If hip-hop is dead in the Triangle, Raleigh's Kooley High might just be the grave robbers that can shake the corpse back into life. The criminality doesn't stop there, though: Given the strength of the six-member Kooley High crew, there's a little bit of con-artistry involved. Indeed, while Kooley High has been picking up the slack in the area lately, are they cheating? Do they have too many unfair upperhands in a place that was once a battleground for lots of local rap acts but now offers a bleak measure of competition and variety?
After all, DJ Ill Digitz spins at one of the largest radio stations in the state. Emcee Rapsody is already signed to world-renowned producer 9th Wonder's new JamLa record label. Tab-One and Charlie Smarts have enjoyed regional success in their prior act, Inflowential, which hit stages big enough to make The News & Observer's Great 8 in January (maybe one January too late). And now Kooley High's bringing one of music's most blogged-about, talked-about new emcees, Blu—who, with producer Exile, released the 2007 classic Below the Heaven—from Los Angeles to headline its mixtape release show just to pique more interest. Other area crews might need a handicap...
Sure, it's cheating, but cheating can be fun, and it can pay off. So far, for Kooley High, it has: Whether on last year's ebullient Summer Sessions EP, while explaining the tough work it takes to be heard in recent documentary One Day, or during one of the sporty freestyle ciphers into which emcees Tab-One, Charlie Smarts and Rapsody often lapse live, Kooley High always looks to be enjoying itself. In the process, the sextet's reminded us of what hip-hop in the area can be.
With the new Q-Tip-approved project, Kooley Is High, though, Kooley High proves that it can actually have too much fun by tripping through the industry's most overpackaged, shortsighted and superficial obligation—the mixtape. It's the plentiful anti-LP where rappers and producers waste their time rapping over and remixing other artists' popular material, ultimately leaving the original song scarred with second-class sterility. Kooley High's efforts don't swing that low here, but Tab-One's take on Elzhi and Royce da 5'9'''s "Glow" will have neither of the Detroit word-splurgers tweeting about hoping to collaborate with dude. The Lone Catalysts likely won't be amazed with the injustice done to their 2002 gem "Due Process," either. But let's give the kids a break and a pat on the backpack for tackling such titans.
All this reaching could just be a case of Kooley High being scared of becoming tagged as the latest jam-band rap pack (which, in a way, happened to the live band Inflowential) and not being taken for the hard-line rap crew that sacrifices sweat, punchlines and its EPMD posters to make the area's hip-hop scene fun again. Charlie Smarts reels the mirth in on "Jacques Cousteau," where everything but the horridly sung hook is a minty trip through his liquid dream, in which he does everything but get frisky with a mermaid. But at last, on the De La Soul-sampled title track "Kooley Is High," we hear the cohesive, effortless Kooley High that we loved on the Summer Sessions EP and who we'd love to hear sooner than later on the upcoming The High Life LP. Rapsody ends her verse with the repeated line "Got you addicted like a bad drug habit." She's normally not one to resort to such a tired, overused simile, but it works here because she's right: At its best, Kooley High can have us totally addicted. Kooley High's only worry should be that, in the meantime, we addicts find another rap peddler that keeps its product more pure by not wasting time and talent on one of these mixtapes.
Blu & Exile headline Kooley High's mixtape release show Friday, April 3, at The Pour House. Durham's M1 Platoon joins the show, which begins at 10 p.m. and costs $8-$10.