In North Carolina, homegrown hip-hop may not command as much mainstream attention as bluegrass or folk, but it’s alive and well. On Monday evening when music industry heavyweights descended on the Staples Center for the 58th annual Grammy Awards, three of the five nominees for Rap Album of the Year had ties to the Old North State. When the evening was done, Rapsody, a rapper and Snow Hill native, and 9th Wonder, a Durham-based producer, took home an award for their contribution to Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp A Butterfly. A growing number of Tar Heel rappers are ready for the spotlight. This is a story about one man’s journey to join the big leagues and his thoughts on North Carolina hip-hop.
North Carolina hip-hop doesn’t have a distinct sound. Kurrell Rice wants to change that.
The Durham-based rapper known as Professor Toon hopes a distinct North Carolina sound will develop through a tight-knit North Carolina hip-hop community. “I don’t think we should force a sound on ourselves. I feel like we should just make that happen. It will eventually happen, especially if we all collaborate, like we’ll all take stuff from each other until there’s some continuity to the sound,” says Toon. “We all haven’t started to collab that much yet. But, I’m going to be the guy to change that. I’m about to do a song with everybody. I’m going to make that happen. You can put that all on every record.”
Collaboration is only part of the puzzle. Artists need bookings, and they need community support. Toon says those things can be challenging to come by. The Triangle may be North Carolina’s music capital, but Professor Toon and fellow rapper The Real Laww started the DURM Hip-Hop Summit in 2012, an annual musical festival celebrating hip-hop, because there wasn’t what he calls a spectacle for North Carolina hip-hop.
“There’s nothing that points directly at hip-hop,” says Toon. ”There’s a spectacle for indie-rock, there’s a spectacle for electronic, there’s a spectacle for EDM. There’s no real spectacle for hip-hop. There’s nothing really to gaze at and get lost in. There’s no big festival, no big award show. There’s no big festival, no big award show.”
A handful of commercially successful rappers, including Little Brother, Petey Pablo and J. Cole, began their careers in the Tarheel State. Most recently Rapsody and King Mez, of Snow Hill and Raleigh respectively, caught big breaks with roles on two of the most well-received rap albums of the year. Rapsody, for her work on Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly, and King Mez, for his writing and rapping on Dr. Dre’s album Compton.
“Being aware of that just lets me know it’s still possible,” says Toon. “It’s the same place. They went swimming in the pool, I can go swimming too.” He adds, “We just have got to prove it’s worth them coming back here.” Them, meaning, industry leaders.
Toons new album, Take Notes is emotional and ambitious. Full of self-reflection, anger and confidence, the album gives you a sense of where Toon’s from, who he is and where he plans to go.
Make a way out of none when there’s nowhere to go
—from "Take Notes"
“My music is really heavy,” says Toon. “I tell my stories. It’s basically just my narrative.” Even a cursory listen will tell you Toon’s been through a lot. When he was in the sixth grade, he moved with his mother and two younger sisters from Baltimore to Durham to escape a violent stepfather. While childhood friends from Baltimore fell into a life on the street, in the years following the move and the divorce, Toon spent time in a homeless shelter and struggled with poverty. He recently told the Duke Chronicle that “Every best friend I grew up with got shot in the head.” Though life in Durham wasn’t picture perfect when he arrived, Toon believes the move saved him from a similar fate.
Toon has been writing songs since he can remember. He attended the Durham School of the Arts to study dramatic arts, but when the final play of the year concluded, so did Toon’s time going to class. Toon says, “I was literally going just to perform.” After dropping out, Toon eventually completed his GED and briefly attended college.
“I must be a quitter,” jokes Toon. But despite significant adversity, Toon hasn’t quit his art.
It was cold and rainy when I pulled into the parking lot of a strip-mall, off Highway 54 in Durham, the morning of the Take Notes album release party. Professor Toon told me to meet him at Amaka’s International Hair Salon at 9:00 am. A winter storm interfered with the original date of party, and the postponement had worn on him. Today was my last chance to spend time with him for awhile. After the party, Toon planned to take several weeks off to spend some time with his 4-year old daughter and focus on, “The things that really mattered.” The next few weeks were for his family, not the press and not his music.
Around 9:15 Toon pulled into the parking lot, climbed out of his car and sleepily introduced himself. As we walked into the shop, I asked Toon if he was excited about the show. He said, “No. If I get too excited, that’s when my energy starts to mess up. Gotta keep the energy natural.”
