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Searching for an identity

Discovering hip-hop in a mid-major metropolis

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Charlotte is surrounded by hip-hop. Durham has Little Brother. Virginia has Clipse. Atlanta also has a well-established stable, but the Queen City has yet to produce a breakout hip-hop artist. The city that produced R&B crooners Jodeci, Anthony Hamilton and, to a lesser extent, Sunshine Anderson, still doesn't have the one artist they can lay their hats on. Though the sound has yet to be defined, a hip-hop scene does exists.

Chances are you won't hear these local artists on the radio. Power 98, the only purely urban music station in the city, has a love-hate relationship with many musicians in the local scene. "I've watched Power 98 play everyone's music except their locals' music," said local artist Sun 7.

Most Charlotte artists are forced to use MySpace, Pure Volume and other high-traffic networking sites to get new fans, but hip-hop also lives in venues all over the city. Although you can catch live hip-hop at a variety of places -- including Studio 74, Eden, Crush, SK Net Cafe, Café Rita's, Neighborhood Theatre, Tremont, Visulite and Amos' -- there isn't the one spot that's known for being the Queen City hip-hop Mecca that breaks artists consistently and always has good acts.

"Charlotte has everything it needs to have an extremely successful hip-hop scene, but the problem is everything is too spread out," says Johnny Madwreck, a Charlotte artist who had his music featured on the video game NBA 2K7. "We've got a huge multicultural university with no venues anywhere near it. We're also missing the credibility for being known for hip-hop. We're missing that one big rap hit."

A recent show at SK Net Cafe drew a modest, yet enthusiastic, crowd. Starting 90 minutes late and featuring a handful of regional acts, the show hit some definite rough spots -- shitty sound, poor lighting, little to no stage. On the positive side, however, it did stand out with a lively audience, solid production and the stage presence most of the artists had. It's too bad it was a great show only 30 people got to see.

Local promoters play a huge role in getting the music to the masses, but a lot of local artists are weary of them and their motives. "Promoters? That's mad funny," said rapper LSP. "We, the artists, are the only promoters I see trying to do things."

"Right now, I ain't dealing with no promoters in the Queen," said rapper J-Face. "They all got one goal and one goal only, get money, ain't no love in it no more. Everybody want something. They don't care how hot you is, if you ain't got money you ain't got shit."

Sun 7 agreed. "Promoters? Let's not talk about them. They are a big part of the reason why the scene is so scattered. Let's just say their motives and levels of fairness could improve dramatically!"

After you sift through the con artists and bad promoters, a few have proven they actually care about the music. Of that group, the name Kitch has become synonymous in Charlotte for bringing the biggest acts to Charlotte. From Nas to DJ Jazzy Jeff, he's the man as far as promoters in Charlotte go.

So, what exactly is everyone else promoting? Charlotte is a city in between a lot of other sounds that doesn't have its own. It's in the South, so you expect it to have a certain bounce to it, but Charlotte is also a melting pot of transplants who've brought their style here.

While most local artists are relentless with their promotion, a lot of their music sounds rushed and well, local. Few polished projects are released, and the ones that are often aren't unique or never get the attention needed to blow.

"It seems like the ones that have the backers, lack on the talent end, but the ones with the real talent are lacking the backers," said producer and DJ J. Bras. "But it is a proven fact that marketing is really all you need to generate some sort of buzz." Many artists are willing to do anything for their shot, which means sacrificing their unique sound for what's popular at the time.

"What some of these local artists don't understand is at the end of the day, your product sells itself," said artist and producer Mr. beatSmith. "First impressions and heavy promotion is good, but good music is timeless." DPS echoed that sentiment. "There are some unique artists, but you have to wade through the clones to find them," he says. "But really, that's an industry-wide problem. It's not limited to Charlotte. Look at BET -- half of the artists are interchangeable. Cats are even stealing each others ad libs sometimes. It's pathetic."

There is also a huge divide in the Charlotte hip-hop circle. Lines are drawn between artists like Democrats versus Republicans. The purists who preach the need for "real" hip-hop are refusing to work with artists who don't reflect their views. Crunk artists are claiming they don't want to work with artists who only talk about real life. Therein lies the problem with Charlotte's scene -- it's not unified, but also isn't strong enough to be divided.

"Hip-hop acts need to quit labeling themselves and only associating with people that make their type of hip-hop," says DPS. "Most people that call themselves 'conscious' would never go to any of the street spots and a lot of street acts don't feel comfortable around the conscious types. The scene isn't big enough for us to be divided; we all make hip-hop so we all have to support the local scene."

The bottom line with Charlotte hip-hop is a lot like the scene itself. Take DJ J. Bras' theory, "No one wants to help each other. Everyone always wants to be the best and the first, but no one wants to scratch each others' back." Charlotte's hip-hop scene is raw, undefined and unorganized, but for the scene to be successful, artists are going to have work together and help create opportunities for everyone to shine. The talent is here, the passion is here, but the vision is still a little blurry.

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