Interview: Denzel Curry on Trayvon Martin, NWA and South Florida

One simple phrase hangs eerily at the tail-end of Denzel Curry’s Nostalgic 64 album: “Life’s no game.” Though the album’s title might suggest a playful attitude, the 19-year-old rapper’s first proper studio LP is – for the most part – a dead serious affair. From his beginnings as a Memphis sound-mining Raider Klan representative, Curry’s latest effort sees him blossom into an accomplished storyteller with an eye for detail.

A recent graduate of Miami Carol City High, Curry crossed paths with Trayvon Martin, who also attended the school for two years before being shot and killed in February 2012. Curry’s music voices the frustration of a demographic that has been subjected to injustice and violent conditions too long to know any different. Yet Nostalgic 64 resonates as neither fatalistic nor glorifying: A profound sense of reflection underscores his depictions of life in South Florida.

Check out a track from Denzel’s forthcoming Planet Shrooms EP below.

What was your vision going into the Nostalgic 64 album? What did you want to achieve?

I wanted to create something that people would remember me for. Something that one day people will look back on and say, “This is great.” I wanted to create something great for my city. Put my city on the map.

So how do you want to represent Miami?

I want to be able to just show the culture down here. I want to show what it is, what it’s really like in Miami, cause that’s my territory. Depending on how you live, you got your Haitians living in Little Haiti in North Miami and you’ve got Carol City where I’m from and where my friends are from. I wanted to show the culture of all that shit, because most people come down here expecting that South Beach shit, you know what I’m saying? It’s not just that. We got hoods too. We gotta fight down here and I want everyone to see that shit.

The album ends with a thought-provoking song, “A Day in the Life of Denzel Curry Part 2,” which sounds like it’s very personal.

All that shit, that’s real. Everything that I said in that song is real.

From the way it sounds, it almost reminded me a little bit of Outkast, in a sense. Maybe it was also in combination with the artwork, but it sort of took me back to Aquemini.

Yeah, Outkast played a real big role in my life. It was a household thing. My parents love Outkast and shit and so does my brother. So that pretty much grew on me and inspired me to draw my own artwork for the cover. The Aquemini artwork was genius to me. And it just happened to correlate with the shit I was doing.

The album also sounds well-paced, with tracks like “Benz” and “Denny Cascade” coming in towards the end of the album. There’s a lighter feel on those last tracks, compared to the rest of the album.

Yeah, because you can’t have just all straight dark shit. Then they’re gonna classify you. If you can show that you can do dark and light, come up with different blows, then you’re versatile. That’s what it is, man.

Around the time you were recording the album, you also split from Raider Klan. What motivated your split?

Well, I can’t really ... I don’t really want to speak on that. There was situations happening, disagreements happening, so I chose to stay away from that. I just stepped away because I didn’t want to make enemies with people I know.

Do you feel like that helped you to come out on your own and just really create what you wanted?

Well, yeah, but don’t get me wrong, I’m still cool with Klan. Me and Simmie are like brothers. I’m still chilling with Simmie and Nell and them. I got no problem. I don’t really talk to Purrp anymore. We see each other on the scene and it’s not no hate thing, it’s like, “Okay. What’s up? How you doing?” And then we just go about our ways, man.

Well, that’s good that there’s no bad blood there. One thing I also want to bring up is what Purrp said in a short Raider Klan documentary some time ago. He says, about Miami: “The city is no different than LA in the ‘90s.”

It’s really not. We had riots, just like they had riots. We had folks shooting up other folks with AKs and shit. I was 12 or 13 the first time I heard somebody get shot with an AK. I heard shit like that. Shit is no different. N**s be rioting. Sometimes SWAT guys come in and shit. Back in the day, when my dad was growing up, they had riots. They had the Liberty City riots and shit. That shit used to get hella crazy. It’d be all-out warfare. It’s still like that to this day, but it’s kind of calmed down some. You still got people shooting each other up because they’re from different sections or different neighbourhoods. When one person gets into beef, others will inherit it. It’s a South Florida thang.

A lot of that also echoes on your album. There are lots of rough and dark tales about what’s happening in South Florida. Is that something that you examine critically, or do you approach it more like, “Hey, this is what I see and this is what I’m telling you, because...”

“Thug” is the new way of saying, “n**r.”

