Off The Top Vol. 1

Some hip-hop happenings from around North Carolina.

Ever wish North Carolina had a young, talented, pseudo-hip-hop group like Kids These Days or The Internet? With Durham’s Young Bull, it does.

Young Bull doesn’t have the best name. It doesn’t always have the best artwork. It might not even have much name recognition yet outside a few dozen people in Durham. But what it does have is a lot more important: a fucking exciting sound. For NC hip-hop heads who’ve ever longingly viewed the musically vibrant L.A. scene from afar, or noticed that so many of Chicago’s dope young crop of emcees seem to have been born in the midst of bountiful art and music curricula, it may not be surprising to see a city like Durham struggling to command any sort of national hip-hop respect without a young, united, hip-hop loving community of musicians anywhere to be found.

With Young Bull, Durham may have the beginnings of an answer to that gaping hole. Tahmique Cameron leads the way with deep, raspy vocals that suggest someone well beyond his 19 years, and the group’s versatility on their debut album Sopadelic spans from soulful, quiet ballads to trap songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on major radio. Their first video, for “Quiet,” is a satisfying afternoon cruise through Durham, filled with the kind of light-hearted nonsense (i.e. a kid doing The Worm on a parking deck) you’d expect from a group fresh out of high school. If they can continue to put together thoughtful, feel-good music, they could be in for an exciting couple years. If they can do it with the support and involvement of the local scene, Durham could be too.

NC rapper Crosby and Cali rapper Noah Rime$ are CROSRIME$. Their first track, “The Cap’ns” is delightfully laid-back and carefree.

Save for a select few ebullient artists in present-day hip-hop, it’s not exactly en vogue to be smiling and happy in your music. The darker notes of Schoolboy Q and 21 Savage have washed away the tongue-in-cheek tone once flashed by The Cool Kids and Pac Div, and when rappers are having a good time on songs, like D.R.A.M. and Lil Yachty’s “Broccoli,” it’s often mind-numbingly stupid. Even Braxton Crosby, the North Carolina half of new cross-country duo CROSGRIME$, is more devilish malcontent than friendly kid down the street (for reference, just see his mafioso-inspired new mixtape, Crosfather, which is not for the faint of heart).

Maybe it’s the California influence of co-conspirator Noah Rime$, but on “The Cap’ns,” Crosby could easily be a gruffer stand-in for Murs or Blu, Los Angeles artists who made a living off of effortlessly floating above instrumentals just like this one.

Borrowing their backing from Philadelphia 70’s soul group The Stylistics, Rime$ and Crosby capture the vibe of two artists who, for the moment at least, are content to sit back and relax. When this song is on, so are we.

One week out from her first set at Hopscotch, ZenSoFly’s new album, Little Miss Perfect, is a totally unique EP.

The Raleigh youth movement doesn’t belong to any particular crew or artist, but if you had to pinpoint a single entity, Zen Stewart’s now-defunct “The Studi0” recording space would be as good a place to start as any. A major part of the creative force behind Youthful Records — which between herself and Jodi sports two artists on the Hopscotch 2016 lineup — Stewart revels in throbbing, bass-saturated dance songs as emcee, producer and DJ ZenSoFly.

On her Little Miss Perfect EP, that range of interests is present: Zen is at times a soothing lead singer, at times a cold-blooded MC, and at others the DJ at the helm of a raging dance party. The result is an album versatile enough to be the soundtrack for a night of revelry, as well as the slow morning that ensues.

In many instances throughout, the desire for sheer volume — as on “Palm Sweat Trees” can drown out the nuances going on in the background of a track, which can make intentionally chaotic music feel unpleasantly out of control. But when given the space to really flex her muscles, Zen delivers, as on the middle portion of “Like That,” with bar after bar of attitude: “Never going back to the days I was broke and/had to move a sack just to get up on my tokens.” On “Mountains,” she has the freedom to both lend quiet, restrained vocals as well as start the party, and the result is one of the more polished songs on Little Miss Perfect.

One thing is undeniable about Zen: few acts in North Carolina are more unique. With traces ranging from pop, trap, house, spaced-out double cup rap, and much more, Little Miss Perfect is, ironically, not perfect. What is it? A bold statement that Zen Stewart isn’t getting lost in the crowd anytime soon.

Mikey 100K’s “Little Star” is a dark, shiny North Carolina gem.

Between his marriage to reality TV star and Los Angeles mainstay Kim Kardashian, his rockstar lifestyle, and his ceaseless need to be at the center of everything, we have ample evidence to believe that Kanye West does not, in fact, live in North Carolina. But if he did, he might be making music like “Little Star,” the most recent cut from up-and-comer Mikey 100k, who is ripping off tens of thousands of streams with each track he releases on Soundcloud.

Like West, Mikey isn’t all doom-and-gloom, showing his breadth and versatility on sunnier songs like “Ocean Drive,” and “Your Love,” released earlier this summer. But on “Little Star,” he’s about as happy as a Russian mobster, with enough swagger to make your pops get up out of his seat and start saucing right where he stands.

