Feb. 26, 2004—Whoever coined the phrase "where there's smoke, there's fire" must have been a fan of Jackson-based rapper Smoke D. When Smoke hits the microphone, he spits nothing but blazing lyrics filled with a burning truth that ignites your soul like a serpentine fire, giving you the kind of tingling sensation that you get in your spine when someone confronts you with a verity so profound that you can't help but shake your head and say "amen."
I first became aware of Smoke D back in 1992, when I was asked to review a copy of UGK's classic gold-selling "Super Tight" CD for a magazine called Beatdown. Smoke was featured on the song "Front, Back, & Side to Side," which became a hit single for the Texas-based group. The review never saw the light of day (back then New York publications didn't see Southern hip-hop as a viable force so whenever space was tight, reviews of Southern rap were routinely dropped in deference to ads). But that one verse featuring Smoke's gritty lyrics established him as one of the up-and-coming voices in Southern hip-hop. Among true fans of Southern rap music, he was a legend in the making, and he hadn't even released his first record yet.
The success of "Front, Back, & Side to Side" caused things to really take off for Smoke. He toured with UGK for almost a year, rocking stages with two of the South's most revered rappers. Pimp C worked on tracks that would be on Smoke's highly anticipated solo album, but before he could finish recording the album, his life took a tragic turn. Smoke had a run-in with the law that resulted in his serving a 10-year bid for manslaughter, a sentence that ultimately changed his life for the good.
"Prison was like the best thing and the worst thing to ever happen to me simultaneously because it made me wake up," Smoke D says now. "I took time to really get into myself. I had an epiphany in prison."
Getting into himself also meant reflecting upon the reason why he and so many young black men end up in prison—70 percent of the population in the Mississippi prison system is African American, yet they make up only about a third of the state's overall population—a theme that he constantly explores on his debut LP entitled "Heaven or Hell." What separates Smoke D from the rest of his rapping peers is his ability to incorporate social commentary, laced with just a touch of spirituality, into a gritty street tale that will scare even the most jaded rap fan straight as an arrow. Unlike many of today's rappers like 50 Cent, who glibly talk about criminal behavior as though it's a badge of honor, Smoke D isn't afraid to tell you the truth about what it's really like to be on the other side of the law.