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How Miami rap made overindulgence the new baseline

Denzel Curry, City Girls, 2 Live Crew and Trina. Collage by Jackie Lay / NPR.
Sipa USA via AP / Bennett Raglin / Michael Ochs Archives / Erika Goldring
Getty Images / AP
Denzel Curry, City Girls, 2 Live Crew and Trina. Collage by Jackie Lay / NPR.

As it celebrates its 50th birthday, we are mapping hip-hop's story on a local level, with more than a dozen city-specific histories of the music and culture. Click here to see the entire list.

It is, perhaps, the most Miami thing ever that the sound upon which its entire hip-hop scene was built was an accident born of cocaine and strippers in the '80s. In the VIP booth, loose off several bottles of champagne and high as a horse, producer Amos Larkins II lost track of time in the company of a beautiful woman, he told the Miami New Times. He invited her to the studio at Sunnyview Records, where he was mixing a record called "Commin' in Fresh." He was playing with the 808 bass settings to record on the tape, but got caught up in her dancing. They left the room with the tape running. Afterward, prepping the record for the mastering lab, he turned the music down low because he was too "fogged out" to listen. At the end of that week, when the record went out locally, he heard it: the over-compressed sound that would soon be known as Miami bass. His excess-fueled mistake was quickly adopted around town. If the outlandish mythos surrounding Miami contains some truth, it is also a scene full of innovators, sometimes even involuntarily.

The first of these innovators to break through, using Larkins' patented sound, was 2 Live Crew, a group of horndogsled by concert promoter turned ringmaster Luther Campbell, or Uncle Luke. After managing the group's original lineup, he eventually signed them to his label, joined them as a performer, and became their mouthpiece through many controversies. 2 Live Crew didn't invent dance music, but they were pioneers of ass-shakin' music, and blazed other trails along the way (one of the group's co-founders, Fresh Kid Ice, was the first prominent Asian rapper). Still, their foremost contribution was debauchery, using Miami bass in the spirit under which it was born. It's strange even now to imagine a song like "Me So Horny," which looped the dialogue of a prostitute character from the film Full Metal Jacket as the group's members made nearly pornographic reference to their sexcapades, being played on radio in H.W. Bush's America.


By 1988's Move Somethin', the group was in an all-out war over the right to obscenity. A record store clerk was cited for selling the album to an undercover cop. When As Nasty as They Wanna Be became a massive success in 1989, Christian fundamentalists at the American Family Association appealed to Florida's governor to find legal grounds for banning the sale of the album. One Broward County sheriff received probable cause from the Circuit Court. Soon, a U.S. district court followed suit. Three members were arrested performing the album at a club in Hollywood, but they were soon acquitted; the district court ruling was overturned and the Supreme Court denied an appeal from Broward County. Campbell, who claimed to have spent $1 million in legal fees, called the decision made in the group's favor a victory for the First Amendment, and it was. There were, of course, good reasons to find 2 Live Crew's music distasteful, but this, more specifically, was a landmark win for hip-hop culture in a never-ending battle against puritanical values.

Preserving the right to be nasty, or even crude, would be crucial for all rap, but especially the Miami rap that would follow "Me So Horny." MC Luscious inverted the 2 Live Crew model on her Boom! cover, with sculpted men in speedos posing before her like Greek statues. Luke Records' own Poison Clan added to the canon with "Shake Whatcha Mama Gave Ya," DJ Laz journeyed further into bass with songs like "Stick Out Your Butt," and Jacksonville's 69 Boyz got in on the action with "Tootsee Roll." In coaxing the raunch of Miami's club circuit to the surface, Luke inspired another concert promoter, Ted Lucas, to follow his lead and start Slip-n-Slide Records. Lucas was a child of bass music who once said Luke "opened the doors for us to dream." He wanted outsiders to understand that there was more to Miami and Miami rappers — that the place wasn't all parties, and that the rappers could really rap, too.

Slip-n-Slide was built on the memory of a man named Derek Harris, known to his friends as Hollywood, who had given Lucas the boost to start the label. When Hollywood was gunned down in a parked Buick in 1994, Lucas, his best friend, his girlfriend Katrina Taylor — or simply Trina — and his imprisoned older half-brother, Maurice Young, all convened in his wake. Lucas signed Young to a deal, and after his debut as Trick Daddy Dollars failed to move the needle in 1997, the rapper asked the effortlessly charismatic Trina to perform on a song he was working on called "Nann."