Eventually, Mikey will have to emerge with a body of work that feels distinctly his own as opposed to a smattering of whatever’s most fashionable. But for now, it’s too fun to mean mug in the rearview with this bumping out of the car speakers.

The Kooley High remix album Heights.Rx is now available.

When producer Sinopsis signed himself up to personally remix his group’s 2015 EP, Heights, in its entirety, he gave himself a small window for success and a gaping sinkhole for failure. Improve on possibly Kooley’s best release ever? Unlikely. Miss the mark, or worse yet, make something forgettable? Not unimaginable. Still, he took the leap, and the result is a blessing for the rest of us. With Heights.Rx, he’s delivered an album every bit as sharp and refreshing as Heights, all while sounding almost nothing like it. Now, with Heights.Rx and Sincerely, Tab in the rearview, it’s time for Raleigh’s own version of Detox, that Kooley High x 9th Wonder album. More about that in this issue’s interview with Sinop himself.

A full review of the Heights.Rx album by Super Empty ran earlier this week on Raleigh Agenda.

Tange Lomax’s spacey blend of hip-hop and R&B could be just what NC needs.

Tange Lomax — “Voicemails To God”

Not every song in Tange Lomax’s catalogue is stunning, can’t-miss material. In fact, in the midst of trying to find a place in a muddled music landscape, much of it shows flashes of potential before falling back to earth, with emotionless auto-tuning and a hazy sound that, while reminiscent of artists like SZA, Noname Gypsy and Makonnen, ultimately falls short of all three. But one look at her video for “Voicemails To God” should be enough to recognize her as one of the more exciting acts to watch over the next year.

The looped soul sample crying out in the background, the flute that cuts in sporadically, the über-simple music video featuring a leather swivel chair and an old rotary phone? It all works. It also features a satisfying blend of melodic rap-singing, giving Lomax the opportunity to display, outside of the spacey, mumble-rap box, just how well she can rhyme:

“Down here they been talkin’ like you changed God,
But I know, yeah I know you still the same God,
The same one that blessed up when we was younger,
Food stamps for the hunger, rain, sleet, snow, sunshine,
All up in the sun…”

In the realm of spacey, rap-infused R&B, Tange Lomax is a clear standout in the Carolinas. In the realm of druggy slow-rap, she’s one in a million. Here’s hoping we get treated to more of the former and less of the latter in the months to come.

After five years, the DURM Hip-Hop Summit burned out. Crystal Turner’s Beats ’N’ Bars Fest is rising from the ashes.

The DURM Hip-Hop Summit, as it was imagined more than five years ago, had a noble mission: to unite the hip-hop artists and fans of the Triangle for a weekend of celebrating the music and culture of hip-hop. Eventually, though, it ran up against an unforgiving truth of festivals: they are a shit ton of work. Spearheaded almost entirely by Professor Toon and The Real Laww, two bonafide Durham emcees with the clout to organize locally but also their own solo careers and personal lives to worry about, the festival was short on resources in almost every dimension imaginable. Branding was inconsistent, outreach was spotty and the lineup lacked focus.

As the festival unfolded last year, those issues finally came to a head. Blinded on both sides by community events run by friends of the Summit on the same exact day (Pierce Freelon’s BLK AGST and RUNAWAY’s Summer Line Release Party), the event struggled to draw major attendance, even with prime real estate like a main stage in Durham Central Park. The American Underground roof deck was awkwardly plastered with cheap K97.5 paraphernalia, which the radio station would then even more awkwardly plaster across social media to an apparently very small digital audience. Throw in Petey Pablo missing his flight, and therefore the festival entirely, and the 2015 Hip-Hop Summit may have been the height of disjointedness and miscommunication.

In the wake of the festival, a small group (myself included) convened to see if the DHHS could be re-booted in a way that was feasible, and even those talks slowly faded out. As it so happened, no one really wanted to pour the next 12–16 months of their life into a project that could end up completely fruitless and frustrating.

Luckily for all of us, Crystal Turner already has.

Turner, the creative and entrepreneurial force behind The Underground Collective, may be a first-time festival organizer, but she’s well-versed in the world of booking shows. She has organized beat and cypher events throughout the Triangle, and now wants to take her movement to an annual festival in Durham, just one week after Hopscotch takes over Raleigh. Packed with some of the best hip-hop talent in North Carolina, the Beats ’N’ Bars lineup is nothing to scoff at. Heavily hyped young acts like Well$ and J.K. Reaper are set to share the stage with seasoned veterans like OC from NC and Kooley High, while panels feature quality speakers like Harvard Hip-Hop Fellow Dasan Ahanu and Dr. Dre-credited producer D.R.U.G.S. Beats. In the midst of everything else going on this time of year, it may be easy to neglect or take for granted what Turner has done in coordinating this festival. We shouldn’t.

Between Moogfest, Art of Cool, and the apparently defunct Hip-Hop Summit, Durhamites are getting familiar with what a well-run festival does and doesn’t look like. As a niche event in its first year, Beats ‘N Bars isn’t going to shock anyone with its scale. What it could do is create true staying power with its impact.

Tickets for Beats ‘N Bars are now available here.

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