- Hip-hop city: (foreground) Bleu; (middle section, from left) Phaze Gawd, Black Linen, Nige Hood, Tizzy and Kizzy of Th3 Higher; background (with cardboard cutout) Jah-Monte Ogbon. (All photos by Dana Vindigni)
On a hot April afternoon at the Music Factory near uptown Charlotte, Xavier Walker stands atop a grassy knoll between the Fillmore and the VBGB Beer Hall, taking a giant drag from what appears to be a blunt. He cocks his head to one side, his golden locks dangling from a blue aviator hat, and blows a plume of white smoke into a camera's lens.
Walker, better known by his hip-hop name Tizzy, is surrounded by a handful of fellow Charlotte emcees, talking about the New Era Music Festival, a big hip-hop event he's planned for April 21. Though he may look like your typical weed-loving nerd rapper in his furry hat, olive-green harem pants and white Ethiopian Alphabet T-Shirt, Xavier Walker is really more like his comic book namesake Charles Xavier, aka Professor X, the X-Men founder who provides a safe space where his fellow mutants can hone their superpowers in order to ensure peaceful coexistence among humans and mutants.
When I visited Tizzy's creative lair in a small house off Eastway Drive last year to do a story on his duo Th3 Higher, he talked animatedly about their hip-hop takeover, pointing to huge whiteboards on the walls scrawled with concepts for new projects, names of collaborators, and dates and times when certain events would take place. Tizzy and his Th3 Higher partner Kizzy were serious about bringing respect to Charlotte's hip-hop community, the kind of respect that allows for peaceful coexistence with other musicians in the city. With the New Era Music Fest, Tizzy has upped the ante.
"I wanted to do this thing on 4-20," Tizzy tells me today, referring to International Weed Day, the day cannabis connessieurs the world over celebrate their beloved miracle of nature. "It's my favorite holiday." The problem is, Weed Day falls on a Friday this year, and throwing a daylong music festival on regular workday would not be optimal. "So I was like, 'Nah, I'ma put it on the weekend."
- Tizzy prepares for his big day out.
On April 21, the day after 4-20, Tizzy will transform the New Era Music House on Old Concord Road in north Charlotte into a celebration of local and regional hip-hop, featuring two stages — one outside and one inside — booming with a who's who of Charlotte rap. Th3 Higher will be there, of course, along with the crew that's gathered at the Music Factory today: Phaze Gawd, Black Linen, Nige Hood, Jah-Monte Ogbon and Bleu. But there will be many other members of Charlotte's ever-expanding pool of talent, too: La La Specific, Indigo Jo, SideNote, Ahmir The King, Ricky Rodgers, the Gifted Musik crew and several more, as well as such regional luminaries as Danny Blaze, from Durham, and Tange Lomax, from High Point. The reason for the festival, Tizzy says, is to put a giant spotlight on local and regional hip-hop artists who are routinely forced to jump inordinately tough hurdles just to land gigs in local venues.
"It's hard for us to book venues, because venues don't fuck with us," Tizzy says. "So I was like, 'A'ight, well fuck y'all — we'll just throw our own festival.' I wanted to do something where they can't ignore us anymore, because all of us are here, and together we can throw one huge festival and knock it out the park."
Once venue owners see that a bunch of local rappers can organize and execute a successful festival, draw a crowd, make money and have fun, Tizzy hopes, then maybe more local rap acts — specifically, more rap acts of color — will start getting a little love around town. "After this, y'all gone have to book us," Tizzy says. "I mean, you get big acts like Young Dawg, Yo Gotti, 2 Chainz and people like that coming to Charlotte, and y'all booking them at the same venues where you won't book us. So obviously you like hip-hop..." — he pauses to correct himself — "well, you like the money that comes with it anyway."
- The crew (from left): Phaze Gawd, Bleu, Nige Hood, Black Linen, Kizzy and Jah-Monte Ogbon; stooping: Tizzy.
Money wasn't the overriding factor for Tizzy back in 2014, when the budding rapper met Bunny Gregory, a local supporter who allowed Tizzy and Kizzy to turn her basement into a safe space for young emcees and other artists to hone their skills. Her basement became known as The Underground, the seeding spot for nearly every act that will appear at the New Era Music Fest.
