Florida, to many of us in the UK, is a holiday destination known for its theme parks, beaches, all-you-can-eat buffets and outlet malls. In rap music, it has spawned the party-heavy Miami bass sound with (Uncle) Luke and 2 Live Crew, and more recently is known for the Miami Vice-inspired rhymes of Rick Ross.
But a new generation of the region’s rappers have been telling a different story. Artists like Denzel Curry, SpaceGhostPurrp, Robb Bank$ and Yung Simmie are showing another side to the state: a place where an innocent kid in a hoodie, carrying an iced tea and a packet of Skittles, can be gunned down with no consequence to the shooter.
"People wouldn’t want to come here if they seen the dark side first and not the good side,” says the 19-year-old Curry. “So they make sure they show the good side. You wouldn’t really expect there to be ghettos and all that here, but this is the home of [homicide investigation documentary series] The First 48.”
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‘Threatz’, feat. Yung Simmie and Robb Bank$
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Curry is the man behind the underground hit ‘Threatz’ (video above). He independently released his debut album ‘Nostalgic 64’ in September 2013, and his profile hasn’t stopped growing since. He has just returned to Florida from a trip to London, his first time leaving the US.
“I liked the energy,” he says of his time in Britain. “I liked the scene. I liked the way people reacted when they heard my music, because it reminds them of grime. It was very rainy though, but other than that I liked the vibe of it.”
He first discovered grime prior to his visit, when his homie Freebase put him onto it around a year ago. He cites Dizzee Rascal as one of his favourite grime MCs and has recently been taking influences from the genre, evidenced by the rapid-fire flows that exist in his own music. “There’s a different pattern,” he explains. “It's very unorthodox, but it’s very good.”
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We were really ready to [protest again], to take it to the streets again. But due to Trayvon’s parents saying, ‘No don’t do it,’ we wasn’t able to do it…
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The conversation turns from foreign climes, for Curry, back to his home state. “There are two sides to Florida. It can be very beautiful, and yet it can be very gutter. The beautiful side, you know, people go to South Beach and everything – but the inner city like Liberty City, that’s the gutter side all the way down to Carol City. Everywhere has a good and bad. Miami is a very good place to be at, but at the same time it could be a very bad place to be at, depends on where you staying.”
On explosive album track ‘Zone 3’, Denzel welcomes the listener to his environment, spitting: “It's real in the field, either kill or be killed / Like BG so they got a grip on the TEC / Took my n*gga Chynaman, took my n*gga PJ / And Trayvon hot damn, who next on a white tee? / Born and raised in Zone 3.”
Seventeen when fatally shot by a Sanford neighbour in February 2012, Trayvon Martin was reportedly a fan of Raider Klan, the crew that Denzel parted ways with last year. They both attended Carol City Senior High School, although Martin had already transferred to Krop High when Curry went there. Their similar paths affected Curry and his peers heavily.
“It was just pondering on my head for a minute. It was just really messing with me. I couldn’t really sleep after the whole situation. After I heard the story of what really happened I was like, ‘Oh my god. That could have been any one of us.’ That could have been me; that could have been my brother, sister. That could have been any one of us in the Carol City area or in the Florida area. That could have been anybody. And it was like, ‘Damn, this guy got off?’ And I know if vice versa, if I was to do something like that, I know I wouldn’t get off. That’s why it really touches the heart.”
When George Zimmerman was not immediately arrested, Miami went into uproar and riots began breaking out around the city. Denzel was involved in a Facebook-driven walk out at Carol City High, referenced in his song ‘N64’ (listen below), which was to be followed by another protest before Martin’s parents intervened.
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“The second day everybody came dressed up in black,” Curry recalls. “I came dressed up in black with my hoodie on and everything. Had a drawn piece for Trayvon, and we were really ready to just go back at it, to take it to the streets again. But due to Trayvon’s parents saying, ‘No don’t do it,’ we wasn’t able to do it.”
Curry has also witnessed violence first hand, seeing a man letting off shots in a McDonald’s while on his way home from college with a friend.
“I seen the dude who shot in the McDonald’s, I was the first dude to look at him, through the window. We got inside, ordered a couple of burgers and something was telling me like, ‘Denzel, just leave.’ And I was just like, ‘Man, don’t be scared of my own people.’ Because my old boy preached, ‘Don’t be scared of your own people. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.’
“Next thing you know after we finished eating, the guy that I was staring at got into an altercation with another guy that was in the line. And then they started fighting. He just pulled out the gun and shot at buddy.”
