Meet the 18-year-old Carol City, Fla native who's developing a major buzz on both coasts.
By the time 18-year-old Denzel Curry took the stage at NYU's Eisner & Lubin Auditorium a few days before Halloween in 2013, it barely felt like a hip-hop show at all; the venue was, at best, a quarter full, although everyone was pressed to the front. Denzel was in New York for a few CMJ performances, and this was his only headlining event. He was the most popular artist of the listed performers, but was still an unknown name—he is still an unknown name, in the grand scheme of things. Nonetheless, he put on an explosive, high-energy show. But as great as he was, the energy of his audience was what suggested Denzel Curry has a promising future: a scattered multi-ethnic group of college students, they jumped around to each track and knew every song by heart. Almost immediately, they began to mosh in a way that felt as much punk rock as gangster rap.
That kind of energy can't be manufactured. It's a sign that Curry's small fanbase won't stay small for long. So far, he's just getting started; although he's released four mixtapes, his earliest recordings were mere bedroom releases targeting a small cult following. It's only been with Nostalgic 64—released to virtually no attention at the end of last summer—that it became apparent there was a lot more to the rapper from Carol City than first met the eye.
His core fanbase derives in part from his one-time membership in the hip-hop crew Raider Klan. The group was the brainchild of Miami rapper Spaceghostpurrp, who built his own career as a rapper/producer by reanimating the corpse of '90s regional hip-hop—particularly of the West Coast and Memphis varieties. Although early on he gained a considerable amount of press for creating lo-fi retro raps—even signing a deal with indie label 4AD—Purrp has remained closer to a cult success, rather than anything resembling crossover. His wasn't too far from the original A$AP Mob fanbase: Internet-savvy weirdos fetishizing cassette tapes and the mystique of lo-fi sonics, replicating the flows of early eras, caught up in the cachet of Clinton-era rap ephemera.
The true mark of his promise is the increasing sense of purposefulness to his work, as he marshals his influences and ideas in an effort to express something truly original.
Few rappers, give or take A$AP Rocky himself, have actually emerged from these subterranean Tumblr circles. But while Denzel is of that milieu, he now seems poised to transcend it. Curry's work has snapped suddenly into focus. It's not simply a matter of his skills improving, nor is it solely the marked improvement in sound quality between his older projects and Nostalgia 64. The true mark of his promise is the increasing sense of purposefulness to his work, as he marshals his influences and ideas in an effort to express something truly original.
It was this sense that first grabbed the attention of Mark Maturah, the 28-year-old former punchline MC who now manages the young artist. He first heard Denzel Curry's music when the rapper was 16 years old. Spaceghostpurrp linked to Curry's early single "Creep Creep" on Twitter in December 2011. But the song that really grabbed Maturah's attention came later.
"'Strictly 4 My Raiders'—there's a video they shot all by themselves, and that's before I even stepped in," says Maturah. "The video, he wrote the treatment himself, they shot it themselves. I was amazed, these high school kids were doing some pretty dope stuff on their own."
But it wasn't just the presentation; it was the rapper's focus as well. "It was a 17-year-old kid talking about political stuff," says Maturah. "He kind of gave me the same energy or vibe I used to get from listening to 2Pac when I was younger, when I was a kid around that age. 'This goes out to the motherfuckin cops and to the punk police/Wanna see you pop a nigga, wanna see you drop a nigga, no justice no peace!' I'm just like, psssh...That's when I realized he had the potential to be something."
Of course, centering your worldview around politics can quickly become as cliche as the '90s Memphis cassette pastiche of Raider Klan. What Maturah identifies isn't mere conscious rap idealism, but a particular sensation that was once ingrained in the genre and is now missing, an "energy or vibe" he got from 2Pac. Strictly 4 My Raiderz was Curry's third release, and the first to contain the seeds of these ideas. By Nostalgia 64, his nostalgia was no longer for the surface-level textures of '90s rap tapes, but for more elusive impressions lost in hip-hop's past—and his own.
Denzel Curry's music, like that of many of the artists at work within his scene, is aggressive. But relative to most street rap, it's tinted with innocence. Where drill rappers in Chicago shouted out gangs and sets, Spaceghostpurrp and Curry were as likely to reference Dragon Ball Z or Mortal Kombat—the pop cultural artifacts that, like old rap tapes, they consumed with zeal. This isn't to suggest their lives are any less real, their aggression in response any less authentic. Just days before this interview, Denzel Curry's own brother Treon was killed by a policeman's taser. "He's lost seven people since we've been working on Nostalgia 64," said Maturah. "That's why all the songs that come out, you'll hear news clips in the background. Those are dedicated to his actual friends that have passed away. It sounds cliche as fuck, but he's from the hood. He uses music and art as an escape. I feel like it's him showing people you can be from this place, but you don't necessarily have to become this person all the time."
