To say that Jamal Oakes has cultivated a diverse array of professional interests would be an understatement. For two decades, the Philly-born rapper and musician has floated in and out of Jacksonville’s hip hop and rock scenes. His punk-hip hop hybrid project, Askmeificare, was able to successfully speak to several audiences.
Over the years, Oakes has earned a reputation for outspokenness and verbal dexterity to rival almost anyone else. Now he’s taking his skills into a new venture: His carry-out wing joint, Trap House Chicken, opened in Arlington late last month—in the same storefront where Askmeificare used to rehearse.
THC has a decidedly “urban” aesthetic that blends in well with its surroundings. It’s nestled between a laundromat and a convenience store on Justina Road, about 1,000 slightly curved feet from Merrill Road. In between are apartment complexes like the Villager, the Caroline and Miramar, which all have unique histories, not all of which are particularly pleasant. The strip embodies the faded glory of 1980s Arlington.
“I’ve had this building since May, and I have had to fight,” Oakes told Folio Weekly, with exasperation still fresh in his voice. “Zoning, permits, city hall, everything. Because this was an existing restaurant, but they didn’t do it the right way, so I had to go file an exception ... I’ve been going through it, trying to get this place open. They didn’t roadblock me, it was just stuff that I had to do.”
The Trap was finally sprung on March 30. “It was hectic,” he said. “We closed at 7 [p.m.], but we had people coming until 8.”
Oakes’ wife and son work there, and it was their first day as well. He also employs young men from the neighborhood, who are learning not just about food but about life. “We’re starting young,” Oakes quipped with a laugh. His apprentices can be seen running around, bringing food to patrons and promoting the business outside by flaunting branded T-shirts. The uniforms are eye-catching to be sure, all canary yellow and neon green, adorned with the company’s logo: a (trap) house and star crafted to spec by local artist Eddie B.
Oakes has paid close attention to branding in every aspect of his career. THC (get it?) is no different.
“Everybody does the ghetto chicken,” he said, “and I’m, like, ‘No!’ I’m not doing no chicken with a gun, I’m not having a chicken with a gold chain.”
Oakes opted instead for a slightly more subtle drug-den theme, reinforced in the names given to some of their items. For example, THC offers fried, thick-cut potatoes smothered in melted cheese and chunks of boneless fried rib chunks; they’re dubbed “crack wedges” for their addictive qualities. Sauce for the fried ribs comes at three different levels of heat: “reggie,” “mids” and “fiya.” But perhaps the most habit-forming ingredient is Oakes’ “Kilo Sauce,” a creamy condiment that tastes like a cross between Boursin cheese and fondue. It comes out cold, but the heat of the food melts it just enough to dip smoothly. (It’s a good idea to always order a couple extra, for later; it goes great on sandwiches.) Like everything served here, the recipe is a family secret—don’t bother asking!
Born in Philly, Oakes moved here some 15 years ago. The Nathan B. Forrest (now Westside) High School grad has spent his fair share of time at various actual trap houses around the city, but he’s matured into a husband, father and up-and-coming community leader. For him, Trap House Chicken is bigger than just business.
“My purpose is showing people in this neighborhood that there are other ways than selling drugs,” Oakes explained. “Anything can be a trap, if you’re positive and you’re pushing forward and you’re getting money from it. It doesn’t have to be drugs. It doesn’t have to be sports. It can be any business that you put your mind to, you know? That’s the impact I’m hoping to have on the community.”
THC’s Southern Fried Baptist wings—made from a special recipe of Oakes’ mother—lead the menu. These are served in increments of five (a nick), 10 (a dime) or 20 (a dub) and can be combined with exclusive “Duuuval” fried ribs or “Blk Pines” shrimp. The name comes from the Mayport neighborhood where Oakes lived when he first landed in Northeast Florida, and from where he sources the product today. Between the high quality and the low price, this is one of the better seafood deals you’ll find in Northeast Florida.
The main event, however, is the chicken, which is served with a variety of sauces like butter garlic, butter krab and Philly style.
“What separates our chicken from everyone else’s,” explained Oakes, “is that I wanted to go with flavors that enhance the chicken, versus just regular hot wings, where you fry the chicken and cover it with hot sauce.”
Trap House Chicken is only the first of several business concepts that Oakes hopes to roll out in the months and years ahead. They all reflect his long-term goal of uplifting the neighborhood and providing a positive example for young people who can always use more role models.
“If we’re profitable, I don’t see why my employees shouldn’t be making $15 an hour,” he said. “I want them to be making $50,000 a year. Helping the community isn’t giving them jobs where they still have to be on welfare. Helping the community is giving them jobs where they can actually start their own businesses, put their kids through college. That’s how you change a community.”
THC is a mouthwatering throwback to kinder, gentler times, when neighborhood pride was a thing and local food shacks commanded the same fierce loyalty as college football. With the decline of Regency Mall dragging the whole area down, Arlington gets a bad rap these days. But the stunning exteriors of Miramar are reminders of how beautiful the area was once. While Jamal Oakes wasn’t around to witness its glory days, he’s made it his mission to help bring the better aspects of those days back.