Music & Nightlife

‘He’s a historian.’ How Rick Ross became Miami’s biggest voice in hip-hop

Rick Ross is happy to be home.

You can tell by the way he’s dressed, wearing a pink and baby blue floral shirt. You can tell by the way his eyes gleam underneath his designer shades at the mere mention of the city he dubbed M.I.YAYO. You can even tell by the way he walks, sauntering through the crowd at the Soho Beach House slowly, almost intentionally, as if wanting to savor every moment.

“You see the difference in this event right here,” Ross said, pointing to the sky at a VIP listening event for his new album “Port of Miami 2.”

“You see the ceiling. We right on the beach. This is Miami. This what we represent.”

Miami is the centerpiece of Ross’ career. This is why he chose to end his three-city intimate listening event here.

Bringing people into his Miami has played a crucial role in his success. Just like how the city overcame its violent reputation in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Ross’ resilience has catapulted him into the upper echelon of hip-hop.

Rick Ross talks about his upcoming album “Port of Miami 2” during a media event at the Soho Beach House in Miami Beach on Tuesday, August 6, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

At age 43, the Carol City-raised rapper has nothing left to prove. He has sold millions of albums. He’s the CEO of a label with a roster that boasts both Wale and Meek Mill. He even made Drake’s top five list of greatest MCs. It’s safe to say Ross is the greatest rapper to make it out of Miami.

Success, however, can only be achieved through adversity — and Ross has faced his fair share.

“Sometimes people will buckle or fold and he doesn’t,” said Papa Keith, a radio personality at 103.5 The Beat. “And that’s kind of rare.”

In 2008, images revealing Ross’ brief stint as a corrections officer surfaced. For a man who once rapped “Quarter key, box of soda, Ross whip that/ career criminal for sure, Ross whip that,” the revelation could’ve been catastrophic.

But it wasn’t. Or, more accurately, Ross didn’t allow it to be. His wordplay sharpened, his storytelling improved and he embraced the contradictory elements of his own narrative.

“Any differences that I may have had with an artist I really used to them to show my fans what I was really built with,” Ross said.

Rick Ross talks about his upcoming album “Port of Miami 2” during a media event at the Soho Beach House in Miami Beach on Tuesday, August 6, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

Ross’ importance to Miami extends far past whether he actively participated in Miami’s drug trade. Growing up in Carol City at the height of the crack epidemic, he was surrounded by it.

From Day One, he was giving a voice to the Miami overshadowed by the extravagant nightclubs and multimillion-dollar waterfront mansions. Lines like “Back in the day I sold crack for some nice kicks/ skipping school, I saw my friend stabbed with an ice pick” paint a grim portrait of the city that raised him.

“Him putting that into the music let people know what was going on,” said Denzel Curry, a fellow rapper and Carol City native.

“For Carol City, he was the voice. He was the one.”

Before Ross, Miami’s hip-hop scene primarily mirrored its worldwide reputation as a party city thanks to Uncle Luke and 2 Live Crew, whose fast-paced, 808-heavy beats laid the city’s musical foundation — and also set off a free-speech case in neighboring Broward County. Artists like Trina, Trick Daddy and Pitbull showed the country that Miami indeed had something to say but nobody had chronicled the history of Miami’s drug trade.

Enter Ross.

“Rick’s lyrics were more about the historical significance of Miami,” Luther “Uncle Luke” Campbell said. “When he mentioned Boobie Boys, it’s like he’s a historian.”

The history of Miami cannot be told without mentioning its drug culture. While films like “Scarface” and the “Cocaine Cowboys” documentaries received critical acclaim, these stories never featured black characters. And it’s not like Miami-Dade County doesn’t have black people: Data from the 2017 American Community Survey shows 15.8 percent of the population identified as black.

That all changed with his debut album, “Port of Miami.”

“Ross introduced the black side of that story,” said Andre Lyon, one half of producer duo Cool & Dre. “ That story really wasn’t told in the type of way that Ross did.”

Rick Ross talks about his upcoming album “Port of Miami 2” during a media event at the Soho Beach House in Miami Beach on Tuesday, August 6, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

From the Boobie Boys to the John Does, Ross rapped about the gangs that he grew up around. Doing so brought a new cast of characters worldwide.

“To me, Miami is a special place,” Ross said to the crowd at the Soho Beach House on Collins Avenue. “We birthed some of the biggest hustlers and, I feel, the most ambitious people in the world.”

It would be a mistake to characterize his lyrics solely as a glorification of a life that has killed hundreds across Miami. To Ross, it was about narrating not only his reality but that of many other black Miamians.

“Being from Miami,” Ross said, “that’s something we were raised to learn: rep Miami like no other place. It don’t matter — 305, Dade County — and that’s something that I always applied.”

While Ross hasn’t stopped paying homage to the city that molded him, his subject matter has evolved with his success. He has used his music to address issues in the rap game, like Birdman’s handling of Lil’ Wayne’s finances, or, as the owner of countless Wingstops and Checkers, encouraged others to tap into their entrepreneurial spirit.

This is part of what makes the release of POM 2 so special. Ross is by no means the same individual who rapped about importing cocaine through the port 13 years ago. Most notably, he’s getting more rest — he used to only sleep two to three hours a night — and is noticeably slimmer after losing over 100 pounds.

At the listening event, Ross deemed this album a “reset.” With Friday’s album release, an upcoming memoir on Sept. 3, and plans to launch a film company in 2020, Ross is only just getting started.

Wherever his career goes next, Miami will always be the foundation that launched it all.

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C. Isaiah Smalls II is a reporter covering breaking and trending news for the Miami Herald. Previously, he worked for ESPN’s The Undefeated as part of their inaugural class of Rhoden Fellows. He is a graduate of both Columbia University and Morehouse College.