Denzel Curry wasn't even out of high school when he got his first taste of the big time. He was invited by warehouse party promoter Adam Weiss to play one of his Ham on Everything throwdowns in Los Angeles. He was flown out from his hometown, Miami ("I never been on a flight. Spirit sucked, by the way"), was paid $500 and had an audience of people who knew his music from the internet.
"It was rare for me to get laid at this time. I got laid that night," Curry recalls. "And what's fucked up was [my friend] let me borrow his pants. And I got jizz stains and, like, her stains all over me and shit. So when I came back home, he was like, 'Those were my favorite pants. Keep 'em.'"
Today, the money, flights, audiences and adventures all presumably come a lot easier. Only 24, Curry's already an established pioneer in Florida hip-hop's murky, gnashing, depressive underground — a lo-fi sound that's been streaming into the mainstream — but he left his home state about two years ago, going into "self-exile" in Los Angeles due to what he says was a combination of ex-girlfriend troubles, a falling out with his brother and depression. In his time in L.A., he wrote and recorded his third LP, TA13OO, hit No. 28 on the Billboard album chart, racked up 55 million views for his imagery-rich "Clout Cobain" video, headlined a tour and appeared on the soundtrack to Oscar-winning film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Today, though, he's just got a pair of interviews and some shopping with his new stylist. "I conquered everything else. Just not fashion," he says. "'Cause I didn't give a fuck about it. Now I'm just like, Damn, I wanna be seen. And in order to be seen, you gotta be, in [the] book 48 Laws of Power, you gotta be the loudest one in the room — by the way you dress."
Curry's loudness recently went viral thanks to a bonkers, stage-ready performance of Rage Against the Machine's "Bulls on Parade" during a session for Australian radio station Triple J. "That song was like my anthem," he says, munching on some beet chips in a listening room at the headquarters of Loma Vista Records, which released TA13OO. His manager suggested "Bulls" for Triple J's in-studio cover series Like a Version. "And it was just like, man, this is my shit right here. This literally is my shit. Like, I could do this word-for-word, bar-for-bar, for real," says Curry. "I know how to do metal vocals. I hung around a lot of metalheads and I hang around a lot of metal bands, you know."
Curry embraced rock music at a young age, saying that he and his brother would flip through Miami-area stations on the radio between their twin beds — hip-hop station 99 JAMZ while they were on punishment and couldn't watch TV, and often the rock station when they went to sleep. A lot of his faves are a little heavier than standard radio fare — Pantera's "10's," Bad Brains' "I Against I," Metallica's Ride the Lightning, Slayer's South of Heaven — and you can hear this influence explode outwards on the screamier back third of TA13OO. At shows, he's even been known to conduct the "wall of death" — the 300-style mosh collision popularized by Lamb of God.
But before Curry was screaming through the SoundCloud underground, he was a highly driven rapper in Carol City Senior High School, the same attended by both Rick Ross and Trayvon Martin. Curry's dad turned him onto Public Enemy, his mom played Tupac on road trips, and older brothers had hipped him to the rap made in Dirty South hotspots like New Orleans, Atlanta and, of course, Miami. Armed with an internet connection and energized by the emerging sounds of local ominous soundsmith SpaceGhostPurrp, Curry started delving deep into bleaker territory — the slowed screw music of Houston and the sinister tape hiss and death-obsessed horror-flick imagery of vintage Memphis rappers like Three 6 Mafia.
Curry began making music on free software like Audacity, and Purrp encouraged him to flood the internet with mixtapes. Curry filtered the harsh realities of his hometown with the harsh noise of cassette-traded Nineties rap that he discovered on YouTube.
"We looked at the rap game like [Miami rappers] Ice Berg, Ball Greezy, Trick Daddy, Trina, Rick Ross, Gunplay. And they was talking about dark shit. But they was doing it in a gangster way. I'm far from a gangster. My brothers, they was on that shit. I wasn't on that shit," says Curry. His voice rises to explain. "That's basically what Ross and them was talking about: It was evil shit on good-sounding beats. Like murdering somebody isn't cool. That shit's fucking evil. Drug dealing isn't cool. That shit evil as fuck. But we're from there, so we had to really show them the dark side of shit."
Like Kendrick Lamar, Curry gave unblinking reportage of his surroundings, but in his hands the sonics matched the violence of the visuals. "It was just like the area where I was in," says Curry, whose brother Treon died in 2014 after being tasered by local police. "All the fucked-up shit that was happening. Niggas trying to break in my house. Seeing somebody get shot. Like, I was around the fuck shit and I had something to talk about."
At first, Curry's hustle was more than rap. "Nigga, I used to do people homework for 20 dollars," he says. "They didn't want to do the shit. If they wanted to stay on the football team, they had to have a certain GPA. And I was the smartest one probably in class, in English."
In 2013, some months after the Ham on Everything gig, MTV's RapFix Live aired Curry's video for "Threatz" — the song Curry credits for making Florida rap "pop." (He emphasizes with a loud pop of the "p.") When it dropped, he got one of the most popular girls in school to tweet and retweet it over break. "So, soon as I get back to school, everybody like, 'Fool, we seen your ass on MTV, nigga!' I had the school in my back pocket," says Curry. "I got everybody with me who just thought I was just playing with this shit. They didn't expect me to rap the way I rap. 'Cause I was a nerd. … I won Most Talented [in the yearbook]. I voted for somebody else. I didn't know I was a option!"
