Some background, if you’ll forgive me. In the early 1990s, a group of friends from Louisville, Kentucky, went to a Jodeci concert in their hometown. After apparently coercing a security guard into letting them backstage, the group met with Donald DeGrate, Jr., also known as DeVante Swing, the de facto leader of Jodeci. They came specifically to Swing to promote their R&B trio, A Touch of Class, probably hoping that he would like what he heard at least enough to pass their name on to one of his connections, if not take them under his own wing. It worked, and after coming off the tour for Jodeci’s hugely popular sophomore album, 1993’s Diary of a Mad Band (which peaked at number three on the U.S. Billboard 200 and would go on to sell two million copies), Swing contacted Jawaan Peacock, a.k.a. “Smokey,” a member of A Touch of Class, who had since restructured his group into a trio with Benjamin “Digital Black” Bush, another original member of the group, and Stephen “Static Major” Garrett, a high school friend with whom Smokey had reconnected at the University of Louisville.
Some time around 1994, Swing decided Playa, as they were now called, were worth his time, and he promptly signed them to his Swing Mob label—a subsidiary of Elektra Records in the U.S.–which placed them in the company of such heavy hitters as Missy Elliott, Ginuwine, and Timbaland. Swing Mob collapsed in 1995, but Playa were able to successfully jump ship to Def Jam Recordings, after which they set to work on their first studio album.
On March 24th, 1998, Playa released the moderately successful Cheers 2 U (number 86 on the U.S. Billboard 200), bolstered by a likable and also moderately successful title track as its single (number 38 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100), and then went curiously silent.
Playa’s “Cheers 2 U” (1998)
Five years later, they tried again with 2003’s Never Too Late, but that album was thrown to the curb after the titlular single failed to meet the label’s expectations. Playa fizzled out, never managing to release another album or make their mark on American radio stations. The three members of the group have since gone on to work on different projects with varying levels of success. Digital Black released three completely ignored albums, most recently 2007’s The Autobiography of Benjamin Bush, on which he apparently credits himself as “Digital Black from Playa”. Static Major is easily the most prominent name of the three; before passing away of respiratory distress in a Louisville hospital in early 2008, he found success as a songwriter for Aaliyah and as a co-writer and guest on Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop,” which went on to sell five million copies in the U.S.
Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” (1998), written by Timbaland and Static Major
It’s Smokey—who now goes by the more cumbersome Smoke E. Digglera these days—I find myself drawn to, though. I have long known vaguely of Static Major’s peripheral presence in contemporary R&B music, mostly through his “Lollipop” feature and numerous musical tributes dedicated to him after his untimely death, but I was only recently made aware of Smoke through his appearance, via a sample, on Drake’s “Look What You’ve Done,” a beautiful, melancholy track toward the end of the Canadian rapper’s great Take Care (2011). The source of that sample is a video Smoke himself uploaded to YouTube in 2009 titled “Old Playa Footage,” which features him and Static performing the unreleased Playa obscurity “If U Scared, Say U Scared.”
Static Major and Smoke E. Digglera performing “If U Scared, Say U Scared”; the song begins at 1:02
The video is striking, even moreso than its appearance on “Look What You’ve Done,” in which it’s limned by Drake’s nostalgic rapping and the propulsive percussion of producers Chase N. Cashe and Noah “40” Shebib. It seems intimate and spontaneous, Static occasionally picking up a paper cup (although never taking a sip), the unidentified cameraman—perhaps Digital Black–bursting into laughter at one point, his camerawork eventually revealing music stands randomly strewn about to the side of the two performers. A dynamic is immediately visible between Static and Smoke, as well: Smoke, playing the piano, is the less authoritative of the two, occasionally seeming to sing the wrong harmony, wince, and then crack a smile as he corrects himself; Static, as befits his label as the “star” of the group, seems completely confident from the outset, when he stares directly into the camera and tells the audience he knows is out there that this is “Old school Playa; never heard.”
Since the informal dissolution of Playa, Smoke E. Digglera has been releasing music through two primary means: albums and singles that are uploaded on his Bandcamp page, smokedigglera.bandcamp.com, and YouTube videos. With most artists, this latter category would not really “count” in any meaningful way, as videos are usually a means through which an artist can promote his music, which can then be sought out elsewhere—on iTunes, Amazon, or the artist’s own website. Smoke’s YouTube videos seem to serve a function that is more than merely promotional, however; his recorded performances are often wildly different from—and better than—the versions he hawks on his Bandcamp page and his official releases.