It isn't just Pac's class-conscious conscience Denzel Curry channels through his music. In addition to the traces of Memphis that remain, he adopts the right-brained bohemian spirituality of early OutKast (see the Nostalgia 64 cover art) and the psychedelic stoner eccentricity of mid-'90s Redman—although where Redman's flow was elastic, Curry hammers his lines with Lord Infamous triplets. Song concepts also flirt with a forgotten past; tracks like "Parents" recall stern mid-'90s community warnings like "Sally Got a One Track Mind" by Diamond D or "Slow Down" by Brand Nubian. His influences aren't limited to decades-old history; his biggest single to date, "Threatz," is packaged like a Brick Squad cut, a song of heft and immediacy. None of these influences are distanced exercises in form; instead, they feel like the natural expression of an artistic mind experimenting to fulfill the need of an unknowable internal ambition.
Interview by David Drake (@somanyshrimp)
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Where did you grow up? What was your family life like coming up?
I grew up in Carol City, Zone 3, for 19 years, in a house with four brothers, a mother and a father. My dad drives trucks and my old girl, she used to do stuff for stadiums. She's like security for stadiums, she gets to go to every game and stadium performance.
When you were growing up, did your parents listen to music a lot? Did you have a favorite record as a kid?
My parents were really into music. They would play the Funkadelics, Parliament, OutKast, they would just play that all around the house. They'd also play Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, James Brown. There were a couple of records that were a soundtrack to my life. I remember "Kick Push," that was one of my first ones before I stopped liking Lupe Fiasco, you feel me? But that was one of them. And then you had Outkast's "B.o.B." that shaped a part of me. I was listening to Gucci Mane, my older brother got me into Gucci Mane and Brick Squad a long time ago. Back when Gucci was doing No Pad No Pencil freestyles for Hood Affairs.
What was it like growing up in your neighborhood?
Everything was cool. Everything was fine until we got older. When we got older, that's when things got worse in my neighborhood.
How did you first get into performing music? Did you ever play an instrument?
I used to do poetry in elementary school. I used to just write. Then in sixth grade I got into trying to rap, and ended up going to this Boys & Girls Club where I met one of my good friends. His name is Premi. He was good at rapping at that time and he taught me how to rap and how to flow. I was so curious in learning how to rap and he was actually doing it. I was like, "This shit is raw." And it went from that to, "Oh yeah, you could do it too, just battle me." I would always lose. I would battle him back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, and I would always lose.
When we got older, that's when things got worse in my neighborhood.
Then I started listening to more music, stuff like Nas and Jay Z. Then I started listening to more Big L. His shit was crazy. Then people would show me other people like Necro. Then I had this weird-ass radio phase. Then all the niggas who was on the radio now sucks.
This was when Wale was coming out with "Nike Boots" and Kid Cudi was jumping out the gate. That's when they were doing the XXL Freshmen covers and you hear these guys on the radio like, "Damn I knew he was going to make it." But then you start to see their music change and it's like damn, this shit's not the same. I don't really fuck with it like I used to.
When did you decide to take it seriously?
Back in the day we had mp3s and you could record it. I would play the track in the background and rap and put it up on MySpace. Back when MySpace was popping.
How did you end up linking with Raider Klan?
It all dates back to when I went to this pussy ass school called DASH [Design Architecture Senior High]. [Laughs] I'm fucking with you. When I got kicked out of Dash it was a time in my life where everything was changing. My parents were separating, my brother was going to college so nobody was at the house, because my other brothers were doing other things. My brother, who's deceased, he'd be there but he'd leave and do advertising or do whatever he wanted to do.
Then I heard Blackland Radio 66.6, which was Spaceghostpurrp's mixtape, and I was like, "Yo, this shit is some crazy shit." A friend of mine, who is in Posh Gang, which is in Metro Zu, his name is Mike Dece, he was the one who put me on Spaceghostpurrp. So when I looked up Spaceghostpurrp, he said this line about this kid that got killed at the park down the street—Cassidy Park—named Jit. Come to find out, this nigga used to live in Carol City.
So you guys linked up at that point?
