Denzel Curry: From the Land of AKs & Palm Trees

words by Eamon Whalen

photography by Adam DeGross

 

Denzel Curry has never been ice-skating. “It’s tight though right? It matches with my shoes,” says the twenty-year-old rapper cracking a gold-fronted smile and pointing to his green high-tops and the Minnesota Wild hockey jersey he just received from his unofficial host for this September weekend in Minneapolis, Bobby Raps. In a few hours Curry will open up for Mystikal, Murs and Prof, at the latter’s outdoor concert. Constant touring has been the reality for the South Floridian since his fire-starter of a song, “Threatz,” was released more than two years ago. But as he sits down in a leather armchair in the greenroom, his mind is on his beloved yet troubled neighborhood in Miami Gardens, Carol City, and the artistic void he’s trying to fill in its rap scene.

Hip hop is often regarded as an inextricably place-based art form, but the creative free-for-all of the internet has begun to chip away at the relevance of geography. “I’m Carol City to the bone,” says Curry. “People can get an understanding of how it looks and feels through my music.” That means a departure from the typical depictions of gaudy nightclubs and yachts in favor of a darker perspective that splits the difference between raw sociological realism and psychedelic surrealism. “Bet you Rozay, ain’t never ever heard no shit like this,” he raps on “Lord Vader Kush”, a song from his 2015 debut double EP, 32 Zel/ Planet Shrooms. The rapper Curry is referring to is Carol City’s Rick “Rozay” Ross who has been the face of South Florida rap for the past ten years, but is often preoccupied with opulence to a point of comedy. “I’m trying to expose my side of South Florida, because honestly I feel like people haven’t really done that yet,” says Curry.   

Miami Gardens, or “Blackland” was incorporated as a city in 2003, becoming the largest majority-African American municipality in Florida, and one of the largest in the nation. Sitting halfway between Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, Black residents began to move out of Miami’s inner-city into Miami Gardens in large numbers in the 1970s, as racist housing policies were repealed and the construction of the I-95 freeway left communities fragmented and displaced. Since then, what Miami rap icon Luther “Uncle Luke” Campbell once called a “Black Middle Class dream" has been starved by disinvestment, yet continues to grow as gentrification pushes mostly Black communities out of Miami’s urban core. The segregation has led Miami Gardens to have one of the highest murder rates in the nation—more so than Chicago and New York—especially among those Curry’s age. 

“I’m trying to expose my side of South Florida, because honestly I feel like people haven’t really done that yet”

“Murder Gardens” also has one of the most repressive police forces in the nation. A 2014 report by Fusion found that between 2008 and 2013, in a city with a population of 110,000, the police made 99,980 stops that did not lead to arrests, essentially criminalizing the town’s entire population. A former officer in the department recalled a supervisor directly ordering him to stop, “All Black males between 18-30.” A man named Earl Sampson was stopped over 200 times in the five-year period—the news reports regarding Sampson were sampled by Curry on the 32 Zel/ Planet Shrooms intro track. In February of 2014, 27-year-old Treon Johnson was tasered as he was taken into custody by Miami Gardens’ officers; he died from the resulting injuries. Treon was Curry’s older brother. 

“There’s no humanity, basically,” says Denzel soberly recalling Treon’s death and his own encounters with Miami Gardens PD. “I could get killed for making the slightest movement while someone else can do whatever they want.” The youngest of five brothers, Curry wrote poetry and was an avid drawer in elementary school. At twelve years of age he saw an older cousin pull up to his house in an old-school car with butterfly doors selling his own mixtapes. His father told him his cousin was a rapper. “I was telling my manager today actually, that right there got me into it,” he says. 

He began to rap in battles at his middle school and the Boys and Girls Club, soon taking to unheralded regional rappers from the 1990s. He became infatuated with the grim, mechanical, triplet-laced flow of Lord Infamous of Memphis’ Three 6 Mafia, as well as the horrific virtuosity of Sacramento’s Brotha Lynch Hung. He soon joined fellow Carol City rapper and producer SpaceGhostpurrp’s multi-state revivalist collective RVIDXR KLVN, making big ripples across the internet and South Florida. “No one was really doing the lo-fi, different shit in South Florida until Purp came. Then me and Yung Simmie and all these other niggas started having our own take on it,” explains Curry. At the time he took on two, of what has become an ongoing series of, pseudonyms, Raven Miyagi and Aquarius’Killa. 

RVIDXR KLVN built a cult following on Tumblr in the same milieu that made stars out of fellow DIY collectives like Odd Future and A$AP Mob. It provided the birth of the fan-base Curry is still cultivating, but four years later with RVIDXR KLVN disbanded, Curry can look back with a critical eye. “Everyone goes through one of those phases as a teenager where they want to be rebellious. When I was running with Purp and them, those were the years I was rebelling. I was listening to a bunch of Odd Future and Three Six Mafia. It was my dark time in life. But when we went our separate ways, I kept some of that sound.” 

His third mixtape before amicably leaving the collective was, Strictly 4 My R.V.I.D.X.R.Z. Though still rough around the edges, Curry focused his message. “I started to listen to more lyrical shit, where people would rap on key, but still add punchlines,” he explains. He took specific influence from Tupac’s, Strictly for my N.I.G.G.A.Z., reworking the album artwork and rapping militantly in response to the killing of his classmate at Carol City High School, Trayvon Martin, who was said to be a fan of Curry’s music.

