Bettie Grind may be the biggest hip-hop star to come out of Charlotte. He's toured with Rick Ross; remixed for Beyoncé and Anthony Hamilton, and laid a track with Raekwon and Bun B. So why haven't you heard of him?
According to Grind, maybe you listen to the radio or hit the club too much. "Charlotte is such a radio-driven city, you can't survive without their help. You get traction, get buzz, build-up, then hit the ceiling where you need DJs in the club or on the radio to get to that next level. Without them, eventually, you go from the top right down to the bottom again."
But that's not quite his story. Bettie Grind came to the hip-hop game relatively late. He didn't grow up busting rhymes in the lunchroom or battling at the back of the bus. Still, he was crafting his persona even then. With a rap name like Bettie, he had to.
Born Gregory Brown, in Richmond, Va., Grind's father worked for Phillip Morris in Charlotte for a few years, then lost his job and turned to street life to make ends meet. Grind and his sister lived the bittersweet life of the dopeman's kids — everything you want, and more you don't need.
"I remember one time, I got sent home from school because the D.A.R.E. program came to visit," Grind, who is "around 30," says. "I was about 8 years old, and they laid out all these drugs and asked if we knew what it was. I was like, 'Yeah, we got a lot of that stuff at my house.'"
A Washington, D.C., informant helped knock his dad down for a 10-year bid, and Grind's mom moved with the kids to Charlotte when Grind was 11. By high school, there were rumors swirling that Grind himself was dabbling in the family business. Fellow students at West Charlotte saw the Jordan shoes and cars, and whispered, "I bet he hustle, I bet he grind." The name stuck, and with the 2011 release of an album titled T.G.F.C. (Thank God For Crack), Grind wasn't exactly trying to dispel the notion.
But he does want people to understand where he's coming from. "A lot of people misinterpreted it as, 'Thank God for a drug that has us committing genocide,' but coming from the struggle, coming from the streets, it's not all glitz and glamour," Grind says. "I say thank God for being able to help my mother. Thank God for being able to help a friend with cancer get medication. He had two or three prescriptions a week, a hundred bucks or more each and he couldn't afford it. I wasn't hustling to get chains or throw money in clubs. Most people aren't. They're trying to find a way out or do something for their family, striving and eventually trying to get ourselves out of the trap. The title flips a couple different ways."
What it isn't about, Grind says, is glorifying the lifestyle. "It's death, worse than being an addict. But it helped me help a lot of people. If being a lawyer was illegal, but you grow up seeing your dad be a lawyer, you wouldn't see nothing wrong with it."
Every school year, he says, he makes it a point to go to schools from West Charlotte to Fayetteville, talking to at-risk or low-income students so they can see that they can succeed. "They see I came from a broken family, drug-infested home, poverty. I let kids know I had problems in school, at home. I got kicked out of school and was even homeless about 10 months. I show them you can be more than what you came from."
Grind does more outreach through the No Limit Morning Show, from back-to-school haircuts to Thanksgiving turkeys. "I try to stay fully involved with the community," he says. "My daughter just turned 11 — that my lil' heart. She's a straight-A student, just got the Obama Award last year. She comes with me to do charity shows. My point is to make sure she never sees what we saw growing up. We were watching Good Times the other day and when the commercial came on, she asked me, 'Daddy, was that during slavery?' I said, 'No, baby, that's how me and your aunt grew up.'
"I want her to see [my success] is deeper than just take, take, take; you have to give back. Don't take for granted what you have, because a lot of people would love to have what you throw away."
Back to the problem of Charlotte radio.
Charlotte, Grind says, needs to be more like Atlanta, where radio strongly supports the local music scene, helping hometown artists blow up nationally. "When we blow up ourselves, the promoters make money, the artists make money, the models, the strippers, they all make money. They call us Twitterland in New York; they say we're a bunch of followers. [New York] sends their artists to come get rich in the Carolinas."
Promoter and music scene fixture Michael Kitchen, creator of The Sol Kitchen's popular alternative R&B and hip-hop events, agrees. "I don't know why Bettie Grind hasn't blown nationally," Kitchen says, then echoes Grind. "I don't think Charlotte supports local artists — that's hip-hop, gospel or whatever. A lot of people only want what they hear on the radio."
And that's the problem, contends Ryan Yates, Grind's manager, who is also known as Fresh. He says Grind is booking more shows outside of Charlotte. "The only time [DJs] play local is when people pay them. We did it for a long time, but I felt like at this point we shouldn't have to. Charlotte's not really been supportive because of the mind-set. Ever wonder why it's been growing for 20 years and still not grown up yet? Everybody doesn't work together."
Till then, the two say they will keep grinding. Grind's upcoming release, Me, is slated to come out in November. He's navigating a publishing deal with Sony, and he and fellow Charlotte rapper S. Dub are working on something very hush-hush.
"We're the two biggest names out of the city and a lot of people think we're enemies, but we're not," Grind insists. "We're doing a full album-length project. Like Watch the Throne. We knocked out three tracks already and we just started three weeks ago. It's real hip-hop, the essence, not 'Dammit I'm Fly,'" — one of Grind's highest-ranking singles, re-released on T.G.F.C., that got airplay and thousands of YouTube views.
Fresh notes, "If we could get Charlotte behind us, we could brand Charlotte and that would be amazing for the Carolinas."
Bettie Grind at Respect My Vote opening reception with Mr. 704 and Mike (Day 26). Free. 8 p.m., Sept. 15. UNC Charlotte Center City, 320 E. 9th St. www.respectmyvote.com/2012/09/uncc.