D Smoke’s journey to the top hasn’t always been an easy one — but he’s happy to be here.
The 33-year-old Inglewood, California rapper was revealed as the winner of the first season of Netflix’s new hip-hop competition series Rhythm + Flow (which made its finale episode available for streaming on Wednesday) — a feat that comes after a difficult childhood during which his dad spent time in prison in the 1980s on drug-related charges.
“I can’t say that I would have the same degree of strength if I hadn’t felt that absence first and then his presence,” D Smoke tells PEOPLE. “I was a knucklehead when my dad was locked up, and in doing so, I became real acquainted with the side of myself that didn’t take s— from nobody, you know?”
“So to know that energy within myself, know that strength, but then to be able to channel that in and hone that into something productive when he comes home — I think that’s that balance of what dope rap is,” he continues. “It’s kind of poetic, in a sense.”
RELATED VIDEO: D Smoke Gushes About His Students’ ‘Unscripted’ Reactions to His ‘Rhythm & Flow’ Victory
“My mom was everything to us,” he says. “She gave us piano lessons, vocal lessons, like, very structured musical education in the house in addition to leading the music at church every week. So she had a very direct, tangible influence on who my brothers and I grew up to be as musicians. I personally took to the piano. I enjoyed the medium of expression on it. It led into me getting into production and artistry.”
And once his dad came home, D Smoke says everything changed.
“It was a beautiful adjustment,” he says. “We prayed for it every night as kids and then when he gets there, he exceeds our expectations. My dad was a baseball coach, he was driving us around, chauffeuring us around. He was very present and very active in our lives. Part of the reason why I have such a big passion for mentorship is because he was a hands-on dad.”
Before Rhythm + Flow, D Smoke worked as a Spanish and music recording teacher at Inglewood High School. Though he’s not currently teaching, he says some of his former students have reached out after seeing him on the series.
“Many of my students are posting videos of them watching me in their living rooms,” he says. “I’m re-posting them, they’re yelling at the TV and it’s just warming my heart. I’ve seen a couple of them out. I’ve been trying to stay outdoors because who knows what may come of this. [There] may be a time where I can’t just hang out at malls the same way, but for the time being, I’ve been going out and some of my former students have been like, ‘We saw you on that show on Netflix man, we’re rooting for you.'”
After the show wrapped filming, D Smoke says his life was pretty “regular” for a while.
“I was still paying bills, still spending time with family, but I was being extremely creative,” he says. “I had an accelerated incubation experience with the show where we had to create at a pace that most people wouldn’t be used to. So following that, I did some of my favorite songs, and I’m looking forward to releasing songs.”
Next, D Smoke plans to release a seven song EP called Inglewood High as an ode to his city and his experience as both a student and a teacher at his old high school.
RELATED VIDEO: ‘Rhythm + Flow’ Winner D Smoke Talks the ‘Global Arena’ of Hip-Hop
“It takes you on a brief journey,” he says. “It’ll lead with coming up in Inglewood, going back to Inglewood. Then telling the stories of some of my students. When I talk about the street as in Inglewood, it’s really me as a teacher looking at my students and telling their misguided stories. But that’s a project I’m really proud of and I can’t wait to see how people respond to it.”
“Some of my subject matter may deal with real hood topics, but it’s never to glorify the negative element,” he adds. “I think that’s inspiring because it challenges other artists to tell the complete story, not just highlight the high of what is gangster rap.”
Then, at the start of 2020, he plans to release a complete project — something he plans to put his $250,000 grand prize money from the show towards.
“The $250,000 has yet to arrive in my account,” he says. “But when it does, I will make the appropriate investment both in my music and also in some outside investments and property, as well as some scholarships that will be given out to the community and show love to the places that made me the artist and the educator that I am.”
Though D Smoke was a consistently strong competitor throughout the competition, it wasn’t until his last performance during the finale — when he performed his original song “Last Supper” — that he thought he might win.
“In my final performance, that’s when I said, ‘Okay, I might win,'” he says. “Because I knew what I had planned to do and I felt like if I executed it, I could. Once I had finished and saw the crowd’s response, I was pretty confident.”
As he works toward putting out his new music, D Smoke says he has been keeping in touch with some of the show’s judges.
“I’ve been speaking pretty regularly with T.I, he’s become somewhat of a mentor and I check in here and there with Chance [the Rapper] by text,” he says. “Cardi B and I haven’t spoken. I think she’s waiting until it airs out then she’s going to reach back out.”
RELATED VIDEO: ‘Rhythm + Flow’ Winner D Smoke Is Giving Back to His Hometown with $250K Grand Prize
At the end of the day, D Smoke wants to spread a message to his fans about the importance of being honest in any endeavor they set out on.
“Be honest, be fearless,” he says. “”I’m super encouraged by this [win], but it’s a culmination of so many things that got us to this point — so many sacrifices, losses, tears and all of that. Stay encouraged.”
Rhythm + Flow is streaming on Netflix now.