“‘Who is this guy from Delray Beach? Never heard of him!’”
He points a white-T-shirted shoulder across the street towards Respectable Street, the nightclub where lots of local kids, including Biddines, first climbed onto a stage, grabbed a mic, looked into a darkened standing room-only crowd and let it fly. More than a decade ago, when he was “a high school celebrity” in the halls of Delray’s Atlantic High School, he played there and Lake Worth’s Propaganda, hoping it would lead to bigger things. For a while it looked it might - until it didn’t.
But now, at 32, after years of self-produced mixtapes “that I didn’t sell not one” of, and guesting on other people’s recordings, Biddines’ new album “The Local Cafe,” and the single “Peeuurrnn,” is getting some traction. National Public Radio’s popular music site highlighted the new single and video last month.
And he’s betting that, eventually, no one’s going to have to ask who Eric Biddines is again.
“I want to give people hope here,” he says.
Born in Ocala, he moved to Delray Beach when he was six years old after his parents split, because his mother’s family has deep roots in the city: “They were one of the original black families that helped found Delray,” he says. Around that time, little Eric started writing, first comic books and then poetry, one of the typical first stops for the burgeoning songwriter, “because of the rhyming. I was just drawn to it, but I didn’t think I’d make a career out of it, though. I thought it would be athletics.”
Ultimately, the call of the rhythm was stronger than any game, and he was pulled into the “active, healthy local music scene,” he says. There was a lot of rap and hip-hop being written and performed in Palm Beach County, but much of it was gangsta rap, “which was not happening in my house. It wasn’t a very diverse scene. I struggled to fit in.”
Biddines wanted to do something different, something with a message about struggle and triumph, about how proud he was of the streets where he was from. What called to him was the classic R&B and soul he grew up listening to, the smoothness of Al Green, the Temptations and Curtis Mayfield, as well as sounds coming out of Georgia, with groups like Field Mob, Goodie Mob (with which Cee-Lo Green started out) and Outkast, as well as New York-based conscious rappers like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, seen powerfully protesting on CBS’ Grammy Awards broadcast last Sunday.
When he looked into Outkast’s Andre 3000 and read that he eschewed drinking and drugs to keep his mind and his music clear, Biddines knew he was onto something.
“I thought that was so brave of him. I thought ‘Oh, wow, I can be who I am and not be considered corny.’ It made me comfortable to do what I do. There was a lot of positive southern groups coming out, with a message that was healthy.”
So he limited his buzz to music and caffeine, which he’d fallen in love with right around the time his family moved to Delray, when “my mom would wake up, and I would get up and make her coffee.”
In high school, Biddines and a friend formed an act called 2 Slabz, which got played on a local Sunday night FM radio show, “which was a big deal.” But like most things in high school, the group didn’t last, “growing apart stylistically,” he says. Meanwhile, Biddines dropped out of Atlantic after the 10th grade and started working two jobs, including one in Delray Medical Center’s food department. He became a married father, and took a break from music for a while.
When he started writing again, he found himself in a different place than when “we were rapping about being young and having fun. I wanted to be a good influence on people here.”
In 2006, Biddines dropped his first solo mixtape, called “The Coffee Shop” in honor of his favorite substance. Like a lot of writers whose work has grown over time, he looks back at that tape and feels “a little embarrassed” by it because “it was so early on.”
Still, the title gave him a career-long theme, and a trademark, since “people who know me locally know I drink a lot of coffee, so I wanted to emphasize that, like ‘This dude, he drinks coffee and it’s hot.’”
Eric’s rhymes may have been hot, but sales were pretty chilly, because of the 500 copies he pressed, “nobody bought one.” Still, it got out enough that “people started taking me seriously.”
Biddines caught the ear of well-known local rapper Triple J, who once had a deal with pioneering hip-hop label Def Jam. The “local legend” invited the up-and-comer to record with him at West Palm Beach’s On Beat Studio, which was a sign that, ‘“Oh, shoot! I don’t suck!’”
Those recordings, which he promoted on his various social media channels, led to a new mixtape called “Planetcoffeebean 2”, which did sell a few copies and, more importantly, got him noticed by English producer and artist Paul White, who’s worked with acts like Danny Brown and Charlie XCX. White, who’d found Biddines on Twitter, invited the rapper to England for a week to do a project.
“I’d never been out of the country. I had only been out of Florida once, to New York,” says Biddines, who in 2014 happily crossed the Atlantic and found himself in a state of “huge culture shock. I didn’t know they had different kinds of cars there, brands I’d never heard of. The double-decker buses. Everyone there uses public transportation. Here, to take the bus, you must be doing bad. And I had never seen a black person speak with a British accent.”
At the end of his five-day cultural immersion, Biddines had been introduced to new kinds of coffee, and to the occasional glass of red wine, “but only for the health benefits.” He’d also collaborated with White on a collection of tracks called “Golden Ticket” under the name Golden Rule. The exposure got him gigs like Austin’s South by Southwest, and the reassurance that “everyone was looking at me differently. Between the local shows, and going to London, I was making people believe in me.”
The confidence is apparent on the just-released “The Local Cafe,” on Richie Abbott’s Juggarnaut Sound imprint. The single “Peeuurrnn,” which takes its name from the cartoon-like sound of super fast forward momentum - say it out loud and imagine the Road Runner speeding away from the path of an Acme Corporation anvil. The lyrics are about the frustration of feeling stuck in one situation, like, say, a local music scene, and summoning the motivation to get out of there.
The video’s director, Ryan Snyder, was inspired by the idea of momentum “to say ‘Let’s go somewhere like crazy. Let’s go to Utah tomorrow!’”
That shoot, which finds Biddines rapping in solitude on a white-capped mountain range not only showed the rapper “in a whole other element,” but introduced him to his first snow, and also his first brush with true cold - “It’s not just the feeling of the cold, but what it does to your whole body,” he says. “It was negative 2 degrees. But it was my first chance to see something that beautiful.”
Also beautiful? The place Biddines is in, musically. He’s playing SXSW again, and talking to major labels while enjoying becoming a bigger name: “I was on some Spotify playlist!” he says happily.
As for the other place he’s in, which is South Florida, the rapper believes that although he’d like to travel more “I definitely would like to still live here. Maybe I’ll move a little more south, like Miami. When the industry does come here, I want to stay close to my relatives.”
And he wants to stay close to the scene that spawned him.
“No one in rap, from here, has ever (done) what I do. I have a fresh perspective,” Biddines says. “I want to stay in the county, mention the names of the streets around me. I just want to represent that.”