Yeah, I reached out to him with a drawing. I drew a picture of him and then I drew more drawings and was like, "I rap, too." Then it got to a point where I was really getting into Three 6 [Mafia] and I was like, "Lord Infamous is the shit!" God rest his soul, but he's the shit. So I started learning how to rap like him gradually, even getting to the point where I was nicknamed Little Lord Infamous.
What was the record you were really listening to from Three 6 Mafia?
"Grab The Gauge" [was what] I was really listening to at that point, "Now I'm High, Really High," "Chargin These Hoes." I was listening to Killa Klan Kaze's "Be A Witness," "Hard Not To Kill Niggas," and I really got into Tommy Wright as well. I was listening to "Runnin-N-Gunnin."
How did you come across this? These are pretty obscure tapes.
Honestly, my friend Sebastian, who makes Fiji [water] bandannas, he was the one who put me on that. I was getting into Three 6 Mafia on my own and he was like, "Yo, you ever heard of Tommy Wright?" Then he sent me Tommy Wright, and it was with him, Mac-T Dog, and La Chat before La Chat went with Hypnotized Minds. This is when I just had a mic and Audacity on my computer.
Had you started performing at this point?
When Purrp came back down, that's when we started doing live shows. When he came back down from New York. We connected weeks later after I made the first mixtape, King Remembered. When I did that tape, that's when he was like, "I'm finna come back to the hood."
Tell me about making your first mixtape.
It was just a compilation of tracks because I originally dropped the tape when it only had five tracks. I put it on everybody's page so people could check it out and then Mike Dece was like, "This shit is so hard, take it down, put more tracks on it, include me, and we're going to recreate the tracks."
What was the response like for that tape?
I dropped it on Spaceghostpurrp's page and fans were like, "What the fuck is this?" Then I started getting fans from that who were like, "Can I download this?" I was like, "You can listen to it but you can't download it." Once I made it downloadable, that's when I started to get press. Then I started working on another tape called King Of The Mischievous South which caught the attention of Earl Sweatshirt and some of the guys from Odd Future.
Raven miyagi and denzel curry out here— EARL (@earlxsweat) June 7, 2012
When did that happen?
That happened right after Tyler, The Creator mentioned Lil Ugly Mane. Next thing you know I got mentioned, after that PRXPR BXYS was getting mentioned, which was Mike Dece and Ruben Slikk. They was getting mentioned by Left Brain. Then they was playing Spaceghostpurrp's "Suck a Nigga Dick" at shows. Earl mentioned me on Twitter. That was my first big co-sign. I was never expecting that to happen. Plus, I'm a fan of Earl, to keep it G with you.
Have you gotten to meet him?
Yeah I met up with Earl like twice. Once two years ago and recently [at] SXSW. I met Taco too. Me and Mike G always been cool. When I come down to L.A. he really shows love and shit. He came to my very first show in L.A., then he came to my other show in L.A. and we met up at SXSW, so that's the homie right there. And he came through for a track. Look out for that.
Can you tell me a little bit about the development of each tape. What were you setting out to prove?
My skill. To prove what I could do creatively with my music and paint a picture of where I'm at. The [first tape] was a tribute to Three 6 Mafia and that old southern sound—you had stuff on there that was fast and slow, and then you had all that crazy shit. Then you had the second one which was like another tribute but it's better and crazier. You could hear the quality in there trying to get better, but it also don't sound like it's recorded on Audacity.
The third one was—around this time it was [the murder of] Trayvon Martin. He went to Carol City [High School], he's from the same hood. He was actually a fan of our music before he died. When I did Strictly For My Rvidxrz, I took a 2Pac approach to it [and began] shaping my sound even further.
[Trayvon Martin] went to Carol City, he's from the same hood. He was actually a fan of our music before he died.
What else were you listening to when you said you started changing your sound?
I heard Strictly For My N.I.G.G.A.Z. from 2Pac and that was the real inspiration. Like, "Damn, he's actually saying something about Latasha Harlins." I wanted to do the same thing for my tape. I was talking about Trayvon Martin because that's fucked up what they did to him and he still hasn't had no justice for that.
How did you know he was a fan of your music?
Two of his best friends are two of my homeboys. One of them named Michael and the other one's named Nick.
Going into your most recent tape, what changed about your sound going into that?
Lyricism. I had to make sure I was saying something. I couldn't just be saying anything anymore. If I have a message to send, I'm going to send it in the most creative and yet crazy way I can.
You hear that in the tape, too.
