ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Musicians and songwriters find inspiration in all sorts of topics and circumstances, from personal relationships to politics and social issues.

For St. Pete rapper Alexander “Dephree” Dunn, the best tunes come from mining his own story and experiences.

What You Need To Know

  • Father, husband and recovering addict Alexander Dunn is St. Pete rapper Dephree

  • Dunn channels his personal experiences and environmental advocacy into his music

  • Dephree is a contender in Wild 94.1 FM's "Next Up New Artist Challenge"

“I’ve found that what’s most personal is also the most universal,” he says, reclining on a sofa in the Disston Heights home he shares with his wife and 1-year-old son. “The more vulnerable I am, the more people can connect with the music and relate to it.”

Dunn began making music at 17. Drug addiction was already a part of his life at that point, and he used songwriting as a means of both introspection and self-discovery.

“It helped me cope and helped me feel like myself,” says the 32-year-old. “My songs were really good, but I couldn’t sing very well, and I couldn’t play guitar very well, and everything had a kind of hip-hop feel to it — and I loved hip-hop, ever since I was a kid I always loved it.”

The Indiana native leaned full-on into building a career in rap, relocating to Los Angeles at the age of 20 and getting clean as he immersed himself in the entertainment capital’s hip-hop scene, making mixtapes and performing live. An avowed environmental advocate, he garnered coverage in the Los Angeles Times for a one-man protest (and publicity stunt) that saw him scaling an exit sign and snarling traffic along the city’s infamous 110 freeway. He also found himself working with some influential industry veterans such as producer Chuck Heat, who’s worked with MCs like Snoop Dogg.

He temporarily derailed his career ambitions, however, when he relapsed, ironically while working as a sober companion for another addict.

“I was making a lot of money,” Dunn says. “I made money my higher power.”

The rapper went back into treatment, then joined his wife Christine in St. Petersburg, where she’d moved to be closer to family. Dunn once again dove headfirst into the local scene, building relationships with Tampa Bay performers, producers and collaborators.

“The St. Pete hip-hop scene is poppin’,” he says. “There are just a lot of great people.”

A year and change later, Dephree has established himself as both a vital part of that scene and a talented, provocative up-and-comer in his own right. Dunn’s Soundcloud and Apple Music pages (WARNING: explicit lyrics) showcase his quasi-melodic and deceptively easygoing vocal flow, along with a musical style that has evolved from computer-built beats to include live instrumentation and an organic, evocative vibe.

His social media presence reveals Dephree as a multifaceted personality, part endearing goofball, part encouraging recovery advocate, part savvy self-promoter. He’s continued to use his platform to highlight environmental issues, most recently delivering a carload of inflatable pool toys shaped like marine animals to the steps of St. Pete’s City Hall to emphasize the catastrophic ecological effects of this summer’s massive red tide bloom — and to publicize the video for his new single “Red Tide,” which drops in a few days.

All this activity has landed Dephree in the quarterfinals of Bay area radio station Wild 94.1 FM’s Next Up New Artist Challenge; public voting for the contest’s current round ends Wednesday, and the eventual victor will win a recording session, stage time at a Wild event and a trip to Miami to work with a veteran production team. But Dunn knows he didn’t do it all himself, and is quick to shout out the St. Pete scene in general and his collaborators and supporters in particular, including recording studio Stereogram Sound, blog Jit Camp, collectives Bottomville and Slugg Sounds, videographers Dwight Mathis and Koji Sumalde and others.

As Dephree, Dunn finds immense satisfaction in creating music, content and fun with others, and catharsis in sharing his own journey thus far. The biggest payoff for him, though, is the hope that the feeling is transferable, that fans will get out of it at least some of the same delight that he does.

“I like making people happy,” he says. “The more I reveal myself, the deeper the connections… Being Dephree is a service — not that people need it, but it’s the role I can play best to bring joy to people and help make a difference.”