Huntington-based rap artist bares all in new release
Duke Johnson is loudly and proudly live from Huntington and the “f*ck you” state of West Virginia. He grew up and found his inspiration on the streets and he’ll tell you exactly what he sees and won’t hold back on the truth – no matter how explicit the truth is.
With hip-hop coming out of its NYC birthplace and the emerging new wave of rap & hip-hop coming from down south – primarily in Atlanta – Duke Johnson is well on his way to doing his fair share in creating a viable scene firmly in the middle, geographically speaking. Not only is the rap artist laying down the audio tracks, but he’s got the video angle working as well, with “Quit” and two more under the moniker D.O. Ceasar-“Enlighten” and “The Convo,” which is on his new album, How I Got These Scars.
Born Jason Moore, Johnson has been a vital figure in the low-key but ever-present rap & hip-hop scene locally for more than two decades now, and he shows no signs of slowing down. Quite the opposite, actually. Johnson’s latest offering is just about ready to drop and is the culmination of his life – and he’s bearing everything, no holds barred – giving a look through the eyes of a man who’s seen love, danger, even his mortality.
“How I Got These Scars” is Duke Johnson’s life set to beats and hooks that depict an honest man dealing with all of the things that could break a weaker man. “The concept is something that kind of fell into place,” he says of the flow of content within. “I’ve got scars. Not just the physical scars, but deep emotional scars as a result of the things that have happened in my life.”
In 2009, Johnson suffered a gunshot that resulted in a coma for more than two weeks. To add insult to injury, it is suspected that a person he’d taken in to help out in a time of need was likely involved. “They came in looking for something that wasn’t ever there,” he explains, “I don’t trust people easily, and once I did, it almost got me killed.”
He was in and out of consciousness, bleeding on the floor with someone who had come in right after when his 911 call was answered by Huntington police. It’s probably an interesting, and bizarre, footnote to add that when help first arrived, they came in with guns drawn and fixed on Duke as he laid there, still bleeding, demanding that he put both hands where they could be seen. There never was an arrest made in relation to the shooting.
Through it all, Johnson never stopped pushing and he never gave up. “(The incident) just fueled my fire,” he said. His desire to create is tenacious, as he carried on his writing while still in the hospital. He describes his motivation: “I was opened up, there in the bed. They couldn’t sew me up right away so there were a couple of surgeries. When I woke up I was mad. There was no way that this (the music) was gonna not keep going just because I was in the hospital.” Not that he should’ve given up on a life’s work due to an injury, but most people might not keep working hooked up to machines with a hole in their torso.
Duke didn’t spend much time down. Once back home and on the streets again, there was a virtual creative burst. He has become quite a prolific artist in his own right. While the motives for doing what he does might have been a bit altered after the shooting, Johnson appears more focused on the things that really matter to him. He’s got two children of his own, so whatever he does, he does with his family in mind and family is first. It’s evident when listening to his music that he’s got a greater goal and isn’t willing to let anything stop him from achieving it.
There is wisdom and knowledge to be gained after having gone through the trials Johnson has had to endure thus far. But he’s all about taking those negatives and making them positives; for the sake of his music and his life. In light of everything that has gone down, he’s a pretty optimistic man himself. “It is what it is,” he says when articulating the essence of the album’s closing track, “So Glad,” and its positive sentiments. “That’s something that happened, but it’s a new day, and I’m still here.”
Review: “How I Got These Scars”
Most of the time, rap/hip-hop albums done on a local or independent level sound exactly like they are: homemade. This album is on a higher echelon and sounds much more professionally done on points of production, performance, arrangements and structure. Duke Johnson has been doing his thing for more than two decades in and around the Huntington area. This is notable because, thus far, the area from which he’s coming has had a mediocre ‘scene,’ at best. With the exception of a few pedestrian hopefuls-and even fewer truly viable performers-West Virginia isn’t necessarily known for its booming hip-hop scene. As a result, How I Got These Scars is an album that transcends many of its predecessors released by his peers, which makes what he’s doing somewhat of a personal necessity.
How I Got These Scars is a 14-track portrait, of sorts, of events and occurrences that have emerged in Johnson’s life up to the present. His presence is established immediately upon hearing the first minute of the album.
Johnson’s work is raw in terms of subject matter, which is a quality that gives it the life it has. But it’s much deeper than the true grit typically portrayed on the average rap record. There’s thought, emotion, regret, tension, the violence of everyday life in the world of an artist held back by what some might see as destitution and hardships. There are many places on the album where there is deeper existential focus, questions, issues, concerns, insight, and self-cleansing. Johnson’s got a confrontational approach that is real but not in an exceedingly cocky manner. Despite all of the elements that make How I Got These Scars the solid release it is, Duke comes off as a pretty grounded individual.
Johnson gives strong performances from beginning to end. The verses tend to have a strong, sound flow; a la Immortal Technique or A$AP Rocky-if a comparison needed to be made. Not that he sounds like any of those artists, as Duke Johnson has a style all his own. There’s actually a bit of a concept that runs loosely throughout: Part of the album was written before he was shot. He continued writing, literally, while in the hospital and then afterward as well. So the album, while not quite linear, has its own running concept.
How I Got These Scars comes out swinging with “Duke Johnson’s Revenge,” a track that throws commentary on the facade of many of the hip-hop trends of the times, but in a way that’s not really meant to be polarizing, as it literally invites anyone who’s into his vibe to join him.
“Misunderstood” is a good switch-up with a cool intro, hook and WV pride. It’s got a rather unorthodox approach that lends itself nicely to the song’s roll. Johnson’s got a few ‘skits’ inserted strategically throughout that segue appropriately into the subsequent songs. Cuts like “Better Than Me,” “Friends,” and “Show Trust” show honest emotion, with lost love and letting it go, regrets with mishandled friendships on both sides, and the natural progression of a new, meaningful relationship-respectively. A big standout, among others, is a pleaser cut called “The Convo”. It’s a really good example of the reflection that Johnson puts into his work – an almost guarded positivity with wisdom that only life experiences can give a person. The same could actually be said about some other tracks on here like “4 A Reason”- a song about struggle – and “Borrowed Time,” in which he begins the track with a vague explanation about being shot and then runs straight into waking up after more than two weeks in a coma. Despite everything that has gone wrong and obstacles he has had to overcome, Johnson’s approach is a positive one, all things considered. With positivity in mind, the album’s closer, “So Glad,” is easily the lightest track, complete with a nicely done sing-along hook and successful go at “feel-good music”- a good, happy ending.
How I Got These Scars could be sent out and expect to be taken seriously by the public at large, rather than on a simple local level. It’s got definite professional altitude. With twenty years under his belt Duke Johnson has managed to pick up the tools and skills to deliver a worthy offering reflective of who he is and where he’s from, which, he’ll tell anyone who is listening, is “live from the f*ck you state!”
Some key tracks: “Duke Johnson’s Revenge,” “Misunderstood,” “WV’s Newest,” “The Convo,” “Borrowed Time,” “Crazy People” and “So Glad”.