Raleigh hip-hop six-piece Kooley High hits the big screen | Music Feature | Indy Week

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Raleigh hip-hop six-piece Kooley High hits the big screen

Allow us to introduce ourselves...



"One Day? Theater Five, on your left." Guess a Cary art house will screen a hip-hop documentary after all.

Black Star's classic "Definition" thumps from Theater Five of Galaxy Cinema, spilling into the indie multiplex's lobby like a beacon for the crowd of 300 streaming inside: Co-eds in heels and houndstooth mingle with New Era heads—microbrews and imports in hand—as graying elders in sweaters and slacks sip wine from the comfort of the theater's cushy black seats. Half an hour before the lights go down and the curtains come up for One Day—a new film about Raleigh hip-hop six-piece Kooley High—finding a seat in the 277-capacity theater is, at best, a challenge.

Down in front, Kooley High's DJ Ill Digitz spins cuts from conscious crews Little Brother and The Roots (and, oddly enough, Dead Prez). Around the theater, Kooley High passes hugs and hand slaps to those who've gathered to see their big screen debut, as producer/ director Napoleon Wright anxiously announces that he's awaiting his parents' arrival from Atlanta. There's gratitude, true and humble: "This is more than I ever could have imagined," he says.

As the clock ticks closer to the 8 p.m. showtime, an organizer announces a sell-out, The Fugees "Ready or Not" scoring the moment. Latecomers tote in office chairs as Wright again steps to the front. He thanks the audience and the Galaxy, then explains his compulsion for making a documentary about an upstart, unheard group from Raleigh: "The way I grew up, with my family in the military, I didn't have many friends," he says, that same family now in the crowd, an emotional waver distinct in his voice. "Raleigh is the first time I've had that, so this is a thank you to you all."

The room flashes dark, and the screen flickers to life, the air thick with anticipation. One by one, the film introduces the members of Kooley High—emcees Charlie Smarts (Alex Thompson), Tab-One (Taylor Burgess) and Rapsody (Marlanna Evans), producers Foolery (Thomas Kevin) and The Sinopsis (Dennis McCarter), and DJ Ill Digitz (James Meyer)—with short vignettes. They elaborate on their hopes for the group and the sacrifices that focusing on those goals can engender. On the way to skate in a parking garage off of Interstate 40, Meyer confesses that he wants the group to be big on a professional level. McCarter, flipping through rows of records at Hillsborough Street's Nice Price Books, reflects on the difficulty of doing so given commercial hip-hop. "It doesn't seem like it's honest anymore," he suggests. "If I can't find honest music, at least I can make it."

Click for larger image • Kooley High Emcee Charlie Smarts - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Evans shoots baskets and talks about heroes like Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah, lamenting the relative lack of such strong African-American female role models for today's youth. She wants to become one, but she knows that will take time. "It's not gonna be easy. If that's your dream and you want to do it, you have to follow it and fight hard for it. Whatever you put into it, that's what you're going to get out of it." Thompson and Kevin agree. "Don't nothin' happen overnight," Thompson says as he walks to catch the CAT bus to work. "Nothin' worth having, anyway." They become six people working for one aim.

That pragmatic outlook, along with a shot of humor, keeps One Day from dipping too deeply into artistic self-pity, wherein one bemoans his lack of a big break while sitting on the sidelines, putting forth marginal effort. Kooley High doesn't seem self-important here, either: "I'm not saying we're revolutionary by any means," Burgess declares. "We just make good hip-hop and I think that in itself, today, is pretty unique."

During the last six minutes, Kooley High finally coalesces for a packed performance at The Pour House. With a fiery cypher and a pair of loose, soul-sampling Summer Sessions jams, the footage, filmed last March, could be the first glimpse those outside the Triangle see of the group when Wright submits the documentary to film festivals and releases the entire 38 minutes online. After all, the members of Kooley High hope that One Day is another step in their quest to be heard. But, tonight, here among a community that has already embraced them, where businessman sits next to b-boy in Cary, Kooley High requires less and less of any introduction.

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