It's not often that the pedestrian reality of Orlando – the less flashy, lived-in Orlando, rather than the theme-park imagineering – registers on anyone's radar, much less in a hit video on BET. But rapper Brandon Caskey (who goes simply by Caskey) has positioned a typical scene from his hometown front and center in his first widely distributed video, "Keep It On the Low," which premiered on Friday, Nov. 16 on BET's 106 & Park. Aside from the scene-setting text that announces that we're in Orlando at 9 a.m., anyone who's ever taken Colonial Drive toward downtown Orlando will instantly feel oriented in the opening minute of the video, which features the storefront of Mama B's Giant Subs and other familiar downtown locales as B-roll footage.
The video basically announces Caskey, who grew up in Winter Springs and lives near the aforementioned Colonial Drive landmark, as one of the latest artists signed to Cash Money/YMCMB, the national label representing big-deal rap acts like Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj, and founded by rap star Bryan "Birdman" Williams. His talents are being stacked against offerings from major artists like Alicia Keys, Kendrick Lamar, Rick Ross and others to compete for votes and views on the live show that counts down the most popular hip-hop and R&B music videos.
Ever since he signed to Cash Money in April, Caskey and the Avengerz – the Maitland-based production team of mixing and mastering professionals who helped the rapper shape his sound – have laid down as much as four albums' worth of material. From this catalog, they are set to select songs in January 2013 that will eventually comprise his debut album, though there is currently no release date established. But for Caskey, that flexibility is a commodity.
Cash Money's CEO Birdman recognized the chemistry between the MC and his producers and stepped back to give the team complete creative control, affording them as much time as needed to create an album that really communicates who Caskey is, as a new player in the hip-hop world. For a guy who was previously out on the streets repping his own music hand-to-hand, that freedom to focus exclusively on the music has been perhaps the nicest luxury yet. It's exceptionally humbling trying to convince complete strangers to listen to your CD, he says, especially when you're literally handing it to them for free, and they're rejecting it.
"Birdman definitely respects the whole grind and hustle to come up," Caskey says. "As far as signing [with Cash Money], for one, it's just super dope being around Birdman. That's just super inspiring. He's a real down-to-earth dude, and he wants me to just become whatever kind of artist I want to become. He's not trying to control the direction. So, for me, that's awesome, because I just get to submerge myself completely in what I want to be creatively. There's not restraints or anything like that. So, that's crazy, and then just the experience of being around all these iconic artists … and then taking that into my motivation when I go to the studio next. It's powerful."
For folks familiar with Orlando's hip-hop scene, many are wondering: Who is Caskey? And how'd a 20-year-old kid from Winter Springs get an audience with Birdman? Turns out, it comes down to talent, hours logged and what Caskey calls a blessed situation.
Here's how it came about: During his sophomore year of high school, Caskey became interested in rap and hip-hop – mostly influenced by the music his older sister was listening to – while growing out of his childhood fandom for heavy metal. A friend, producer Kyle McClellan, was interning with the Avengerz and helped play matchmaker between the upcoming rapper and the production team. Caskey's relationship with the Avengerz helped him produce high-quality videos and his first official mix tape, No Complaints. The hype machine barely had a chance to boot up before Birdman stumbled upon the videos through YouTube and called Caskey in for a meeting. Birdman said he recognized Caskey's star power immediately. Then, it was just a matter of telling Caskey and the Avengerz to keep doing what they do.
"Obviously, not every artist has a producer they work super closely with. Some artists are just jumping from studio to studio," Caskey says. "With me, it's like the whole No Complaints album, it was all mostly Avengerz produced, so I had this kind of condensed sound, and we'd been working together for so long that my sound is at the quality it is because of them. I think Bird's just conscious of that. He understands the relationship between artist and producer. If you're an artist that doesn't have a producer you're close with, it's not like you can force that."
For hardcore hip-hop fans, hearing about a rapper who transitioned from an interest in heavy metal into hip-hop can induce cringes faster than nails hovering over a chalkboard. Yet instead of going the route you might expect, what Caskey takes from his youthful music inclinations is simply the raw expression of emotion that makes metal so engaging, especially live.
"As far as the metal goes, I hate rap rock. I hate it," Caskey says. "My dad used to love Kid Rock, and I like Kid Rock, too, but I don't wanna be that. My stuff is like strictly hip-hop. I think that the metal comes back … just that emotional content, you know what I'm saying?
When it's angry, it's angry. When it's painful, it's painful, so like, I try to add that emotion and energy to the live show, because you know, I used to go to metal shows all the time, and they're way turned up. So, that's where the influence is, but you won't be hearing any distorted guitars on my CD."
Caskey's creative process is to let the beat lead his lyrics, so he responds emotionally to what the track is already offering, and then alters his delivery style accordingly to communicate and emphasize the feelings inherent in the music. This creates a nice balance in his tracks where his vocal styling transitions, not just from track to track, but also from verse to verse, subtly manipulating what the listener hears and feels from his music.
"I don't want everything to sound generic, like my voice is always the same on every beat, you know, so I try to really sort of just capture whatever emotion the beat pulls out," Caskey says. "You know, I never really start writing until I have a beat to write to. I just let the beat determine the emotion that's coming out of it."
Orlando fans and onlookers can catch Caskey playing his first solo Orlando show on Saturday, Dec. 1, at BackBooth, doing songs from No Complaints, and connecting, finally, with the people who he previously felt secluded from while working exclusively in the studio. He says the energy's gonna be real huge.
And, of course, you can always go the Birdman route and find him online, where he posts videos as part of his series Baking With Caskey, including behind-the-scenes footage, Q&As and his latest music videos. This channel offers an opportunity to explore how Caskey filters his personal experiences and opinions through his work. For example, the laid back subject matter of "Keep It On the Low," which follows a promiscuous neighborhood girl's infidelities, contrasts severely with the socially conscious music video for "Words," which addresses the lack of actual substance left behind go-to racial and social slurs. Much of what comes from Caskey lyrically provides commentary derived from living in the information age, where he says it's harder to remain ignorant. This leads to a lot of charged statements, like, say, in one song, where he controversially states: Fuck Obama. (Disclaimer: Caskey explains that he isn't against the President but, rather the government system that Obama stands for.) These songs strike a different sort of chord in listeners, which Caskey feels is important.
"You know, people like good music, but I think the stuff that sticks is the stuff that's thought-provoking or [where] people are like, 'Damn, I haven't heard a rapper put it like that,'" Caskey says. "I think that's why my response has kind of been like it is with all these – to me, it seems like they're just diehard fans 'cuz they are on the same page as what I'm speaking. You know, I'm not just trying to put together words that rhyme. I've got a message."
To the likely delight of anyone in this community, his message continues to be draped in Orlando swag. In his videos, you'll see Caskey sporting Orlando Magic apparel. The Amway Arena makes an appearance in "Keep It On the Low," as does iconic downtown signage and the City of Orlando Police Department. In fact, the whole video takes place in a neighborhood we've probably all driven through countless times to cut through Winter Park. For Caskey, who continues to be based out of Orlando and tied to the Maitland studio where he first cultivated the sound he's gaining fame for, it's a way of showing off the City Beautiful and, hopefully, signaling to others that this town is worth paying attention to.
"It's cool 'cuz there's a lot of talent [in Orlando], a lot of good people down here that just haven't got the shine they deserve yet, in my opinion," Caskey says.
Caskey with special guests
7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1
37 W. Pine St.