On an industrial side street in Bradenton, tucked among auto body shops and storage facilities, is the Dead to the World headquarters, home to a genre-defying music and art collective that consists of between 10 and 20 members, with their ranks and prominence rapidly growing. A mixed-use Peter Pan space for 20-somethings, the facility is part music venue, part recording studio, part smokers’ den and part frat house. The headquarters has secondhand furniture strewn about, giant speakers, a makeshift stage, a thrifted coffee table littered with blunt ashes, Polaroids from past parties and scribbled graffiti on the walls.
I walk into the empty, cavernous spot and see no one. I wonder if the hip hop group I’m here to meet, the Dead to the World crew, is on "rapper time”—that they, like many hip hop artists, are casual about when they might actually show up for things like interviews. But from the back, from the only constructed room in the big former warehouse, I'm greeted by Lil Cross, Ethan Marino and Gumby, who look like they could be gearing up for a ’90s Nirvana biopic audition. These guys live together, work together and make music together.
They invite me into the engineering room, with plenty of cranked fans cooling the space. This is where the group records music. We sit down, and immediately the crew launches into a high-level seminar on how young artists can successfully navigate the changing nature of the music industry.
Since streaming became the dominant mode for people to listen to music in the 2010s, artists and fans alike have begun to alter their relationships with more traditional, larger record labels. The new technology opened more lanes for unsigned, independent artists to find ways to reach a fan base and earn a living. It also moved artists from being passive participants in their own business careers to becoming chief executive officers of their own brand and enterprise.
Cross, Marino and Gumby keep referencing “clients” and describing what feels like an online college class. I'm a little lost and overwhelmed, so I ask what they are talking about.
"At first, it was freelancing, an hourly rate for a consultation,” says Cross. “Now we have module courses." Not what I was prepared to hear today, nor from people so young. Cross continues, "It's a business course, designed for artists, because we are artists and can speak to their particular struggles. The course consists of marketing funnels, using lead magnets, how to create an email campaign. Fans want to buy something and not just listen to the music. And those concepts are applicable outside of music."
Marino chimes in. "We are building small businesses,” he says. “We focus on four main parts: branding first, then marketing, then business monetization and how to build those products out. Then we focus on business development, making sure all the legal things are in line, and at that point we do longevity. How do we make it? How do we make a profit for the rest of our lives?"
Gumby, the quieter, more stoic member of the crew, has been best friends with Cross since the second grade. His real name is Nathaniel Klaasse and he’s just 20 years old. He and Cross grew up hanging out, riding bikes and writing music together. The nickname Gumby came one day a few years ago, when the group started to first put out music online. He needed a name and asked Cross for advice. After looking him up and down, Cross blurted out the name of the tall, green, animated clay humanoid Gumby and it stuck. Gumby says he and Cross are "longtime friends and hopefully lifelong business partners."
As we talk, Cross is in full-on professorial mode in between pulls of a blunt. "Streams are the least lucrative source of revenue an artist can possibly have,” he says. “It takes 200,000 streams monthly to make federal minimum wage. But if you sell those fans a $10 product, you go from minimum wage to $2 million."
Although Marino admits, "We didn't go to Harvard Business School," it's a little hard to tell. I piece together that Dead to the World is indeed running an online brand development seminar called "Monetize Your Music," in which people pay $1,400 for 30- to 60-minute videos and consultations. Their clients—other young, aspiring artists—hail from all over the world, and there are enough of them that, in between conducting courses, running a studio and making music, Dead to the World is a full-time job.
Florida hip hop has always been outside the mainstream. In the early to mid-’80s, when the innovations of New York genius began to become national and global exports, each region began to add its local flavor and funk to the elastic milieu of the burgeoning sound. Miami contributed its resonant base, rattling from hyper-public car shows in neighborhoods like Liberty City and Overtown, and the cartoonish misogynoir of 2 Live Crew. There was more, of course, such as the innovations of electro-producer Maggotron, but since I was living outside of the region, in Chicago, this was all I knew of the Florida scene.
In the years since, hip hop's center has shifted from New York to L.A. to Atlanta, but the advent of music streaming platforms like SoundCould has rapidly democratized the genre, allowing for regions all around the country to be heard by a wider audience. In Florida, young rappers like Ski Mask the Slump God, Lil Pump and Smokepurpp and then, most famously, XXXTentacion took aesthetic notes from mainstream successes like Kid Cudi and Odd Future and infused the genre with a wild, punk-edged, drug-tinged approach to music making and distribution, circumnavigating major record labels to develop a loyal, almost religious, fan base.
