Sitting at the bottom corner of a three-story south Durham home, East End Studios looks like an inconspicuous Jenga block from the outside—just a door beside a garage, nothing fancy. Once through the front door, though, it's difficult not to feel the history and the possibility. Actually, it's tough not to bump into it, in the form of a dusty Ensoniq ASR-10, a keyboard used for sampling and making hip-hop beats, sitting near the front door.
R&B producer Mike "Mike City" Flowers once used this same studio and ASR-10 to make such hits as Carl Thomas' "I Wish," Dave Hollister's "One Woman" and Sunshine Anderson's "Heard it All Before." Now, though, the main person working this equipment is Brad Brown, a 20-year-old who's lived here his whole life. He remembers that, long before he was a teenager, he'd sit in the studio and watch Mike City make those classic tunes with his father, Eli Brown.
Brad Brown wants to make some hits of his own in this old house. His best friend and peer in the local hip-hop collective Band Geeks, Thomas Hardison, has the same idea. In fact, as Thee Tom Hardy, Hardison—a playful but reflective kid who grew up playing tuba at Durham's Jordan High School—is finding his voice and his place as one of the emcees with the most personality in North Carolina.
But that voice didn't always come so naturally—and, on occasion, it still doesn't. Inside the studio's production room, Hardison explains the difference between his current rap tone and the one he's already retired under the name Teethree. As Teethree, Hardison self-released two mixtapes, Grape Soda Chronicles and More Tee. The Teethree character was an interesting approach, but, ultimately, Hardison's circus-like sarcasm made the newcomer to North Carolina's hip-hop scene a difficult sale. After all, he sounded more like a voice-over character on the cable network Adult Swim or a rapping Toys "R" Us employee. Hardison—a bit embarrassed, it seems—laughs about the old character.
"When I first started I was monotone and boring because I wasn't confident. Then when I got confident I started rapping animated and over-the-top," he avers. "The voice that I used to use was more affected and more over-the-top. It didn't really sound cool. I sounded like MC Chris or the next nerd-core rapper. My lyrics were always good, but finding my voice was a problem. I still have this problem sometimes."
Today, sitting at a table in a science laboratory table at North Carolina Central University, Hardison, 20, fidgets with an empty juice bottle. Grammy-winning hip-hop producer 9th Wonder is next door, running the school's Hip-Hop Initiative, which lost its university funding earlier this year but remains in the same space. Hardison is one of 9th Wonder's latest finds.
"People have always told me that I was good," he says calmly. "I knew that I was different and that I could rap, but I didn't fully realize that this is something that I could really, really do until I got a call saying that 9th Wonder wanted to sign me."
Late in 2007, Hardison decided he would rather sit in on 9th Wonder's hip-hop course at N.C. Central than attend his remedial math course, which took place the same day at the same time, down the street at Durham Technical Community College. He skipped, and he hasn't returned to college or class since. Rather, a year and a half after introducing himself to 9th Wonder, he's now the youngest artist on 9th Wonder's Jamla/ The Academy boutique record label. After releasing The Hardy Boy Mystery Mixape: Curse of the Green Faceded earlier this year, he's now steadily if slowly working on his debut LP.
Even after that mixtape, Hardison still needed plenty of guidance about controlling that voice of his: "I would write to 9th's beats, and when he would hear them, he'd tell me to calm down because it sounded like I was yelling. So I would have to tone it down and get a more natural, lower sounding voice. I'm a man, I have a low voice."
And like clockwork, Hardison does that "eye thing" that's become his trademark: Whenever Hardison speaks pointedly, the outer corners of his eyes wrinkle into something that looks like a half asterisk, giving him an expression that makes him look like he's halfway between a man lost in meditation and a teenager throwing a tantrum.
Hardison, by the way, is white. White rappers aren't really a rarity in North Carolina (from the Justus League associate Joe Scudda to Kooley High's Tab-One), but Hardison's tack conflicts with that of his peers. Hardison didn't want to play up his color or lack thereof. Instead, the idea was to create a cartoon character around his name.
"My manager's idea was to brand me as a green logo and not hide that I'm white and not make it a secret," he says. "His goal, which I thought was smart, was to brand me as a cartoon character and make my identity a mystery, which is why we named the mixtape Hardy Boy Mystery.
The cover of Curse of the Green Faceded, then, was a green face, his head cocked in Hardison's signature way, with a swarm of words that began with the letter "e" surrounding it—"enigmatic," "exemplary," "exuberant," "ecstatic." At the last minute, Atlanta producer and DJ Don Cannon added his name to the project, co-signing the material, or approving of Hardison as a young, new rapper.
"His thing is that he's the 'biggest co-signer in the game,'" says Hardison." I don't know if that's really accurate, but it's a hell of a co-sign."
If it's not a problem for a fairly unknown white rapper from North Carolina to get a co-sign from one of hip-hop's biggest names, then hip-hop, it seems, might actually stand a chance of becoming a microcosm for a system that actually starts to overlook color more and more. After all, black-white coexistence in a black-dominated hip-hop culture has never seemed to be the real problem. White rappers like Hardison usually don't have problems with black rappers. It's the white rappers who have a problem with the other white rappers. On Hardison's Curse of the Green Faceded, he even throws a couple of jabs at Asher Roth, another white rapper who also released a mixtape with Don Cannon.
"I was a little jealous that Asher Roth had come out before me. I knew that if he came out first, I was going to be compared to him. I've already seen a couple blogs where it says that I sound like a mix between Asher Roth and Bubba Sparks," says Hardison. "I knew it was coming. There's way worse rappers out there, black or white. I just called him out in a song."
Hardison says he doesn't particularly care for Roth's music, but he didn't expect for people to put so much emphasis on a couple of funny punch lines, either. Hardison's explanation of this sort of cultural angst is startlingly honest. Essentially, he admits that his own misgivings led to the beef, not his feelings on Roth's music or personality.
"I think white rappers always tend to have a problem with other white rappers. I've gone through it. You wanna be the coolest white boy in the room. Always," says Hardison. "And if some other white kid is trying to position his place in a hip-hop culture that you want to be in, you're gonna get mad."
After all, he's still preparing for his time in the spotlight, he says.
"I don't think I'm ready to put out that first album yet. Some of the songs that made the mixtape, we were going to save," he says. "But we said fuck it, because I was getting so much better. If we saved the songs that we made, they might not be good enough to put on a future album."
And with all the talent that he's surrounded by, he should take as much time as he can to learn. And to have fun. Even if he isn't in the booth every night practicing breath control and perfecting his bars, you might find out that he was, as he said one day, "Out there doin' white kid shit with my girl on a hammock."
Play on. Let the kid live.