Homegrown hip-hop music has long been a strong presence in both Durham and Raleigh, not merely ivy creeping up through cracks in the pavement. Through college radio stations like Duke's WXDU and N.C. State's WKNC, and promoters like Mike Nice and Courtney C, there is a strong support network for nurturing hip-hop artists and allowing their music to be heard, ever more commercially and outside just the Southeast region.
Chapel Hill is representin' now, too. Historically, residents of Chapel Hill and Carrboro have depended on the occasional visiting out-of-towner at Cat's Cradle or a freestyle show here or there for events close to home. Prompted by the need for an outlet closer to home, hip-hop artist L in Japanese (aka "L," or by his given name, Peter Daye) started a weekly event, the "Word? Underground Hip-Hop Showcase" (now on hiatus) in various venues in Chapel Hill, featuring not just freestyling for MCs and open tables for DJs, but folks were encouraged to break dance, hang out, whatever. During an impressive run bringing together local newcomers as well as traveling MCs and DJs, "Word?" allowed people to interact, network, and spark their own collaborations.
Soon after Word?'s inception over a year and a half ago, L was optimistic when talking about the event: "It's a melting pot of connections and making new friends, and getting shocked by someone's ability to communicate via hip hop." Through this series, L's work with duo 2nd Third Party and partner MC Microcosmic was supplemented with new faces and styles. The credits on a recent EP of L's own work, Start The ... reads like a roster of Word? showcases, with Greensboro MC Case Logic featured on the visceral cut "A Child's Diary," Triangle female rapper Lady Metaphor on "You Can't Type Math," and hip-hop group Illrotten Intelligence stepping up on "Jupiter Bubblegum." L talks about meeting the latter, just one story among these alliances: "I also met up with these guys at Word?; they saw 2nd Third Party play there and they decided they wanted to work with me because they really dug the sound that I had. I remember seeing Adam Rottin at a BumRush hip-hop showcase performing to the "Organ Donor" by DJ Shadow and this kid could rap at the speed of light ... I heard Illson freestyle finally at Word?. I wanted to see what I could do with these guys." And so, ground level communal relationships were begun, all of these artists creating options for themselves mutually--just the way it should work.
L, 24, grew up in Greenville and attended East Carolina University for a stint before moving to Chapel Hill. His taste was for hip hop, but not before experimenting with lots of different music. "I think that I listened to more punk than anything, but I ran into some guy that made me appreciate hip hop once again," he says. He and a friend quickly formed the now-defunct 2nd Third Party, a duo focused on more abstract rhymes and complex beat arrangements than mainstream hip hop. When asked to name a few hip-hop favorites, L cites some familiar old-school hip-hop luminaries like Leaders of the New School and Nice and Smooth, as well as newer artists such as Anti-Pop Consortium, Sonic Sum and Dilated Peoples.
But ask L for modern touchstones or interests and you'll see how his approach to hip hop differs from that of other musicians. "Around '96, I stopped listening to hip hop and listened to a lot of rock, and that made me see a whole new spectrum of music that I once never knew existed," he says. "Now I love Portishead, Stereolab, Squarepusher, My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth."
With such a diverse set of influences, it's no surprise L has done work all over the musical map; engineering for punk bands, amassing a slew of local MCs in his opening set for Anti-Pop Consortium and acting as both deft producer and MC on his own recordings. On Start The ... his disgust with mainstream hip-hop dreck is obvious in a biting line from his "Limitless Marathon." Possibly a swipe at popular but somewhat homogenized old-school-derivative acts like Jurassic 5, he spits "You're takin' it back to the yes yes y'all?/Well, I'm takin' it to the hell yeah nigga, keepin' it movin'." Using samples of flute, hymn-style singing and a deep bass beat, he sculpts a gorgeous, sprawling instrumental cut on "Common Dominate."
With a forthcoming full-length in the spring, and another show in Chapel Hill in mid-January, L is staying busy. He'll leave on a sojourn from the "Paris of the Piedmont" to the real Paris, France soon. Here's hoping he cross-pollinates the scene there, and returns to the hive in Carrboro thick with more sweet ideas and flavors.