Trick Daddy held it down for Southern thugs, carrying 2 Live Crew's provocations through to the boorish "Shut Up" and the singalong "I'm a Thug." But it was Trina who truly did justice to the group's vulgarity and irreverence, only with far more style and personality. She was the voice snapping back for all the women they'd catcalled. Her confidence was overwhelming. Magazines didn't really know what to make of her: "Trina shows female MCs can boast just like the big boys of rap," Billboard wrote. But she wasn't fighting to be part of a braggadocious boys' club; she was actively trying to pull one over on them, using femme-fatale feminism to secure a lavish lifestyle for herself. Being the classy diamond princess and being nasty weren't at odds in her world — both contributed equally to her being the baddest b****. Trina's standards became a code of conduct for Poe Boy Entertainment's Jacki-O a few years later and for next-gen baddies like the scammer duo City Girls.

The Miami metropolitan area, collectively known as South Florida, and including Miami-Dade and Broward counties, has rapidly evolved into a hotbed of rap activity since the 2000s. As hip-hop flooded the airwaves nationwide, Pitbull and Flo Rida ascended to pop-rap glory — Pitbull, a Luke Records alum, not-so-subtly transitioning from Mr. 305 to Mr. Worldwide (a showman for the everyman), and Flo Rida, marked by some as a Nelly impersonator, sanitizing freaky local club rap for soccer moms and their kids. (Pitbull, early in his career, brought the spirit of 2 Live Crew to Miami's vibrant Latin community with singles like "Culo" and "Ay Chico.") As they grew steadily more omnivorous, another kind of performer set out to play the scene's Tony Montana, or rather its Alejandro Sosa. Theaspiring mogul Rick Ross, who hovered around Trick Daddy in the early 2000s before signing to Slip-n-Slide, was fashioning himself in the image of his namesake, a man who sold coke by the metric ton. Ross had a fascination with grandeur and the aesthetics of affluence, embodied by his embrace of the super-luxury car the Maybach. His "Maybach Music" came to be defined by an exquisite ear, especially for local production talent: On his first two albums alone, Ross drafted Cool & Dre, The Runners, DJ Nasty & LVM, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League and a DJ named Khaled who, in the late '90s, had co-hosted a radio show on WEDR with Uncle Luke.

Rappers have rarely told the whole truth, but Rick Ross helped close the door on "authenticity" in street rap. His is a particular kind of kayfabe, one as reliant on chest-thumping melodrama as impeccable taste. He seems to marry Miami's narcotic image with its aspirational hustler culture. "Most people come down here expecting that South Beach s***," the Carol City rapper Denzel Curry said in 2014. "It's not just that. We got hoods too." In keeping with the grander Slip-n-Slide mission, a series of more traditional Trick-like thugs established a stronger representation for those hoods in the '10s — yowling technician Gunplay, bulldozer Ace Hood, saucy swindler Brisco and, most recently, super-gremlin Kodak Black — but Curry and another rapper from Carol City, SpaceGhostPurrp, had a bit more to say and do. As members of Raider Klan, they brewed up a dark, lo-fi sound called phonk, inspired by Three 6 Mafia and DJ Screw but anchored by native bluster. With producer Ronny J, Curry took bass-boosting to new levels. Both sounds massively influenced the SoundCloud generation, with many of its rappers hailing from Florida.

In 2019, Curry, already a Miami legend in his own right, released ZUU, an ode to not only local rap, but Miami itself. "A real-ass n**** from the 305 / I was raised off of Trina, Trick, Rick, and Plies," he explained. True to those influences, the music pulled from Miami bass and phonk, channeled coke-rap blockbusters and woofer-rattling Ronny J beats, petitioned for ass-shakin' and eulogized a Miami Gardens flea market. ZUU is the only album in Curry's catalog that isn't looking ahead, thinking about what comes next. Instead, it relishes Miami's unique sense of place, and its many innovations. It is cocaine and strippers, thugs and hoods, speedboats and excess, the swagger and skill and celebration of "the U," a nonstop blowout experienced across time.

All Local Rap icons.
All Local Rap icons.

Where to start with Miami rap

  • JT Money & Solé, "Who Dat" (1999)
  • Trick Daddy, "I'm a Thug" (2001)
  • Trina, "B R Right" [ft. Ludacris] (2002)
  • Pitbull, "Ay Chico (Lengua Afuera)" (2006)
  • Rick Ross, "Maybach Music III" [ft. T.I., Jadakiss, and Erykah Badu] (2010)
  • SpaceGhostPurrp, "Get Yah Head Bust" (2012)
  • Gunplay, "Bible on the Dash" (2012)
  • Kodak Black, "No Flockin" (2014)
  • City Girls, "P**** Talk" [ft. Doja Cat] (2020)
  • Denzel Curry, "X-Wing" (2022)
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Sheldon Pearce
    [Copyright 2024 NPR]

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