Duane Johnson Jr. occupies two worlds that most people see as mutually exclusive. By night, he is Defari Heru, a rising hip-hop star whose impressive debut album, Focused Daily, was recently issued by Tommy Boy Records. But during the day, he is simply Mr. Johnson, a 27-year old geography and history teacher at Inglewood High, located in a largely African-American suburb of Los Angeles. And while the latter job is far less glamorous than the former, Johnson sees it as a way to touch upon many of the same themes that dominate his music. "Basically," he says, "elevation is really my objective in anything I want to do."
Johnson, who grew up in the Los Angeles area, was attracted to music early: He became a poppin' breakdancer for the Soul Brothers, an award-winning L.A. crew, when he was in fourth grade, and began deejaying three years later, training himself in the art form by using two pieces of paper on a Fisher Price turntable. But even though he soon developed into an emcee/DJ of the highest order, he retained an interest in scholarly pursuits. "I was always in school with a desire to have some sort of career to fall back on," he explains, and thanks to a bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley and a master's degree in education from Columbia University, he wound up with one that he enjoys. In his words, "I got into teaching because I just had a natural knack with the kids."
The students at Inglewood High, from which he's currently on sabbatical, relate to Johnson in part because of his hip-hop sideline: He admits that Focused Daily has caused his on-campus profile to rise considerably. Music isn't the only reason he's a role model, however. "As a person of color, and being a black male, I offer the younger men of color an actual, realistic, visual representation of something they'd never think about being--of an avenue of success that they never really thought about," he says. "For some of them, the concept of being in academia and doing rap music don't coincide, because they have been taught a stereotypical view of the world. So I offer the youth a realistic representation. I show them that you can do whatever you set your mind on doing."
He speaks from experience. Rather than waiting around to be discovered by the rap community, Johnson decided to take things into his own hands. After christening himself Defari Heru (the first name is Ethiopian for "the kingly one," the last a reference to the son of Egyptian creation gods Osirus and Isis), he says, "I put out a couple of independent singles, along with Dilated People's first single 'Third Degree,' which I was featured on. That was on ABB Records with a good comrade of mine, Beni B. Those singles did pretty well, and so did a song called 'Bionic' in '96 and another song called 'People's Choice' in '97. Chris Atlas, who does A&R at Tommy Boy, heard them, and that's what opened his eyes to recruit me--the success that the singles had on the streets."
Both "People's Choice" and "Bionic" appear on Focused Daily, a disc that avoids the typical g-funk grooves that have come to characterize the West Coast sound. "It's important to represent where you're from, because that's hip-hop," Johnson acknowledges, "but at the same time, you can do that with a universal appeal." To that end, he has helped producers such as Soul Assassin's Alchemist, Dilated People's Evidence and the Alkaholiks' E-Swift develop what he calls "a brand-new sound" that touches on the past without trying to duplicate it. Typical is the CD's title cut, on which spare, eerie beats provide the backdrop for a Johnson rap about maintaining a disciplined regimen. According to Johnson, "It's setting the building blocks on the album in terms of all the good things to come in the future--a statement about how I try to live every day, focusing daily on my objectives and goals in life."
These complex thoughts aren't always presented in a complicated way; Johnson conveys them using what he calls "a simple linguistic form that's the true mark of a phenomenal emcee. I pride myself in saying rhymes that the common blue-collar folk could relate to." Songs such as "405 Fridays," a party tune that Johnson says "folks can appreciate once they get off work," exemplify this approach. But that doesn't mean the music is dumbed-down. "These Dreams," for instance, is a forthright revenge fantasy that cleverly links current events with past sins: "I think about this government/Three strikes/Capital punishment/ Enslaved my people 400 years/Plus sometimes I often think about going back in time/And giving slaves guns." The composition is intended "to give people a breath of fresh air and touch people's consciousness on how deeply embedded a concept like slavery is," Johnson says. "Because generations later we still suffer its consequences. It is deeply embedded in the consciousness of our population. Black-on-black violence and the way we treat each other is sort of an internalization because of how it was embedded in our consciousness."
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With standout tracks like "The Lowlands Anthem Pt. 1," "Thunder & Lightning" and "Likwit Connection" (a nod to Likwit Crew, a loose collective that includes Defari, the Alkaholiks and touring partner Xzibit), it's no surprise that Focused Daily has been well-received commercially and critically. Nonetheless, Johnson notes that a handful of reviewers have dismissed the disc. "I don't really take it personally," he says about such pans. "What I do is read the whole article to see if they actually sat down and listened to the whole album--and I've come to find out that nine times out of ten, they didn't even listen to the whole album. They didn't even marinate with it." Still, Johnson isn't about to cave in to the haters. He's already planning his next album, which he says will allow him to "explore people's mental diets. I'm going to feed them brain food, but without force-feeding them.
"Hip-hop is the voice of the streets, which is why a group like Brand Nubian gets so many props from me--because they take it upon themselves to elevate consciousness," he goes on. "And if their records sell 150,000 copies, so what? If 150,000 people buy your record, that's 150,000 people plus their friends who maybe you're touching in terms of consciousness, so that's power to me. I'm not going to put the onus on the music being the leader of the people, because people should lead themselves, and parents should lead the youth. But the music has leadership qualities."
So, too, does Johnson, who would like to split his time between hip-hop and teaching for as long as he's able. "I'm an all-around positive person," he points out. "I have adult subject matter on the album, but if you sum it up, I represent positivity. That's the type of energy I try to give off--positive energy. I don't try to preach to people, but I represent a positive force."
Phife Dog, with Defari and Xzibit. 9 p.m. Monday, May 3, Aggie Theater, 204 South College Avenue, Fort Collins, $15, 1-970-407-1322; 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 4, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $17, 303-443-3399.