Florida's West Coast has its own movement happening, led by St. Pete native Rod Wave and a burgeoning Sarasota-Bradenton scene. Dead to the World, the crew or collective (think ASAP Mob, Top Dawg Entertainment or Dungeon Family) consists of Cross, Marino, Gumby, YoungTaylor Chulo, KayGee the Weirdo, Traitor, Anthony Teabout, Oak, Cleaningmydollsfeet, Big Blest, Mat, Nis Tofer, Flint Withers, Nauce and who knows how many others. They have the energy of early Odd Future, the business plan of the Wu-Tang Clan and all the sophomoric, problematic, inappropriate inside jokes of a high school detention hall. One music video features a half dozen or more Dead to the World members holding an absurd number of inflatable penises and dildos like they're at a bachelorette party. They are also, individually and collectively, forging a sound that is impossible to define or even locate. They are unique. And in the world of art and music, in a hyper-connected, saturated streaming space of 24/7 content, the promise of something new is thrilling.
Lil Cross' album Blackstar, which came out in July, is one of the strongest and most unheralded albums to come out this year, and it is difficult to classify. It is a hip hop record, I think, but reads like a pop-punk album, infusing a variety of wildly pitched melodies over heavy synth and furious drums and bass, while other moments include sweet, anxious laments over hollow, low-end 808s. "I like to call it hyper-trap,” says Lil Cross. “I've invented my own genre."
On Blackstar, we hear a young man grappling with love and heartbreak, wanting to fit in, wanting to stand out, loneliness, hubris, sadness and addiction. It is cinematic, and sounds not quite like anything I've heard before—as if Green Day and Lil Uzi Vert had a TikTok baby bound for virality.
Cross' melodies and multitrack harmonizing are infectious. They stick to you like a pop song, but haunt you—like if Johnny Cash found a bottle of lean. On "IDK How to Love Anymore," Cross croons in a slow baritone, "I don't really like a lot of things or get along / I find myself so far away from the person I've become." The song launches into a hook over breakneck drums and then out of nowhere the beat drops out altogether to find Cross floating away in the ether, pleading, "Will you marry me, baby? / I am on my knees / I'll die here, baby / I can't live for me."
Blackstar is a manic ride of vulnerability, fear, paranoia and self-obsession, parsing through a young person's life dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, the lure of drugs and money, and the ache and difficulty of finding oneself. Something has gone wrong, young people are telling us. That’s not a new message, but Cross’ music is the latest odd, thrilling and complex variation on that theme. He opens himself emotionally, psychologically and, I would argue, spiritually, to view society, and himself, through a hazy, stark prism.
"I think that's super important, not only being vulnerable in the music but being vulnerable in the content and presentation,” Cross says. “You’ve got to give people a reason to listen in the first place. I'm kind of like an open book.”
Another standout on the album is "Feel Me," a dark, dystopic kind-of-love ballad featuring Cleaningmydollsfeet, whose real name is Isabella Galante. On the song, she sing-raps, "Can you see it in my eyes, baby? / Feel me / You're the only one who ever gets to have the real me." The only woman who does music right now in Dead to the World, Galante is a 20-year-old poet, singer, rapper, videographer and photographer who is responsible for the visual treatments off the Blackstar project, making videos for "Bookies" and "IDK How to Love Anymore." She took her nom de plume after watching home videos with her mom. She thought Cleaningmydollsfeet would be an unusual handle on social media, and it stuck.
Galante is from Bradenton, where she currently lives and waits tables, but she went to five different high schools between Florida and Texas while struggling to find the right space in which to deal with mental health issues like depression, anxiety and self-harm. She was in high school when she discovered the music of XXXTentacion and Lil Peep, both of whom helped her "feel not alone," she says. In high school, she was a flutist in the marching band. It was her growing love of what some have called "emo rap" that pushed her to start making music of her own. "I want to be the voice for the 14-year-old me," she says.
Galante started to work with Dead to the World as a way to express herself. The idea of a music career seemed out of reach, but hanging with this wild group of mostly dudes has made her dream seem possible. Galante is building a music studio in her apartment and writes almost every day, taking the discipline she learned from earning an associate degree in English, which she chose because of her penchant for poetry, and applying it to her music.
"It's pretty badass," she says about being the only woman in the crew. She says she feels emboldened and safe having her "brothers by [her] side." Her involvement in Dead to the World is "a way to do something better, make something bigger than ourselves,” she says. "Music helps me find my voice.”
