Words by:

It’s been six years since Denzel Curry began his rap career at the age of 16. Having graduated from the gothic hip-hop collective Raider Klan, recent years have seen Curry spread his wings, developing his hard-hitting style with psychedelic flair. A long-time incumbent of the rap underground, as his profile grows he remains, creatively, the master of his own destiny.

I catch Curry on the phone the day after his 22nd birthday. Occasionally we’re interrupted by his young niece wailing in the background at his brother’s house, and there’s something about the sound of the family scene, and the relaxed authority of his tone, that paints a picture of someone at ease with themselves.

Denzel Curry grew up in Zone 3, Carol City, Florida. It’s a part of Miami not known for its calm serenity – violent crime is recorded as 67% above the national average. “Aside from the mangoes and the sunshine, it’s a lot of violence and a lot of lost people,” he tells me. Although it wasn’t always like that. “It was all good until I got older, when the violence started around the city.”

Like anyone, Denzel Curry is a product of his environment, and his could be considered to be harsher than most. Police officers tased and killed his brother, Treon Johnson, and rap artists from his town have been incarcerated. While he attended Carol City High, neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed former student Trayvon Martin in 2012. Martin, along with people such as Oscar Grant and Michael Brown, remains one of the many symbols of the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests against racially-motivated police violence. Carol City, where Martin had lived, was ground zero for the protests that erupted across the country. “[There] was a lot of energy at that time,” Curry remembers. “Everybody came to school with hoodies on and we were all marching. That’s what inspired me to do Strictly 4 My R.V.I.D.X.R.Z.”

His third mixtape, Strictly 4 My R.V.I.D.X.R.Z., dropped while Denzel Curry was still a member of Raider Klan. The extensive collective was led by rapper/producer Spaceghostpurrp – who was then considered of the most influential artists of the US underground, and is believed to have been an influence on A$AP Rocky before the pair’s relationship turned sour. With the Raider Klan, Purrp regurgitated the menacing, lo-fi aesthetic of early 90s Memphis rap and spread it across his prolific collective of internet-savvy rappers. “I first heard the song Suck a Nigga Dick For 2011 and that’s when I knew [Purpp] was from Carol City, ‘cause only people from Miami say ‘jit’,” Curry explains. “That’s a term for a young person, like a jitterbug. I drew a portrait for him and he was like: ‘this is dope’. Then after he heard my King Remembered Underground Tape 1991 – 1995 I got into Raider Klan.”

Alongside Raider Klan, Curry became affiliated with another leftfield group called Metro Zu, who also embodied the relentless prolific attitude of many underground rappers at the time. “I would go to the Zu Mansion where they would just record, record, record,” Curry remembers, “they wouldn’t even write, they would just go in. At one point [Metro Zu rapper] Lofty305 said he was gonna make 100 tapes in a month, and he almost goddamn got it done.”

Today Denzel Curry is the most prominent name in Cloud 9 – a collective of Florida artists – but really he’s found his feet as a solo artist, and the music in his deep discography ranges from funny to deadly serious and genuinely trippy. “I love trying new things,” he tells me. “Trying to blend multiple things together to make my own style. That’s what influenced me the most: creating, recreating and mixing it up.” He goes on to reference the multicultural make-up of Miami as an influence, listing some of the ethnic groups in the city: Latinos, Bahamians, Jamaicans, Haitians. “It’s just a melting pot,” he offers. “That’s where the experimentation comes in, I grew up around salsa, merengue and all of that. My best friend is half Hatian and he put me on to all kinds of shit. I listen to shit like Death Grips or Alice Glass too. You can find inspiration in the weirdest places.”

If you check the trajectory of his style since his studio debut Nostalgic 64: Threatz and Dark and Violent through to 2015’s 32 Zel/Planet Shrooms double EP and 2016’s Imperial album, for some tracks he’s developed a distinctively course, machine-gun rattle that critics like to associate with punk. “It just comes out like that ‘cause I’m very aggressive. [32 Zel track] Ultimate was really influenced by some Caribbean shit. But when I was mixing it I wanted it to sound distorted.” Lyrically, Curry flips from sexual bravado to surreal imagery and politicised street anecdotes, as he raps on Ultimate: “Young boy done caught a case/ Bang, now his mama living with the pain/ Wait, doctor says he’s gonna stay/ Let him get the senzu bean so he regenerate/ Now a nigga harder than the head of state/ Denzel Curry is the new candidate”.

But Denzel Curry hates the title ‘conscious rapper’. “I just speak from a human perspective. A lot of people are lost but I try to give them hope.” No stranger to being lost himself, he candidly addresses mental health. “I almost lost my mind when my brother died. With the weight on my shoulders about the next album, touring and figuring out who I am, I wasn’t able to grieve… It’s important to let shit out.”

"A lot of people are lost but I try to give them hope"

It’s been a steady rise rather than a rapid ascent, but Denzel Curry has established himself a firm position in contemporary leftfield rap, and as a touring artist he’s found himself in-demand overseas. His last visit to the UK saw him shoot a video in London for the remix of Knotty Head – a collaboration with fellow Carol City alumnus Rick Ross – with AJ Tracey (“Ya’ll probly gonna hear me do some grime shit soon – I figured it out”) and he’s also been approached by Rockstar Games regarding the next Grand Theft Auto.

But as his fanbase grows and his sound diversifies, Denzel Curry seems to have little interest in pandering to the tastes of new audiences. “I want to keep my day ones that been there since the beginning,” he insists, “and please them as much as the new. People gonna look at it and say: ‘Damn I watched you evolve and the styles got crazier every time.’ That’s what I want people to see.”

Photography: Alex de Mora