Smoke DZA Talks New Album 'Not for Sale,' His Love for Wrestling & Adjusting to the New Generation of Rap

John SparkzĀ 
Smoke DZA

With his new album Not for Sale, released last Friday, Smoke DZA is carving his place in the ever-changing landscape of hip-hop while staying true to who he is.

The revered Harlem MC has delivered his most conceptual album to date; Not for Sale is a smooth, sharp lyrical journey through soulful yet grimy production with a comprehensive list of guest features. “Not for Sale is my spin on not trying to do what everybody else is doing but doing my own thing within the modern sounds of hip-hop,” Smoke DZA tells Billboard. “I wanted to stay true to Smoke DZA while kind of trying to kill n----'s with their own shit.”

Not for Sale is the Kush God’s first LP since his collaborative album Don’t Smoke Rock with the legendary producer Pete Rock. On that album, the past met the present as Rock’s jazzy New York sounds intertwined seamlessly with DZA’s versatile and diligent wordplay. The surgical precision used by DZA and Rock is adopted on Not for Sale as DZA channeled a wide range of music, extracting different sounds and assembling them into one. “I’m a fan of music and I found my creative patch on this album by flirting with different cadences and picking different tempos seeing what would work,” says Smoke DZA.

Not for Sale is accompanied by three singles: “The Mood” featuring Joey Bada$$, “The Hook Up” featuring Dom Kennedy and Cozz, and “The Love” featuring Ty Dolla $ign. The 12-track project also features appearances by D.R.A.M., Velous, LevyGrey, Bodega Bamz, and has Vado with Cardo, Levy Grey, Girl Talk and more handling production duties.

Billboard spoke to Smoke DZA about the new album Not For Sale, his biggest takeaway from Pete Rock, and why he believes he is hip-hop's Chris Jericho. Check it out below.

There are all types of beats and sounds on this album. What was on your playlist while creating Not for Sale?

I don't think I listened to any one album, per say. Like, I listen to music. I listen to a lot of classic R&B. I listen to Curtis Mayfield, I listen to Al Green -- that's just the range of R&B I listen to. Then I listen to Brandy. "I Wanna Be Down" was one of my favorite songs. That's how we created that vibe with me and Ty Dolla $ign with "The Love." It's not a sample, but that's the same shit.

You have one of the more polished voices in the game and this album shows how your voice has really evolved. How did you develop it throughout your career? 

It's so ill that we're having this conversation, because I hated my voice for years. Sometimes I thought a n---a might hear me and think I was a little n---a. I'm a big n---a and thought I had the pimp Pretty Tony voice. It used to be annoying to me at one point until I guess the weight started to make my voice have more bass.

Then, recording in quality studios -- hearing myself correctly, knowing how I wanted to sound and learning how to project my voice without sounding like a Pretty Tony -- helped me a lot. I'm just trying to perfect the cadence and really have that voice, that as soon as you hear it, you know it’s me.

Given the fact that you’re inspired by the golden age but modernized that sound, did you ever feel pressured to give the new generation something they could listen to?

Nah, I mean, I don't think there's any pressure when you're out here still functioning with the new guys. I'm not even old. I'm in my mid-30s, so the game gets younger every day. But I feel like they're still students of the game. There're kids that run down on me; rappers telling me they listened to me in high school.

That shows the range of age that this shit went to. From how we were banging on the Internet with the stoner lifestyle rap that was hitting in 2008, to the vibe in 2018 now. A lot of these kids actually came up off that.

On “The Mood” with Joey Bada$$, you mention how this is a cool era that we’re in. What is it about this era that intrigues you?

I think it's the resurgence of the era of hip-hop that we loved, and it's a lot of us doing it together that are actually friends. Like Joey, Flatbush Zombies, Westside [Gunn] and Conway, Wale, A$AP Mob, TDE. We all kind of came into this shit together and you know everybody is respectively on top of what they're doing.

We still all rocking. It is a really cool era we're in. It's also a play on words because my shit is really fucking cool and Joey’s shit is Pro Era. 

What's the biggest takeaway you got from Pete Rock, and how did you apply that to this album? 

Well, with Pete, he's a fucking legend, so I didn't have to do shit. All I had to do was show up. It was like playing basketball with your big brother that's Shaquille O'Neal where you know he's going to get triple teamed and you're going to be wide open, ready to hit that mid-range shot to win the game. That's what it was for me.

