Since the release of their debut album, Crash the Party, in July, Smilez and Southstar have gone from Florida favorites to touring the country with Beenie Man and Ludacris. With the video for their latest single, “Tell Me,” though, they make sure everyone knows they’re still Orlando boys to the core.
Orlando? Home of Disney World and boy bands? Not exactly a hip-hop hotbed, right?
“See, that’s where people have it wrong,” Smilez said. “We got a huge hip-hop scene, so we’re trying to shed some light on our town.” That’s why everybody in Smilez and Southstar’s crew and in the video — mainly the dozens of female dancers and models — are from O-Town, he adds. “No Miami, no Tampa. In every city there is, there’s aspiring artists trying to get into the game, working hard and staying at it. So we have to represent our home.”
While the duo’s first hit, “Who Wants This?,” became a popular club jam last summer, the ’70s Philadelphia soul-influenced “Tell Me” has proven to be their breakthrough, peaking at #17 on the Billboard rap singles chart. ” ‘Who Wants This?’ kicked open the door [and] gave us the introduction,” Southstar said before a show with Ludacris in San Francisco. “But with ‘Tell Me,’ we get to show another side. You gotta respect that era of music, because it opened the doors for all of our generation.”
The song features a sample from the Stylistics 1971 tune, “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart),” not to mention the same beat that appears in Ja Rule and Ashanti’s “Mesmerize.” Smilez and Southstar said they got the beat first, from Orlando’s DJ Nasty, but they hold no grudge against Ja for using it. “It’s just a coincidence that he used the same thing,” Smilez said.
Though they eventually wound up together in Orlando, Smilez and Southstar came to Florida with plenty of experience in more traditional hip-hop hotbeds — Smilez from the Bronx, Southstar from Los Angeles by way of Jersey City. “When I first got there, I was like, ‘Damn, it’s clean down here,’ ” Smilez said, laughing. “My mom got me down there by promising me a swimming pool. But it took me a while to get used to the more relaxed pace.”
Born to Chinese and Filipino parents in Hawaii, Southstar has joined the ranks of Black Eyed Peas’ Apl de Ap and Dilated Peoples’ DJ Babu as one of the few prominent Asian-American hip-hop artists. And while he gives props to them, he recognizes that he’s just about the only Asian-American frontman out there. “That’s how big hip-hop’s gotten,” he says. “You see German, Japanese and Spanish rappers, but this might be the first time there’s been an Asian dude up front. It’s about finally getting the opportunity to get in the game, and hopefully other people like me will see me up there and identify.”
Once you’re in the game, of course, it’s a matter of staying there and stepping it up. Smilez credits the tour with Beenie Man with showing them how to be performers worthy of touring the nation. “He’s so crazy, and generates such intense energy, but he’s so professional,” Smilez said. “He really showed us how to be performers.”
Along with touring on a national level, Smilez and Southstar took what’s become the de rigueur next step for hitmakers — they formed their own record company, Groundworks Entertainment, and hope to use it to showcase more Orlando talent. In the meantime, they’re setting up “It’s On” as their next single, and they’re putting together a mixtape. And they’ve already got their sights set on album number two. “We’ll just use this as our stepping stone,” Smilez said. “We know we’ve got to make the second album 10 times better than the first.”