Shortly after graduation, Curry dropped his debut album, Nostalgic 64, and in the next few years he toured with the Underachievers, caused a stir with high-octane single "Ultimate" and was featured on the cover of XXL's 2016 Freshman issue. "Ultimate" and 2015 SoundCloud loosie "6 Billion Dollar Nigga" portended the next few years of rap music, especially the latter, a distorted, blown-out tantrum that lasts only 85 seconds. "Now everybody doing one-minute songs and shit. I was the first one to do it," says Curry. "Short and sweet and to the point."
Curry says the biggest inspiration for the distortion on "Ultimate" was not punk rock, nor the scuzz of Memphis tapes. In fact, Curry explains, it was inspired by living in Miramar, Florida, which has one of the largest Jamaican populations in America. He wanted the feel "like dancehall that you can hear from literally across the street."
For his recent TA13OO, Curry expanded his palette once again, occasionally curbing his more bleeding-edge sound for something more melodic, an approach you can hear on hit single/video "Clout Cobain."
"I chose to get melodic because I realized there's no women at my shows," says Curry. "None. I love women. I love 'em so much. I love everything about a woman. I want to see them engage with my music. Because my music isn't just for dudes. I make music for everybody. And when I mean everybody, I mean everybody. I don't give a fuck if you're gay, straight, trans. … You feel me? I don't give a fuck. As long as you feel that shit, and you know you got emotions, bruh, we damn near alike, no matter how the fuck you look."
"So that was the choice of why I … do half the shit I do, like coloring my hair and nose rings," he continues. "I even painted my nails. One guy came up to me, like, 'Yo, thank you. Because I'm going through this transgender thing and I paint my nails and people call me weird. I'm a fan of you and seeing that you did that, it made me more comfortable with myself.' And I was like, 'Shit, I didn't mean to do it like that. I just did the shit 'cause I felt like doing it.' But that's punk rock, I guess."
Sonically, the most punk-rock part of TA13OO is the final four tracks — "The Blackest Balloon," "Percs," "Vengeance" (which features ZillaKami of City Morgue) and "Black Metal Terrorist" — known collectively as "Act 3: Dark." Here, Curry occasionally pushes his throat to a yell, rampaging about the pills in the rap scene, revenge, pain and self-doubt.
"That side of me, I had to get out first," he says. "That was the baggage that was like, 'I don't give a fuck about life right now.' And I was trying to give a fuck about life. … It was compromising with my shadow self to let whatever I'm feeling out."
Despite Curry's ties to late fellow pain-spilling rap shouter XXXTentacion — the two were friends, roommates and occasional collaborators — the metal-centric sound of Act 3: Dark wasn't directly influenced by X's scream therapy. Says Curry, "I was already angry when I met X. And he was already angry." But he and the embattled XXXTentacion (whose legacy is marred by domestic abuse allegations) did share a love of crossing genres and plunging emotional depths. TA13OO was released less than six weeks after X's death.
"That's technically my brother. Like, I'm Poseidon, he's Hades. That's our relationship. We may not like each other, but at the same time, we're brothers. … The last message me and him talked about, the first thing he said, 'You shoulda never moved.' I still have the DM to this fucking day. Because that was the last time I ever got to talk to my dawg besides being on the phone," says Curry. "I was like, 'Bro, you only inspire me to become bigger than you.' And he was like, 'That's what I wanted in the first place. That's what the fuck I wanted. I want you to be bigger than me. Because that will only fuel me to become bigger than you. And then once both of us are up here, then we'll be like [explosion sound] it's like fuck up Florida. We'll kill everybody. We'll destroy everybody.'"
Curry says he and X talked at Miami's Rolling Loud festival in 2017 about potentially uniting the various Florida hip-hop artists, scenes and factions — Ski Mask the Slump God and the Members Only crew, Lil Pump, SpaceGhostPurrp and the Raider Klan, Robb Banks, Curry and more — not like a Wu-Tang-style crew, but more like a mafia. "And then that was gonna be it. And then, boom, X died. And then that shit threw me the fuck off. It threw me all the way the fuck off," says Curry. "I'm fixing to make sure this fucking plan happens."
Curry says he has since deaded all outstanding beefs, mending fences with former mentor SpaceGhostPurrp by sampling him on "Percs," and ending years of acrimony with Florida rapper Xavier Wulf by collaborating in the studio.
"My plan is to squash all beefs … and get everybody paid while doing it," says Curry. "Like, if you don't like me or whatever, I don't give a fuck. Just know, I'mma get paid. I'mma be the best fucking rapper ever. Even when motherfuckers was trying to stop me on the low, I still didn't let that stop me. Because people know me and they know what I'm capable of. And now I'm getting to that point where I'm finding out what I'm capable of, what I can do, what I can do. And just what I can do.
He adds, "I said that three times because I know I can do it."