While creating Not for Sale, I got to dig in my bag and flirt with different sounds and new energy. I still have my usual suspects, but I also have LevyGrey, who's an artist I work closely with. It’s like day and night, because you have one album with one producer and then you have one that’s a smorgasbord.

It’s been seven years since your debut album and you’ve stayed independent since then. What are your thoughts on how strong the independent game has become as opposed to back when you first started?

The game changed. I came in the game when it was blogs. Not to say they don't exist anymore, but the presence of a blog made it seem like they were the A&Rs. It's a bit different now, because it's a streaming game. Being on NahRight, 2DopeBoyz, or OnSmash...at one time, to some of us, that was like having a cover.

I think it was a little different, because you had that, and now it's more of what you can do. If you were that type of artist, then you had enough fire to put that shit out on your own. That would lead to everyone else picking it up if you were savvy enough to make friends with some of them.

Since your debut, what’s the biggest thing you learned while being independent?

Knowing your business and being realistic. Knowing when, where and how to spend money. I think the technical parts of being independent is what I learned the most in my voyage of independence that I'm still fighting. I think it’s more of a technical side and it's really doing your homework. Really knowing your strengths and weaknesses and not just moving for a dollar. If your god is a dollar, it’s not going to work for you. 

The one name that stood out to me among the producers on this album was Girl Talk. How did that collaboration come about?

Girl Talk's people reached out and wanted us to get in the studio and work together. I knew about Girl Talk and I was with it. They asked me where I wanted to go in the world that I felt the most creative. I told them, "Let's go to LA."

We went there and I called Dom [Kennedy]. He came by the studio and I hit my man Matt, who manages Cozz. Cozz pulled up and the beat was already running. We were in there being real creative and that's how that song came about. But as far as Girl Talk, we got a bunch of music together. I wanted to pluck that one joint for this because that was the vibe. I just love how the record came about.

Which one of the features surprised you the most?

I don’t really have songs that come about from just me not knowing somebody. So I know what to expect from Joey, from Dom, from Cozz. It's like a big sparring session with other n----s. When it’s me and my n----s on a song, it's healthy competition. I'm big on energy and the energy was great in there. Small crowds, big clouds.

I just knew to be on my A game from the jump. I'm not one of those n----s that's about to go rewrite my shit if a n----a lay a verse better than me. It's going to be what it's going to be. He just got me that's what it is. I don't think that’s cool to redo your verse. It’s like cheating.

You just dropped Ringside 6 and now Not for Sale. Do you feel you need to keep up with these new rappers dropping music at such a quick pace? 

Fuck, no. Me being a rapper, I live in the studio. That's why I have so much music. I don’t feel a need to saturate my crowd with putting out a tape every two months. Like Don't Smoke Rock I put that out December 2016. It's 2018 and this is my next album. I had the Ringside project, but I don't consider that for hip-hop purists.

I'm doing that for the wrestling fans. I don't even care if the hip-hop heads listen to it. The ones that see me at these wrestling events like NXT and WrestleMania, who see me and want the picture, that's for them. So I don't give a fuck what n----s think about it. I'm giving different crowds different shit. I'm still giving them time to digest it before I come with something else. 

You’re an avid wrestling fan -- I want to know who in the WWE you compare yourself to, past or present.

Chris Jericho. He’s a wrestler that reinvents himself every year. He always comes back as the same guy, but something different. It might be the scarf or the leather jacket. It might be the fucking panty trunks or it might be the long trunks. You don't know what you’re going to get.

He finds a way to keep himself fresh, where you forget he's been around for so long. So I would say him, for the fact that I've been around and I'm going to stay because I know how to get in with what's going on. I’m still going to be Smoke DZA but have a fresh take every go around. I don't feel like I'm stale or I got stale.

The WWE is hosting their big event in Saudi Arabia this week, The Greatest Royal Rumble. What are your predictions?

I don't know if I care about it, because it's like having two WrestleManias. I went to the Royal Rumble. That's why it's hard for me to care about "the greatest Royal Rumble ever." I mean I get it. I'm going to watch it to critique it because I'm a wrestling fan and I just love the business and the program that Vince McMahon and them put together.

I kind of know what's going to happen. I think the Undertaker is going to win the match. I know he's scheduled for another match, but it's 50 people -- how can the Undertaker not be in it? I think that whole event was just so Roman Reigns could win the belt and get cheered because he'll get booed anywhere in America, so I think they put him over there so those fans that see him once a year will celebrate his title victory. But who knows?