Will WildFire / Photo by Saloan Rochelle, courtesy of Will WildFire
It may not have the constant media attention and radio play of some of hip-hop’s more established locales, but North Carolina has recently become something of a genre hotbed. Beyond J. Cole’s smash hit commercial success of an album about returning to his Fayetteville roots, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, California has pimped the hell out of North Carolina hip-hop. The Tar Heel State has exported so much of its vital talent to the West Coast that it’s made the area look like an intensive combine for national rap. First, Kendrick Lamar enlisted Rapsody, an MC from Snow Hill, North Carolina, as the only rap guest feature on his acclaimed album To Pimp a Butterfly for the song “Complexion.” Then, Lamar’s Compton predecessor and occasional mentor Dr. Dre tapped NC producer D.R.U.G.S and Raleigh MC King Mez for work on his recent comeback album, Compton: A Soundtrack By Dr. Dre, with the latter writing the bulk of it.
King Mez / Photo courtesy of King Mez
All of this must surely make the progenitor of NC’s shining hip-hop moment, Petey Pablo, proud, but North Carolina’s influence in hip-hop goes back to long before the world was taking their shirts off and waving them in the air like a helicopter. It began when the NC-based Ski Beatz sat down at his ASR-10 to finesse the the beat for Jay Z’s “Dead Presidents.” It lived in Biggie Smalls’ Raleigh trap house. It was solidified by Little Brother’s resurrectionist movement, which brought old-school hip-hop ideals and sounds to the major label framework of the early 2000s, and furthered by 9th Wonder’s Grammy-grabbing production on all things from Destiny’s Child to Jay Z to Jill Scott. For fuck’s sake, Big Daddy Kane lives in Raleigh. Yes, North Carolina is a rest haven for greatness.
Rapsody / Photo by Sameer Abdel-Khalek, courtesy of Rapsody
Now is a great time to highlight the state’s hip-hop scene. While North Carolina may not be as monolithic or as much of a powerhouse as some of hip-hop’s principal states (Georgia, Michigan, California, New York), it still produces greatness. Many North Carolina rappers stand out for their cerebral lyrics and a sound that skews toward classic East Coast rap without ignoring Southern trends and tradition. And there is plenty of tradition: Let’s not forget that music legends like Roberta Flack, John Coltrane, and Nina Simone are all from here.
As far as a scene is concerned, the Triangle area (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) is the cultural heart of the state and where most of the great music gets made. The Triangle is home to big names like Phonte, 9th Wonder, King Mez, and Rapsody, and the area is also bubbling with new talent. But Charlotte, long dismissed as a banking city, has recently seen a surge in talent as well, and the state’s other cities are just as fecund. Here’s a guide to North Cackalack’s hip-hop package.
The North Carolina fizz-kid’s voice crashes and splinters all over the opening seconds of “Talk About It,” on Compton: A Soundtrack by Dr. Dre, an album on which he wrote 12 out of its 16 songs and rapped on three. The making of that album happened in the blink of 11 months. In the several years prior, the 25-year-old emcee/songwriter lived by his “Fresh Heir” brand’s style-forward credo by releasing high-brow rap projects like The King’s Khrysis EP, My Everlasting Zeal, and Long Live The King by leaning on the odd and fanciful—performing in contemporary art museums and befriending entrepreneurial clothiers. He’s Straight Outta Raleigh.
Charlotte, North Carolina vocalist, guitarist, songwriter, and producer Will WildFire is poised to be North Carolina’s (and possibly one of the world’s), next great soul-rock bad boy. In the lineage of Charlotte artists, he's both the soft suede of smooth hustler Anthony Hamilton and the leather of R&B bad boys Jodeci. Beyond that, he’s equal parts Melvin Riley, Weeknd, B.o.B, Miguel, and Drake. First, he claimed “Prince of the City.” Then, he rode around QC in a dirty-ass car on the undeniable “Liberty Integurl” droptop jam. Now, he’s North Carolina’s next comet into music stardom.
Even when you subtract this Snow Hill, NC MC's “Complexion” cameo verse on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly LP, you’re still left with the remainder of her growing and growling catalogue from 9th Wonder’s Jamla Records Soul Council-kissed music. Starting in 2007, she budded as a member of the Raleigh hip-hop quintet Kooley High, but later she flowered in 9th’s hands. Now she gets busy with everyone from Mac Miller to Chance the Rapper to Raekwon. Fuck hip-hop’s gender divide. With five mixtapes, her The Idea of Beautiful LP, and the recent pristine Beauty and the Beast EP to her name, MCs everywhere better be scraping their bars together to live up to Rapsody’s potential.
