonious Martin instrumental. The track was released to positive response from the blogosphere, and returns on ‘Dream.ZONE.Achieve’ now complete with a verse from Cam.

“With the title, I threw that up in the air,” says DZA. “That wasn’t something where I planned on working with Cam. When I got the opportunity it was a no-brainer, that’s how we put it together.” The pair are now five tracks deep into their joint project, which DZA informs us that, if he was a betting man, he would expect to see it released sometime this summer.

It feels like everything is in place for Smoke DZA to succeed. With an immersive new album still digesting, and a project with Cam’Ron to follow in the midst of New York’s Dipset revival, the city’s gatekeeper is hopefully set to pass through the gate himself, and finally crack into mainstream notoriety.

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Words: Grant Brydon

‘Dream.ZONE.Achieve’ is out now. Find Smoke DZA online here

Listen to the new album in full below, via Deezer.

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