The Heads Are A’ight
Three Carolinas’ hip-hop artists step into the national spotlight, but does everyone benefit from the exposure they receive?
By Kim Ruehl and Jordan Lawrence
It’s the first Friday of October, and Pierce Freelon has just wrapped a night spent on the panel of a hip-hop summit at Raleigh’s Shaw University. He’s audibly tired, but there’s excitement in his voice. The summit was a first shot at what he hopes will be an annual gathering of musicians from the national scene for an academic survey of the current state of hip-hop. The panel also included Brooklyn MC Special Ed, who made a splash in 1989 with the song “I Got It Made,” and was moderated by the up-and-coming New Yorker DJ Prince. According to Freelon, the discussion hinged on such questions as, “Is hip-hop dead, and if so, who killed it? Where are the women in hip-hop? What happened to hip-hop’s political voice? Where are the Public Enemies and Lauryn Hills?”
Freelon, the MC for hip-hop-and-jazz-fusing Durham ensemble The Beast, is a veteran of such discussions. The son of Grammy nominated jazz singer Nnenna Freelon is a hip-hop scholar who’s taught classes at UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina Central University. He thinks those searching for what’s new and happening in hip-hop need look no further than right here in the Carolinas.
“There are all the components,” he says, noting how the panel kept coming back to how rich the NC hip-hop community is. “There’s the young, hungry up-and-coming MCs. There’s the established professionals. There’s the elders. Then, there’s the industry stamp . . . I think the components are there for a really strong scene, moving in a progressive steady inclining direction.”
The relevance of the area’s hip-hop community — particularly in North Carolina’s Triangle — was thrown into sharp relief this fall. On Sep. 27, some of the state’s heaviest hitters celebrated what they anointed N.C. Hip-Hop Day. The occasion? The three best-known regional artists dropped albums on that same day: Fayetteville star J Cole released Cole World: The Sideline Story; Raleigh/NYC-based Grammy-winning producer 9th Wonder unleashed his latest, The Wonder Years; and Triangle rapper and Foreign Exchange frontman Phonte delivered his first solo album, Charity Starts at Home. (Charlotte-based Big Pooh, the third member of the influential Little Brother triumvirate with 9th Wonder and Phonte, dropped his own CD, Dirty Pretty Things, this Fall as well.) Reviews painted these albums in various positive and negative hues, but each is a solid testament to the state’s newfound assertiveness in the fertile field of southern rap.
The Big Three may be the most nationally visible N.C. rappers, but they come from a burgeoning regional scene seemingly more primed than ever now to blow up. But the question of who’s next, or whether anyone else in the region can get any lovelight in the shadow of the Big Three, remains an intriguing question.
Phonte, whose tenure with Little Brother is widely cited as inspiration for the current set of young Carolina rappers, thinks that the attention the trio has received can only be seen as an asset to the rest of the Carolinas’ hip-hop community. He sees their success as a conduit for other area artists to reach new ears and as a blueprint for them to follow in their own careers.
“I think that now, with cats seeing what we went through early on as Little Brother, we gave people the inspiration to see that they could make it happen for themselves,” he says. “When we were coming up, our dream was a record deal. But the kids now can say, ‘I saw what Little Brother did. They’re not looking for a deal. They just want to make the music they want to make and put it out on their own terms, do it for themselves.’”
Many local artists are already getting caught up in the success of these heavyweights. The Wonder Years is 9th Wonder’s first proper release as an MC, but he made his name as the production end of Little Brother. He has since built a small empire that includes the It’s A Wonderful World Music collective, the Jamla Records imprint, and an oft-copied production style that centers on head-knocking snare hits and warm soul samples. In the past year alone, he’s helped release albums from Winston-Salem’s Big Remo, Durham’s Thee Tom Hardy, Raleigh’s Median and Apex’s HaLo, among other Carolina artists.
One of the most promising talents in 9th’s camp is Rapsody — the female MC from N.C. hip-hop collective Kooley High. Her debut mixtape, Return of the B-Girl, which dropped in August, includes production by 9th and Khrysis of the Durham-based Justus League, and guest spots from Rah Digga, Big Daddy Kane, Thee Tom Hardy and more. The disc was well received, its poised rhymes earning covetable comparisons to MC Lyte and Lauryn Hill.
