Wisconsin rapper Smokes is enjoying lunch somewhere in Queens, NY, reminiscing about a life lived harder and riskier than most 24-year-olds. “I’ve been through a lot and I haven’t let life get me down. I don’t let anything phase me. Life is too negative and people walk around with their heads down, grumpy all the time. It’s like Yo, we need to be able to have some fun. Lighten up.”
Before the appearances in XXL, The Source and Allhiphop.com, before the 3-time Underground Music Awards nominations, before the collaborations with everyone from Three Six Mafia to Nipsey Hussle, the Madison, WI rapper was living the hardships other emcees only write about. But where others have turned to mythologizing and glamorizing past difficulties, Smokes has channeled his past into unflinching, emotionally bare lyrics and an unending zest and celebration of life.
It hasn’t been easy. Left on the doorstep of a church with only his name and birthday as identifying marks, the Korean-born emcee was adopted by a Wisconsin couple, where love and abuse came equally. One of the few Asians in school, Smokes retreated into the world of hip-hop, where rappers like Tupac and Wu-Tang Clan – artists who were able to subvert the “other” and celebrate the outcast – inspired the fledgling emcee. “'Pac was always talking about real issues in life and that was something I related to,” says Smokes. “I was a pariah. I always felt the world was out to get me and 'Pac was the one thing I could listen to and know it was going to be okay.”
While writing was always a constant in the rapper’s life, selling drugs became the focal point, eventually earning Smokes a federal indictment on seven state drug charges and six months in jail. Facing years in prison if arrested again, the emcee threw himself into detailing the stark realities of his life through the pen. "I took a day job after I was released from prison and had a really bad attitude,” says Smokes. “But it taught me how to put in hard work. I said to myself, ‘If I can put in 60 hours a week at this job, why can't I do 80 doing this music?’"
The rapper has steady hustled since then, releasing a string of tracks and mixtapes (including The Exclusive Mixtape and The Bidding War Mixtape) that will culminate in the upcoming release of his official debut album Ecstasy at the Afterparty. While a mix of styles, the album's feel is decidedly exuberant and a zestful exultation of the pleasures of life. "I Luv Dah Party," as the name implies, instantly conjures up a celebration with his boisterous lyrics and dance-rap vibe, while the hook of "Imma Go" – "Imma go until I'm on/then I'll hustle for some more" – could double as the rapper's tireless work ethic mantra.
As one of the few successful Asian rappers in hip-hop, the emcee's ethnicity and place in the game is not lost on him, though his abundance of talent should render most people color-blind. "I don't want to be judged for being Asian first," admits Smokes aka Mr. Asian Pride. "I'm dedicated to the unity of the Asian community but I'm doing that by setting standards without being known as an 'Asian rapper.' I love Asian culture and we need to all unite and show that we're making moves and have a presence. But I've experienced everything so let's be like, 'we are here and we're proud to be here.'" While Smokes does speak on the Asian experience on Afterparty, he refuses to let his ethnicity overshadow his gift with words and charismatic personality.It's easy to have a chip on your shoulder when you've gone through countless hardships; the hard part is finding a way to turn those negative emotions into something positive, which Smokes has done in spades. "To come from where I came from -- from not having a pot to piss in to being in a position where I can do for myself and my family but also give back to others – is incredible," says the rapper. "I shouldn't be here now. I should be doing 125 years in prison. I've kissed death on the lips three times. I'm here for a reason. As long as I stay true to myself and stay humble and know what I'm doing it for, I'll continue to be successful."