One of his best videos is a performance of “It’s Urs,” from his 2006 album Sittin On a Goldmine. Though the song is considerably more upbeat, the atmosphere is much the same as the one found in the “If U Scared, Say U Scared” video, extemporaneous and deeply affectionate. Brandishing a red Solo cup, Smoke ad-libs an intro about bringing us some “new shit,” struts on over to a bulky computer, hits play, and sings his heart out. He even has the same affectations all these years later; after he bungles a vocal run, he visibly winces and giggles to himself. For the most part, though, it’s a striking performance: Smoke sounds fantastic, adeptly leaping through the many vocal hurdles he gives himself (no single note is sung without an accompanying slide, run, or other flashy technique, and that’s completely fine with me). And then the video abruptly ends, like a home movie in which someone has accidentally dropped the camera or pressed the wrong button.
Smoke E. Digglera performing “It’s Urs” (2006)
“It’s Urs” and the other videos like it on Smoke’s YouTube channel are first and foremost fun to watch. His songs are catchy and silly and sung with bravado by a man who has more than the chops necessary to take on the job. But they, in concert with the albums he uploads to his Bandcamp page, also paint a picture of a very interesting performer—someone who is neither by his ethos nor his sales a “star,” but is almost pulling off the part. You see, Smoke can’t entirely escape the role we see him playing in the “If U Scared, Say U Scared” video, deeply talented but seemingly obsequious to other forces, whether that be a fellow bandmate like Static or the vicious music industry itself. His entire solo career unwittingly reveals this tension, and it is by turns touching and hilarious. Take a look at his album covers: they’re the kind of stuff we’ve come to expect from Lil B and his ilk, abounding in blatant Photoshops, exaggerated images of braggadocio, and what seem to be stock images of scantily clad women stuck wherever possible. They’re honestly funny as hell, made moreso by the fact that Smoke doesn’t seem to realize how ridiculous he looks. This same unknowingly goofy sensibility is often reflected in the music those covers are supposed to represent and promote. His solo rendition of “If U Scared, Say U Scared,” found on 2009’s The Truth in the Booth, is frankly a mess, relying on a hodgepodge of modern R&B signifiers to make its point—ticking hi-hats, that one “raindrop” percussive effect, digitized chimes, and enthusiastic background vocals.
The tendency we as audiences have upon encountering artists like these is usually to laugh at them—a response that might seem especially appropriate considering the relative success of Smoke’s partner Static, who lacked both Smoke’s odd means of self-promotion and his ludicrous album covers. I’m not sure exactly how lucrative the man’s solo career has been, but to an outsider the situation probably resembles that of a downward spiral, sort of like the aforementioned Lil B but without the social media presence to keep him afloat. I think Smoke deserves more than laughter, though, and that’s for two reasons: first, he’s incredibly earnest about what he does, and second, his music is often very good—especially when he chooses to strip it down and let his voice do the work.
Kathryn Schulz, writing for New York Magazine a few months ago, opined that the The Great Gatsby is at its core an uninteresting book because it enacts rather than explores the tension embodied by “people who criticize precisely what they covet.” Oddly enough, her criticism demonstrates exactly why I find Smoke’s music so invigorating. Ever since David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram,” a discourse favoring the “sincere” over the “ironic” has become the lingua franca of intellectuals and populists alike in criticism—a tiring trend for those who recognize its lack of specificity, its inherent and useless agreeability. But there is nonetheless something to be said for the man standing alone, enacting the role of superstar without ever attempting to comment on what that might mean in today’s society. Smoke’s music is if nothing else deeply genuine, evading the obsessive self-awareness that has turned so many of his peers into disaffected roadkill, steamrolled by the Internet’s hype machine, by its relentless desire to anatomize anything that crosses its path. His career, of course, is a narrative, like anyone else’s. It starts at that Jodeci concert, arguably reaches the climax of accessibility with Cheers 2 U, and is still trucking today in the backrooms of music blogs. But at the heart of that narrative is a restless individuality that strikes me as utterly refreshing, especially in today’s increasingly systematic musical environment. To frame the second most popular member of a modestly popular ’90s R&B group as some sort of savior might seem overzealous. But I’ll let the music speak for itself. Here’s Smoke performing “Wish U Neva Told Me,” lighting up both literally and figuratively in a dark room. Listen to that resplendent vocal run at 1:43. Watch him go.
Smoke E. Digglera performing “Wish U Neva Told Me” (2006)