By Caroline McKinley
Their eyes were level with his sneakers planted firmly on the black platform. The crowd craned their necks and looked up past his dark pants and denim jacket to rest on the microphone in his hand. They tracked the trajectory of the mic to his lips.
“More sauce, 506, more sauce,” he said.
Thomas’ performance on Friday, February 23, was part of the second act of the grand opening of VibeHouse 405, a recording studio, art gallery and “home for creative rebels.” The concept evolved to fill a gaping void: Thomas needed a place to play music.
“I didn’t have anywhere to perform and it felt like…kryptonite,” Thomas said. “Like for real. I felt myself turning stuffy and dying. That was a thing that I needed, that I knew that other people needed.”
Thomas owns half of VibeHouse 405. The woman who claims the other half was one of the bopping heads on the dance floor beneath him.
Wendy Mann’s unruly black curls bounced as she moved with the bass. She shimmied next to her 19-year-old daughter, Adela. Mann wore blue jeans that she splatter-painted herself—she’ll make you a pair if you want. She lifted her phone to take a video of Thomas.
They might be the most unexpected business partners. Thomas is a 40-year-old African American rapper whose album on Soundcloud is titled “Black Kennedy 2.” Mann is a 50-year-old white real estate owner who used to run a private counseling practice. A few years ago, no one would have guessed that they’d own a business together, much less finish each other’s sentences.
“Well hello universe for bringing us together,” Mann said.
Thomas had just left L.A. and needed a way to pay the rent while he wrote rhymes, so he got a daytime gig at the front desk of Mina’s, a boutique salon across from Whole Foods. The day Mann walked in to make an appointment, Thomas handed her a CD.
“Do you listen to hip-hop?” said Thomas, extending the silver disc across the counter.
“Yeah,” Mann said, accepting the offering. “My daughter does. And I do too—if it’s good.”
She squinted at the print on the cover before looking back at Thomas.
“Wait a minute,” she said. “Are you doing something at the Local 506? That’s my club.”
The duo has been inseparable since the cosmic intervention. The recording studio is their latest joint business venture.
“I’ve been trying to get a format like this for eight years now,” Thomas said. “Where it would be all genres of music, all types of people, all the artist community together on one level. Exchanging that energy. Friday night.”
“We saw it all come [together],” Mann said. “It blew me out of the f—— water. It was everything we have been envisioning.”
Open house night a success
The event was twofold: An open house in the gallery portion of the studio followed by live performances at Local 506. It began at 5 p.m. that evening, when the sun was clocking out with the working folks, and the glass door between Perennial Coffee and a vacant smoke shop was unlocked. A sign was placed out front.
Neon pink capitals swaggered across the slick, black billboard: ART GALLERY OPEN HOUSE. A man carried a metal tree hung with empty perfume bottles up the narrow stairs. ‘90s hip-hop buzzed into the front room from Thomas’ phone. Mann arranged the table under the window. Bowls of Oreos, chocolate-covered almonds and Twizzlers plunked next to a plate of deviled eggs and chicken salad sandwiches. Bottles of pink champagne sweated in a bucket of ice on the ground. These were just the final touches. Mann had spent the better part of the day arranging works from 11 artists in the gallery. She gestured to the purple walls with a bejeweled finger.
“It’s like white, super punk chick, to white older guy with black woman friend,” Mann said, pointing at each canvas and indicating the artist. “You know it’s just white, black, Hispanic, mixed.”
While Mann adhered the last wall labels, the first guests of the evening arrived. It was her 70-year-old neighbors, Eleanor Rutledge and her husband Dr. James Lesher. Lesher is a semiretired philosophy professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who couldn’t keep his hands off the chicken salad or stop talking about his upcoming trip to Greece.
Event-goers consisted of a range of demographic groups
As the night went on, the average age in the gallery declined. Young professionals, students and even Thomas’ 6-year-old son Quaran perused the artwork and peeked into the recording studio. For the timid first-timers, Thomas was their guide. He ushered patrons into the booth’s hushed padded walls and let the chorus of “wows” lap over him.
“It’s like I was giving tours of Disneyland,” Thomas said.
Around 8 p.m., the crowd in the gallery meandered down the staircase and out onto the pavement, veering left. The doors of the Local 506 opened and a bearded man with a septum piercing waited at the front to check IDs and stamp hands.
Initially, the bar was more popular than the dance floor. People were inquiring about India pale ales on draft or ordering mixed drinks from the chalkboard menu when Benjamin Clancy, also known as sea brain, took the stage. The lanky young white kid in a blue and white striped sweater half-sang half-spoke an eclectic set list self-described as “music for whales.” And the crowd was into it.
“How many of my homeboys that came there for just the rap part saw sea brain and they were like, ‘Man, yo, I like the homie,’” Thomas said.
Thomas’ humble beginnings turn into success
Thomas has a crew now, but it wasn’t always packed bars and neon lights. He remembers his time as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, standing in the Pit, getting laughed at while passing out flyers for Hip Hop Nation. He still remembers the chorus of naysayers’ voices: “What are you trying to do? Are you trying to make a rap club?”
Friday night’s third act was the UNC Student Hip Hop Organization—perhaps today’s iteration of the rap club Thomas was spurned for trying to form. Five young men in assorted baby blue jerseys took the stage and wooed the crowd with their hit “Venmo,” named after the money-sharing iPhone app.
The crowd pumped their arms up and down in a move Thomas describes as “gigging.” Onlookers in faux fur coats and pastel fraternity T-shirts alike removed themselves from the periphery and claimed spots at the edge of the stage. The lineup built to a crescendo—just as Thomas designed it. During the final act, Durham rappers Defacto Thezpian and Lil’ Bob Doe spit tracks from their album “Facts about Bob.”
Thomas bounced behind the rap duo. Even without the mic, his hands waved the beat into the crowd. And even when the stage lights cut out, he kept his sunglasses on.
“It just felt crazy; I was like, ‘Oh my god,’” Thomas said. “It was like everybody’s in here glowing. It was crazy like that.”
Six hours after the gallery opened, the last stragglers slapped skin and called Ubers in front of the Local 506. Some embraced the mild February night and retraced their steps down Franklin Street.
“This town was always an artist community. Indie-based, rock, alternative—whatever. Just cool s— here,” Thomas said. “We didn’t want to see that die. This is a part of bringing that back—that energy back.”
The aftermath of open house night
Sitting together in the studio the next day, Thomas and Mann are still running on fumes of giddy energy. Thomas offers Mann a Blow Pop before he unwraps a cherry one for himself. He leans back into the windowsill to describe his takeaway from the night.
“I feel like it’s inclusive and open,” Thomas said, after the suction smack of the candy leaving his mouth. “It’s more like come get in the pool. Come get in the sauce.”
According to Thomas, more sauce means more energy. More swag.
“It’s getting in the flow of what feels good and amplifying that even higher,” he said.
Edited by Savannah Morgan.