There's a historical irony to Gunn's living situation: From the early 1940s to 1986, the downtown building in which Gunn currently lives was home to Baldwin's department store. At one time, it was the best place in town to find a nice bow tie and one of the last places you'd find a person of color. In the next few months, though, Gunn will debut his own line of bow ties. The neon bull in the Old Bull sign of American Tobacco Campus—once home to the biggest tobacco company in the world—snarls at the back face of the Baldwin's building from across the railroad tracks. Next Thursday, Gunn and Bull City Cigars will host a launch party to debut their collaboration on the rapper's The Smoking Gunn cigar collection. All of it strategically comes on the heels of the surprise release of Gunn's new LP, Rage to Survive.
On a humid Thursday evening, Gunn shows up at the front door of his building clad in a special Runaway-edition DURM Bulls baseball jersey, camouflage shorts, and a knee brace. He has a torn meniscus from chasing his pet bulldog down Main Street. We head up the stairs to a Christmas-light-laced rooftop terrace to talk, and a passing freight train underlines the panoramic view of Gunn's terrace, from the Durham Performing Arts Center to the adjacent American Tobacco Campus.
Now twenty-eight, Gunn has had a rap career rife with derailments, destinations, and peculiar dustups. In the early 2000s, he helmed the underground Durham rap trio The Thyrday before briefly giving up on rapping altogether to earn a degree from N.C. A&T University. Upon his return home, he signed to MC Lyte's DuBose Music Group imprint, which in turn led him to become an artist on the BET Music Matters campaign. More recently, he's had a top-charting song in Jamaica, of all places, and a diss song aimed at Bow Wow, of all people.
However, his goal is clear: He wants to create a Durham dynasty out of his rap talents, much like his North Carolina cohort J. Cole has done for his own hometown of Fayetteville. And coincidentally, this new chapter surrounding the release of Rage to Survive finds Gunn partnered up with Dame Dash, the dynasty maker who cofounded Roc-A-Fella Records with Cole's current boss, Jay Z. The two met through a mutual friend after Gunn discovered that Dash had relocated to the Charlotte area.
"When I first met him nine months ago, I was really trying to impress him. He was saying that he didn't want to do music anymore, but I really knew that I could convince him to come back and do music," Gunn says.
"He respects me as a person. He knows who I am and he knows that I can rap. He respects what I do for my live shows and he respects my business model."
Dash's wish to leave his music industry days behind him is currently being chronicled in the BET reality television series Music Moguls with co-leads Snoop Dogg, Birdman, and Jermaine Dupri. However, a recent episode of the show heavily featured Gunn as Dash's next protégé.
"He's a rap star. For a high-yellow dude, he's kinda tough on his battle shit," says Dash over the phone in the typical jokester tone for which he's always been known.
"When he comes around us and we're hosting shows in strip clubs or in different places, he's running around with the bow tie on, looking different from everyone else in there. But then he gets on the stage with no fear and raps. The crowd eats it up every time," he says.
Strangely enough, Gunn's fifteen-year rise is directly linked to another hip-hop luminary and a fifteen-acre ostrich farm in Vance County, about forty minutes northeast of Durham. It was there that, following a serious motorcycle accident in 1994 and general wariness of the music industry, longtime Public Enemy DJ Terminator X joined his family's business in a new and rare enterprise raising African black ostriches. By 1998, X had become a full-blown ostrich farmer, occasionally booking DJ gigs at Triangle clubs. For years, X and Gunn's fathers had worked together at the same Durham post office, so Gunn's demo tape landed in X's hands. The two wound up in a recording session together in Durham's Overdub Lane studio, and X eventually began managing Gunn.
At the time, Gunn was a thirteen-year-old rap prodigy who had already gained local acclaim from calling into Duke and N.C. State University's radio stations during hip-hop shows and arrowing through on-air freestyles.
"Everybody would be blown away by this little kid who had a high-pitched, girly-sounding voice, but with very mature bars," Gunn says.
He then decided to take that ripeness to a higher-stakes arena—the locally fabled Duel of the Iron Mics battle rap contest. Gunn says he didn't know what to do for his first battle, but he pulled it together.
"I watched these rappers, and all they were doing was rapping about how good they could rap. I was good at that. Plus, I knew that my punch lines would hit harder because I was young," he says.
Gunn won that battle and took home the hundred-dollar grand prize. He dominated the local battle rap circuit until his next Duel of the Iron Mics event at the Durham Armory, where he found himself going head-to-head in multiple final rounds with another respected and feared emcee Phonte Coleman. Earlier that night, though, Gunn had casually explained to Coleman the story behind how Terminator X came to be his new manager.
"Phonte set me up. In the last round of the battle he said something about 'hostages' and 'Why don't you go run back to Terminator X and them fucking ostriches?'" Gunn says.
"I didn't even know that everyone else in the crowd already knew what Terminator X was doing with those ostriches. It was a hilarious line with an incredible delivery. I was like, 'Fuck, I lost.'"
Still, the much-younger Gunn had won the respect of the Triangle hip-hop community for going the distance against an emcee who would ultimately become one of hip-hop's lyrical heavyweights. In the years since, Gunn has left the battling behind—for the most part, at least. In a promo clip from one of the first episodes of Music Moguls, producer Jermaine Dupri and rapper Bow Wow are seen sitting in a music studio criticizing Dash's relocation to North Carolina.
"Ain't nothing crackin' in Durham," says Bow Wow. It was another setup, which Gunn suspected came from the show's producers.
"They specifically told Bow Wow to say 'Durham' because of me. I know they did. Dame lived in Charlotte, not Durham," Gunn says.
Initially, Gunn admits he tried not to take the bait. Instead, he made a post about it on Instagram. But after consistent encouragement from his followers, he decided to record the diss track "Crackin'," a brutal, three-and-half minute assault on everything from Bow Wow's "trash-ass movies," to his past relationships. Maybe Gunn's reaction was extreme against some very low-hanging fruit, but his battle-rap mentality meant he could not have handled it any differently.
"I know for a fact that Bow Wow heard the song," Gunn says proudly.
"I wore this jersey that I have on to the [2016 BET Experience] Genius Talks event. Jermaine Dupri saw me and recognized where I was from and got out the way. So, we made our point."
Moving forward, however, Gunn is engaged in an entirely different and more important battle, one that's equally entrenched in how to balance aspirations of being the state's next greatest rapper and using his platform to, as he puts it, "fight some of the injustices of the world." At home, that's translated into selling out concerts while also making concerted efforts with Durham community activists to preserve the integrity of downtown's Black Wall Street legacy.
It's a two-front battle that Gunn has been training for since he was going toe-to-toe with rappers twice his age over a decade ago. "Two-thousand and three/ I knew how this would be/ and I put this work in so ask me who I think deserves it and I'll tell you me," he raps on "Say Me," one of Rage's standout tracks. He set himself up.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Gunn for Glory"