Are you a real rapper?" asks a pudgy young tourist from Dublin.
It's a loaded question for the subject of the boy's curiosity, 37-year-old Pine Hills resident Terrence King. King's been kicking around the local minor league of rap for over a decade, self-releasing hip-hop CDs he makes at his house. His albums wear his journey as if he's managed to thrust the weight of his burdens onto their printer-paper slip-sleeve covers. One of them, hopefully titled Charlie Cash & Dur "T" Red, bears a photo of King several years younger, throwing up the west side "W" (as in the west side of I-4) with a friend holding a wad of bills. With tracks like "Deez Niggas" and "Shake It Like It's Easy," the album's an unabashed play for New Orleans spillover, full of unsupported boasts and depressingly fictional tales of a player's high life. Another, called Through Trees and Snow, showcases King in a more honest mode, but still in denial. He presents himself as a rapper who could live a life of girls, drugs and fame, but chooses to walk the straight and narrow instead.
None of this is out of the ordinary for up-and-coming rappers — the DIY albums, the braggadocio, chasing mainstream trends and hoping for a foot in the door of a major record label. The theory is to act as if you're famous; if it's said enough times on wax, it'll come true. But for King, a husband and father who says he can only find work as a grill chef because of a criminal record from his days in Jacksonville, the persona has become performance art.
"Yeah, I'm a real rapper," King tells the boy with a smile. "You buy my record and I'll sign it for you."
King whips out an oversized magic marker and quietly tells the boy's father that his album will cost $10. The deal's almost sealed, but the kids want more. They ask him to rap, right there in front of a clothing store at Prime Outlets International, one of many tourist spots King's found to be ripe for sales. He obliges, and daddy buys two.
Within an hour and a half, King has sold a stack of six albums, thanks to his keen ability to sniff out foreigners, seemingly all of whom devour the U.S. hip-hop scene from afar and love the idea of bringing home a souvenir photo with a genuine American rapper. Liverpool, Singapore, Dublin — they all happily accept that King is, well, a king.
"He's good at it," laughs Jerry Ivaninski, who works at a jewelry kiosk in the outlet mall. "I see him here a lot."
"I'm what you can literally call underground," says King. "It's a struggle. I've even lived in a hotel and had to sell a certain amount of CDs in order to pay for my hotel room."
King says the urgency was magnified when he was convicted for resisting arrest in 2002. "They buried me so far in the system, 'cause I had prior `arrests`," he says. "That made it even bigger. It made an anthill into a mountain. I felt like God was condemning me, so I had to make a change."
When King was released, he put a greater focus on integrating religion into his music, culminating in his most recent effort, G.O.E: God Over Everything, an eight-song gospel rap LP that deals exclusively with his faith. "You can bop/You can sway/But have faith/When you pray," he shouts on "God's Got U."
He drives by the Holy Land Experience and realizes he's never worked the hustle there. "Only thing they can say is ‘no,'" he laughs, but they're already closed for the day. Besides, that's not the only thing they could say. "I've been `issued trespassing warrants` at Walt Disney World, Premium Outlets. I've been asked to leave at Florida Mall." He sees the Holy Land sign and muses out loud, "TBN `the Christian-owned Trinity Broadcasting Network`. I'll have to keep that in mind."
He calls International Drive, the area where he's found the most favorable reception, his "road of success." King is an expert at scoping crowds, from prayer brunches to biker night at Old Town, and as a salesman, his instincts for knowing when to push the Christian angle and when to back off don't just vary from gathering to gathering, but depend entirely on the customer in front of him.
Later, he stops by the downtown studios of Dawgman, a producer and promoter who has known King since the early '90s and supports his shift to gospel rap.
"You can't question God, so I'm all for it," says Dawgman. He believes gospel rap could become a part of the overall sound of Orlando.
"To me, gospel rap could be the biggest movement in Orlando," agrees Disco Jr., a Dawgman cohort and prominent DJ at local dance clubs like Icon and Mansion. "Churches `are` a big part of Orlando and they stand by their people."
Before King can lead a movement, however, there are more pressing matters. He finishes the night at Wal-Mart, where his sole purchase is diapers. He sifts through the crumpled bills he earned earlier simply by asking dozens of people the same question: "Excuse me, do you like hip-hop?"
"I'm guaranteed to sell a million records at some point in my lifetime," says King. "And it's going to my family first.
"There's nobody knocking on my door saying, ‘Can I get that Terrence King CD?' So I have to put it in their hand for them."firstname.lastname@example.org