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Early on a Friday evening, L in Japanese is doing something he's famous for in Chapel Hill. He's hustling.

Hip-Hop Diplomat 

click to enlarge L in Japanese - PHOTO BY CHRIS TOENES
Early on a Friday evening, L in Japanese is doing something he's famous for in Chapel Hill. He's hustling.

Sitting in Carrboro's dimly lit Orange County Social Club, he's just finished recounting his goals as a local hip-hopper and his past adventures across the big pond in Paris, wide eyes glowing. He's staring at his computer screen, offering a sample of a track he's working on. But as many in the Triangle do, a passerby recognizes him--a unique sort, a tall drink of water with flat dreads drooping from his brow like palm fronds. He looks up from his laptop's screen and punches in her e-mail address. He offers his usual banter, and she is off.

It's one in a day's worth of similar interactions. L crafts beats and rhymes, and promotes shows, like Sunday's Count Bass D and Insight at the Cat's Cradle. But the crux of his ability to make hip hop happen in Chapel Hill comes from his fierce friendliness.

"You've gotta really get in there and have a great attitude," he says, smiling.

He's the music's cheerleader, interested in seeing hip hop's growth in this traditionally indie rock town. Those that listen--from those across the counter at his job at Open Eye Cafe or when he's taking five from running lights at the Cradle--always get a pitch, a flyer or a diplomatic exchange of support. If he goes to a new friend's rock show, that person might come to his weekly Wednesday DJ and performance night, SkyTerrain at The Library. Just as residents of Chapel Hill and Carrboro have watched silhouetted musical nomads pass on sidewalks over the years--trench-coated Dexter Romweber trudging over the broken concrete or paint-flecked Ron Liberti slathering one of his prints to a telephone pole--so L has become a familiar figure and voice.

That voice speaks about hip hop here in strong tones, the same focus apparent in that famous line by Carolinian Charles Kuralt: "relentlessly local." That is to say, L's talk also walks: L in Japanese is an aggressive ambassador for Chapel Hill hip hop.

But he had a long stretch in Europe before returning to the Triangle last fall. Big American hip-hop artists were opening up the European market, and he wanted in. A French-African producer contacted him based only on a demo passed out at a club. Two weeks later he was producing tracks for underground heroes Slum Village and Afu Ra, among others, for a compilation. L's new album, Belt and a Toothbrush, is set to include a Belgian MC and a French vocalist.

L now carries a post-Paris perspective on hip hop in the Triangle: "I want to capitalize on the open opportunity here," not compromise the chances for the music's growth. As such, he returned to continue what he had begun. L started Word? more than four years ago, a weekly event prompted by the need for an outlet close to home. The series, now inactive, was a home where beat heads and reluctant MCs could congregate and network in Chapel Hill, a town most often perceived as the stepchild of more expansive Triangle hip-hop networks in Durham and Raleigh.

In truth, the relationships are insular. It was at one of L's early events in Chapel Hill that members of Durham's Little Brother first met local Raleigh promoter Shaw "BumRush" Hargett, who helped secure their first record deal. Little Brother producer 9th Wonder played his first show at one of L's showcases.

Without venues and partnerships, though, any artistic movement can sink. When Chapel Hill clubs were cutting back on hip-hop events, L says, Glenn Boothe at Local 506 increased his regular shows.

"Whether he knows it or not, he's been helping the hip-hop scene here, regardless," he says. Boothe even took a punch at an overly crowded After Chill show when an aberrant patron reached around the bar and hit him. Since then, Local 506 continues to hold "Third Thursdays," the showcase hosted by Chapel Hill hip-hop emcee and organizer Kaze, who L respects as a "mentor figure" to that scene.

But what does Chapel Hill hip hop sound like? Brash rhymes on a new mix that previews L's forthcoming album--to be released on Last Arc, run by Insight, also on Sunday's bill--put the crosshairs on targets: a "fuck that" to the "crossed arms" of Chapel Hill music audiences and rivalries with lame rappers, all peppered with hometown pride.

A snapshot of Chapel Hill producers and MCs shows a clan diverse in both race and rap delivery, corralled in the Common Ground collective. Their movement includes the group Social Memory Complex and MCs like Phonetik, Meditate and Crash. They all participate on each other's records, L often providing the bed of eclectic sample choices and beats. He even used a Joan Jett riff as a recent sample.

L realizes his work alone won't be enough: "Local artists only exist with support. I can't do it if that's not there." But it's an interlude on his own record that hints at L's steeled conviction--an exchange between a filmmaker and an artist in the NYC graffiti documentary Style Wars, as teen graffiti writer Skeme is explaining his work ethic.

"Well if something should happen, well, I'd go along with it ... but that's not what I'm out here for," says the bomber.

The interviewer: "How long do you think you'll do it?"

"'Til I'm finished."

L in Japanese performs with Count Bass D, Insight, Social Memory Complex, Endless Mic and Heavy Contact at the Cat's Cradle Sunday, May 21. The show starts at 9 p.m. and costs $10.

  • Early on a Friday evening, L in Japanese is doing something he's famous for in Chapel Hill. He's hustling.

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