Flo Rida is a state of mind
Who dat girl?' Flo Rida raps as he points to the women flocking around the stage at the newly opened Club Cubic in Macau. 'Where my sexy girls at?' he adds for emphasis.
The champagne is flowing endlessly at the opening night of the 30,000-sq-ft nightclub at the City of Dreams casino in Macau, and the 31-year-old's well-rehearsed routine has everyone - and not just the women - shrieking along in a frenzy.
Considering that the rapper had arrived just hours earlier after a prolonged layover in Vancouver, Flo Rida is putting on a surprisingly passionate performance, complete with his de rigueur hat, sunglasses and gold chain. Rap purists, however, might question the prolonged siren and cannon sound effects that follow every song, and the constant self aggrandising. Nonetheless, it's this shrewd sense of promotion that has served Tramar Dillard well, garnering him a slew of top awards, two entries in the Guinness World Records and three hit albums since he burst on the scene in 2006.
Backstage, surrounded by a counter filled with booze, a couple of giggly, dolled-up women, bodyguards and management types, Dillard's story comes out in reserved terms. Born in the projects in Carol City, Florida, he was the only son raised by his single mother in a household filled with seven sisters. 'In the projects, it was just drug dealing, killing and everything like that. My mum always told me that 'You can be in it, but you don't have to be of it',' he says in a tone that bears little trace of emotion. 'Even just trying to go outside and make it in the music business was very competitive. A lot of times you get shut down. I got shut down a lot of times, but I never gave up. Those are some of the obstacles I faced.'
The young Dillard joined several amateur rap groups before going on to study business management at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas for a couple of years. But he was set on becoming an international artist and the music he was hearing in his head drowned out the voices of his professors. 'I had already done a lot of shows with people who had names in the business and they would always tell me 'Man, you've got to just push harder.' That's what motivated me.'
His big break came in 2006 when he was signed to the Florida-based independent label Poe Boy. Dillard was soon working with artists such as T-Pain, Trick Daddy and Rick Ross. That led to Low, his first duet with T-Pain, which topped the pop charts. From there, several singles with rappers such as Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am, Timbaland and Sean Kingston followed.
By then, it was almost guaranteed that his 2007 debut album Mail on Sunday would hit the top of the US charts. If Dillard downplays it all and manages to sound casual, it's because his subsequent success allows him to do that. 'For the most part, I'm very lenient when it comes to production, because I think, you know, just starting out, I didn't know any of the producers,' he says in the same rehearsed patter with his eyes hidden by those reflective shades. 'When I'm in the studio, a lot of times, I'm just having fun.'
And fun can certainly be had when you're suddenly recording with Nelly Furtado and Ke$ha - as he did on his second album, R.O.O.T.S. That album featured Right Round, the infectious track driven by a Dead Or Alive sample which smashed the United States' one-week digital sales record. From there, he would appear on singles by Lady Gaga, Three 6 Mafia and Alexandra Burke, the latter of which hit the top of the British singles chart.
Even then, Dillard has to stop to think when asked about his career highlights so far. 'Probably getting a chance to work with Lil' Wayne. I remember early on he would pop up at the different parties that I went to and he would show me that it was beyond the music,' he says in a rare moment of true reflection. 'And also going on tour with Beyonce and seeing the energy that she brought to the stage each and every night.'
It's at that this point that Dillard stretches his arms, which are covered with a galaxy of tattoos. There's a large ode to Jimi Hendrix on his right arm, his own Hollywood star on his left. What we can't see is his back, featured prominently on his album cover, which shows images of childhood in Florida, as well as his stage name in massive letters. 'There's a lot of people that I look up to in music and I'm a big fan of Jimi Hendrix,' Dillard says while focusing on that tat. 'Him being very international, confident, electrifying on stage. That's how I'm always trying to represent myself. And right here is R.O.O.T.S., one of the albums that I put out after overcoming the struggle and just contributing to the success by putting God first.'
Then there's the obligatory plug for his recent mini-album Only One Flow (Part One), featuring productions by current hot dance DJ David Guetta, and the promise that Only One Rida (Part Two) will drop in the summer. In a rap game where stars are often seen as over the hill in their mid-30s and with music sales declining, Dillard is aware he has to hustle. 'A lot of people talk about the decline of the industry, but the ones who last are the ones who adapt to different genres and beats, so I'm happy with the state of it. My name kind of represents 'fresh'. The fact that I'm versatile is what's going to keep me around for a long time.'
However, in case Dillard does eventually become one of rap's casualties, he has a back-up plan in the form of his IMG International Group label, which has signed several acts - and which the rapper then name drops. But it appears that the charity he launched, Big Dreams For Kids, is far more important. 'The fact that I grew up in the projects, you know, a less-fortunate single-parent home. So many people came by and supported me, gave me the heart to want to give back, then motivated me to want to get out. Now I have the opportunity, I make sure that I give.'
Many of those bumping and grinding on the Cubic dance floor might have been surprised to learn that Dillard's ultimate motto is: 'It's better to give than receive.' The early death of his sister Julia was another motivating factor. 'That's when I knew I had to give it my all, because you never know if you will get a second chance,' he says softly.
And with that, the interview wraps up, the women giggle, the drinks are poured and it's party time in Club Cubic. With a reported US$100,000 appearance fee, Dillard realises how far he has come from his south Florida roots and he's not about to blow this opportunity.
Bang on time, he's back on stage, a sweat-dripping, gold-medallion-bouncing blur of well-rehearsed energy. 'Who dat girl? Who dat? Who dat?'