Still, in the intro to B-Girl, Rapsody asserts, “I’ll be one of the greats,” before name-checking big-time male artists like Jay-Z, T.I., Lil Wayne, and Kanye West. You get the feeling she wouldn’t be content with being considered a great female rapper; she’s aiming to be one of the best, period. Indeed, her raps are richly narrative and filled with impeccably detailed storytelling. But even as she delves into the unexpected twists of her own life-story on “1983,” she shows she’s quite capable of dropping memorable one-line zingers when necessary (“Had rhythm in my soul before the nurse ever weighed me”).
“I think 9th and Phonte’s brand and high standard of quality has trickled down to a lot of the hungry, young up-and-coming acts,” Freelon says of the area’s new talent. “They’re not putting out mixtapes that aren’t mixed and half-assed verses. A lot of the things that trips me about the scene is so many people are coming super hard.”
While few argue that artists like 9th and Phonte have set a high standard for the area’s artists, there are still those that don’t see the Carolinas as a place where you can base a successful hip-hop career. Many artists still head off to New York, Chicago or Atlanta when it comes time to record, network, and develop their brands. When it comes to making a career out of music, establishing relationships and audiences in larger markets is still a must.
“I’m not saying you can’t blow up if you’re from S.C.,” says WXYC DJ and blogger Nanci O, who’s also co-host of the podcast “Where Is Hop-Hop?,” and an official media sponsor for both the 2010 and 2011 South Carolina Music Awards. “I [just] feel at some point you’re going to have to leave because if you just stay in your own state networking with the same people over and over again, how are you going to grow? It’s not like the industry is coming to S.C. on a regular basis.”
As Nanci O points out, smaller markets like Columbia, Asheville and Wilmington don’t afford artists the resources or name recognition that an established area like the Triangle can provide. This isn’t to downplay promising artists on Charlotte’s Black Flag Records (A. Moss and Deniro Farrar, particularly), Asheville’s Two Fresh, or Columbia’s Preach Jacobs, to name a few emerging talents. That’s a broad range of styles displayed there, but if there’s a sound that can be called Carolinas’ hip-hop, it’s got a retro feel.
“If you listen to the styles and content,” says Foul Mouth Jerk, a member of two Asheville collectives, Gurp City South and Granola Funk Express, “there is an overall old school, golden age type of feel to a lot of Carolina hip hop, that’s pretty consistent no matter what area.”
But unlike the Triangle, where many pieces are already in place (including, as Phonte points out, the fertile-ground-for-hip-hop colleges), other regions still face an uphill battle for acceptance. You only have to look at this summer’s brouhaha in Asheville when organizers for the annual Bel Chere Festival claimed there wasn’t room for DJ Kool (or any other hip-hop act), or this Fall’s Free Times Music Crawl in Columbia, when the Wet Willie’s chain pulled out of the event after its corporate management found out the club would be hosting a hip-hop stage, complaining that the lineup was “too urban.”
Given some of the limitations and lingering prejudices, artists in these cities rely even more heavily on the Internet’s broad reach. “With the industry being how it is, anywhere with internet access is enough to be successful,” says Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, an Asheville MC who has retooled his career to include a nationally successful brand of kid-targeted hip-hop. He says that working from a small market like Asheville — often considered “the weird, mushroom eating country brother to the Triangle scene,” he adds — can be tough, but it’s cheaper to live there than in NYC or Atlanta. Getting to gigs in bigger cities is a must, but the low cost of living more than makes up for travel expenses.
“If you take the elements that have always made hip-hop incredible and mutate them in new ways that people haven’t heard yet, then you will make waves,” he says. “The Carolinas have enough understanding and respect for the elements, combined with enough freedom from the trends, that heads will do exactly that.”
Time will tell in other NC/ SC cities whether the rise of the J. Cole/9th Wonder/Phonte triumvirate and the Triangle scene can help overcome old prejudices, few hip-hop friendly venues, or a lack of basic resources and any kind of historic track record. Academics and critics can debate these points for years to come, but for now, anyway, the magic remains in the Triangle. It’s a scene developing a rich history that new talents are most often thrilled to be part of.
Take King Mez, a Raleigh-based rapper with a groove and style similar to Rapsody. He sports life-story rhymes that don’t shy away from painful personal details, describing severe loneliness, abuse, and neglect; his mother recently passed, and the 21-year-old has been caring for his little brother. He’s been working on his full-length debut in Chicago, but for now, he’s happy to base his efforts in the Triangle. Though there are all kinds of styles making waves in the Carolinas, Mez believes the area is growing into a unified scene with a rich enough tradition that it might one day rival the traditional hip-hop hot beds.
“I think we have something important here,” he says. “I feel like everybody’s growing and embarking on new opportunities all the time. I think we’re doing good, and we will in the future as well.”