Smilez & Southstar have been making a splash on radio, BET and the Web with their first single, "Who Wants This?" Gratifying as that is, the Orlando rap duo prefer reaching out to people the old-fashioned way.
"The radio play is great, but what we know we really gotta do is get out there and meet people," Southstar said. "The best thing we've done is shake people's hands, be personable, try to build a relationship with them. If we're showing them love, we know they'll show us love and pass the word."
The word started spreading last year from Orlando to Fort Myers, where respected DJ 007 began playing them on his afternoon show on WBTT. "We feel like we've kind of got the lockdown in Florida," Smilez said. "It's important to get out on the street elsewhere. Not everybody listens to the radio or goes to the Internet. So we've got to come to them."
Word of mouth plus a solid response to the Internet streaming of the Gregory Dark-directed "Who Wants This?" video has the guys hoping for great things from their debut album, Crash the Party, which came out Tuesday (July 23).
Smilez & Southstar had been bangin' solo around Orlando for five years, freestyling and working on their lyrical skills. They hooked up two years ago on a local DJ's mixtape and kept running into each other on the basketball court, so they got together to knock out "It's Time" and "Let's Get Naked," club-ready joints that ended up on Crash the Party.
Dakari, a Boston native who'd worked previously with 'NSYNC, O-Town and LFO, produced Crash the Party, bringing plenty of pop hooks to Smilez & Southstar's street sensibility. "We wanted to keep it catchy, but still speak about what we do on an everyday level," Smilez said. "We definitely wanted strong hooks on there, stuff people would get immediately and remember."
"Who Wants This?" has hooks aplenty, with a sing-song chorus and attention-grabbing rhymes. The video features the duo taking on a string of opponents: the Haters, the Doubters and the Jealous Ones. "It's like 'Fight Club' meets 'The Matrix,' " Southstar said. "We're kind of proving to everybody what we have to overcome: the jealous, the people who hate you. The effects in the video kick ass."
For their next single, the duo are debating between "Tell Me," an R&B-style breakup song, and "Gully," which features perhaps the year's most unexpected sample: the guitar-and-organ riff from REO Speedwagon's 1972 song "Golden Country." "We'd never heard that song before," Smilez said. "But Dakari has been talking ever since we first met him about wanting to do something using that song. I never woulda guessed it, but it works."
Dakari's been a strong influence on the duo, matching his music to Smilez & Southstar's lyrics. "We spend a lot of time on our lyrics. If they're not really strong, we come back to them and come back to them until they're perfect," Smilez said. "We're still into battling. We both used to do lots of freestyle. Then Dakari comes with the beats, and they're just bangin'."
Smilez & Southstar have been spending the last few months making the rounds at radio stations and parties in New York and Los Angeles, but they're not limiting themselves to industry schmoozing. "We just got back from a sit-down with some kids in Gainesville," Smilez said. "It was just some middle school and high school students who've been in trouble. We're really lucky to be doing what we're doing, and we always try to give something back to the community, to let kids know that they can find success if they put their minds to it."