When the rapper Drique London invited me to his family's Memorial Day weekend hangout, I did not expect to arrive in a northeast Raleigh subdivision made of suburban dream homes.
But two weeks after the release of London's provocative second LP, Sound of the Rising Sun, members of his extended family trickle into his cousin's home, far above the Triangle Town Center and through a wide swath of rural landscapes. During my drive north, I wondered whether I would pull into some benighted neighborhood or up to a decrepit house in the distant woods.
"Nah, this is how most of the people in my family live," explains the 23-year-old London, or Madrique Sanders, as I offer my surprise. "I'm like the only one without a diploma or a degree."
We're standing in a TV-and-couch-filled man cave inside his cousin's two-car garage, where London spends most of his time when he's not at home in Smithfield. His admission about not having a diploma or not quite fitting in with his family is telling: The last decade of his life has been fraught with anxiety and woe, from the death of his mother to the near-decision to quit rapping shortly after he'd found some momentum within the Triangle's rising rap scene. He slogged through those situations, though, arriving at Sound of the Rising Sun, a smart record that positions him alongside local rap leaders like Rapsody and King Mez.
His cousin, the producer Majestic, watched London battle those tough times and almost lose to them: "He didn't transition until later," Majestic says, "but it was almost like he changed overnight."
London arrived in Raleigh in 2006 and started recording raps in 2007 while attending Millbrook High, casually adding rhymes to a batch of beats Majestic had made. Until the mid '00s, London lived with his mother and extended family in the Astoria section of Queens, but he spent summers in Raleigh. During one of these visits, his mother began managing the Raleigh-based hip-hop label, 18 Wheeler Entertainment.
Home to local acts such as Drama Queens, LOVE and Falicia, the imprint was like most other area hip-hop upstarts after the release of Little Brother's The Listening—that is, making more area noise than national progress. Sandwiched between Dipset and G-Unit's Big Apple street egos and Cash Money's grandiosity down south, the region lacked a rap identity. London digested all those sounds, but he didn't know how he wanted to rhyme, either.
Still, he and Majestic got more serious about their hobby, eventually finishing Fish Fillet and Pancakes, an album they opted not to release. They kept recording. In early 2010, while at a Kooley High and King Mez concert, they learned that making music in a makeshift apartment studio wasn't enough.
"The vibe was weird," recalls London. "You could just tell that there were different levels. They were actually out here performing, and the only thing that Majestic and I were doing was just sitting back and making music, sitting at home complaining."
It was an awkward awakening. London felt like an underachieving, fringe member of the hip-hop community, maybe even a poseur. He wanted to be accepted, so he got to work.
He and Majestic quickly recorded and released Nike SB: The Mixtape. Soon thereafter, they dug up some of the songs from the Fish Fillet and Pancakes sessions and reworked them, completing London's debut LP, The Manual.
When he and Majestic were just having fun, London had prided himself on insightful lyrics. But in his rush to finish The Manual and join the scene, he lost that focus, resulting in the ramshackle lines of songs like "Nike Shoe Box" or "Red Chucks." They resembled a more careless style of rhyming, lifted from young acts like The Cool Kids, Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y. London didn't know what kind of rapper he wanted to be.
"His ear for music started to change," says Majestic, whose hip-hop palette skews toward '90s lyricism. "It was weird. I told him that he needed to get deeper. He wanted to, but all he did was internalize everything."
Still, Tab-One of Kooley High and King Mez—the pair to which London felt inferior—agreed to appear on "The Cypher," a Silhouettes-sampling anthem that legitimized London and Majestic within local hip-hop. London had willed himself into the ranks.
That he released the album at all was no small miracle: For years, his mother had struggled with health problems. On the day she planned to register London for his junior year at Knightdale High after he relocated to the Raleigh suburb, worsening congestive heart failure kept her in bed.
"That's the day I never went back to school," he says. "I went to the studio and I just stayed there. The next morning, I made up my mind that I was never going back. I was going to focus on rap."
Two years later, just as he was trying to finish The Manual, London's mother suffered a stroke in her sleep and passed away, leaving behind a book in which she had kept her wishes for her children: "Take care of your brothers and sisters, always chase your dreams, and finish school," she wrote to London.
"It kept on eating me up," London says. But he never finished. He kept working on The Manual. If his raps sounded troubled, he was.
"I went into a real dark place," says London. "I didn't care about much. I gained a lot of weight. I didn't care how my clothes or hair looked. It really affected my music because I was writing as a distraction. All I really cared about was making it and making it out."
But music didn't help him make it out. In fact, The Manual seemed to miss its audience almost entirely. If London had copped the style of the popular kids, that crowd didn't notice.
"I was definitely about to stop rapping," remembers London. "It seemed like it wasn't working. I was spending all this time and money to put a video out, just for it to only get 800 views. I didn't see the big picture."
His friends, Majestic included, talked him out of quitting. He released a couple of mixtapes as practice. One was the 2012 EP, Gordian Knot. Nearly three millennia ago, a poor Macedonian farmer named Gordias drove his oxcart into what is now west central Turkey. Per an oracle's decree, he became king. He hitched his cart to a post by tying an elaborate knot, which remained until Alexander the Great sliced it in half with his sword rather than untie it. London applied the tale's practical value to his own battle—eventually, and with some trepidation, the making of Sound of the Rising Sun.
"A complicated problem, thinking outside of the box," he has said. "I feel like that describes me very well."
This might be London's Gordian Knot moment. Before taking mighty swings at the beats of Sound of the Rising Sun, he thought. He confronts his new creative space on "Breach," preaches patience on "Mysterious Vibes," and on "Laybach," promises his loved ones that if they're not getting his full attention, it's because he's busy planning for his future. London delivers his most attentive songwriting to date and rises above the lyrical clutter of his past.
Eventually, London wants the same as most other young musicians—to get signed, reach more people and maybe make this his life. Per his mother's instructions, however, he's enrolled in classes at Wake Technical Community College so he can earn his GED. He comes from a family of degrees and diplomas, not quitters.
"After we did the listening session for Sound of the Rising Sun in Georgetown, we got back on the road going toward New York," remembers Majestic of a recent run up the East Coast, where he and London spun the record for industry types and fans. "There was a big storm traveling from Virginia up to New York. It was raining. I asked myself, 'What are we doing? Why are we chasing this dream? I'm turning around.' I looked up and saw the exit for a city named 'Rising Sun.' I took it as a sign—maybe we should keep going."