Armani White Transcended West Philadelphia Trauma To Make ‘Happy Hood Music’

Growing up in the harsh streets of West Philadelphia, Armani White confronted the intersection of economic scarcity and personal pride. One particularly memorable day, White was riding home from elementary school on a bike his father bought him. And when an older bully tried to take it, a fight broke out. “The way I grew up, my dad was like, ‘I don’t care what went on outside, you are not coming in this house without your bike,’” the 26-year-old rapper says. “Philly has a very stark way of deciding if you’re going to be prey or the predator. I’ll tell you one thing: no matter how the fight went, I left with that bike.”

Now, phoning in from Colorado during an off-day from opening on Jessie Reyez’s Yessie Tour, White is reaping the hard-earned rewards of a survivor’s resolve — riding the high from “Billie Eilish,” his breakthrough, menacing earworm that landed him a record deal with Def Jam in July. “I learned I’m not gonna be the one that gets bullied. I’m not gonna be the one that falls victim to circumstances and surroundings,” he says.

White has always known that he was going to fight for rap stardom. He watched Will Smith on The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air and internalized that it was possible to represent Philly and make it out of West Philly. But his reality couldn’t be tidily presented on television.

First, White lost his uncle to gun violence. Then in 2016, he drove by his father’s house to try and mend their on-and-off relationship, only to see an emaciated man entrenched in a battle with prostate cancer. He sped off before his father spotted him, performed for the first time at The Fillmore that night, and then sat by his dad’s bedside for the next three months until his untimely passing. He has suffered through two house fires, in 2006 and 2020, that inspired his 2021 EP Things We Lost In The Fire. (Four of White’s family members died in the 2006 fire.) For White and all of Philly’s own, the city doubles as a hometown and a crash course in resilience.

“A lot of us in Philadelphia, when you just talk to someone and feel like there’s a lot of trauma, a lot of pain, there’s just a lot of layers to the city that we’ve all kind of gone through,” White says. “And if we haven’t gone through it, trauma is passed down. We found ways to make our trauma sound, feel and look beautiful. But at the end of the day, it’s still trauma.”

Beginning in fifth grade, using his first cellphone as his microphone until his mother bought him one in 10th grade, White has channeled his trauma into making what he calls “happy hood music.” It honors who Philadelphia made him through biting anecdotal lyricism. It was his way of musically redirecting before he physically could. Now, his sound is ubiquitously embraced, with “Billie Eilish” featured in TikToks by Kim Kardashian, LeBron James, Tom Brady, Odell Beckham Jr., Gabrielle Union-Wade, Paris Hilton, and more. But he’s been meticulously marinating that sound in Philly for the past decade.

In 2011, White began paying $50 an hour to record at Philadelphia’s famed (and since-closed) Batcave Studio, where city legends such as Meek Mill and Gillie Da Kid walked the halls. White recorded “Stick Up” there, his seminal 2015 single chronicling the crime on his block in head-spinning fashion that gave his career an initial spark. That day, he was “loopy” after having his wisdom teeth taken out and skipped class at Delaware State to drive to Batcave. White’s unassuming charm sticking out at the studio wasn’t an isolated incident.

“It’s cool because I’m one of the last shining stars from the Batcave era. Back then, I was just the weird kid,” he says. “Everybody was making songs about shooting each other, and I was making boom bap. It built a lot of character because I had to be the one person to champion my songs when I was in a building where everybody was like, ‘Alright, that’s kinda weird.’”

And then, a snowstorm in 2012. White had come to the studio that night with $150, enough for two or three hours of recording time, and then the weather prevented anyone from leaving. It turned into a nightlong session with engineer Don Groove. “That was the night that turned [our relationship] into, Oh, this guy really believes in me as an artist; he’s not just taking my little allowance money and pocketing it,” White says.

Groove later opened his own studio on the other side of town, Groove House, where he and White made “Billie Eilish.” White describes the environment at Groove House as family-oriented and his relationship with Groove and his other day-ones as safe. He needed that comfortability — that unspoken permission to be himself and lean into his offbeat instincts — to ambitiously sample NORE’s 2002 hit “Nothin,’” persistently pursue the clearance of that sample and the usage of Eilish’s name, and pen a life-changing hook: “B*tch, I’m stylish / Glock tucked, big t-shirt, Billie Eilish.”