North Carolina’s holy Bojangles bible belt hallelujah barbecue amen trinity of heavy-duty MCs goes like this: Supastition, Phonte, and J. Cole. The only difference between Supastition and the other two is record sales and accolades. Outside of that, the Charlotte rapper wins on pure gladiator points alone. Here’s some old footage of Supastition at the 10-year anniversary of WNYU’s Halftime Show, and here’s his recent Gold Standard album. Nothing has changed. In the ranks of mighty healthy rhyme technicians like Black Thought, Fashawn, Royce da 5’9”, Kendrick Lamar, Phonte, Homeboy Sandman, Skyzoo, etc., Supastition is a flagbearer of the sacred art. If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re wondering why the old head, Supastition, is being mentioned in the same category as his younger peers. It’s simple. He’s still better.
There’s a rumor floating around the Tar Heel state that Chapel Hill-via-Charlotte MC Well$ has been recording material with the Made of Oak side of the Durham electronic pop duo Sylvan Esso. If it’s true, then the collaboration will prove to be a crucial development for the African Booty Scratcher rapper, whose career has so far been built on trap pride and invoking a the riot act. With similarities to Wiz Khalifa but a bit more vocal heft, the throat-cutting Well$ has a chance of being a beacon for his region much like his lighter-skinned Pittsburgh a-alike has been for his. He’ll just have to stick with the cinematographic spirit of “Django”, the directness of “Carpe Diem,” and maybe some nouveau electro trap to make it all glow for the nationwide spotlight.
Drique London used to feel like Raleigh’s more established rap acts treated him like a middle tier MC. But when he started clocking in just as much stage time as they did—from his SXSW showcases to local headlining shows—the delegation had no choice but to include him. And when he had the gall to raise up, recruit two new-found rap friends, and record a new NC hip-hop anthem, “The Cypher” , that whole shirt-helicopter thing became a statewide joke. But now that Raleigh hip-hop’s two big wigs (King Mez, Rapsody) have expanded their range beyond the state, London also wants out. On the catchy cruise jam “Laybach,” he raps about these aspirations and identifies his nuisances. London is done with the travails, you will now know him by the trail he leaves with his Sound of the Rising Sun LP.
Most of Greensboro, North Carolina’s James B. Dudley High notable alumni have played on some kind of professional sports team, but a four-man rap team (Alpha Signature, Chris Capture, Jeak Rivers, and Amari Juwon) known as the The Kollective recently graduated from the school with the real world hopes of turning their rap shenanigans into a notable movement. Earlier this year, the Odd Future-esque squad released the Kickstarter-funded mixtape KKK (Kalm Kool Kollective)—an exploratory shit-talking spread that featured rap-heavy doom jams like “Red Hat” and the project’s closer, the stripped-down trap rap teaser “Outro,” for which they recently shot a video for in Nashville. As with any large young startup rap crew, The Kollective has had its shrinkage issues—it began as a six-member group—but condensing and refining isn’t such a bad idea when you’re shooting for become of the most unique rap collectives that North Carolina’s ever grown.
In the songfest of rappers whose cadences are one hymned utterance away from reclassifying the genre all together, Charlotte rapper/ singer Bankroll Bird has an RSVP if he chooses to honor it. Because, hopefully, by the time the viral dust settles from Duru the King’s “#NewCharlotte” posse cut with QC (Queen City, Charlotte’s nickname) hell-raisers YB, “cult rapper” Deniro Farrar, and Bankroll Bird, the 21-year-old phenom will have realized how much his babyfaced-killer voice powered his city’s moment in the spotlight and how much leverage he could gain from it on a larger scale. The Dragon Ball-inspired TrellGotWings-produced single “Goku” is Bankroll’s newest offering, achieving a few more easy listening points past the hard street balladry and trap provocations of his last full-length project True Story. He’s a walking trend in the making, already ready for the next phase of his career.
Some Charlotte rappers eventually stopped giving a shit about why they were being ignored in their hometown. Instead they took their purpose on the road and found love elsewhere. Or, in the case of resident bizarro Elevator Jay, you just “keep dat shit player” and carry on—as he raps on “K.D.S.P” from his Sum’na Say EP. An agile hybrid of Outkast, UGK, and Big KRIT, Elevator Jay’s southern charisma is why he’s full of leadership potential for the state. Remember that super talented kid from school that couldn’t stay out of the principal’s office? That's Jay's type. But today, he’s branded himself as one of Charlotte’s most creative musicians and helped to lead the city’s growing metropolitan cool in the right direction.
Eric Tullis is a writer living in Durham. Follow him on Twitter.