On a Thursday afternoon, North Carolina Central law professor Brenda Reddix-Smalls leads her class, Copyright Pro and Music Dev 8018, in a discussion about "derivative work independence." Legalese aside, the term is a subject and obstacle germane for hip-hop artists new and classic, as they attempt to craft their work with as much artistic freedom and as little legal trouble as possible. In hip-hop, musicians often create their own compositions by sampling pre-existing material, building new works from the rudiments of their forebears.
For this class meeting, Reddix-Smalls has invited Durham emcee and producer Kelvin Hill—if known at all, best known as K-Hill—as a guest lecturer. Standing at a lectern in one of the Albert L. Turner Law Building's seminar rooms, the freshly shaven K-Hill is dressed in a gray cardigan, black tie and gray-stitched jeans. These rooms were designed for mock trials and moot court, starkly contrasting with the dark, thumping concert halls K-Hill has worked locally for a decade. Hill calls his professional attire "respecting his surroundings."
The strange setting explains K-Hill's anxiety, too, as he nervously shuffles through some of his notes while the video for his 2011 single, "The Declaration of an Independent," appears on the large projector screen in the front of the room. Produced by Tar Heel beatmaker Picasso, the song contains an unauthorized sample of another artist's material, making it perfect for the day's discussion.
"Why did you think," asks Reddix-Smalls, "that you did not have to get permission to use that song?"
K-Hill answers with what might pass as a summary of his entire career.
"My answer is not going to be a professional answer," explains today's defendant. "Guys, I'm sorry if I'm leading you in the wrong direction, but this is how hip-hop works. It's not always right."
When the lecture is done, Hill, his wife and I find a spacious lobby in the law building. It's empty, save for a lone female student checking in subjects for a focus group. She mistakes us for participants, so Hill politely introduces himself before we grab a vacant table. In conversation, his Southern street voice is cutting and determined, echoing and smacking off of the room's high ceilings.
But he's bouncing his smartphone up and down on the table as though it were an unopened deck of cards. He's not half as nervous as he was in front of all of those law students, but he's still nervous. We have, after all, a history.
In February 2009, I wrote an open letter to K-Hill on INDY Week's music blog, Scan. The piece criticized the career stasis of vocalist Keisha Shontelle (one of K-Hill's frequent and favorite collaborators) and things he'd said about my area hip-hop coverage on the now-defunct local rap message board, The Lawn. In his words, I wasn't giving equal coverage to "other [hip-hop] movements that reside in N.C."
But I had my reasons: In the months before the tiff, the local hip-hop scene was nothing but a bunch of fragments. Still in the flux of reconstruction after the area's ostensible rap stars, Little Brother, were dropped from a major label, the Triangle didn't offer much formidable listening material. These movements, as K-Hill called them, largely comprised mediocre mixtapes and overcooked hype. While Kooley High, Rapper Big Pooh, Chaundon and KAZE all released notable projects in 2009, rap around here had been mostly overrun by the souled-out influence of two great and recent R&B efforts, Yahzarah's The Prelude and The Foreign Exchange's Grammy-nominated Leave It All Behind. K-Hill's allegiance was with other acts, though, including close friend Shontelle, who sang at his wedding. Hill has her back forever, he says, and he still believes she will soon land her big break, even if he isn't the one currently managing her career.
Optimism and persistence are consistent refrains for K-Hill: His rap career began in 2003, when his debut single, "Da Instigator," earned national distribution through the independent North Carolina label Neblina Records. His relationship with Neblina soon soured over a battle for rights to the song, but a second, more impactful introduction arrived in 2005. At that point, Durham's 9th Wonder was perhaps the most talked-about young producer in hip-hop, and K-Hill landed a spot on "A Letter to Sick L (1980-2001)," the opening track on 9th Wonder's 2005 Dream Merchant Vol. 1 compilation LP. The track offered a heartfelt eulogy to Hill's late friend, Derrick Liles, and his authoritative, sports-announcer cadence outshone the rest of the album's rhymers.
K-Hill followed that tune with a full album, Stamps of Approval, which he released through his own Kick-A-Verse Recordings. Without the working parts of a proper label backing him, he still found national distribution for the release. Rather than climb the same ladder as area groups associated with Little Brother, he was making his own path.
It soon ended: Eight years later, Hill still refuses to call Stamps of Approval a proper debut, especially given that the project failed in its multi-directional approach to pair Hill with a motley collection of producers and emcees that had no unifying chemistry. The chaos bled into his personal life, too, so he gave up and retreated into something a little more stable and permanent than a possible rap career—his family.
"I put my family first," he says. "I'm raising three kids, and, at the time, my wife was in school. A lot of crews fell out with me because of that. They felt like I wasn't willing to put my family to the side to help them build their brand."
From his new vantage on the home front, Hill worried that selfishness was beginning to eat away the area rap scene. The idea of community, so strong when he'd started, had been subsumed by the chase for individual fame, he says.
"The scene died, man. When a scene dies, it gives the opportunity for a few groups to come up and really shine because there's not a lot of competition," Hill laments. "But the scene died because everybody got selfish."
In 2009, however, there was a promising sign. 9th Wonder began assembling a team of rookie rappers and old friends for a new record label venture. Of all of the area's talent, it would seem that K-Hill had proven himself enough to be at least associated with the state's newest rap powerhouse. But he wasn't.
"Sometimes you just want to start fresh with people that know you where you're at right now, not people that have seen you come up or know your history. I understand that," says Hill. A number of area rappers recorded anti-9th Wonder videos after the label started. "That's why I didn't make a video."
While corralling votes of confidence from the N.C. rap machine, K-Hill also maintained a close relationship with DJ K.O., a tastemaker from New Jersey. In 2008, K-Hill joined the more popular Phonte, Wordsworth and Masta Ace on the K.O. track "Ladders to Success." Hill shined as a guest once again.
K.O. had been developing his own imprint, Elementality Productions, since the start of K-Hill's career. Hill recounts his conversation with K.O. about joining the label, as if to emphasize how the reciprocal nature of the music business should work. "DJ K.O. came to me with the situation and was like, 'Look, K. You sound better than ever and I want to do a project with you,'" he says. "'When I was trying to get a connection into North Carolina, you were my first connection. I never forgot that.'"
K-Hill's new EP, Achilles' Hill, is his first release for Elementality and the most potent work of his life. Highlighted by beat-swell producers such as Analogic and JL Proof, Achilles' Hill is a prideful 10-track taste of a full-length scheduled for this summer. Hill sounds reinvigorated. He lashes out at detractors on "Power of the Tongue II," but he reclaims his triumphant inclinations on "Root 4 Me" (dedicated to "the real fans that went to bat for me") and the clang-time offensive "Where I'm Supposed To Be," again featuring Shontelle.
During the piano-driven "The Geechi's Over," Hill rebukes the stereotype of Southern rappers as inarticulate, untalented emcees. It's inspired by the movie A Soldier's Story, where an Army sergeant picks on Southern soldiers by calling them "geechee" and "nigger."
"He makes the point that the reason why he's so hard on them is because black people, especially the Southern ones, didn't know how to evolve," Hill says, referencing the barking sergeant. "I brought that idea over into the industry."
In short, he's looking for justice, wherever it may be and whoever it may help—his family, his region, his reputation.
"A lot of people left me for dead, but one of my biggest handicaps is that I'm a fan," says K-Hill. "It wasn't until this year that I started treating hip-hop as a competition. I always treated it like everyone had respect for each other and was trying to build a scene, but the artists wouldn't let me do it. They treated me like a competitor even though I'd be front row at their shows. You wanna fight? Then let's fight."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Uphill battle."