The decor inside of Raleigh's Kings Barcade is an elaborate maze of psychedelic colors, surreal paintings, oddball portraits, Christmas lights, stuffed puppets and disco balls. Last Tuesday, that backdrop provided the perfect festive ambiance for what was officially—if that's your adverb of choice for tweets and blog posts from rappers and their boosters—declared as "North Carolina Hip-Hop Day."
On Tuesday, Sept. 27, three of the state's top hip-hop artists released albums: 9th Wonder offered the feature-heavy The Wonder Years. Phonte Coleman released his long-awaited solo rap project, Charity Starts at Home. And the Fayetteville-raised, potential Roc Nation star J. Cole debuted with Cole World: The Sideline Story.
In front of a capacity crowd at Kings, 9th Wonder and movie director Kenneth Price hosted a free homecoming screening of The Wonder Years, Price's glorified account of 9th's Winston-Salem upbringing as Pat Douthit, his subsequent academic and music careers and the creative process behind his lauded beats. The film features both Phonte and J. Cole; in Kings, it was projected onto a large screen in front of the stage as Price, 9th and his older brother, Charles, watched from the far recess of the room. Charles thought he might have lost count, but he finally decided this was the ninth time he'd seen his little brother's film. As the film began, 9th and Price broke out into a goofy, synchronized two-step dance. N.C. hip-hop, it seemed, was in a happy, healthy place.
This wasn't the first time: During the documentary, 9th recalls July 14, 2004, the day that his Durham trio, Little Brother, signed their recording deal with Atlantic Records. He remembers telling Phonte, one of two emcees in the group, about the historical significance of that day—in 1789, the Bastille had been stormed, a key moment of the French Revolution. Centuries later, in 2004, it seemed that LB was on its way to revolutionizing hip-hop. During that moment of crunk, it was unimaginable to think a major label might sign a Southern hip-hop trio that mainly appealed to the tastes of the nostalgic hip-hop purist, and that the act would be successful.
A year later, Atlantic Records released The Minstrel Show, Little Brother's big-time debut. Promotion was poor, and reviews were confused at worst, mixed at best. Sales were weak. 9th Wonder and LB soon parted ways, and the wind behind North Carolina's collective hip-hop sails soon began to dissipate.
That's not to say that Phonte, 9th Wonder or the other original member of Little Brother, Rapper Big Pooh, disappeared. Rather, they've all been quite busy between the breakup and Tuesday's screening. Phonte and Pooh continued as the now-defunct duo version of Little Brother, releasing two more solid LPs. Meanwhile, 9th received a Grammy nod for his work on Mary J. Blige's The Breakthrough and started his own pair of record labels. He has corporate sponsors and famous friends. Phonte has found tremendous success with his Grammy-nominated R&B outfit, The Foreign Exchange. Pooh's latest solo LP arrives at the start of November.
But these things haven't been the work of a unified team or even old friends going in new directions. Throughout, 9th and his former bandmates feuded very publicly. It was only after a nasty Twitter exchange between 9th and Phonte (and the release of Little Brother's final LP last year) that a mutual friend convinced the two to sit down over dinner and settle their differences.
Earlier on Tuesday, a few miles away at Schoolkids Records, 9th and Phonte appeared in public together, welcoming a gaggle of their fans for a "lunch break signing." Almost simultaneously, J. Cole made his first appearance on The Angie Martinez Show on New York's Hot 97 FM. These events were the kernel of #nchiphopday, as it was tagged on Twitter. Fans broadcasted their album purchases and toasted the day as one of the greatest in the state's hip-hop history. And it was exactly that, at least in a while; the giants, once again, were cooperating.
