To most Americans, Orlando, Florida, serves one purpose and one purpose only as home to Walt Disney World and a handful of surrounding theme parks/Polaroid flash fly traps. “That’s what they advertise, for the most part,” laments Armstrong, Orlando’s preeminent street rapper, which is a thing that exists. “The people who go to Disney World never really make it into the heart of the city.”
Armstrong is speaking, of course, of the proverbial hood. Ask anybody who grew up in the hood to describe their hood and they’re going to tell you the same thing: it’s hood. “The same shit that go on in major cities around the world is the same shit going on here,” he continues. “The murders, the strip clubs, all that shit is the same exact shit.” (Leading urban scholar DJ Quik proposed roughly the same theory with his “Just Like Compton”.) Hidden behind The Most Magical Place On Earth™, lies yet another one of the tragically hood Anyhood, USAs. And prior to finding rap music, Armstrong might’ve been just another one of its victims.
Hailing from the Richmond Heights neighbourhood on the city’s west side, Armstrong takes his name from a shooting that permanently limited motion in his right arm. Strong has been in the proverbial streets since adolescence – he was kicked out of middle school when he was caught with cocaine – and he found his way into the music game shortly thereafter. Back then, the former hustle was his full-time gig and the latter was more of a hobby. Strong went to prison on charges stemming from an armed burglary in 2007 and that’s where he stayed until 2011. But while he was incarcerated, his music travelled and his rep in the local rap scene swelled somewhere to the size of his rep in the streets.
This, combined with the weight of incarceration, was something of a wake up call for the rapper. When he returned home he put all his weight into his music career and now stands as the most visible artist at the centre of a minor renaissance in Orlando rap. Along with contemporaries like Flav Rock, Mook Boy and Killa Creepa, Armstrong has been racking up YouTube views by showing a certain restrained aggression. It’s a more writerly and sometimes more mature take on the goon rap being produced by Waka Flocka Flame or Chief Keef. This could be a reflection of the fact that these acts skew older than their street rap contemporaries in other cities.
Strong himself is 30 now, rocking with a grizzled flow in the lineage of Scarface or Juvenile, and like those predecessors Strong specialises in tempering uncompromising headbuster music with ever the slightest hint of social awareness. Which isn’t to say he’s a conscious rapper, far from it. “645”, arguably his biggest hit to date and probably the best refinement of the Armstrong persona, finds him spitting with a chilling menace over a piano loop jacked from Van Halen’s emotionally exploitative mega-hit turned Crystal Pepsi anthem “Right Now”, making passionate pleas to “save the children” and telling sharply graphic dope game tales in the same breath.
He’s seemingly writing from past experience alone. Today, Armstrong says he’s focused on his music career, being a dad (he’s a father of four, the eldest being his 16 year-old daughter), jet-skiing, reading self-help books by the likes of Dennis Kimbro and Russell Simmons and on writing a street-oriented one of his own. “It’s to the point where you won’t even get Armstrong to steal cable,” he says. “What you put into this world is like a boomerang, so I try to put out a positive energy to get the same thing back.”
Armstrong is certainly not the first hip hop artist to emerge from behind the shadows of those mouse ears. Throughout the 90s, DJ Magic Mike sold trunk-loads of records with his own speaker shredding take on Miami bass and the 69 Boyz found some success in a similar, even poppier lane with their 1994 hit “Tootsee Roll”. This has long been the fate of the city. Though it’s separated from Miami by a few hundred miles, Orlando’s music scene has historically been eclipsed by that city’s sound and image, struggling to form an national identity of its own. But ask Strong the first rapper he remembers representing the street side of Orlando that he came up in and one name does come up: Grandaddy Souf.
Born in the Parramore District, an historically African American neighbourhood in Orlando’s downtown with its roots dating back into the 1800s, Grandaddy Souf found his earliest success with the 2000 track “Savage Journey (Fuck The Law)”. Self-released on Souf’s own Parra Mo Records, the track was inspired by Souf getting charged with aggravated assault against a police officer (he maintains his innocence) and amplified by a western cinema binge. So, he first modernised (and southernised) NWA’s “Fuck The Police” vision, and then thrust it backwards though the lens of the wild west – a country-tinged beat and a landscape of gold-toothed horses, titty bar saloons, etc, etc. The hook wasn’t quite as high concept as the song itself – “I don’t give a fuck about the law/law don’t give a fuck about me” – and it isn’t difficult to see why it connected.
Souf’s debut album, Da Drought, followed, splitting the difference between strip club-bred shit-talking and the more soulful and introspective post-Dungeon Family/Eightball & MJG strain of Southern rap that was lightly popping before Lil Jon came through and crushed the nuance. The project sold 30,000 units independently and Souf, like so many of his peers, got swept up in the major label’s rush to cash in on the Dirty South craze. He landed a deal at Steve Rifkind’s Loud Records just in time to see it collapse, then remained with the mogul when he later launched his SRC imprint at Universal. There he was handcuffed by label politics for the better part of the decade, releasing crunk-leaning singles like “Run It” and “Keep Em Coming Back”, but failing to find much commercial traction. He also spent a stint in Memphis recording with Three 6 Mafia’s Hypnotize Camp Posse, but very little came of those sessions.
In 2007, he finally released his above-ground debut, Chasing My Dream. The album reflected the protracted struggle of its creation, with Souf aiming for the sort of thoughtfully executed duality that labelmate David Banner had found some success with, but mostly just ending up with a muddle of ideas. Still, its high points were quite high: the title track is a detailed break down of Souf’s industry woes and “Gospel” offered a wide-frame sociopolitical conspiracy thesis that would make Goodie Mob proud. “If they’ve got the brains to send a man to space oh you can believe they got a cure for AIDS/they don’t rehabilitate inmates just and treat em like modern day slaves.”
Unsurprisingly, the album went mostly unnoticed and put Souf back where he started, running the same type of underground mixtape hustle that acts like Armstrong are dominating today. The law caught up to Souf eventually, too – according to his sparsely updated Twitter account, he’s currently serving a prison sentence.