Gregory had recently moved into a house on Monroe Road when she ran into the duo one day and saw hope for the future of young black creatives in Charlotte. "[They] wanted to do something with me," Gregory told me in an interview last year. "From there it sort of snowballed. We started in my little white house on Monroe Road next door to the Auto Bell, and were there for two years."
In those two years, magic happened. "She had a huuuuggge basement and she gave us permission to turn it out," Kizzy, whose real name is Daquan Bolton, told me when I interviewed Th3 Higher for a story last June. "We painted all the walls black, put in lights and a stage, and started throwing #MFGD."
That's short for "Mufucka Gahdamn," The Underground's version of Showtime at the Apollo, in which crowd acceptance determined whether an artist was ready to rise to the next level. "It was an open mic where artists were allotted one song," Kizzy said. "If the crowd liked it, they'd say, 'Mufucka Gah-DAMN!,' and the artist was able to perform another song. If the crowd didn't like it they'd simply say 'Gahdamn,' and the artist would leave the stage and try again the following week."
- Ms. Bunny with a friend. (Photo Courtesy of Bunny Gregory)
The parties got so popular that Charlotte police began showing up, although not for the good vibes. "Code violations" is what the cops told Gregory she was breaking when they came by to bust up the events. "It would have been crazy expensive to do the necessary improvements," Gregory said. "So we took it outside and started doing [The Underground] as bonfires."
The Underground was a haven for young artists, mostly black, who'd been repeatedly shunned by venues that typically roll out welcome mats for local rock bands. "It's just shitty when we come to book [a show] and get turned away...even after we present professional proposals — just based on the fact that we're hip-hop," Tizzy told me.
He was the Underground's ringmaster, working tirelessly to make each night's experience a positive one for everybody. Nige Hood, another emcee hanging out with us on this April afternoon at the Music Factory, well remembers the effort Tizzy put into the events.
"Tizzy's work in Charlotte did not just begin with this idea for the New Era Music Fest," says Hood, who describes his own music as folk-rap. "It's those consistent weekly hip-hop events he would throw that weren't based on ego, weren't based on being flashy or anything like that." Hood pauses and laughs. "I mean, we started out in a basement — a leaky basement..."
"A hot-ass leaky basement," Tizzy adds.
- Nige Hood smokes one.
As the sun beats down on the crew gathered for our playful 4-20-themed photo shoot, Hood furrows his brow. He's standing next to Tizzy, holding a lighter to the tip of a fake blunt, about to fire it up.
"Do you think it's safe for us to be ingesting this?" Hood asks, very clinically and with utter seriousness. The others burst into laughter.
Hood is referring to the catnip we've rolled into blunts to provide legal props for the shoot, but he's a little wary of it. I assure him the worst Nepeta cataria — the scientific name for catnip — can do, according to a 2013 report in Popular Mechanics, is give him a mild headache. Perhaps he should just make like former President Bill Clinton and not inhale. Hood appears slightly relieved, as his cohorts continue laughing.
The rappers are kicking it in between shots, scoffing at having to smoke fake blunts when it would be much easier to just fire up the real thing. The vibe is electric, as the group talks excitedly about the upcoming festival.
- The crew.
Jah-Monte Ogbon, sporting a fire-engine red T-shirt that bears his own image, has a lopsided grin on his face. I get the idea he may have prepared for today's shoot with a little more than catnip before he left home, as he habitually hides behind two giant cardboard cutouts of himself when the camera snaps.
"Yeah man, shouts-out to Tizzy!" Jah-Monte blurts, before launching into a Yogi Berra-like string of non sequiturs that somehow makes sense when you read it on paper. " I mean, not to just give Tizzy a shout-out because he needs it — because he don't need it — but shouts-out to him anyway for working so hard to bring everybody together."
Uh... OK? Asked how he thinks the festival will go over among Charlotte's historic fickleness to local live-music events, Jah-Monte — whose song "Best Rapper in Charlotte" is one of his more popular tracks — deadpans, "Well, with me being the best rapper in Charlotte and all, I feel like it'll be a beautiful day for this city.
"Seriously though," he adds, becoming a bit more lucid, "I'm just happy Tizzy's giving everybody the opportunity to connect with each other and grow this thing in Charlotte. There's a lot of things that he could be doing for Th3 Higher, but he's doing this for all of us, and that's love right there, man." He shakes his head. "That's real love."