Toon was the first client of the day, and his barber, Shelton Jones, was getting his station set up when we arrived. Shelton finished his breakfast, draped a cape around Toon’s neck and went to work. Toon sat quietly while Shelton trimmed and shaped his hair and chatted about the first time he saw Toon perform.
“I went to a show that was at Pinhook. I was watching it [and] the local guys were sounding local. I was about to leave.” said Shelton. But he didn’t, and he was glad he stayed “I’ve gotta tell you, he was like a rock star. The stage presence—the crowd responded… I came in here telling everybody about him. You gotta see him. I have to admit I was surprised. I know some really good talent, but I was convinced—none better. I’m not embellishing.”
Described as “Dark Trap” by Nick Sandborn of Made of Oak and Sylvan Esso, Toon’s sound is dark and haunting: heavy bass, distorted screams and rasps. In "Elephant," the heaviest song on Take Notes, Toon raps about the rage he feels towards his absent, abusive stepfather: “Fuck nigga beat my momma up / Made us have to leave the town / If I see him then it’s over boy / I’mma have to lay him down.” Amidst a tone of anger despair, the song ends with Toon rapping, “Homie I ain’t done much yet, but I came a long way from eating ramen in the projects.” This thread of hope and ambition is woven throughout the album.
Toon is an electric performer — constantly crisscrossing the stage, beating his chest, jumping up and down with veins protruding from his face and neck and sweat pouring down his body. He physically embodies the emotions in his lyrics.
When asked what it feels like on stage, Toon says, “Nothing. You’re floating. It feels like nothing. You see nothing. I literally go blank. I stop seeing people. I see lights. I’m conscious of my space, but I’m not in that space. I definitely kind of compare it to meditating. The first song I lost myself in—it’s an older song of mine—is called “Holla.” It’s a song about frustration. I lost myself… I zoned out. I even almost had tears in my eyes during that performance, and then when I came back... I’m like ‘Yo. This is the feeling that I want forever.'”
Professor Toon discusses his set with his DJ and Nick Sanborn of Made of Oak & Sylvan Esso in the greenroom
Learn to survive or go crazy inside…
If I keep working I can have everything,
including keys to the city.
A growing number of people are interested in where Toon’s headed.
Take Notes dropped on January 22nd, but Toon’s been an active force on North Carolina’s independent hip-hop scene for five years. His work with The Real Laww and the DURM Hip-Hop Summit put him on the map. Since launching the Summit, Toon’s built relationships with Phil Cook and Nick Sanborn, musicians at the epicenter of Durham’s vibrant music scene. Via the American Underground, Google’s Durham coworking space, Toon’s networked with some of the most influential folks in the Bull City’s entrepreneurial community. As the current “rapper-in-residence” at the American Underground, a term Toon and the American Underground use freely but hesitate to define, Toon’s made it his business to make his art a business.
“I’m such a rapper because I’m late,” joked Toon as he entered a classroom in the American Underground. Toon was there to talk to group of city officials from Dayton, OH, who were visiting to learn more about the startup hub. He told the group, “A lot of rappers don’t carry themselves as a business. I started to operate myself as a start up.” He added, “You’d be surprised how many random connections I’ve made [here]… really cool random connections.”
It was hard to get a sense of the tour group’s read on the “rapper-in-residence” concept, but the Underground staff seemed thrilled. “We feel like we’re a part of Toon’s story. We feel like a part of Toon’s family tonight,” said one staff rep. “We can’t wait to go celebrate with him and to help him release his album.”
“The artistry is going to come naturally,” Toon explained to me later, “[But] I have a couple of people behind the scenes that are helping me with the business standpoint of things.” Learning the rhythms of the music business – when artists tour, when they write, when they release albums – has enabled Toon to pursue music more seriously. “I have help foreseeing the dry spell, so I’m preparing for it, so I’m putting money up.”
Clint Easthood, a local filmmaker and host of Rap Show Weekly, an independent show devoted to profiling local hip-hop, has noted Toon’s evolution. “I’ve seen his transformation over the past five years, and I’ve seen how he’s carved his space into the local hip-hop community. I’ve seen Professor Toon grow from kind of a fun and energetic artist into a more serious and intense and just all around better performer and lyricist.”
Toon’s hungry for success.
“I just take every bump in the road, and not do that again. So I just learn from literally all my mistakes, and then hope that it builds. That’s always my final goal – to build on the last thing I did. I mean it’s—it’s been tough.”
Toon speaks to a tour group at the American Underground
Who’s gon stop me now?
Ain’t nobody gonna stop me now.