Some of the material involved is pretty great, too: Moments of Cole World—"Breakdown" and "Lost Ones," for example—find J. Cole nailing beautifully cathartic moments. In other places, he skids around with his rap-villain act, puncturing and punching in spots where his songs aren't overly softened by his own drossy hooks. The Wonder Years' overflowing list of featured emcees is plenty diverse. More important, we're starting to hear 9th Wonder's production mature from boom-bap to the bedroom, meaning his sophisticated samples are becoming perhaps more suited for strong R&B singers than hard-core rappers.
Charity Starts at Home is a bit problematic. It seems like Phonte's "easy way out" solo album. He treats the songs too much like throwback LB beats. California producer Swiff D serves as the unlikely hero, at least, beefing up Phonte with heavier padding on "Dance in the Reign" and "Ball and Chain." Very few emcees consolidate brains and showboating like Phonte; here, he showcases that in ways that are, by now, too familiar.
Phonte's LP wasn't the only shortcoming of N.C. Hip-Hop Day, though. While the spectacle of 9th and Phonte nurturing a working relationship seemed like enough to placate their longtime followers, it was nothing if not short of a proper, unified Little Brother production. Sure, this wasn't LB reunion day, but Rapper Big Pooh's absence from each of his former bandmates' albums and his absence from the day's events made 9th and Phonte's resolution look incomplete, arguably insincere. Pooh says he's not necessarily disappointed with not being featured on those albums, but he insists some differences between his former imprint, Hall of Justus, and 9th Wonder still produce some bothersome tension.
"Well, technically there isn't a Hall of Justus anymore, but from what I understand, there was a mandate handed down from [9th's label] It's A Wonderful World/ Jamla that their artists weren't allowed to work with or associate with people from H.O.J.," says Pooh. "It's an unfortunate situation that the personal problems of few are resonating to those who have nothing to do with the situation."
During the question-and-answer session that followed the screening of The Wonder Years, 9th actually reinforced that idea. Outside of his own artists, he said, he refuses to put the entire state's hip-hop scene on his back. It's a reoccurring sentiment that hasn't gone over well with some artists in the state' hip-hop community. To many, 9th's reluctance to co-sign area artists—that is, only to endorse them, not actually to sign them to his label—who aren't a part of his roster is hypocritical for someone who has reaped such benefits thanks to the blessings of stars like ?uestlove, Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige, Destiny's Child and Drake. The idea, insist his detractors, is that he's got no right to proclaim #nchiphopday as a monolithic movement unless his goal is to put everyone on the map.
"For 9th and Phonte to promote themselves as the face of N.C. hip-hop is wack," says Jozeemo, a Durham rapper who has been vocal about his problems with 9th Wonder, Phonte and the lack of cohesion among the state's rappers. A few weeks ago, he released a music video that takes shots at 9th Wonder, Phonte and longtime area beatmaker Khrysis. "Why is 9th going around and saying 'Support the N.C. hip-hop movement?' Why doesn't he just say 'Support the Jamla movement?' They started this N.C. Hip-Hop Day shit but then you turn around and say that they aren't going to put N.C. hip-hop on your back. Which one is it? "
On Tuesday, though, when the movie and the questions were done, N.C. Hip-Hop Day moved to the nearby restaurant Five Star, where Phonte and 9th Wonder were scheduled to appear once again. DJ Flash mixed classic hip-hop tracks for a room of N.C. fans gathered not only to celebrate N.C. Hip-Hop Day but also to see 9th and Phonte side-by-side for one of the first times in years.
The glimpse was fleeting. Minutes after Phonte wiggled his way through a sea of daps and hugs to finally join 9th and DJ Flash in the deejay booth, 9th disappeared.
In the middle of the album-release party, the music suddenly cut off due to a technical problem. While DJ Flash and one of the restaurant's employees searched for the problem inside the deejay booth, Phonte addressed the crowd, telling jokes in usual form and thanking the attendees for their continued support. He poked fun at 9th Wonder, saying he wouldn't be surprised if his old friend was in the back of the restaurant, chomping on Chinese food.
He was not yet aware that 9th Wonder had already left his own party.