‘Don’t call me cool’: Bull City hip-hop artists craft their own sound

By John-Paul Gemborys

Soxs pulled up to the studio on 112 Hunt St. with his friend Raheem Royal, better known by his stage name, Defacto Thezpian, riding shotgun. After they parked, the pair stood outside the car for a moment. Defacto Thezpian spat a few bars a cappella while his girlfriend sat in the driver’s seat, the scent of lit marijuana drifting down the block.

Defacto Thezpian is a local Durham hip-hop artist. The self-proclaimed, “schnozy” emcee was there to put the finishing touches on his latest project, “burgundyskylines,” and had invited me to come and observe the process.

But in the recording booth of GMMc Digital that day, the rapper got stuck behind some bars.

The rhyme scheme was simple enough, matching multisyllabic jewels, such as cummerbund, mumbling, sustenance, humbling, scuffling, buffering and so on. But there was a snag. The issue was at the center of this sophisticated multisyllabic rhyme scheme. The word “sustenance.”

“SUSTENANCE!” he cried out comically at one point, heard only through the microphone in the isolated recording booth. “SUSTENANCE!”

So he did another take. And another. And another. The same beat played again and again, the same lyrics, the same booming bass. At attempt number six, he could have been satisfied, but he wasn’t. At seven, the delivery was less muddy but still sounded weak.

“It doesn’t sound as strong as the rest of the track,” he said. It wasn’t until attempt number eight that the “schnozy” rapper was satisfied, content to move on to another verse, another sample, another ad-lib.

Durham is home to many artists like Defacto Thezpian: rappers who take pride in the craft, who eschew the modern obsession with image and marketing and continue to put the art before all. With such festivals and opportunities as the Beats and Bars Festival in 2016, Moogfest, which came to Durham in 2016, and the DURM Hip Hop Summit, which began in 2012, the Bull City hip-hop scene is on the come up.

Being a native of Durham myself and a hip-hop geek to boot, I decided to explore this burgeoning subculture, interviewing local artists to find out about their latest projects, hear what inspires them and discover what it takes for small-town Southern artists to break through in an already oversaturated market.

‘I’m an artist’
Uncertain of where to start, I went to the one expert I knew, my old running mate Michael Jones, aka Jones Michael, aka DJ Know Question.

Jones is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to the culture. When I asked him what he does, he said, “Basically I create products. I’m an artist — I create clothes, I create posters — any sort of visual art.”

He’s also “a DJ and a producer and a rapper and a singer.” Even his sweatshirt was emblazoned with one of his illustrations, a graphic of a man with bulging eyes and a ridiculously wide-open mouth — a hallmark of Jones’ unique drawing style. The piece, he said, is called “Brain Melt.

Jones told me that he’s been making music seriously for eight years but that his real start was much earlier. “I recorded my first rap in third grade,” Jones told me. His dad, who played jazz in college and is currently a music teacher at Culbreth Middle School in Carrboro, helped him along the way. “I was like, ‘Dad I got this song,’” Jones said. “And he was like, ‘Oh you wanna record it?’ So he gives me this generic beat — like it’s not even a rap beat — and I hopped in my dad’s studio and recorded it.”

By the eighth grade, inspired by the likes of Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco, he told his dad he wanted to start making music, so his dad threw him a Casio keyboard and a drum machine. Today Jones makes music in his spare time, posting a new song to his SoundCloud almost every day, along with original artwork for the month he calls “Jamuary.” He also DJs under the alias DJ Know Question at such venues as DaNu’Gen Entertainment Cafe and Bull City Cigar Co.

When I asked him why he does music, he told me it’s for the love. “I’d rather just create, man — and then create enough so that people like it and that people want to pay me for it. I don’t need to be on the cover of a billboard. I don’t need a world tour.”

To break through commercially, he told me, the answer is simple. “You really gotta be yourself because that’s the only thing that’s gonna sell,” he said.

“You’re not going to get anybody with artwork like this. You’re not going to get anybody else that has this sound.” His next project is a record called “New Clear Energy.”

‘You gotta learn tunnel vision’
The next artist I met is a relative newcomer to the game. His stage name is Ducee’ DropTop, and he welcomed me to his home with warmth and a Backwoods cigarillo.

