The lyrical spell that DJ Mike Nice broadcasts every Saturday afternoon on WNCU is as likely to draw from the rhymes of local hip-hop acts Tyfu and Flawless as from rap superstar Jay Z. It's not East Coast or West Coast or Dirty South, but the Triangle beats with enough hip-hop passion and talent to compete with any scene in the country. So it should be only a matter of time before Def Jam and Tommy Boy Records start scouring the streets of Durham and Chapel Hill for potential stars, right?
It's not like that," Courtney C says. "Our market hasn't happened here yet."
These days hip-hop is bigger than raw talent; it's a business. Even if a rap genius can break all the beats and compose all the rhymes in the world, his skills don't guarantee the commercial success generated by mixing a song on vinyl and getting airtime on commercial radio. That's where Courtney C and Mike Nice come into the picture.
"We tell them how to use the money they're working with," Courtney says. He and Mike run RDU-919, one of the area's only production and promotion companies for rap music. Together they hope to blow up the local hip-hop community by educating area artists about the extenuating factors that make or break aspiring rappers.
But Mike, a longtime DJ and rap enthusiast, says this process is not easy. "If you want to get big, you have to know what's going on and what you want to do. It's work, and a lot of guys who come to me for help don't understand that."
Foremost in this line of work, the artist must arrange "beats," the actual sampling and music that animate the lyrics into song. Established artists in the larger scenes of New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta have access to a wider range of more complex professional beats that can cost up to $100,000 for a single track--a price that independent groups like Tyfu cannot afford without a major label contract. Securing a deal also covers many of the remaining business demands, including legal support and copyrighting.
The demise of Chapel Hill's Mammoth Records, Tyfu's old label, has frayed the circuit here between the grassroots and national arenas, marring the chances that major label representatives will discover local acts at freestyle contests and Cat's Cradle appearances. "When Mammoth folded, it took away the national attention we'd been getting," says Tyfu frontman Hack. "It threw us back into the local, independent status." For small-town independents seeking airplay or a record deal, "local" can turn off powerful critics, who tend to exalt the commercial and underground scenes of traditional hip-hop strongholds like the Bronx in New York.
The guys at RDU-919 can tap into channels far beneath even the urban underground scene. After 17 years of rapping, attending conventions and DJing, both Mike and Courtney have established their names in the hip-hop world. Mike started spinning records seriously in 1992, but without the advantages of growing up in an urban environment, he had to teach himself. "I had no help, no template, no reference," he says. "I lived in North Carolina. I didn't live around the corner from Russell Simmons. That's why I want to make this process easier for people around here."
In 1997, as two of the area's top DJs, Mike and Courtney galvanized the hottest DJs at clubs, skating rinks and on radio by forming the Butta Team, a seven-man crew that still frequently hosts freestyle battles at the Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill and the Power Company in Durham. These contests feature Triangle artists like Smoke, Conman and J. Gunz. A wistful grin stretches across Courtney's face as he talks about the Butta Team. "It snowballed into a way for us to get respect from record labels, a way for us to be a force."
Despite all their industry connections and local fame, Courtney points out that the major channel to success still runs on the airwaves. "College radio is a big tool for upcoming and local artists. They can walk right in and get their stuff played. That's the biggest thing that Mike and I can do."
On Saturday at 4 p.m., a needle scratches against the groove of a record, suspending the usual WNCU (90.7 FM) rotation of jazz and blues, and squeals into an exclusive medley of songs and samples never heard before. When the recorded lyrics fade, an energetic voice cuts in and shouts out "Mike Nice!" breaking into a hypnotic creole of rhyming, MCing, and call and response shout-outs. The voice, belonging to DJ Mike Nice's radio sidekick DJ Bro Rabb, reminds the listeners to "keep it thorough," and the energy fuses into the next song.
Mike's show, Straight From Tha' Crate, is 100 percent live and completely free of stringent commercial standards. "We play everybody's stuff," Mike says. "I'll give you a shot as long as your material's clean." He considers himself an inventor, a trendsetter. He not only burns an hour of local records, devoting regular airtime to acts like Tyfu and Durham's Rhyme Royal, but also strives to influence local listeners with cutting-edge, exclusive music from the national scene. "I'm playing a hit before it's a hit. That's a big thing."
It's a big thing for children and adults in the community who write Mike letters thanking him for the peace of mind that his show brings them. For many listeners, Straight From Tha' Crate is the highlight of their weekend, but a big percentage of Mike's audience waits all week to tune into the show from cellblocks. "A guy on death row wrote me before he died and asked if I could shout him out on the show," he says. "That means a lot to me because I touched somebody who had nothing to live for."
When Straight From Tha' Crate cuts out, the action drops down the dial to WXDU (88.7 FM), where Courtney deejays his own show, Raw Footage, every Saturday night. Like Mike's show, Raw Footage is performed live but focuses more blasting local rhymes to the community.
Definitely a pleasant surprise but not an unheralded event, the Wu Tang Bangers swung by Mike's WNCU studio to perform before one of their October shows. Both DJs mix live interviews and rap sessions featuring renowned artists like this with the customary set of exclusive and bootleg tracks. Past shows have featured big names from hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaattaa of Zulu Nation to Ice Cube and Junior Mafia. During Raw Footage and Straight From Tha' Crate, the doors to the WXDU and WNCU studios are always open.
Both their radio shows and the offices of RDU-919 reflect the degree of professionalism the DJs have learned from industry moguls in New York City. "We're applying what we learned firsthand from real record-label people," Courtney says.
Take what happened with Tyfu. When the band began working with Mammoth, Courtney circulated their demos to regional commercial radio stations, but the DJs routinely ignored his queries. So Courtney and Mike resorted to methods they know best. They spread word about Tyfu on the streets, posting and distributing flyers. Courtney promoted the group in Mad Wax, an independent record store he co-owns. Mike regularly mixed the group into his radio set. By the time Tyfu released their independent debut album, originally scheduled to come out on Mammoth, Mike and Courtney had networked enough to carry the group on a radio tour to important commercial stations across the state, including R&B powerhouses K97.5 and 102 Jamz.
"Mike and Courtney know the extra push it takes DJs to play what they promote," says Hack. "They're the bridge between a local label and a serious, successful group."
In addition to helping more established bands like Tyfu, Mike and Courtney work with a well of talent that springs from university step shows and downtown street corners throughout the area but lacks the motivation and awareness to market its own potential. "Everybody wants to be the artist," Courtney says, his smile wilting into a wry grimace. "Nobody wants to be behind the scenes helping those guys out."
Still, he finds comfort in knowing that those artists who stay true to the local scene can find guidance in an increasingly mediated industry without having to tangle blindly with corporate bills and backtalk. "We could get paid for consulting these guys," Courtney says, "but we do it because we love 'em, and we love the music."