Raleigh Hip-Hop Crew Kooley High Reunites with Rapsody and 9th Wonder to Glow Up on Never Come Down | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Raleigh Hip-Hop Crew Kooley High Reunites with Rapsody and 9th Wonder to Glow Up on Never Come Down 

At a South by Southwest showcase promoting the debut of the Netflix documentary series Rapture, Rapsody told a capacity crowd at Stubb's BBQ, "When you talk about me, don't call me a female rapper, a 'femcee,' none of that! When you talk about me you say, 'Rapsody, that motherfucker is a beast!'" The audience went wild as she went into "Power,"* the lead single from last year's Grammy-nominated Laila's Wisdom.

Rapsody's ascension to hip-hop prominence has been seen as a triumphant fairytale come-up by some, but it's a testament to hard work and perseverance for those who have witnessed her rise. As Rapsody has built a position for herself closer to the top of the hip-hop mountain, her beginnings in Raleigh with Kooley High are the cement that provides her solid foundation.

On March 30, the same day as the premiere of Rapsody's episode of Rapture, Kooley High launched its fifth studio album, Never Come Down. Rapsody returns the fold of her original clique on "Grinning," and Patrick Douthit—better known as 9th Wonder—steers the project as executive producer. As big as that sounds, the members of Kooley High address the reunion with level heads intact.

"This has been years in the making," says Thomas "Foolery" Kevin, one of Kooley's beat makers. "So we're not getting gassed. Rapsody and 9th have always been here with us. It's not a situation where Rapsody left town and we haven't heard from her, and all of the sudden she and 9th graced us with their presence after their successes."

Kevin and Douthit have been working with each other since right before Douthit's appearance on Jay-Z's The Black Album in 2003. At the time, Foolery was in the First Year Student program at N.C. State, which gives first-years with undeclared majors the chance to shadow alumni who work in fields that interest them.

"I knew I wanted to pursue music, but it was N.C. State—there isn't even a music program over there," Kevin says with a laugh. "But they offered me the chance to shadow 9th, and he taught me how to use FL Studio. I'd go back and show [producer] Sinopsis what I was learning, and everything that exists now sort of grew from there."

In one of the scenes in Rapture, Rapsody goes back to N.C. State, where Foolery and Taylor "Tab-One" Burgess meet up with her in the Free Expression Tunnel. There, they discuss how she started making her abilities public due to their encouragement, which brought her to Douthit's attention. "This is family," she says in the scene. "These are my brothers. I owe my dreams to them because they helped it."

Over a decade after the formation of the crew, Kooley High is now the model for independent hip-hop hustle in the Triangle. Its members—Charlie Smarts (Alexander Thompson), Tab-One, Sinopsis (Dennis McCarter), DJ Ill Digitz (James Meyer), and Foolery—all carry on with other full-time pursuits, but they've stayed dedicated to keeping Kooley High sharp. Even with Meyer and Thompson living in New York, the group carves out the time to create art consistently and at a high level—creating a name for themselves on their own time, not seeking cosigns from stars. Their model has become how hip-hop artists in the city operate. Artists like Pat Junior, Ace Henderson, and Danny Blaze follow Kooley's example of not rushing things and making music that's a reflection of self rather than surroundings.

But no matter how humble the demeanors of Kooley's members may be, Never Come Down shows the team utilizing the inspiration and momentum of their friends' success to push themselves to a new level. With Douthit at the helm of the operation, the creative standards during the record's development were at an all-time high.

click to enlarge Kooley High - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
  • Photo courtesy of the artist
  • Kooley High

"On [2015's] Heights, we had quality tracks laying on the cutting room floor that we wanted to get out to the public," says McCarter. "On this project, we had to really dig in and be original, because if 9th said it wasn't going to work, then that was it, back to the drawing board."

Having Douthit as a coach is an opportunity that rising artists would die to have, but for Kooley High, working with him as a friend rather than as a record executive is something that the makes Never Come Down a special project. Douthit's influence and no-frills feedback shines through in the finished product, with tighter and more robust production from Foolery and Sinopsis, seamless cuts from Ill Digitz and airtight songwriting from Charlie Smarts and Tab-One.

"Me and [Tab] been rapping together for so long it just comes natural, whether I'm sending him a verse I recorded up here in New York or we're in the same room together," Thompson says.

The fact that Kooley High has so many moving parts that perform special tasks sets them apart from other rap groups. It's not a crew of four rappers and a deejay, or three rappers, a producer, and a deejay. Each lyricist brings a unique style to the table, as does each producer, with Ill Digitz binding them all together in the mix. On songs like "Never Come Down," Tab-One and Charlie Smarts trade lines that off their braggadocio styles. But they can easily switch to more sensitive themes, too, as on "Voila," where Tab-One tells the story of how he met his wife. Under Douthit's tutelage, they shine brighter than ever, but they don't see that as a sign to sit back.

"It's great to get recognition for the work we've been putting in for years, but there's still a lot more to be done and we're not losing sight of that," says Burgess.

Though Kooley has never gone out seeking cosigns from big music-industry names, they're at last surfacing on a national level with something more meaningful than a mention from a gatekeeper. In a hip-hop atmosphere that seems to be teeming with trolls and badly mixed SoundCloud links, this group of college buddies from North Carolina is capturing audiences on the merit of their best work yet. The family business is finally, fully booming.

*Correction: This article originally misstated Rapsody's single as "Energy." The song was "Power."

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