Describing his style as “mellow-hype trap,” he released his first record, an eight-track project called “#BoostUP,” in December. One of the singles he put out for the tape, “Wit It,” has over 11,000 views on YouTube. When I sat down with him, he told me a key to success in the game was keeping a tight circle of like-minded individuals and focusing on his goal.

“You gotta learn tunnel vision, stay focused on what you do and at the end of the day, let the haters hate,” he said. “You can’t get strung up into that negativity. Negative people, I don’t want you in my life. I practice positivity.”

The next artist I spoke to is a veteran on the Durham scene, a rapper and producer who recently moved to Charlotte. He goes by Alex Aff.

He told me about his first tour this past December, the “Aff & Friends Tour,” a five-stop circuit through Raleigh, Wilmington, Virginia and New York ending with a show at the Pinhook in Durham.

When it came to advice on how to succeed in the industry, Alex talked about being organic. “I think the problem with a lot of artists is that they try too hard. I understand the mentality as an artist. You want it so bad, and you’re trying so hard to get people to pay attention. When I think from the fan’s perspective or the person’s perspective that isn’t an artist, you can see that they’re forcing it, and that makes you more resistant to gravitating toward their brand, their craft, whatever they do,” he said. “How I get attention is by being as natural as possible and being as myself as possible. I think that’s really the only way I can stand out.”

His latest project was an album called “Forever.” He recently put it up on iTunes.

‘Don’t call me cool’
Defacto Thezpian was the fourth artist with whom I was fortunate enough to spend some time. A lyricist and wordsmith, he explained the meaning of “schnozy” to me in the studio. “When I was in high school, dog, I made up words all the time. That was the word I stuck with the most. I used to tell people, simply, I wasn’t a cool dude. I was that person everyone knew, but I wasn’t cool. I wasn’t a jock,” he said. “But I like that I can still be cool and not be those people. Don’t call me cool because ‘schnozy’ fits me so much better.”

Being around him, it’s obvious that Defacto Thezpian is a natural showman. When he attended Hillside High School, he was an actor. It’s where he gets his name. At Hillside he was in 12 school productions  and took on roles such as Chad Danforth from “High School Musical” and Willy Wonka. He started taking music seriously in 2012, although he began recording songs his freshman year of high school in 2006.

“It wasn’t until after I got out of high school and I started doing open mics and seeing that I had a platform to perform that made me start wanting to take it more seriously,” he said. In 2013 he had his first headlining show at the Pinhook in Durham. He told me that he didn’t start doing music as a full-time gig until June 2016. He estimates he’s done about 200 shows. He’s also played at festivals like A3C in Atlanta, the Beats and Bars Festival in Durham and Youbloom in Los Angeles. On April 11 he’s opening for Alex Wiley at Kings Barcade in Raleigh.

‘Music chose me’
The final artist I got to chat with was 26-year-old Danny Blaze, native son of Durham, N.C. One of the first questions I asked him was how he got into the game.

“I started playing with it when I was 14 in the ninth grade. I would kind of write little things here and there. I would hear J Dilla instrumentals and try to freestyle. I was horrible,” he said. “I didn’t take it seriously until 2010. I was in this group with Dinero P. We were in a group called The Koolest, and I was in that group literally until June of 2015. So I’m pretty fresh out of that. And, yeah it was weird, man. It was hard kind of starting over — I was almost afraid to give it another go.” But he did and is currently working on his next album, “Punk Ass Dan,” which he anticipates will drop either this fall or summer.

When asked why he does music, Danny Blaze said, “Man, it’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at, to be quite honest. Like I’ve been decent at everything else in my life as far back as I can remember. I kind of feel like music chose me. I don’t feel like I have much other choice. And I love it.”

When I asked him if there were any issues that his music addressed, he said, “Yeah man, ‘Punk Ass Dan’ is going to be a really dark tape. It’s not really like anything I’ve put out so far, and it’s definitely going to address pretty much everything wild going on these days like police brutality to this wild election. I wouldn’t consider myself an artist if I didn’t. Hip-hop is being the CNN of the hood, as Chuck D once called it, and I feel it’s our duty to uphold that. And it’s not even the hood anymore. It’s the world, period. We have social media, so the world is so much broader than the hood these days. So I definitely have to address those things. It’s very important to myself.”

Edited by Alison Krug