Orlando, Florida undoubtedly has more of a reputation as a sunny vacation getaway teeming with theme parks, but a closer look reveals the city is a cultural melting pot when it comes to its hip-hop music scene.
A couple hundred miles North of the sleek decadence of Miami and twice that distance South of the hotbed of definitively “Southern” hip-hop that is Atlanta, Orlando has a somewhat fractured identity when it comes to its sound—a trait that is no doubt further impacted by the transitive nature of the city. While this list is by no means the definitive, all-encompassing guide to every musical entity that has and currently calls Orlando home, consider this the CliffsNotes for the City Beautiful.
NIKO IS/Colours of the Culture
One of the more recent Orlando artists to land on the national radar, Brazilian-American rapper NIKO IS inked a record deal with Talib Kweli’s Javotti Media label in 2013 after putting out a slew of local projects (most notably his 2012 mixtape Chill Cosby). His freestyle-like flow and bugged-out personality/musical aesthetic—which often embraces an international and decidedly-jazzy vibe—were the driving forces behind his 2015 LP Brutus, which featured guest spots from Kweli, CyHi the Prince, and Kool A.D. of Das Racist.
Working alongside producer/creative partner Thanks Joey, NIKO also formed Colours of the Culture, a collective of visual artists and musicians who joined the fold of Kweli’s movement. Their 2015 compilation Roy G Biv: What A Colorful World heavily featured the production of Thanks Joey, raps from NIKO, and collaborations with Thirstin Howl III, Styles P, and Orlando artists such as Palmer Reed and Anthony Cole.
When he’s not touring internationally with Kweli, NIKO maintains a prolific recording career. He recently dropped his four-song EP songs.4.people.who.break.hearts in February and is also known to pop up at various local Orlando venues unannounced to test out new material.
Grind Time Now
Battle Rap has become a ubiquitous force in popular culture in the past decade, and Orlando-based battle league Grind Time Now played a huge part in helping to elevate the platform to what it is today. Founded by David “Drect” Williams and Joshua “Madd Illz” Carrasco in 2008, GTN would soon grow to have divisions throughout the major markets in the United States as well as in Canada, Europe, and Australia. In its heyday, Grind Time Now was tapped to join the ranks of national tours such as Vans Warped Tour, Rock the Bells, and Paid Dues Festival, and made household names out of battlers (many of whom called Orlando home) like Jonny Storm, Madness, Dizaster, Illmaculate, The Saurus, Hollow Da Don, and Dumbfoundead.
Internal turmoil between Drect, Madd Illz, and West Coast partner Nicholas “Lush One” Hyams eventually led to Grind Time Now’s diminished presence in an increasingly crowded field of Battle Rap leagues. However, the company does still operate in a more scaled-back incarnation today. And though the league’s battles still occur across the country, the fact that Madd Illz—still an Orlando resident—remains the sole founder attached the brand means that the city still continues to maintain its connection to one of the historic forces in popularized online battle rap.
Solillaquists of Sound/Second Subject Recordings
Though hip-hop today certainly seems less bound by confining definitions of genre and style, there was a time when things weren’t necessarily so free-spirited. In this way, Orlando quartet Solilaquists of Sound proved to be ahead of the curve, as the group seamlessly blended elements of electronic, funk, soul, rock, and afrobeat into their musical stew as early as 2002.
After signing with ANTI-/Epitaph, releasing a pair of albums (2006’s As If We Existed and 2008’s No More Heroes), and wowing audiences around the world with their one-of-a-kind live show, the collective spread their wings to create a more encompassing, community-driven haven for artists unafraid to push against the grain while still remaining definitively hip-hop.
At the core of that movement is Second Subject Recordings, a record label/artist collective founded by Solilla emcee Swamburger. Its roster includes rapper E-Turn (who is slated to release her next project in conjunction with Ceschi’s Fake Four record label), DMC USA Supremacy Champion DJ SPS (who currently tours the country with classically trained hip-hop duo Black Violin), and future soul duo Chakra Khan (featuring Solilla producer DiViNCi and vocalist Alexandra Love).
DiViNCi has also taken the live drum machine performance skills that he showcased in his group and taken it to stages across the world, touring with and producing for Ms. Lauryn Hill, as well as working behind-the-scenes with companies like Akai and Ableton to lend some of his creative ideas and direction to their most popular production/live performance tools.
Doxside Music Group
Wearing a decidedly East Coast aesthetic on their sleeves as a badge of honor, the Doxside Music Group crew has been making noise in the Orlando underground as far back as the late ‘90s. What’s remained consistent over the years has been the squad’s dedication to hard-hitting beats and a mean approach to lyricism that has become something of a rarity in the current climate of rap.
Founded by producer IMAKEMADBEATS (who has since relocated to Memphis, TN and launched his own Unapologetic. label), the collective’s flagship emcee is MidaZ the BEAST, a scribe who has been tapped to contribute to projects from the likes of Alchemist, Marco Polo, and Oh No; he’s recently focused his efforts on his slightly avant-garde LOOPS projects, which feature freeform raps over minimally-produced samples without drums.
Producer/rapper TzariZM has consistently remained a present force in the crew with his own projects as well as through collaborations with other artists in the industry. He recently produced Homeboy Sandman’s “Clarity” single, and teamed with Planet Asia in 2014 to produce the west coast rapper’s Via Satellite album. Doxside member/rapper/producer Okito recently launched SKY5, a media production company that offers music production and video services for fledgling artists in the Central Florida area.