Black Linen, who describes himself as a "festival head," plans to be at the show for the duration. "I'ma camp out there all day, man," he says. "A lot of people don't understand what a festival is — it's a time to be festive, to hang out and really celebrate what Charlotte has, help build the culture." He grins. "And you know I'm all about building the culture."
- Black Linen (foreground) with the crew.
One way to build the culture is to present it visually. The idea for this week's photo came from a classic Village Voice cover that made a big impact on me decades ago, when I lived in New York City during the golden age of hip-hop. In January of 1988, the Voice — the country's preeminent alternative weekly — featured an influential essay by early hip-hop writer Greg Tate called "It's Like This Y'all," which reflected on hip-hop's rise from the Bronx and anticipated where it was going. On the cover was a photo of almost every important NYC hip-hop act up to that point, from Afrika Bambaataa to Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah to Public Enemy. The headline read: "Hip-Hop Nation." In an era when rock still ruled radio and MTV, this was a declaration that a change was gonna come, and it was right on time.
We wanted to present something similar for here and now in Charlotte, and the artists gathered here today were stoked. "For us to be all up in this thing together, on this cover...," Black Linen begins, then pauses. "I mean, I'm a magazine head. I'm into all the magazines from back in the day — the '70s and '80s, when they always displayed all the artists together. It wasn't about individuals, and when there was one artist, the artist was still connected to all these other artists. Like, all the major artists we know today, they were together in this thing — like Jay knowing Busta knowing Nas. And when you put that all together, it looks big — like it is big."
One face in this crowd today is a relative newcomer to the Charlotte scene. Bleu has released a highly experimental EP called The Unexplained Vibration, along with a killer video with a chopped-and-screwed vibe called "Grape Kool-Aid." She's pretty thrilled that her Indigo Music Collective will be part of the New Era fest.
"The fact that Tizzy has brought so many different types of music together," Bleu says, "and will have different stages for us, so that we can bring our own separate types of people into one big group — to come together as one and mingle and see different types of culture — I really like that."
The event that inspired Tizzy to realize his New Era vision was Charlotte singer-songwriter LeAnna Eden's Bla/Alt black alternative music festival last October. Tizzy was there, front and center, at the edge of the stage, camera in hand, filming the proceedings.
"I had wanted to do a festival, but it's a big idea and I was like, 'I can't do a festival,'" Tizzy says. "And then seeing my friend do it, seeing LeAnna do it, I was like, 'Nah, man, I can do this shit!'" He breaks into a big grin. "I was like, 'Fuck it, I'ma do it.'"
"The thing is," adds Antony Potts, whose hip-hop name is Phaze Gawd, "nobody else is going to do this for us, so at the end of the day, we gotta do it for ourselves. We just all gotta pull together. Like Tizzy says, we got the talent, we got the resources, we got the networking. All we really needed to do was just come together as artists and put on a great show."
- Antony "Phaze Gawd" Potts contemplates the blunt.
Tizzy knew he couldn't do it by himself, though. On a GoFundMe page he set up in January, he wrote, "While the NEMF is my brainchild I'm 100% aware and confident in myself to say I can not pull this off alone. The sheer purpose of this event is to evoke a sense of community and unity within the state and by doing so start the North Carolina Takeover, and you can be a part of that."
Next year Tizzy has even bigger ideas for the festival. He plans to schedule it for the same weekend, but in 2019 it will follow not only the CIAA tournament in March, but also the NBA All-Star weekend, which takes place in Charlotte a month earlier. "So this will be the third thing people can do," he says, referring to next year's cluster of big events.
"What I want is for this to be Charlotte's A3C [hip-hop festival in Atlanta], Charlotte's Made in America [hip-hop festival in Los Angeles], Charlotte's Afropunk [festival in various places, notably NYC]. Like, this is our festival. This is us."
It's part of a grand scheme Tizzy has been cooking up ever since he threw those early MFGD parties at The Underground.
"Everything has to be targeted with precision, so that we can build our network like those other cities have done," he says.
He cracks a smile and flashes a little wink. As for the smoking of any illegal substances at this year's New Era fest, Tizzy says, "There will be no smoking. I mean, we're not tryna to get the shit shut down." Then he adds, "But next year, when we move it to another location — hopefully out in the woods somewhere — oh yeah, we'll be blowin' down."
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