Just east of downtown Raleigh, Kooley High producer Thomas "Foolery" Kevin has been moving furniture and crates of records out of his house all day.
As his hip-hop crew prepares to hit the road for a pair of college shows before catching up with Brooklyn/ Cincinnati trio Tanya Morgan for an eight-show run, Foolery's makeshift studio—packed with LPs and instruments just hours ago—is mostly bare, save for the gig flyers and posters that wallpaper the room.
Still, there's no hiding influences: Over Junior Murvin's seminal 1977 cut "Police and Thieves," Foolery—the group's reggae head—expresses his love for the genre, though it was already evident on a couple of the tracks he's produced for Kooley's forthcoming Eastern Standard Time full-length.
"It's like a strange combination of folk music and American soul music," he says. "I don't know how they came up with that shit but I love it. And you don't hear these good backup singers like you used to. Now everybody just tracks it."
Not that Kooley's throwback aesthetic is anything new—the six-member group has been referencing classic soul sounds since its debut Summer Sessions EP, incorporating those rich grooves into laid-back rhymes informed by hip-hop's golden age. After laughing off a blog commenter who referred to Kooley's recently released retro nodder "What's The Deal" as "the definition of fuck shit," emcees Charlie Smarts and Tab-One and producers Foolery and The Sinopsis dished on inspirational records, ringtone rap and Radiohead.
"Police and Thieves"
(from Police and Thieves, 1977)
Foolery: I don't know Junior Murvin.
Tab: I've heard of him. My roommate got all this reggae from a lady at work, so we sit around and listen to that and play Tiger Woods [PGA Tour].
Smarts: I listen to more reggae with Foolery than with anybody else. The influence is definitely there.
Foolery: Reggae is one of [my favorite] genres. It's hip-hop, then reggae, then soul music, but a lot of times soul music and hip-hop are different incarnations of the same thing. Sometimes I feel like if I had to choose only one genre that I could listen to ever again, I would choose reggae because it makes you feel so good. You can do anything you've got to do to reggae music.
Tab: You can dance, you can chill ... you can do whatever.
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST
(from People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, 1990)
Smarts: This is the essence of what today's music lacks. It's a creative way of saying "bitch got a fat ass." It's not the same anymore.
Tab: Everything is direct nowadays.
Smarts: Today, they'd be like "Bitch, you got a fat ass! Bitch, you got a fat ass!" and just repeat that.
Foolery: Yeah. The two hits right now are "You Gonna Think I Invented Sex" and "She Gonna Let Me Beep Beep Beep".
Smarts: There's no poetry.
Tab: I credit Tribe with the reason why I'm rapping right now, because of Midnight Marauders. That's the album that got me.
Foolery: It's timeless and it's sexy, too. Girls like it, guys like it ... but it's a joint for girls.
Tab: It's kind of like how regular people think about females, more than how a lot of the music speaks now.
"Still Lives Through"
(from The Minstrel Show, 2005)
Sinopsis: When I first moved down here from New York, The Listening was the first thing that Tom [Foolery] played for me the first time we hung out. After "Speed," I was dying. It was awesome.
Foolery: I was just proud, because even though I didn't have anything to do with it, I knew 9th [Wonder], so that made me want to tell everyone about it. But I remember when this joint came out in 2005, because Little Brother is the spark that made me actually take music seriously and think that I could have a remote possibility of doing it. Their whole rise seemed so magical. I remember getting this album and just sitting in my driveway and listening to the whole album in awe. Even though everybody had the highest hopes, and it didn't do as well as everyone wanted, it was a major-label release repping North Carolina. I thought that if that was possible, then anything was possible. It was an awakening.
Smarts: It's like somebody from your neighborhood making it. 9th and the whole rest of the [Justus] League are role models for us.
Tab: I met them in Wilmington at Heavy Rotation, DJ Battle's record store, when they were doing an in-store for The Listening. It was just me and like three other people there. I kept flipping through records and wanting to go over and talk to them. So it's funny going from that point to where we are now. It just seems like it happened so fast.
"Pretty Girls" feat. Gucci Mane & Weensey
(from Attention Deficit, 2009)
Tab: I'm not sure about this hook. The beat's crazy, but the hook is weird to me.
Smarts: Yeah, but the beat's so dope, I don't even care what he's saying.
Sinopsis: See, exactly.
Smarts: It's not the most lyrical thing ever, but when the beat's strong enough, you can do whatever. Yeah, this one's got Gucci. He didn't do so bad on this song.
Sinopsis: Is this Gucci Mane doing a Jeezy impression? This is probably the most talent he's had on a verse. I can understand all the words.
Smarts: If you read [the lyrics], you wouldn't think it was that great, but he's really about flowing. You can nod your head to the whole thing.
