What a statement: “Hip hop saved my life.” It comes from a guy in Cup A Joe on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, sipping from a massive porcelain cup full of chamomile tea. He’s towering, a tall black man with two dozen dreadlocks falling just at his back’s midline, angling over his shoulder as he leans over a table for two. People normally say things about hip hop changing their life, redirecting it, focusing it maybe, but the man at the table maintains that it actually saved him. At 31, Brown James is easy to believe.

After all, hip hop has had its time to work on Brown, as his friends and fans call him. His parents were soul music fans, and they took him to concerts in Virginia when he was a kid. His aunts had known James Brown growing up in South Carolina. Music seemed both powerful and immediate. Then, he heard Busy Bee and was immediately attracted to the grimy, raw nature of hip hop. He started writing when he was 10, twisting around children’s tales and nursery rhymes in verse as a teenager. He was a military brat, and he picked up on different strains of hip hop–A Tribe Called Quest in Germany, the ’94 explosion back in America–in his travels.

In eighth grade English class in Germany, Brown was writing a rhyme while he should have been reading. His teacher took it and corrected the spelling and the slang, though he tried to explain that he was spelling it the right way. She didn’t get the vernacular, but he got the implications: Hip-hop was an underground, esoteric force, a vehicle with which the like-minded could communicate in a new native tongue, full of wit, subversion and meaning. That was one of the moments when hip hop changed Brown.

“That was when I knew hip hop was for me,” he says, laughing and wishing he could find that piece of paper. “I knew it had power.”

Hip hop actually saved Brown when he was in North Carolina. His family moved back to Fayetteville before his senior year of high school. After graduation, Brown was on his own, sometimes sleeping in his girlfriend’s car, back and forth between Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina. He says he found himself in situations that were do or die, and hip hop helped him get away.

“Music was always the center to me, but sometimes I forgot that. I had friends who would be like, ‘Let’s go to the studio or do this show or do this open mic,’ even though I may have had some bad things on my mind,” says Brown, who now lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and three children. “Music will save your life.”

Hip hop certainly means more to Brown than money, and the use of something that served as his savior for purely capital gains chafes him. The representation that hip hop now receives in popular culture frustrates him, and he pins the blame largely on the filter it runs through before it reaches the suburbs–towering Manhattan skyscrapers and Los Angeles companies that house major labels run by people unfamiliar with what hip hop can mean, separate from finances. He thinks that it should be black culture’s prerogative to control itself and its distribution.

“Kids get a false representation of hip hop because of the powers that wield it and control it,” Brown says. “I think black people should build their own labels and not bother with these big corporations, because major labels don’t care about us like we care about us. Sometimes we don’t even care about us like we should, so we really shouldn’t rely on somebody else.”

That philosophy–something of a W.E.B. Du Bois stance on bringing the black “culture industry” in-house, so to speak–seems at odds with the realities of Brown James’ career. He’s a member of the Xtra Infinit cartel, a label run by Beyond, a white promoter and emcee who’s been in North Carolina his entire life. But, in talking to Beyond or talking to anyone about him, it’s not hard to understand why Brown trusts his art to Beyond.

“All the white kids would be running around the tracks, but we were on the basketball courts. They let us play,” says Beyond, the area promoter who turned the terms Liquid Flowz and Microphone Mondays into local hip-hop lore. “I was in second grade and I couldn’t shoot at all, but the boys would let me make a basket just to stay in the game. There were kids all over the playground. We had to be somewhere.”

Much like Brown, Beyond spent his youth on the move. Beyond, though, wasn’t a military brat; his parents split when he was 4, and he learned quickly that he and his younger brother had to stick together. It felt as if they were constantly moving from school to school. On those playgrounds in eastern North Carolina, it was easier to stick together on the courts with his black friends. Beyond attributes some of that, too, to his ancestry and appearance. Although grouped as a white guy, he says both he and his brother came out “looking kind of unique,” both with strong Native American features, somewhat “rough around the edges.”

“When you’re in school, there are always cliques, but because we were moving from school to school, we didn’t fit into some of those cliques,” says Beyond, who eventually graduated from high school in Edenton. “But real hip-hop hood cats kind of always stuck with us.”

It’s that outlook that attracted Brown to Beyond. While both were attending East Carolina University in the mid-’90s, they were introduced in a downtown Greenville club as fellow rappers. By last call, they were on the sidewalk, trading rhymes.

“Beyond doesn’t fear any of those stereotypes. Me and Red, we’ve been in some of the worst hoods, and he doesn’t have any of that fear,” says Brown, who has long called Beyond “Red” for his hair color. “It’s easy to sit around and listen to hip hop and embrace it, but when you have to walk though a hood and be around black people, that’s different. But Red doesn’t change either way. That’s why we do business.”

Beyond and Brown James perform with Mic Savvy, Duo, DJ Ill Digitz and Wu-Tang’s Blue Raspberry Friday, Feb. 17 at Kings in Raleigh. Brown’s Plain Brown Rapper is available now.