Denzel describes his reaction to be one of shock, stood rooted to the ground as everyone ducked for cover while he watched the expressions of the two men, one seeing his life flash behind him, the other coming to terms with being a would-be killer. “Luckily for everybody, he missed. But I seen him pop the Glock in McDonald’s. I ended up seeing the dude the next day, so that was crazy too.”
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Everywhere has a ghetto, everywhere has a scene where people are drilling and killing each other…
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Although Miami rappers are typically more lyrical, certainly in Denzel's case, than their peers making drill music in Chicago, a parallel can be drawn in the punk-like aggression and response to violent environments that the artists evoke. Whereas drill music has had a lot of criticism from those who believe it fuels more violence, Denzel seems offended by the idea, believing that it is a positive way to channel their negative atmosphere.
“Nah, they’re just speaking on their environment. And if their existence consists of drugs, killing and bitches, that’s it. And their life is like that – the field. Same as here, everywhere has a ghetto, everywhere has a scene where people are drilling and killing each other. But they’re trying to get up out of that. They don’t want to stay in that forever, there’s only a matter of time before they start to fade away. I been to Chicago, shit is real. I’m not even bullshitting, shit is real.”
This is certainly Curry's approach. With output that is a product of his environment, listeners will also pick up references to video games, Dragon Ball and even The Powerpuff Girls, giving away his obsession with art and cartoons. He attends Miami’s Design and Architecture High School and draws all of his own cover art – usually surreal scenes reminiscent of OutKast's ‘Aquemini’ and ‘ATLiens’ sleeves.
He draws sonic influences from an impressively broad vocabulary, referencing figures from polarising rap niches: Necro, Tommy Wright III, Mac Dre, Big L, Trick Daddy and 8Ball & MJG all come up in conversation.
“You have to have a wide knowledge of music, then you’ll understand it better and you’ll get a new taste, and the next thing you know an idea sparks. You'll be able to go outside of your atmosphere. I listen to different stuff because I get influenced by different stuff. And just having that knowledge when somebody tests you about that knowledge you’ll be able to back it up.”
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This knowledge also comes in useful when travelling, as he has been more and more recently for shows. “It's all about respecting their territory. If you’re going to the Bay, you’re automatically going to respect Mac Dre, or if you go to Memphis you’re going to respect 8Ball & MJG and Three 6 Mafia. It’s all about respecting the territory. Once you respect it, they’re going to respect you, because you’re helping break their culture out into the world the same way I’m trying to bring my culture, the Miami culture, out to the world.”
Three 6 Mafia are mentioned multiple times throughout our interview, and are in many ways the forefathers of the scene, particularly Raider Klan, who were heavily influenced by their lo-fi ’90s aesthetic. Many of Curry’s mixtapes were recorded in this fashion, but with ‘Nostalgic 64’ he decided that he needed to step up the quality: “If I kept doing lo-fi I still would be in the same position I was two years ago.”
He is currently working on two EPs – to be released on the same day, but exploring separate strands of his music. ‘Planet Shrooms’ and ‘Three Two Zel’ are dedicated to his friend Tiarra and brother Lotto respectively, as he lost them both around the same time. “Tiarra got murdered in Liberty City two days after me hanging with her. And Lotto, he is my blood brother, he ended up dying. He got tazed to death by a cop.”
“’Planet Shrooms’ is very experimental and very weird,” he reveals. “So I don’t want people to think like, ‘Oh this is just a typical Denzel project’. No. I’m actually going out of my element. If you’ve heard songs like ‘Stadium Starship’, then you’ll understand. That’s how ‘Planet Shrooms’ is going to sound. If you heard stuff like ‘Threatz’ and ‘Zone 3’, you’re going to hear that [sound] on ‘Three Two Zel’.”
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If I kept doing lo-fi I still would be in the same position I was two years ago…
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He sees the two vibes as attracting slightly different audiences, or at least the same fans while in different moods. “I put them both separately for a reason, because if I just did straight stuff like ‘Threatz’, people would like it, but then you’d have other people who would be like, ‘Man, this is just whatever, nothing but bangers’. But then you have the experimental stuff that I’ve been doing since a long time ago, when I was running with PXSH GANG and Raider Klan and shit. I used to experiment with different types of music while I was working on my previous mixtapes. I wanted to share that. But putting them out separately lets people know which sound they’re going to get.”
Fans should expect to the double release in the near future, as he is currently working on the finishing touches, and ensuring that he retains the quality of his last release. "I just gotta make sure all of the tracks are to a tee, are perfect, are good and make sure that they get mixed right and make sure my lyrics are on point and they have substance, and it’s beautiful." It feels like the "done deal" that Curry believes should have happened already is not far on the horizon. Through his own two sides he paints a more realistic picture of Florida, shining a vivid light on the often concealed dark side.
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