Happy 20th Anniversary to Defari’s debut album Focused Daily, originally released February 9, 1999.
Roger McBride doesn’t get enough credit. The name is probably unfamiliar to you, and it’s hardly the most memorable. Some know him better by the name King T, but even this regal stage name isn’t revered by as many as it should be. King T, or King Tee as he was originally known, is in fact one of the pioneers of west coast gangster rap.
His name is often sadly a mere footnote in discussions about the foundation of hip-hop’s most commercially successful sub-genre, filed away somewhere close to honorable mentions of Schooly D (not from the west, but pretty much the creator of this style of rap), before talk turns to Ice-T, N.W.A, Too $hort, Compton’s Most Wanted, Above the Law, et al.
Helping kickstart gangster rap isn’t the only contribution that Roger McBride has made to hip-hop. It was he who nurtured the collective of artists known as the Likwit Crew, born from the early-mid ‘90s success of the Tha Alkaholiks. That group took influence from the bouncy, funk-driven music of King T and his peers and mixed it with the same hardcore beats and sense of fun and lyrical dexterity that other west coast groups like Freestyle Fellowship, Hieroglyphics and The Pharcyde were developing at the same time. The good-time factor was a particular focal point—if you hadn’t already guessed from the name, Tha Alkaholiks like a drink.
Tha Alkaholiks were like the bridge between gangster rap and the California underground scene the Likwit Crew and their members, offshoots and sub-groups were leading. In many ways the antithesis of the gangster rapper, some of the artists in the crew may have grown up in the same poverty stricken, crime-filled streets as Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Ice-T, Eazy-E and others, but they wanted to dig deeper lyrically to create a sound that was more positive and thought-provoking than just rapping about guns, drugs and bitches.
One of those leading the charge from the Likwit Crew was Duane “Defari” Johnson. Having already made some noise working with Dilated Peoples and Rasco, Defari dropped his debut album Focused Daily in early February of 1999. Intriguingly, whereas others in and around the Likwit Crew were putting out music on smaller independent labels like Stones Throw and ABB, Focused Daily was released on the once-mighty Tommy Boy, giving the release some extra clout.
What hits hardest on Focused Daily is how confident Defari is on the mic. He possesses a solid and consistent flow that never once wavers or veers from its intent. He packs density into his verses without going over-the-top or towards the rapity-rap style of others.
Witness the title track “Focused Daily.” It’s a relentless display of wordplay that includes deep, textured rhyme schemes and verses like: “I'm in tune with this shit / like when the birds fly / It's not enough to be focused just in the mind / Like the locust, I swarm physically plus mentally / Which means completely / I connect with the drums / There's grown men here with seriousness, this ain't no play for fun.”
Or on “Thunder & Lightening,” where Defari spars with Xzibit and spits lines like “The Ice Age couldn't stop me from writing a page / Of lyrical rage to be taken out on stage / Then my frustrations slice emcees with vocal blades / No dough, no show, no doubt gots to get paid / You listen to the horses / It make these wack emcees wanna quit and go take college courses.” It’s all done effortlessly with complete mastery over flow, breath control, verse length and everything else that makes a great emcee.
Therefore it’s not incidental why the name of the album is Focused Daily, or that one of the many standout cuts is titled “Bionic.” Defari is a well-oiled machine, reliable and capable of getting the job done cleanly and efficiently. Put simply, it’s the same straightforward, no-nonsense approach pioneered by Rakim and Kool G Rap, and when it is done well like it is here, it is devastatingly good.
Defari’s intricate rhyme style sits comfortably on top of some fine instrumentals, most courtesy of Evidence. A highly respected emcee on the strength of his solo albums and as one third of the Likwit Crew affiliated group Dilated Peoples, it’s easy to overlook Evidence’s production skills. Look closer and you’ll find his name in the credits of many beloved underground albums by artists from both coasts. He produces eight tracks on Focused Daily, including the aforementioned “Bionic.”
Evidence’s frequent collaborator Alchemist contributes three productions, including the excellent title track, and the great “Killing Spree.” There’s also production on Focused Daily by Tha Alkaholiks producer E-Swift, including the single “Likwit Connection,” a club-friendly posse cut featuring the rest of the Liks, Phil da Agony and Xzibit.
Defari followed Focused Daily with another decent album named Odds & Evens in 2003, and is still very active today. He released his most recent album Rare Poise in 2017, continuing his long-running work with Evidence who produced the entire project. Anyone unfamiliar with Defari’s music should go listen to Focused Daily now, and while you’re at it, don’t forget to check out those albums by Roger McBride.