That's what I was doing. People had to feel me. Plus everybody who was around me was shining, so I feel like it was competitive. You had Banks, you had Purp, it was heavy and I wanted to be a heavy hitter. Even Simmie. That's how it got to that point where I was like, "Man, lyricism is a virtue and the quality. Fuck lo-fi. I want to do something with quality." That's when I started recording in a closet on a good ass mic. I was getting better at writing and telling stories.
My favorite track was "Parents," could you tell me what you were trying to get across in that?
Man, I was getting across that niggas need to learn how to raise their kids or they going to end up dead or gone. Or their lives will be just as fucked up as their parent's and then the cycle will continue. Once it continues past you, you have a whole generation that ain't shit.
What's your favorite track on the record?
It has to be "Mystical Virus 3." That was one of Lil Ugly Mane's last records because he said he was going to stop rapping. Mike G's on it, and I know Odd Future fucks with Lil Ugly Mane.
Let's talk about "Threatz," that's one of the biggest songs, obviously.
At first, I didn't even like that song, honestly. I felt like it wasn't me, but at the same time it was me. I really like performing that song.
Who do you see as your competition?
I'm not saying I'm challenging nobody, but at the same time I want to be not forgotten. Lyrically it would be Bank$, Simmie, Purrp, Nell, Rell. I think that's it. Those are niggas I'm looking out for.
What is it you like about Simmie's style in particular?
The way he projects how he sounds is just crazy. It reminds me of an old school Wayne. You know how Wayne sounds nasally? That's what Simmie sounds like.
What about Bank$, what do you like about his style?
His punchlines just hit you. That's how it was for me when I first heard Bank$: "Hit licks like Ed, Edd, and Eddy." [I was] like, "Oh shit! This guy just said ‘hit licks like Ed, Edd, and Eddy!'" He took cartoons and put them into bars that people will understand. Those TV bars, but most of it is real life. He be talking about some real life shit, too.
Mark [Maturah] mentioned that your fanbase on the West Coast is pretty big. Why do you think that is?
I can't even explain it. I don't even know. They just like it and want to follow it.
Do you think it's the Odd Future cosign?
I think so. Because they be playing our shit at their shows and the fact that Purrp was over there and Purrp would give them a hell of a show.
What do you have coming up? What've you been working on?
I'm dropping two tapes. Three-Two Zel is something [where] I'll mix songs and hopefully they'll play it on the radio, because I want to get radio play, too. I'm still going to support the underground, but I want to get further than the underground.
What's the second tape?
The second tape is Planet Shrooms. That one's going to be for my underground fans. Three-Two Zel is going to be for my new fans and people from the streets and Planet Shrooms is going to be for the underground fans.
I think most of the stuff down here gets slept on, n*ggas just don't know.
One thing I noticed about your last tape is you had really diverse flows. Where do you get your influence for that?
Lord Infamous, Outkast; I like how Andre 3000 switches it up. If you don't know how to switch it up, you're not versatile at all.
Who are your favorite rappers as far as that style?
Young Thug, Peewee Longway, mother fucking Gucci. I like Trick Daddy. I heard some of his "Dade County" shit and I like how he be doing his thing on his shit. Who else I could say I like right now? Migos is hard. I met Offset [of Migos] at SXSW backstage. He's cool people.
Since you mentioned Trick Daddy, are there any Florida rappers you remember growing up on?
Yeah, Gunplay, Trick Daddy most definitely, you had Ross when he was working on Port of Miami, you had Flo Rida before he did "Low" with T-Pain. When he did that he did a song that went "I don't want no cake on my birthday. I want my cake every day." You had Briscoe, he was coming up in a big way because he was coming with Wayne. You had Ice Berg; Piccalo, who started the "Stick Drill" movement.
Do you think these rappers are getting slept on in Florida right now?
Yeah. I think most of the stuff down here gets slept on, niggas just don't know. They come here and don't understand it. We have a culture, too. I don't know what it is, but for some reason Florida don't get a step in the door anymore.
So what kind of production do you listen to now? I know you mentioned the stuff that sounded really Memphis.
Yeah, but I had to stray away from that because once people start copying you, it's time to switch up. It's time to leave.
Who are you working on? Which producers?
Same ones that worked on the album with me and then some. Some new producers coming in from SXSW like Thelonius Martin and just a lot of people. I don't want to sound ignorant so I got to name a few. We met DKB, I'll be working with him sometime. Pyrvmids. At the end of the day you've got Metro Zu, you have Ronnie J, you have Ream. Hopefully Spaceghostpurrp.
Who are your five favorite rappers?
Andre 3000, Big Boi. Big L, Lord Infamous and one more... Shit, I've got to put Trick Daddy in there.