I examine this shit in Florida because n*s is out here just not giving a fuck. A na down the street from my crib got shot in the head. He died! You know what I’m saying? It happens all the time. People getting shot, people doing time. A close friend of mine, who just passed away recently, got hit 17 times. I hung out with her two days before she got murdered. There was this other dude, another friend of mine, he got hit about 20 times. Those bullets ... it was terrible, because those were meant for somebody else. A lot of shit is going down out here. I’ve actually witnessed somebody getting shot in a McDonalds before, and they died. It’s all real shit. I’m not gonna bullshit. All this shit has been going down for years and that’s why this city is what it is now. N*s call this shit Murder Gardens because the crime rate is so high.

I’m not gonna say it will never change. All I’m saying is, you know, the city, it’s hot, it boils and then it cools down. N*s need to learn how to stick together and learn that at the end of the day, we’re a minority and they want us to do this shit. They want us to fuck up! I’m not letting that happen. I’m for damn sure not gonna let a n* take my life because he’s fucking up.

You have a particular connection, also, to the Trayvon killing and that’s something where I feel like the world – probably for the first time in years – actually heard about all the fucked up shit going on in South Florida. How the system is designed to let people get away with shit like that; with just killing innocent teenagers.

Yeah, people do get away with shit like that. South Florida is like a really fucked up place. If you get killed, oftentimes there is no justice. When n*s die down here, they rarely punish someone. This [murder of Trayvon Martin] is a situation where they got the killer but they don’t wanna punish him because the victim was a, quote unquote, “thug.” “Thug” is the new way of saying, “nr.” It’s like, we fight and shit, and go to jail, but then someone kills a kid and he doesn’t go to jail. That’s fucked up! It’s really fucked up! Then you can’t tell me shit about the American justice system because that’s how it works out here. N*s don’t give a fuck!

There’s kind of a discussion about what’s going on in Chicago right now, because there...

Yeah, Chicago is really crazy right now.

There are certain parallels and there’s this discussion about how the so-called drill scene centered around Chief Keef and them, how they’re continuing that kind of representation also, through the music they’re making.

N*s like Chief Keef and Lil Herb and Lil Bibby, those ns speak the truth. They know what the fuck is going down and they represent how it is. You can tell how these ns seen some shit. It’s not like they’re being bad role models. They didn’t tell ns to follow them. N*s just started following them. They’re doing what they’ve been doing. They’re speaking about their existence. People may think they’re ignorant, but think about it.

They’re speaking about their existence. People may think they’re ignorant, but think about it.

Look where they came from. I’m just saying, they’ve seen some shit growing up. I actually met [Chicago rapper] Fredo Santana about two years ago at the Smokers Club Tour when they came down here to Florida. He is actually a really cool guy. All these guys, they’re telling you what it really is. What they wanted to do was what they had to do and it just stuck.

I feel like that’s just a flawed public perception that goes back to the early days of gangsta rap. With NWA coming out of L.A. in the late ‘80s, people were pointing fingers, saying, “Look at these guys, they’re bad.” When they were actually just speaking on what’s going on around them.

NWA, they were saying shit that everybody wanted to say, but couldn’t say. It was radical, to a certain degree. They got the FBI to talk to them and be like, “Yo you can’t do this ...” which caused the FBI to watch them, you feel me? It was radical and what most people fear is revolution. That’s the thing. That’s what they’re scared of.

Going back to the Trayvon shooting and the tension that was in the air around the time – did you ever feel like something major was about to pop off at that stage?

I feel like, if all of us stick together, they can’t run us.

Well, you know, now it’s a new age. Nobody ain’t gonna do shit. Maybe they’ll march for it and try to raise awareness, but nothing is gonna happen. The only thing that could have happened is a chain reaction. If someone had taken out Zimmermann, there would have been a war. Shit would have gone crazy.

But do you think the fact that there was such an outrage is maybe also a step in the right direction? That more people are starting to realize the level of injustice that’s going on in Florida?

I like how everybody came together when that whole Trayvon thing happened. I feel like, if all of us stick together, they can’t run us. You feel me? If we do everything ourselves, we don’t get trapped in their system. If we do get trapped, they’re just gonna keep winning. We gotta stop that at the root. Enough is enough.

By Anthony Obst on February 24, 2014

On a different note