Independent hip-hop artists in the Triangle hone their skills in the raw setting of live competition, forcing each other to up the ante on every exchange of lyrical flow or DJ action on the decks. The battles are always fiery and explosive, with dueling turntablists fighting to represent for themselves. The spotlight is undoubtedly the coveted prize, and nowhere is it more highly contested than in a DJ battle. Enter such self-advocating individuals as Jonathan Wright (aka J-Wright) and Donald B. Yohn (aka Beyond), co-owners of the Xtra-Infinit label and its consistently high-quality monthly showcases.
I catch up with the two veteran organizers during their sound check at the Humble Pie in Raleigh. Wright's tracksuit glistens with rain from the stormy Saturday afternoon; he's dressed warmly, unaccustomed to the cold since moving down to Florida. Wright makes the long trip north frequently for Xtra-Infinit's busy schedule of body movin' events, since a key component to the crew's survival is mutual cooperation with local artists.
"When we run into people around here sometimes who want to become involved, they may be approaching us because of the reputation we've had or just because they've heard what we've been doing," says Wright. "That's what's helped keep this thing going ... they want to expose everybody to it just like we do."
Finding a dependable headquarters for such a continuous series of live events is a problem that's always plagued the Triangle underground scene. As such, hip-hop shows have blossomed where least expected. Xtra-Infinit's Liquid Flowz showcases, where a featured or hyped artist is matched with several new, up-and-coming locals, have landed in clubs that traditionally host rock bands: Local 506 in Chapel Hill, Go! Studios in Carrboro, and Kings in Raleigh. Their consistent place of residence, however, is restaurant/music club Humble Pie, where they host a showcase on the first Saturday every month.
"Getting set up at the Humble Pie, we were like, 'This is the home right here,' says Wright. "It's a nice style, nice flavor when you walk in here; it's spacious with an open stage [for getting DJs off and on quickly]. That's been one of our struggles is to have an environment like this."
What makes this crew stand out is their persistence and dogged determination. "Beyond had been trying to put on shows when he was in Florida a while back, but I remember an early show at Go! Studios where people would just get up and start flowin' and it was like, 'Yeah, yeah, whatever, man,'" says WKNC's D-Cutta, who frequently hosts and DJs at the showcases. "Pretty soon though they've got their own company, people working with them. A lot of people recognize me just from the Xtra-Infinit shows now."
And to keep people coming out, the playing field has to be maintained at a high level. The showcase's purpose is two-fold, with neophyte MCs getting onstage experience (and hopefully some love from the crowd), and Xtra-Infinit creating ties and grooming potential collaborators. Of course, the crowds may not always be kind. Their all-important reaction depends on the strength of the performer's freestyle flow (off-the-cuff rapping) and the unrehearsed performance of DJ and raw MC on the mic. Mainstream hip hop grabs the most listeners here, just as it does on the airwaves nationwide.
Local events like these, along with independent radio, are spreading the word directly. The attitude of, "This is local, so I'm not going to like it," is being whittled away.
"I'm usually up behind the turntables or around the stage, but I really like to watch the crowd," says DJ D-Cutta. "It's nice to watch one from North Carolina getting into it, because crowds here can be finicky. Sometimes it's that they know what they like, and that's that."
Still, the edge of competition never dulls. It's the core of what drives the showcases: the desire for recognition, and pushing one's opponent to better their own game.
More than any other, the Xtra-Infinit crew's activities touch diverse Carolina hip-hop circles. J-Wright and Beyond first met in college at Eastern Carolina University in the early '90s, emerging from the Grassroot Organization, or GRO. By 1998, the crew was cutting its teeth informally with friends--including the burgeoning 10- to 12-member GRO collective--at a live hip-hop night hosted by a local club. Soon, everyone in their circle was involved. Kick-started by their love of the music, as well as inspiration from GRO and national artists like Leaders of the New School, J-Wright and Beyond regrouped in the Capital City and started the Xtra-Infinit label, all the while continuing the Greenville-Raleigh connection. They now have 10 releases to their credit, including 12-inch vinyl singles, full-length CDs, and Nasty Beats, a compilation of N.C. artists produced by hot Eastern Shore producer Nasty.
GRO's legacy to N.C. hip hop cannot be overstated, with former group members independently releasing their own records, acting as session DJs for up-and-coming MCs and figuring prominently in the area's live club scene. Successful regional recording artists like Rocky Mount/Fayetteville's Blaq Seedz, abstract rhymer Usephasan (now in California) and Blackmel all got their start with GRO. A prime example of how long the limbs of that family tree back in Greenville reach into the Triangle is Raleigh's Jason Geraghty, aka DJ Merlin. Associated early on with GRO, he now owns the 44 Records store in downtown Raleigh and is a highly visible regular on the decks at Five Star Restaurant, one of the area's hottest dance clubs. DJ Merlin still appears at Xtra-Infinit events, as do many of the original GRO members.
Xtra-Infinit continues the legacy, working with both old friends and newer acts like Event Staff, a female-led group that's an offshoot of former Mammoth Records artists Tyfu. They've got members in Charlotte and Greensboro as well as connections in Florida (Wright now lives in Ft. Lauderdale); they also work Georgia with producer JudgeMental.
With one of the hottest hip-hop Web sites out of North Carolina (Wright's degree from ECU was in computer science), Xtra-Infinit has made itself readily available for contacts and exposure. At www.xtra-infinit.com, they have streaming audio, an online shopping cart and update upcoming events weekly. Imminent new releases include
Plead the 5th, a mix CD by JudgeMental coming out this month, Volume Two of the Nasty Beats compilation, Cheeva Theory by Pafu of Blaq Ceedz, and Right! by Beyond, which will be out by the end of April.
Events like the upcoming DJ Battle at Kings are just more pages in the local underground hip-hop story, a tale that's grown more compelling as events like these continue to raise the bar, competitively speaking. Interested DJs can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (919) 264-8848. The winner will receive a gift certificate from 44 Records, cash prizes and a chance to hit the stage at an upcoming Liquid Flowz showcase.
By getting people's music heard and helping them make connections, the Xtra-Infinit crew is fully aware that performers may benefit from their help and move on. But no matter--they leave spreading the word.
"They keep seeing our faces, so they know we're still around and that we're gonna be here for a while," J-Wright deadpans, glancing up from under the brim of his cap.