Music News

South Florida Hip-Hop: We Global

They wanna know why South Florida is runnin' shit right now," Rick Ross howls into a microphone during a recent performance as sweat drips from his brow. " 'Cause we got hits man!" And with that, his DJ drops the beat for "Hustlin'," Ross' megawatt single that propelled him straight from Carol City to rap's mainstream three years ago. As the drums and surging bass line in the song's intro blare through the speakers, there's a palpable energy building inside of Café Iguana, erupting as Ross starts rapping, and the club turns into a churning urban mosh pit.

Part of the excitement in the crowd is that the stage area looks like a BET video full of local-gone-national music celebrities. Brisco, who calls himself the Opa Locka Goon, is off to Ross' left; Flo Rida, in the rear, has stripped off his shirt (naturally); and Ace Hood is just minutes away from grabbing the mic and doing his own performance. From the looks of things, South Florida truly is "runnin' shit," with songs being churned out that are already all over the radio — nationally and globally.

As 2008 draws to a close, it's notable that a good number of musicians who live here had successful releases across all genres. Groups like Spam Allstars, Rachel Goodrich, Locos Por Juana, and others had a great year and racked up more national press than a publicist could ask for. But undeniably, rappers from this region stepped up their game exponentially, and the entire country responded favorably. Looking at the heavy-hitters alone, acts like Plies, Lil Wayne, Flo Rida, Ross, Ace Hood, Trina, and Trick Daddy, no one could argue that Florida rap isn't on top. Throw in tastemakers like DJ Khaled; the prince of Auto-Tune himself, T-Pain; and all of the producers who live here and it's obvious that the Gunshine State is unequivocally winning the battle for rap supremacy.

There was a time at the beginning of the millennium when the hip-hop epicenter of America was Atlanta. No other city in the country was producing as many stars, and the songs on the radio all reflected it. In 2008, Atlanta ceded supremacy to Florida. Miami's Flo Rida seemingly popped up out of nowhere when his hit song "Low" was released at the end of last year. Based on the success of that single, which was nearly omnipresent at the start of the year, and his album Mail on Sunday, selling more than half a million copies around the world, Rida is now an established artist. Last month, he was one of only three Americans invited to perform at the first MTV African Music Awards in Nigeria.

DJ Khaled of 99 Jamz (WEDR-FM) had an especially good 2008 — not only because he released We Global, an album featuring practically every major figure in hip-hop, but also because he introduced America to Ace Hood, the biggest rap star ever from Broward County. For someone like Hood (born Antoine McCollister), 2008 was most likely the best year of his life. The 20-year-old Deerfield Beach native has a record deal with Def Jam via Khaled's We the Best label and two music videos (soon to be three) on rotation nationally.

Just a year and a half ago, Hood was broke, his car was repossessed, and he was living with his mother. But he had a trump card up his sleeve: This is currently the best place to succeed as an aspiring rapper in the country. Now that his debut album, Gutta, is in stores, he's given American yet another reason for to focus its attention here.

When asked if he thinks 2008 has been the best year ever for South Florida rap, Hood pauses and then agrees. "Yeah, I would say it's a lot of people who came out and definitely did they thing as artists," he says. "2008 has been incredible for us. I feel like we actually do have the upper hand."

So what brought about the shift? "Honestly, it's just a lot of great music being put out from here right now," Hood continues. "It's our point in time. We putting out what the people want to hear. We know how the economy is nowadays. You look at me putting out a record like Stressin', records that regular people can relate to. We not just giving you music for the ears and for the soul but motivational music as well. I feel like that's why [South Florida] is in the lead right now. We create music for the people. Not just me, but I'm speaking for the whole movement."

Burgeoning rap star Plies of Fort Myers is featured on Stressin', a cathartic track about overcoming obstacles. Plies has built his career on being the voice of the underclass. It's that audience nationwide that's responding. His album, Definition of Real, released in June, sold roughly 214,000 units its first week in stores — and that was back when gas was over $4 a gallon. At a time when record sales have plunged into the sewers (they were still whirling around the toilet-bowl a few years ago), Florida rappers are eating well. Between album sales and digital ringtones, the success of rappers in South Florida single-handedly kept major labels like Atlantic and Universal afloat. Consider us the financial bail-out plan for the record industry.

Hip-hop's current golden boy, Lil Wayne, who has called Miami home for the past three years, is nominated for eight Grammys, more than any other artist. His album Tha Carter III was recorded mainly in South Florida, using producers from these parts as well. Jim Jonsin, a well-known hip-hop and R&B producer based in Parkland, is up for five Grammys. He produced two of the biggest hip-hop singles of the year: Lil Wayne's "Lollipop," featuring Static/Major, and T.I.'s "Whatever You Like."

When Hood uses the word "movement," it's most likely meant in a general sense, but the reality is right there in front of us. The bulk of these artists have major releases planned for 2009 already. Is it too early to predict another year of success on this scale? Possibly so. The music industry can change at whim. But from a business standpoint, the infrastructure is here, the foot soldiers are here, and there's ample reason to believe that South Florida rap is going to be "runnin' shit" for quite a while.

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Jonathan Cunningham