The sound of screeching steel pierces tranquil early fall air with vexatious intensity as a CSX train travels its route between Durham's Ramseur and West Pettigrew streets, passing the parking lot behind The Pinhook.
"We're going to have to schedule our lineup so that this doesn't interrupt people's sets," says Jonathan Harmon, who scrunches his face in acknowledgment of the freight's uncomfortable presence.
In less than a week, the dull utilitarian lot behind The Pinhook will be transformed into the main stage area for the Beats N Bars music festival, of which Harmon, more commonly known in music circles by his stage name The Real Laww, is a managing partner. The other members of the team, Crystal Taylor and Kurrell Rice, aka Professor Toon, trickle into the lot with bewildered looks on their faces. Rice is coping with a cast on his right leg from a severe ankle injury, and Taylor has been dealing with a week of media appearances and event planning as the latest iteration of her festival draws closer.
There's a look about them that I've seen in the military. They're the commanding element of an A team that has hit every checkpoint on its way to the main objective: haggard and worked raw, but ready for the satisfaction of an accomplished mission. Everything has fallen into place so far, and the signs of success are all there, but it's way too early to relax. After all, Beats N Bars 2017 is the group's most ambitious undertaking to date.
The event in name is Taylor's baby (she founded Beats N Bars last year), but she joined forces this year with Harmon and Rice, who created The Durm Hip Hop Summit in 2012 with a similar spirit of fostering community in Durham's hip-hop culture. The pair also benefited from its collective experience of booking a music festival, which has enabled them to use each other's skills to elevate the festival from a weekend-long showcase of local talent to an event that gives local artists the opportunity to perform on the same bills as internationally known artists like Nitty Scott and Cyhi The Prince.
Unlike other Triangle music festivals that use hip-hop as a highlight, Beats N Bars is a hip-hop head's music festival. But it still remains an underdog among bigger-name events like Hopscotch, the Art of Cool Festival, and Moogfest. Underdog or not, though, Beats N Bars fills a void in the local events landscape, focusing on bringing an underappreciated faction of hometown artists into the spotlight. This year's expanded offerings are efforts to make the festival even more successful. To help make that happen, the organizing team turned to Kickstarter to get some additional funding, with a goal of $25,000 to secure bigger headliners and cover additional production costs. After a thirty-day campaign in June, they not only hit their mark, but exceeded it by almost $5,000.
"We didn't know what to expect when we started because hip-hop is so touch-and-go in the area. Everyone is always in their little cliques at shows, so we don't see a unified front all the time," says Taylor.
The "clique" problem can stunt the success of local rappers. Triangle hip-hop tends to exist inside of an echo chamber, with excitement and support over certain acts bouncing off the same people—usually other rappers—in different directions but rarely penetrating the awareness of casual listeners. Many people living in Raleigh and Durham have no idea that a vibrant hip-hop scene exists in their neighborhood.
In order to get to a place where they could meet their goal of twenty-five grand, Taylor and company realized that they needed to expand their reach beyond the insular hip-hop scene and access more casual fans. They attacked this objective with a two-pronged approach: They held free pop-up performances in neighborhoods all over Durham, which brought awareness of local artists from the Beats N Bars lineup to the broader public. Meanwhile, artists promoted the pop-ups to their own fan bases, which brought out a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers, making it abundantly clear to all that an artistic movement worth supporting is happening right here in Durham.
According to Harmon, setting weekly goals was essential to hitting the fundraising mark and showing growth to existing and potential funders. Once the team demonstrated that the festival was growing, they attracted a generous funder, who chooses to remain unidentified. Stories about crowdfunding campaigns that flop, just a few thousand dollars short of a lofty goal, are commonplace. That could've been the case for Beats N Bars, but the mystery funder tipped the scales, transforming a modestly successful campaign into a certifiable hit.
"Kickstarter was a win. Remember when Butler was an underdog school in the tournament, but they got a few wins and now they've been in the tournament every year? You can't really call them an underdog anymore because you expect them to be in the fight. I would say, after this year we could be compared to a mid-major university," Rice says.
That said, the festival's accomplishments extend beyond meeting its financial or booking goals—its staff is a feat of excellence. Taylor, Harmon, and Rice oversee the festival, along with program director and co-owner Kyesha Jennings (who is an occasional INDY contributor), but it's also held together by a support staff of "dope-ass black women," in Harmon's terms, who see to facets like publicity, social media, and artist relations.
"We're women out here getting shit done," says Taylor. That spirit of entrepreneurism without gender or color lines is a significant factor behind Beats N Bars' elevation. To its organizers, the festival is a better representation of Durham than any income-vs.-living-expense figure Forbes can come up with.
Harnessing the power that comes with the sense of community Beats N Bars has nurtured in Durham will be essential as the festival grows. Taylor aims to see her project reach the same level of prominence as bigger hip-hop festivals on the East Coast, like A3C in Atlanta and Broccoli City in Washington, D.C. With her airtight efforts, the goal is attainable—not just for her and her cohorts, but for Triangle hip-hop as a whole.