Lil Cross himself is 21 years old and was born Julian Hurt at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. His mom is a clinical social worker. Cross’ dad, meanwhile, has been entrepreneurial his whole life, owning different businesses, including a pizzeria. His father has also made music as long as Cross can remember as part of a band covering classic rock and the blues. "You know the vibes: middle-aged men and women in a bar, and everyone is drinking beer,” he says. “That kind of music." His father made money playing gigs, but not enough to support a family. When his parents divorced, Cross' dad built a music studio and began recording there.
At age 15, Cross began to post songs recorded in his father's studio on SoundCloud. He did some shows in his first few years in high school and started to build a rep for his wild rap antics and catchy, profane lyrics. It was also around the same time that he began using drugs. But, he admits, "I'm not like a tough guy. I'm not a fighter. I'm a lover. I'm a sweet kid." He says he never felt at home in the hyper-masculine world of drugs and fighting, something he's "worked a long time to try and eradicate."
Cross still uses drugs and talks candidly about it in his music, but he has spent time in rehab, which he calls "one of the best things that ever happened to me.” While there, he saw the lives of young men like and unlike himself who were all dealing with trauma and addiction. He learned to meditate and started carving out a more serious plan for his music. The day he turned 18, he moved out of his mother’s home and got an apartment. There, he began recording himself and other artists and started to throw shows to get his name out.
"I wanted to provide a space for other artists and give back to the community," Cross says, but he couldn’t do that from his apartment. That’s what led him to establish Dead to the World.
When our music business education conversation pauses, Cross asks if he can play me some of the new music he's been working on. He cut an entire album during a recent trip to Los Angeles in the home studio of rapper Big Ble$t, aka Phil Barone, who is 26 years old. Cross DMed Barone on Instagram to say he liked his music and asked if he would he be interested in Dead to the World’s online music business seminar. Barone went through the course and "graduated," and now works for the collective as "head of monetization.”
Cross, Barone and Barone's best friend and roommate, the producer Bling Blou, barricaded themselves in Barone’s studio and worked tirelessly for two weeks straight to make Cross’ new record. Cross didn't want to go to parties, hang with girls, shop or see the city. He wanted to work.
Barone says he sees in Cross an "intensity and desire [that's] all or nothing. His only option is success. He's a bit of a madman. He doesn't know how to relax." Barone says he never worked with an artist as dedicated to the craft as Cross is. And in a way, he says, it scares him, because he worries about the sustainability of that work ethic and what fuels that intensity.
The project Cross and the crew play me is different from Blackstar. It is very much a rap album. On it, you’ll hear Cross' signature infectious melodies, but also his progression as a lyricist. He has room to grow (all artists do), but listening, you can't help but hear him and Barone having fun. It is playful and witty and real and revealing—a bit reminiscent of early Mac Miller.
"I'm still trying to grow,” Cross says. “[I’m] still not necessarily where I want to be. I've always had that anxiety hanging over me and I always will. Your purpose in life is the degree to which you impact the culture. And I'm nowhere near where I want to be."
According to Barone, the name Dead to the World means that, in order to be successful, you can’t "care about the outside world" and that “the ego you once had is dead." The crew is a powerful, multifaceted, multitalented, radical and diverse crew of young people dedicating themselves to making boundary-busting, emotionally raw, sometime crass, good music.
Like Odd Future or Wu-Tang, Dead to the World has the potential to make a name for themselves in the rap world. Those groups each had their breakout star—Tyler, the Creator and Method Man—and Lil Cross is a star on the cusp of finding a larger audience. He is keenly attuned to the issues that might bring. "Some people might feel a type of way about that, and I'm not willing to ruin a relationship over clout," he says, wiser than his years. Dead to the World is what motivates and saves him. He pauses and, in all earnestness, tells me, "These people are my family."
Dead to the World is hosting The Free Santa Bash, a concert featuring multiple performers, at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 17, at 718 Seventh Ave. W., Bradenton. Tickets are $10 ahead of time and $15 at the door.
Kevin Coval is an Emmy-nominated, award-winning poet, playwright, author, screenwriter and editor of more than 10 collections and anthologies including The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop and A People’s History of Chicago. He is a creative consultant and founder of Breakbreat Creatives, and his writing has been featured on/in The Daily Show, NPR, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Source Magazine, Slam and WSLAM, Rock the Bells, CNN.com, four seasons of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and more. He currently lives in Sarasota.