-from "Who Gon (Stop Me)"
After speaking to the group, Toon guided me to the office of Kid Ethnic, Saleem Reshamwala’s film company. Toon met Saleem, a talented filmmaker whose clients include PBS and LinkedIn, at his first solo show in 2012.
“I was at the Scrap Exchange show,” remembers Saleem. “[And] this dude comes up, and he says, ‘Y’all trying to see the last rap act of the night?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah that sounds cool.’ And he was like ‘It’s me, I’m Kurrell.’”
Saleem was amused by this initial conversation, but something struck him about Toon’s performance. “Your CD was skipping a bit and after the show you were frustrated, as is reasonable, with the CD.” Saleem looked Toon up on Twitter and saw that he’d tweeted “What do you do if nothing’s going right?” after the show. “I was like this dude’s interesting. He seems different,” says Saleem. “And I responded, ‘Video collaboration?’”
The two set up a time to make a music video.
“I was psyched to collaborate on something,” says Saleem.
“I was super late,” laughs Toon.
“He was six hours late for the actual shoot,” adds Saleem. “Six hours! For his first music video shoot! If you took a two-hour lunch—that’s a work day! But we made the video. It was fun.”
Toon laughs while Saleem recounts this story. Despite the rocky start, their rapport is palpable. I get the sense Saleem’s challenged Toon to take his work more seriously. Saleem just produced Toon’s latest video “Who Gon’ Stop (Me Now).” Toon was on time for that shoot. That evening, Saleem would join Toon on stage for one of the final songs of his set.
Say my name like you know it
Toon and I broke midday, and reconvened as he set-up for his show at Motorco. When I asked what he’d done after leaving the Underground he said vaguely, “Parent stuff.” It was his daughter’s fourth birthday.
During soundcheck, Toon was focused and collected. Afterwards, Toon went to the green room to rest and shoot the shit with a dozen or so musicians, videographers and friends. Around 8pm, a diverse crowd of black, white, college-aged and middle-aged Durhamites started trickling into the venue. Though not a full house, an interesting cross section of Durham showed up.
The shows openers were a testament to the music community’s belief in Toon. Made of Oak spun a short set. Tab-One of Kooley High debuted new material. The wiry, energetic Ace Henderson shined. Every opener stuck around for Toon’s set which was as full of life as I’d been told it would be. In between songs, he engaged the crowd by yelling, “Squad.” Every time he screamed the word, they’d yell “Squad” back. For the final song, Toon invited his actual squad, including his openers and Saleem, on stage to perform and to celebrate his new release.
Tab-One of Kooley High
Nick Sanborn of Made of Oak & Sylvan Esso
We celebrate life, but we all just living to live again tomorrow.
We want tomorrow to come today, but who says that today's going to better?
Patience young man. Humble, Professor.
The young shall inherit the earth
It’s clear that over the last five years, Toon’s earned the respect of his peers.
Ace Henderson, another rising star and kinetic performer in his own rite describes Toon as, “One of the hardest working, if not the hardest working, dudes in this scene.” Last fall, Toon attended Ace’s set at Hopscotch Music Festival, his biggest show to date. After the show, Toon approached Ace and said, “If you’re here, you’re supposed to be here. Now what the fuck are you going to do about it?” It was a big moment for Ace. Toon was the first person outside of Ace’s inner circle to challenge him to rise above the “minimal level.”
“His energy is crazy,” Ace adds, “Seeing everything he’s done with the scene with the hip-hop summit, everything that he continues to try to do is great.”
Ace agrees that there isn’t a distinct sound to North Carolina hip-hop. “There’s a lot of different artists, a lot of people that are still trying to figure out their sound.” But Ace continues, “Down here, it’s more inclusive. There’s a lot of pride, and that’s one thing I enjoy. Everyone takes pride where they’re from. Everyone’s excited, and they all want to get something done. It’s just a matter of everyone getting their products to the level that they want to be.”
I asked Kooley High rapper Tab-One, who's been on the scene for a decade, if North Carolina rap needs a distinct sound. “I think it’s kind of a testament to the vibe of North Carolina. I guess growing up most of us were looking elsewhere to find music, especially in hip-hop, so we ended up with a plethora of styles, elements of the South, elements of New York hip-hop, West Coast hip-hop, Midwest—like everything is kind of fused together… I definitely see it as a strength. It’s like a melting pot. I feel like if you have a trademark sound then at some point it just becomes a trend.”
But maybe for Toon who says, ”Who you’re around is who inspires you. So the artists I’m around—even if I’m not working with them—they inspire me to go harder,” that’s what matters most.