Smoke DZA and Harry Fraud 'Battle the Sound' on 'He Has Risen'

Smoke DZA and Harry Fraud in the studio
Smoke DZA and Harry Fraud in the studio
Photo by Randy Scott Singleton

It’s well after dark in an industrial recording studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn, but rapper Smoke DZA and producer Harry Fraud are still buzzing. Earlier, they wrapped a music video shoot for a track off their new album He Has Risen (out now) and got a surprise visit on set from a childhood hero. Fraud pulls up a photo of him and DZA next to an older guy wearing a plunging spandex tuxedo with a pink lapel. It’s Michael Jones, a/k/a Virgil, a pro wrestling icon who rose to popularity in the late 1980s. His manager is a friend of DZA’s and had arranged the visit. “I didn’t even know [Virgil was there] until on the way to the second location of the video,” says Fraud, who remembers seeing WWF Live at Madison Square Garden. “I was like, ‘naaaah.’ When I walked in and saw him in the flesh, I was like, ‘This is crazy.’”

As ‘90s kids who grew up in New York City — DZA in Harlem, Fraud in Brooklyn — there’s a kind of shared boyishness that comes out when they’re together. They discuss video edits over pizza marinara and weed, later sinking into the couch for a heated game of NBA 2K15 on PlayStation. Collaboration follows naturally for these two. “With Smoke, I know he’s not limited to one tempo or one bounce,” says Fraud. “I know he’s not gonna take a hit to his ego. I find it hard to work with people [with fragile egos]. I’m someone who likes to tear shit down at the drop of a hat and build it up a different way.”

Fraud, Virgil, and DZAEXPAND
Fraud, Virgil, and DZA
Courtesy Harry Fraud

Being receptive to criticism is an intentional decision for DZA. “My spiel for 2016 is, I like being produced. In order to be produced, you have to listen. I’m rapping. Fraudy’s building my theme music. In order for that theme music to be effective, I need to listen to this guy.”

He Has Risen is their first collaborative album since 2012’s Rugby Thompson, and DZA says it’s a new chapter. “It’s sonically straight-to-the-point. It’s good vibe.” The album shares its title with an episode from season three of The Sopranos, and the intro track is called “Badabing’s Theme,” but DZA clarifies that this isn’t an album of rapper-turned—Mafioso tales. What he and Fraud love about Tony Soprano is his humanity. “He has somebody whacked and he goes home and his wife is yelling at him,” says Fraud. “You love him. Everybody’s regular.”

That’s something DZA can relate to. After over a decade in the indie rap game, which includes working with high-profile artists like Wiz Khalifa and early Kendrick Lamar, he’s still regarded as part of the underground. He says that he’s comfortable where he fits—and where he doesn’t. “When they have conversations about New York rappers, they don’t talk about me,” he says. “I perform all over the world, [so] I’m at peace with them not mentioning me with the other guys. Maybe I’m not a person you can put into any kind of genre.”

For DZA, his focus is progressing musically—not being mired in nomenclature or rankings. “I’m not looking at anyone else’s success like it’s my spot. It’s alright. At the end of the day, my battle is not with any artist. It’s with the sound.”

He Has Risen was recorded over the past year-and-a-half. With so much material in the vault since their last album, finalizing the track list was an exercise in compromise. “A lot of times we don’t agree but we figure it out,” says DZA. Fraud adds, “I don’t want it to seem like I was pushing. Just because you have enough songs doesn’t mean you have the right songs that fit the right way.”

They whittled the options down to a lean, nine-track offering that was collaborative from start-to-finish. Fraud produces all songs, with Alchemist assisting on “It’s Real.” Snoop Dogg serves as the only guest, on “Morals.” Like the video cameo from Virgil, Snoop’s contribution was spontaneous. “I happened to be on the phone with him, just chatting it up,” DZA explains, “and I’m like, ‘Unc I got this record. He’s like, ‘Man send me this shit.’” A session arrived the next day, despite the fact that Snoop was on tour in Europe. “He did it in a hotel room,” DZA laughs.

At the end of the day, DZA hopes people pay serious attention to this record instead of just skimming. He Has Risen, says DZA, has a broader appeal than earlier work, and he hopes to cast a wide net. But whether or not that pans out, he can definitely expect support from his usual fanbase. “My fans like to smoke weed and listen to music,” he says. “I’m sure they’re gonna digest it.”

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