Foolery: With a lot of these shitty rappers now, if they rapped over good beats, it wouldn't matter. A song like this would make you like Gucci Mane.
Independent Weekly: What do you think about the rest of Wale's album?
Smarts: Part of the problem is that he got put in the hype machine so hard that if it's not Pavarotti or some crazy, blow-my-mind Biggie shit, you're not gonna live up to your expectations.
Tab: And there's a clear distinction between his mixtape stuff and this. When he put the album out, it was way more commercial.
Foolery: I don't think a lot of that was his choice. He had to play the game.
Smarts: But have you seen him? He's nasty live. UCB is famous already in the go-go world. He goes on tour with them, and he looks like a genius.
(from Down for Life, 2005)
Foolery: I'm sorry, my phone's ringing. Oh wait, that's not me.
Smarts: One thing I can say about this song is that Fabo killed it. "Fabo!" That's all he says! [Laughs.]
Tab: This song is as corny as the jokes on the back of a Laffy Taffy wrapper.
Smarts: What did Phonte say? To get on in music, you have to either be really good or really bad, and this is a joke. It's a funny joke. This is snap music.
Tab: But you can't knock it, I guess, since people dance to it and have a good time.
Sinopsis: Before this song made it to North Carolina, I would get phone calls asking me if I'd heard this song. People were telling me it was the worst song ever. When I finally heard it, I was like, "Nooooo!"
Tab: Who's playing a Casio in my backseat?
Sinopsis: I heard they used FruityLoops. From that moment on, I was like, "I have to find a way to get off the program."
"All I Need"
(from In Rainbows, 2007)
Smarts: [Tab] put me onto "Reckoner" from this album. Nasty. They're one of the groups that I found out I really liked while in college. I was never really a rock fan. I like Cake and Weezer and bands like that, but Radiohead is the one that I listened to and thought, "Wow, this shit is out of this world."
Tab: If I'm in the right mood, I can just space out to Radiohead. They create such different soundscapes.
Smarts: [Thom Yorke's] voice is so crazy, too. On some of the other songs, I can't understand what he's saying, but I don't care. He could be speaking another language, but I feel like that must be what it's like to go to an opera.
Tab: Once you figure out what he's saying, you realize he's pretty clever: "Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon." You have to think about what he means by that.
Smarts: I hear, "When I am king, you will be the first against the wall," and I think, "Damn, that's fucked up." Their songs are more about ideas.
Foolery: It's more abstract. You can't really get away with that in hip-hop. It's hard not to be literal.
NAS/ DJ PREMIER
"N.Y. State of Mind"
(from Illmatic, 1994)
Tab: If you rap, you have to listen to Illmatic.
Sinopsis: If you walk around New York listening to Illmatic on a regular basis, it really is an incredible feeling. A lot of this stuff is still relevant. It doesn't feel like that much has changed from that time. Same thing with Biggie—you just get that feeling sometimes. But Premo is one of the greatest. Alex [Smarts] and I just had a discussion about our favorite producers ever, and Premo is easily in my top five.
Smarts: Yeah, we were getting into it a little bit, but Premo was in both of our top fives of all time. His imprint is definitely a vital organ in hip-hop. I just don't know if he's the brains or heart or what.
Foolery: Y'all wouldn't be making any Foolery jams if it wasn't for DJ Premier. I wouldn't be making beats if it wasn't for him.
Tab: Premo was the first producer that made me check a new artist to see if they had a Premo track.
Foolery: Yeah, you would buy that album just to hear that Premo joint.
Tab: Case in point—the Royce da 5'9" album [Rock City (Version 2.0)] that had like one track produced by Premo. I thought the album was actually pretty good, but that was the main reason why I got it.
Foolery: But this is an album that always makes people say, "Nas needs to make another Illmatic." I just don't think it will ever happen, where he'll be able to get that same kind of focused production.
Tab: People do that with everybody, though. People say Wu-Tang needs to make another 36 Chambers or The Roots need to make another Things Fall Apart or Black Star needs to make another album like the first one, but it's just not going to be the same. You have to take it for what it is.
Smarts: It's always hard to go back. The stars aligned for this with everyone involved, the music they were making and the way Nas was feeling at the time. It's a time-period joint, and times change. But what they were doing was ahead of its time, because you can rock this right now.
Tab: That's the funny thing when people say he needs to make another Illmatic. You can still listen to Illmatic. Put that in and enjoy it.
Sinopsis: Illmatic is also the album that every Nas fan uses to defend him whenever his rap integrity is questioned. It's like "Dude, that was 1994."
Smarts: But it's the truth though. That's how powerful of a statement it is. It's like a ring. If you put LeBron against Kobe, well, Kobe's got rings. Illmatic is his ring.
Kooley High plays Friday, Feb. 26, at The Pour House with Tanya Morgan and Senor Kaos at 10 p.m. Tickets are $7-$9.