Since the success of Rick Ross in 2006, it seems like a new act from the Sunshine State is getting signed to a major label deal every few months. But don’t for a minute think that Tremar “Flo Rida” Dillard is just a lucky bastard cashing in on the success of his fellow Miami MCs. Nope—this 26-year-old Carol City native has a unique style and an even more unique story of struggle that led to his big breakthrough.

Before his current T-Pain-assisted crossover single “Low” became Billboard's #1 pop single and the #1 most downloaded song on iTunes for a full month, Flo Rida was grinding for years, traveling across the country with 2 Live Crew’s Fresh Kid Ice and setting up shop with legendary Jodeci producer Devante Swing (who once upon a time also mentored a young Timbaland and Missy Elliott) out in California. But after enduring everything from shady lawyers to homeless nights on the street, he finally came back to his hometown to hook up with local label Poe Boy Entertainment. The home of Rick Ross soon helped him sign a deal with Atlantic Records, and before he knew it, his Runners-produced street single “Birthday” was blowing up across the country. With the follow-up “Low” climbing into the top 10 on the Billboard chart and the TRL countdown, his debut Mail On Sunday, which features appearances from Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, Brisco and Cool & Dre, could make him 2008’s rookie of the year when it drops in February.

This must be an exciting time for you. Have you noticed a change in the way the public reacts to you?
Most definitely. They’re asking for pictures, autographs. All the grinding, hard work, it’s definitely paying off. So, I appreciate it.

There’s a lot of people who have records with T-Pain. Why do you think “Low” has stood out so much to the fans?
Mike Cameron, my A&R [at Atlantic] was like, “I think it would be a great idea if you did the record because of the different flows that you use.” I thought hooking up with T-Pain would be great anyway because I remember him way before he got his deal. I was a fan of him when he was with his rap group in Tallahassee, the Nappy Headz. I’m from Miami, and we grew up on the bass records. I got the record and recorded faster than I ever recorded before. After we recorded it, I took it to the strip clubs and played it for the strippers and they felt fond to it. So I felt like, Okay, this is gon’ be a smash. But I didn’t know [it would be] to this extent.

Your delivery is very original—there’s a lot of harmony in your rapping. How did you develop that style?
I have a lot of R&B influences—rhythm and soul, rock. Dudes like Jimi Hendrix—as you can see I got him tatted on my arm—and Marvin Gaye inspired me. My sisters grew up singing in the gospel choir, so that did too. My dad played all types of instruments. My name Flo Rida…I came up with that name basically because I have a lot of melodic style in my flows. But I always try to come up with different flows for different beats and never just come the same every time. Like the “Rida” part of my name is when you hear me flowing fast. You know the name definitely speaks for who I am and what I do as an artist. My style is melodic and the flows I use come from an R&B background.

What made you get the Jimi Hendrix tattoo on your arm?
My step brother always listened to dudes like Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix and he would go to the mall and I would ask myself, What makes him like this type of music? So I started paying attention to it and me, with my style, I like to come from the left field but also have people understand. Jimi played the guitar with his left hand. That made me interested in him—he’s very different. Like, when he gets onstage, he did things like light the guitar on fire and other left field things. So I was like, What better tattoo can I get?

You’ve been working towards this for a minute. Tell me about your career before the deal with Atlantic.
It was just a lot of hustling and grinding with my group, the Groundhoggz. I was down in Miami slangin’ mixtapes; making sacrifices. Lawyers were ripping us off while we were trying to get a deal. I lived in Vegas for two years trying to go to school, Cali for three years trying to hustle up a deal. When I was in Cali, I went to Death Row and Capitol Records trying to get a deal. I had all types of jobs while I was out there. I was out there with Devanté [Swing] of Jodeci for like three years, and I learned some things from him because he’s a musical genius. So, all of those influences play a part in the music I do now. I always try to make my sound more universal than local.

How did you first end up in California?
I went out there with just $200 and I actually spent a couple of days on the street. I went to the deputy center and I had like this bag with me with my clothes in it and it weighed like 70 pounds or so. I went to the mall and put the bag on top of the bus bench for like an hour; came back and didn’t see my bag. I went to the gas station and asked, “Did you see a bag anywhere around the area?” He was like, “Aw man, you caused a bomb threat.” I was like “Ohhhh, man.” I walked into the police station looking for it. It was like 3 o’clock in the morning, so I stayed there until the morning. At that point, I had run out of money. So then I had some people back home send me a couple of dollars so I could go home. I was still on the streets for another couple of days. I went back home and worked on the demo. And that’s basically how I got back out to Cali. Devanté heard the demo and flew me out like the next day.

Devante has been very influential in a lot of careers. What was it like working with him?
He never sleeps. He’s always making hot tracks. He’ll call at random times to get me to rap on different songs. But he always told me my work ethic was great. Prior to coming there, I was always this patient dude, real focused on my music. I didn’t let nothing stop me from grinding and making sure I was paying my dues. So just being there showed me I was doing the right thing, because he was doing the same thing I did prior to coming to his spot.

Is true at some point you toured with 2 Live Crew?
Yeah, Chinaman [a.k.a. Fresh Kid Ice], actually. I had to open up for Scarface one time and someone in his [Fresh Kid Ice’s] camp seen me and they needed someone to hype for him. So, he got my contact and asked me if I wanted to go to Hawaii. That was the first time I ever had done a show with him.

That must have been a wild experience.
It was crazy! I remember the shows now. When these girls hear the 2 Live Crew record, they would go crazy. They were getting naked and all kinds of stuff. Them girls didn’t even know me and they were trying to take my pants down; using whip cream, bananas and all kinds of crazy stuff. Yup, yup. [Laughs]

So you’re from Carol City in Dade County. Did you know any of the other well-known rappers from the neighborhood, like Rick Ross, when you were coming up?
Yeah. With the company I’m with now, Poe Boy Entertainment, I always knew my manager. The CEO [E-Class], I knew him through my sisters because they were around his age. So I would always get to see him around and [Rick] Ross has always been down with the Poe Boy family. I would see Ross. Ross played football and I would go to the high school a lot of times and see him out there. As far as rhyming and stuff, prior to us getting deals, we did a record before and we always showed love [to one another]. He always told me, “Man, keep writing and one day I’m gonna put you on.” I was real nonchalant about it. Next thing you know, he was a part of me getting my deal.

After being out West for so long, how did you end up back in Miami?
I was out there in Cali for like three years and I was like, I’m not going back home till I make it. And then my manager was calling me and he was like, “You need to come down here. They’re listening to your demo and they just want to put a face to the music.” That was around the time Ross was getting his deal, so A&Rs were in the building because the “Hustlin’” record was blowing up. So I was like, I’m going to go down there just to visit, and I ended up staying for like four months and eventually I got my record deal with Atlantic Records.

With the overwhelming response that "Low" has gotten, you’ve already gotten more success than a lot of rappers. Do you feel like you’ve made it?
Nah, definitely, feel like I got a lot more work to go. Everything that’s happening, I expect to see all these things happening for the fact of how hard I worked prior. But I never knew it would be like this; not to this level.

How do they react to you in the strip club now?
They’re showing a little bit more love. They want to take pictures and get autographs now. When they’re dancing, now they just expect a little bit more [money], but it’s all good [laughs].