Sam King is a Las Vegas rapper known as SK4MC. In early December, he spent several weeks in North Carolina, looking to network with the kind of folks who could help jump-start his rap career. Tonight, with the temperatures outside below freezing and snow melting as it hits the sidewalk, he ducks into Chapel Hill's Jack Sprat Cafe, a sandwich shop and bar, and home to a weekly hip-hop open-mic showcase known as Sunday Night Sessions.
The night's resident DJ, A-Minor, nestles onstage between his turntables and a large triptych of windows that look out onto East Franklin Street. A small crowd of hip-hop devotees laugh as the night's co-host, Karim Jarrett—the self-described "professional shit-talker" known as Bishop—teases King, tonight's new guy, about the generous amount of letters in his stage name. SK4MC stands for Sam King 4 Master of Ceremony. The former New Mexico State football player knows how to take a friendly joke as he takes the microphone.
"Everybody give it up for Sinbad," he rebuts, before performing two spoken-word pieces and some tracks from the mixtape that he's giving away tonight. Despite the chill outside, the mood here is warm.
If there's anyone in Jack Sprat—or in the state, really—who could teach King about the rewarding and frustrating nature of turning rap into a career, it's the co-host and founder of Sunday Night Sessions, Kaze. For the past decade-plus, this Chapel Hill native has worked as a tireless local tastemaker while trying to catapult himself from his respected local stature into the national spotlight. While hosting TV shows about hip-hop and promoting innumerable shows on any local stage he could find, he's made strong records and signed promising record deals. The stardom's yet to come, though, but here's Kaze tonight, still working for everyone else's chances.
"Kaze is one of the few cats that I can say is legitimately North Carolina hip-hop—one that I would want to take certain rappers' place that got big and didn't take it to the next level," says Jarrett of his co-host and longtime friend. "He's not the type of emcee that goes and gets his taste of success and then you can't touch him. He doesn't have to do Sunday Night Sessions, and he didn't have to invite me to host."
Back in 2003, Kaze turned another Franklin Street club into a spark plug for Triangle hip-hop. He started Microphone Mondays at Local 506 as an open-mic venue for local rap acts to hone their stage skills. A venue for some of North Carolina's fairly unknown hip-hop talent to grow, it was key in the development of Little Brother. Jean Grae, Big Daddy Kane and Camp Lo all made guest appearances, too. And back when the current could-be phenom of mainstream hip-hop, J. Cole, went by The Therapist, he often made the trip from Fayetteville to Chapel Hill to be a part of Kaze's weekly showcase. Now J. Cole's affiliation with Jay-Z has put him in the position that many thought Kaze might have landed by now.
"I thought that by this time this year, I would have more of a national presence and be competing on a national level," says Kaze. "What's encouraging, though, is that a lot of people around the state have been behind me and have been waiting for me to come out with that next thing. I appreciate that support because it's going to take that kind of thing for me to succeed."
This time, the circumstances for Kaze—and his weekly hip-hop platform—are much different. The open mic now takes place on the opposite end of Franklin Street, which, until recently, hasn't exactly been fertile ground for much live music. Venues like Players and Jack Sprat Cafe have started offering performance spaces for Chapel Hill's music community. Kaze hopes to capitalize on the proximity to UNC's campus and its energy. This location offers a chance for random people to enter the scene, folks who might not even know it exists. That is, he's trying to preach to those outside of the choir.
"I've been out here since '95, and I've never known there to be a weekly hip-hop function in the heart of Franklin Street," he says. "It's not all the way down at the Cradle or at Local 506. Now we're just a couple of doors down from sacred ground in Chapel Hill."
What's more, the North Carolina hip-hop climate is edging toward its second cycle of nationwide notice. J. Cole is getting major attention, and there's considerable buzz surrounding local artists like King Mez and Kooley High. The group of upstart labels helmed by Grammy winner 9th Wonder are wells of potential talent and resources. Despite Kaze's recent record deal with SRC/ Universal, none of this statewide attention has turned his longtime involvement with N.C.'s hip-hop movement into big-time notice. Anyone else in this situation would feel jaded and underappreciated, but Kaze takes it as one huge learning experience.
"When I see J. Cole going on tour with Drake, I'm not jealous of it, but I just want to know where the movement is with my situation," he says. "I could sit here and cry about it or I can get back to doing what I know how to do. So that's what I did."
He understands how important an event like Sunday Night Sessions is to maintaining a healthy hip-hop community, where veteran talent can mix with and inspire new talent, and vice versa.
"You just can't jump to the big stage. It's like a workshop in a sense, where you learn what works and what doesn't work," says Kaze. "The people at these shows are the people that you want to support you. These aren't just local emcees; these are people that just want to be a part of the scene. I felt that energy missing here."
Over the past year, Kaze's double duty as the Sunday Night Sessions open mic leader and as a relentless Carolina rap representative has given a long list of acts—Zig Zag, Bip, Pearl City, King Scarface, BCF, Flex, Ease, SkyBlew and K-Hill, just to sample—both a performance headquarters and a mentor. Kaze is a parable in perseverance, a rapping lesson for any upstart.
"I've invested everything in Carolina," he says. "I've invested my livelihood in the belief that one day this will be the place that other people move to, a place where multiple artists are all big at the same time.
"This past year, the whole SRC/ Universal situation has been difficult and frustrating on a business level," he continues. "If anything, it's shown me that it's all about what a brotha can do for himself and that it's up to me to make things happen. But I feel my energy coming back, and that's what has me feeling confident about the new year. This is square one for me."