The song became White’s first-ever entry on the Billboard Hot 100 in September, peaking at No. 58, and is platinum-certified in Canada. White had reached plenty of impressive milestones before “Billie Eilish,” though. Years ago at The Roots Picnic, White nervously approached Black Thought and clumsily tried to introduce himself. “I know who you are,” Black Thought interrupted — validation that White kept in his back pocket to wade through murkier stretches. White’s return to music after his father’s 2016 death was marked at the 2018 Made In America Festival, held annually in Philadelphia, and by a one-off show for 10,000 people at Colorado’s iconic Red Rocks Amphitheatre. And in 2019, he opened on Vince Staples’ 2019 Smile, You’re On Camera Tour. Last year, his Things We Lost In The Fire track “Danny Mac” was played on Power 99’s DJ Cosmic Kev.

But life is just different now.

“Billie Eilish” gets regular airplay in Philadelphia, and White’s older sister calls him every time she hears it on the radio. In 2006, White bought DJ Drama’s Gangsta Grillz Dedication 2 at the local mixtape stand on 52nd street and fanboyed over “SportsCenter”; at this year’s BET Awards, Drama praised White’s freestyle over Jack Harlow’s “First Class” beat and struck up a friendship. White’s 2022 Made In America set was anchored by “Billie Eilish,” crowdsurfing on a hot-air mattress and soaking in his city singing his song.

The first time White and I ever spoke, he called me from a Wendy’s in West Philly. It was a typical day for him. He had promised to take his mother to work, delaying a scheduled trip to New York City. Fast forward four years, Armani White can’t have nondescript days in West Philadelphia anymore.

“This one weekend in March, when [‘Billie Eilish’] first happened, I went to the grocery store down around the corner. Some guy had noticed me,” White says. “I used to ride my one-wheel up and down the city, and when I was riding it, people were yelling out, ‘Yo, Armani!’ I was going to get food, so when I get to the food spot, somebody swung they car, pulled it over, jumped out. He was like, ‘Yo, glock tucked, big t-shirt?’”

White eventually felt a little too noticeable in his neighborhood — “it’s not that many people walking around with a scarf and beads” — and didn’t like people knowing where he lived, the all-too-familiar feeling of having to look over his shoulder. He’d outgrown his city. It was time to move.

“Made it out the hood, now I’m just visiting my mama,” White sings in his August single “Diamond Dallas.” The song’s video was shot on his childhood 52nd Street block. In it, he surprises his mom with a tin bucket filled with $100,000. They ride through his old stomping grounds, experiencing their old reality from an elevated perspective. Will Smith planted the seed, but DJ Drama cemented for White that leaving Philly was necessary.

“That was a big thing that I had to understand that’s really, really hard to drill into somebody from Philly. ‘Yo, you should leave Philly,’ it’s like a foreign language,” White says. “When me and Drama talked, Drama was one of them examples of, ‘Yo, look, I left and I made it work, and who knows where I would be if I didn’t?’ It’s not that the best way is to leave. It’s just, sometimes, you gotta bring trophies home.”

White isn’t sure where he’ll settle down next, living in a sprinter van and enjoying the rockstar touring lifestyle for now, but he’ll carry Philadelphia with him wherever he goes. His entire band is from back home, and he doesn’t plan on recording anywhere else. He’s as tapped into Philadelphia music as ever, beaming at the opportunity to solidify “happy hood music” as the city’s identifying sound. He’d love to earn co-signs from Meek Mill, Lil Uzi Vert, and Jazmine Sullivan. Just as he did with his bike decades ago, he’s claiming what’s his: a boundless runway to become a Philadelphia artist worth idolizing.

“This is the first time in my life I’ve ever been the big homie,” White says. “I’m the person who gives the advice. I talk to literally anybody from Philly. My effort is never going to diminish or dismiss where I came from. It’s always going to be like, How can I give back and how can I amplify where I came from? Because the bigger platform that the city has, the bigger it is going to be when I stand on it.”

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.