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Hear it Here: How Hip Hop Happens in Durham

Estimated Read Time:
4 minutes

Dive in to discover how hip hop took root in the Bull City ... and discover ways to experience the genre right here, right now.

Posted By Ashley Strahm

Durham is the home of a rapper-turned-mayoral candidate,
Grammy-nominated artists and producers,
Creators of all hues and ages,
And a Hillside alumna who made history with her story.

Durham’s present hip hop renaissance is a nod to its diverse entrepreneurial foundation, where fortitude and talent converged to form Black Wall Street. Walk the streets of downtown Durham and find history literally written on its walls — this is a place where stories are told in the unique cadence of diverse communities.

Hip hop is a genre for the passionate, an unapologetic megaphone to the soul, truth telling by and for the masses. And, yes, here stands Durham, presently serving as the backdrop of a blossoming renaissance of defiance. The vibrations of progress have always pulsed here, making Durham a destination for visitors old and new to feel the beat go on.

The grind started here.

Can’t stop, won’t stop.

Those early years in the 70s, when the seeds of hip hop culture were planted, bring to mind flattened cardboard boxes and fissured concrete in the Bronx, with ‘breakbeats’ bolstering neighborhood emcees.

We’ve got some of that here too, y’all. Let’s just say our concrete yields to black-owned brick, our artists originate from both sides of the tracks, and we are all about figuring out how to leverage community to make a collective impact.

Hip hop here looks like youth-led late-night cyphers and spoken word by Blackspace in the CCB Plaza for bystanders to observe and participate in. Pierce Freelon (the aforementioned rapper and Durham mayoral candidate) turned his affinity for the genre into founding Blackspace and co-founding Beat Making Lab, an Emmy Award-winning PBS web series.

Hip hop here looks like that, and also like this: Durham native G. Yamazawa, a rapper, National Poetry Slam Champion and the voice of state-wide ‘North Cack’ anthem. His affinity for his cultural roots are palpable; It's the North Cack baby I'm a boss / Carolina barbecue sauce, with the slaw… but in true Durham fashion, speaks boldly as a Japanese-American defiant about where his true love lies. “His favorite food is fried chicken, and he hates sushi,” "27 Views of Durham, The Bull City in Prose & Poetry" reads. Durham makes space for it all.

It also looks like Hillside High School, a Durham public school that has nurtured young self-starters into internationally known talent. Alumna Rapsody earned two Grammy nominations for Best Rap Album this year — the only woman in the category. Rapsody’s album was produced in part by record producer 9th Wonder, a Hillside and NC Central alum and Duke University professor, with a Grammy to call his own and a litany of famous collaborations on his resume. He teaches at NCCU as an artist in residence, received acceptance from Harvard University to become a fellow in the Hip Hop Archive and will spend three years working on a research project at Harvard’s W.E.B. Dubois Institute. What’s more: 9th Wonder was also appointed to the Executive Committee of Hip-Hop and Rap at The National Museum of African American History and Culture at The Smithsonian in Washington, DC.

We've got more where that came from.

Little Brother reunited for the first time in a decade here, and then dropped an album together less than 12 months later. The trio of 9th Wonder, Phonte, and Big Pooh first began making beats in college dorm at North Carolina Central University in 2001.

Did you also know that Kane Smego (a one-man show of rap, poetry, and stroytelling), DJ Skaz Digga, and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Terminator X (who apparently owns an ostrich farm!) are also from the Bull City? What's more, DJ Nabs was born in Durham, and is now a record producer who's been tearing up the Atlanta hip hop scene since the late '80s (think collaborations with Ludacris, Da Brat, Ciara, and Michael Jackson).

Durham roots, internationally-acclaimed fruit.

Durham's hip hop underground runs above ground

Hip hop hides in plain sight in our city.

True to Durham’s history of integration, hip hop isn’t relegated to a specific district in our city. Durham is the fertile soil where the Runaway brand originated, its clothing adorned with ‘DURM’ pride, compelling both visitors and locals to ‘say it like you’re from here’. The attitude doesn’t stop where the threads end. New seasonal lines are launched at eclectic spots like The Durham Fruit and Kotuku Surf Club, and are seen in venues throughout the city wherever hip hop vibes are to be had: Pinhook and Motorco.

Hip hop is for everyone to admire here, and it’s out in the open air(waves), too. We live for the free, Friday night summer concert series hosted by Durham Central Park where decades-long Durhamite rapper Joshua (or J.) Gunn graced the stage. We also love that The Super Empty Show is a podcast portal into our very own local hip hop scene every Wednesday. How else would we hear about prolific creator and director Kid Ethnic, and rappers Kourvioisier, Lord Fess (f.k.a. Professor Toon), and Brian Kidd?

A vehicle for cultural commentary, hip hop has connected the story and the storyteller. Durham is proud to set the stage and provide the spotlight for both.

Hear it Here

Thinking of planning a trip to experience Durham’s hip hop scene? Durham hosts the Beats N’ Bars Festival in September. An epicenter of cadence, rhythm, and grooves, the festival sought to build stronger community through the influence of urban culture and music, with a mission of becoming the premier place for artists, producers, creatives and others who love hip hop to dive deeper into the world of STEM learning (think live hip hop coding classes!).

Of the festival, CEO and Founder Crystal Taylor remarked, “I just want people to be able to come together, off the note of hip hop culture … because it’s a lifestyle — it’s not necessarily a thing or just music. It’s just a way of life, and I want people to be able to be educated and entertained and take something from it — to be moved.”

We also host the Art of Cool Festival. The Durham born and bred festival boasted a lineup that featured Nas, Erykah Badu, Maxwell, Meshell NDegeocello, Rahsaan Patterson, Dwele, Durham's own 9th Wonder featuring Spinderella, and many more. This year, headliners Jill Scott, RUN DMC, Ari Lennox, Whodini and Big Daddy Kane will perform at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The talent doesn't stop there. Various venues around the city will host Talib Kweli, J. Gunn. G. Yamazawa, 9th Wonder, Butter-scotch, and Zoocru among others.

If you’re already wondering how you’ll be able to unearth all that Durham’s hip hop scene has to offer in one fell swoop … don’t fret — you won’t — but that’s kind of the point.

You’ll be back.

About the Author

Ashley Strahm

Jersey roots, Durham fruits. Lover of all things edible, egalitarian and true. Find me clad in Birkenstocks, seeking Bull City Beautiful stories by trail, wheel and spoke.