“I was just thinking that it could’ve been any of us. We had mutual friends,” Curry recalls back to the time of Martin’s death. He participated in a walk-out at Carol City High that was featured across national news. “Everyone came to school in black hoodies. I had my hoodie, and a poster of Trayvon Martin that I drew myself. We were trying to bum-rush to get out of the school.” Lines from the mixtape’s title track like, “Coppers wanna take your life more than you wanna take mine, let’s start a revolution everybody grab a nine,” rapped so coldly and cleanly by the 17-year-old caught the attention of Mark Maturah, an older Carol City rapper who now serves as Curry’s manager. “You look at me wrong because of my ethnicity but it’s like I’m a human being, you’re a human being, we both make mistakes. Let’s get past that,” Curry says of Martin’s murder.

He began to “get serious about music” his senior year of high school, releasing his debut album, Nostalgic 64 a few months after graduation. “I realized, rapping is just an art form, I wanted people to take me seriously as an artist, period,” he says of the project, one that boasted songs written with a concentrated conceptual follow-through. There was the introduction of his devious, new acid-tab-popping alter ego, Denny Cascade, the walloping memorial to his district in “Zone 3,” the cautionary social commentary of “Parents,” and the aforementioned, “Threatz.” Tales of fallen friends and killer cops were contrasted with a collage of pop culture, from Star Wars to Adult Swim to Mortal Kombat to Jackie Chan, Nickelodeon and Marvel Comics, all filtered through an acid trip.

Curry’s most recent reinvention of himself, 32 Zel/Planet Shrooms, is an explicit exploration of this duality. Dedicated to his brother Treon and friend Tiarra Grant, who was murdered in 2013, the project is a love letter to Carol City. On it’s abrasive, hyper-localized first half 32 Zel (the title is a combination of his name and his street, 32nd Avenue), Curry raps at the top of his lungs with an intensity that may seem excessive if it wasn’t harnessed by a deft lyrical agility. On the second half Planet Shrooms he recreates Carol City in his own image, where the voices are distorted, the beats are spacier, the drugs are stronger and the sex is intergalactic. Curry embraces both sides of his brain as essential to his appeal. “I know what fans and people liked me for. I’m going to show you the trippiest shit, but I’m still going to have that Black militant image,” he says.

The EP is also the best synthesis of his influences up until this point, exchanging the surface mining of his past projects for a deeper excavation. His delivery retains some of the rigid dexterity that came with his emulation of Lord Infamous, but is freer in form, pivoting unexpectedly and effortlessly into a new rhyme pattern mid-verse. The abrasive truth-to-power zeal of Tupac remains in lines like, “Don't need a gun to get respect up on the street. Under the sun the bastard son will pop the glock to feed himself and family,” on "Ultimate," a standout on 32 Zel. 

"I’m going to show you the trippiest shit, but I’m still going to have that Black militant image”

But most of all Curry’s willingness to channel his innermost thoughts and create his own world within his music recalls that of the Dungeon Family. The influence is made direct on “Past The Wudz,” named for Outkast’s, “Ova Da Wudz,” where Curry’s Big Boi-esque slick syllables glide over a swampy ATLiens inspired instrumental. The song ends with a rare, stirring spoken word verse by the spiritual father of the Dungeon Family, Big Rube. When asked of the song Curry pauses, then recites his verse in whole, pausing for emphasis on a section that grapples with the prospect of faith in the midst of struggle:

Black and white world stinks, that’s Pepe Le Pew
Should I ask God himself was this all ‘cause of you?
If Lucifer’s out there, are you after me too?
And if I’m not allowed into heaven, would you rapture my crew?
Snooze, catching Z’s, look forgot to cop a plea
But as far as god goes I would that god’s deceased
Wait, I would say that gods in me 

 “I give my soul, they were giving out soul. I look up to Outkast and Goodie Mob, that’s my word,” Curry says of the connection he feels to the Atlanta legends. Before 32 Zel/ Planet Shrooms was released, Curry met Andre 3000 while the latter was promoting his famous message-adorned jumpsuits at an art gallery in Miami. As he recalls the pivotal meeting, Curry becomes the most animated at any point in the interview:

"I picked three questions to ask him. ‘What kept you relevant? Why different personas in each album? And what kept you going?’ He said, ‘I just got bored. Never get bored and never let people tie you down to anything because you can do anything you want.’ I told him about the Big Rube verse and he was like, ‘What’s your name?’ I was like, ‘Denzel Curry, you may not know me now but you’re going to hear about me.’ After that I went home and cried because I met my idol and he was cool as shit. That changed my life." 

After this life-changing encounter Curry began the formation of his newest self. He got his hair twisted into the free-growing locks he now wears, and combined all of his personas, Aquarius Killa, Raven Miyagi and Denny Cascade into the Ultimate Denzel Curry. He says:

"Outkast had different personalities. Like Andre had Dukie Blossom and Ice Cold, then Big Boi had Daddy Fat Sax, Lucious Left Foot and General Patton. Ultimate is finally me, that’s all of them combined. My energy changed, the way I looked at shit changed. Even the way I rapped began to morph. Now I can do anything."

It’s this benign neglect of boundaries that makes Curry one of today’s most exciting young rappers, and that suggests his best work is still in front of him. Despite his far-wandering mind, Curry is still grounded in Carol City, committed to making his vision of his neighborhood a worldwide phenomenon. An upcoming headlining European tour and recent collaboration with Korean rapper Keith Ape suggest he’s doing just that. As he says of his next project, the aptly named Imperial, “I’m just trying to take over the world, but if I can’t change South Florida, I can’t change the world.”