It's a little before noon on a Friday, and Kurrell Rice is slumped over in a chair in the lobby of WUNC-FM, sinking deep into its cushions. In an hour, the Durham rapper, better known as Professor Toon, will field questions from Frank Stasio on The State of Things and even perform a few songs from his debut LP, Take Notes.
But for now, Toon eavesdrops on an off-air conversation between Stasio and UNC-Chapel Hill professor Kenneth Janken, another of the day's guests. Stasio is busily familiarizing himself with Janken's new book, The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s. Stasio quotes a passage: "The river is choked with bodies," he says, referencing the African-Americans believed to have been murdered and dumped in the Cape Fear River during the race riots of 1898.
"Text that to me," Toon tells me. He wants to revisit the morose phrase for a future rap line.
On air at last, Toon describes Take Notes as a cross between a sermon and a party. It's a hard-edged, largely guest-free album, devoid of the kind of big hooks that might land him on radio stations known more for rap segments than talk shows. Toon tells Stasio that one of his collaborators—the producer Made of Oak, or Nick Sanborn of the pop duo Sylvan Esso—has even dubbed this "dark trap music."
"That's to distinguish it from 'von Trapp music,'" Stasio jokes.
Toon pretends to get the Sound of Music reference, but he doesn't. Later in the interview, Toon returns the favor by saying "ball is life." This time, it's Stasio who plays along.
"But that's a whole 'nother conversation," Toon continues, unfazed. "Music and my former athletic abilities—that's what soothes me, man. It's almost like meditation."
Toon refers to his athletic prowess in the past tense, but sportsmanship remains an integral part of his existence—and, in some ways, his budding career. He's coached women's wrestling, and these days during pickup basketball games, he's called "Spidey" for his nimble nature.
The nickname also applies to his off-the-court savvy. He has the ability to keep his hands in many places at once, weaving a web of unlikely connections. That ability to network has made Toon an unlikely area favorite, positioning him as the Triangle's next potential rap riser. From Stasio's show to the domain of corporate benefactors, from festival main stages to indie producer music videos, Toon continues to go places where few other local rappers dare to venture. Now, he hopes, Take Notes can take him farther.
The chemistry didn't always come so easily.
In 2009, Toon met fellow rapper The Real Laww through a mutual friend, and the aspiring emcees became fast friends. That same year, though, Laww, a Marine, learned he had to dispatch to a tour in Iraq. He left the studio equipment he'd just purchased with Toon; when he returned two years later, Toon had become a self-taught musician.
The two banded together as a likeable if mismatched rap duo—Professor Toon, the Baltimore-bred street thinker, and The Real Laww, the Marine who, before moving to Durham, failed at an attempt to make it big. The pair released an EP, You Know the Name/End the Beginning, through local label Cardigan Records in 2013.
Toon wasn't happy with the results.
"When I listened, I thought that all of the stuff I recorded was kind of wack," says Toon. "I didn't feel like it was ready to be put out there. But I could see my music taking a different path. I wanted to explore that path and cultivate a new voice."
He and The Real Laww built and maintained an impressive area fanbase. But without any substantial releases, their reputation stemmed from social visibility and enthusiasm, not musical triumphs.
Toon had learned to network. In 2011, for instance, he worked at Durham's The Scrap Exchange when the store's roof collapsed. City officials condemned the building, and local musicians organized a daylong benefit to raise money for subsequent relocation. Toon performed at that show and met Megafaun's Phil Cook who, in turn, introduced him to Made of Oak, now Toon's occasional producer and partner. In 2012, at the recommendation of Durham's Pierce Freelon, Toon found himself opening for American Idol alum Anoop Desai during a collegiate tour. Even the Durham cafe Cocoa Cinnamon named drinks after Toon and The Real Laww.
"I have no fucking idea how we kept a fanbase," says Toon, his chip-toothed chuckle betraying genuine confusion at his reputation. "There was a time period where I needed to book shows, but I wasn't putting out any material. That's why we took a break. We thought that people would get tired of seeing us, knowing we hadn't broke on a national level yet. But we were so busy with shows, charities, hosting gigs and the DURM Hip Hop Summit."
Toon's knack for networking recently led to his biggest role yet—as the rapper-in-residence at American Underground, the sprawling start-up network headquartered in downtown Durham.
Last October, during the three-day Black Wall Street Homecoming conference in Durham, Toon met the New York rapper Divine. A year earlier, Divine, who claims credit for creating "tech-hop," met Ben Horowitz, the co-founder of Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, or a16z. Divine wrote the theme song for the firm, and Horowitz named Divine "the official a16z rapper."
Though Divine says now it was "more so a title than an actual purpose," he believes his appearance in Durham helped prompt American Underground's executives to find a similar fit for Toon.
"American Underground has attracted national attention for its concerted efforts to engage the full array of talent in our diverse community, and Professor Toon is a perfect example," says Adam Klein, the chief strategist at American Underground. "Toon brings to our start-up hub not just amazing energy and talent but a keen marketing sense that gets results."
In December, Toon publicly premiered the role with a music video, titled "American Underground Annual Report." For two minutes, he romps through American Underground, wearing headphones, dancing on desks and rapping a variation on the facility's fiscal and demographic reports. When Toon raps about "part-time cake," orange text flashes translations across the screen, explaining just how much part-time employees might make in American Underground. According to Klein, the video is the space's most widely viewed attempt at public outreach.
"I think it's great," says Divine, "because it allows rappers to add their craft to another industry outside of music."
After Toon's radio appearance, we relocate a few blocks from the station's studio to his headquarters inside American Underground's coworking workspace. Toon bounces from person to person, initiating conversations about everything from toffee and pickup basketball to putting beehives in the hood.
He can recite everyone's specialties, achievements and goals—especially key figures like American Underground's entrepreneur-in-residence Talib Graves-Manns and ExitEvent's Michael English, who have bolstered the center's reputation for diversity. Toon proudly details the space's minority recruitment mission.
"It sounds like a pitch because I've said it a million times," Toon says. "I ain't filthy rich. It ain't like I'm staying around for guap. I don't even have a car title in my name. I've literally slept on couches this year. My credit is horrible. Still, I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe in what American Underground has in place."
Toon won't divulge the exact nature or numbers of his business relationship with American Underground, other than to say the connection gives him access to the start-up community. The relationship thrives off "reciprocity," he says.
"Above everything else, they see authenticity," Toon says. "They realize that I'm not a knucklehead. My music speaks for itself, and I don't have to be my music 24 hours out of the day. There's three hours out of the day where I have to be a father, another three hours when I have to be a professional. They notice those values in my songs.
"It just so happens that I have the ability to turn random shit into rap songs," he continues. "I don't think anyone looked at the video with a side-eye. They were more like, 'Oh this shit is cool. It's the middle of the workday and this nigga Toon is in here standing on desks. I wanna do that.'"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bars and rungs"