The message wasn’t very clear when Raleigh’s hip-hop sextet Kooley High decided to ship a chunk of the group to New York only a month before the release of its long-awaited debut LP, Eastern Standard Time. They conquered and then deployed; in their wake, they have at least given us a concentrated album that rewards our patience. That’s not to say it doesn’t have seams or problems, but it does show that Kooley High is capable of moving beyond its mixtape and onstage reputation. How far? We’ll see.
While new rap cliques seem to form constantly in the Triangle, few hip-hop acts seem to have the courage and business acumen to release a true LP. Kooley High’s tireless grassroots campaign over the last seven years culminates in this single product, where they prove that they have both. Tom Foolery takes his turn on the production side for “Solitude,” providing the celebratory score over which local veteran Median joins Rapsody, Tab-One and Charlie Smarts. Today’s definition of a hip-hop group often leaves the DJ out of the picture, but DJ Ill Digitz is an essential member of this uncommon crew. Foolery’s “Ya Time’s Up,” for instance, wouldn’t be nearly as doom-driven without Digitz’s vinyl-ripping cuts and scratches. The real unsung member of Kooley High, Tab-One, bolts through his opening verse on “Ya Times Up” with killer vision, reminding naysayers why his lyrical contribution isn’t second-rate. The hinges tend to get squeaky when his willful b-boy attitude makes him spit a bit too much or when Charlie Smarts’ vocal and rhyming decisions don’t go kamikaze. However, when everything is oiled properly, all six members of Kooley High form an enviable shock of hip-hop integrity, stocked with soul, smiles and beats.
In fact, the biggest problem on Eastern Standard Time come when the crew open its doors and sound. K-Salaam, who collaborated with Kooley High last year for their Kooley is High mixtape, shows up with his production partner, Beatnick, and offers some easy horn bounce on “Betty Crocker.” The track is tailor-made for the three emcees’ cruise-controlled verses but is nearly sabotaged during the chorus when Charlie Smarts’ jingling runs wild. Calamity also strikes another guest production, Napolean Wright II’s “Pedals.” These are the only two beats that don’t belong to Kooley High’s The Sinopsis and Foolery.
“All Day” is a trilateral triumph for Kooley High’s emcees and an even sweeter win for The Sinopsis, who paves Tab-One’s and Charlie Smarts’ ponderous path with majestic, lily pad drums before the crew’s leading lady prances past. Rapsody opens her verse with some self-deprecating, quick-footed humor: “Pass the M-I-C and see I might just make you love me/ She ain’t quite a 10?/ Well F it, Biggie’s ass was ugly/ but rhymes make the dimes all wanna run to chubby niggas/ So, how you figure I can’t run and get them chubby figures?”
Kooley High records fun, hand-clapping, cipher-worthy songs, but the members are at odds conceptually. Here in North Carolina, that might go over well, but New York crowds are notorious for eating happy, confident, neo-rappers like dollar snacks from the bodega. With Eastern Standard Time, perhaps Tab-One just needed to get some raps off of his chest and maybe Rapsody just needed to get this out of the way so she might return to her solo career. All this mixed with Charlie Smart’s daydream-rap shtick means another Kooley High project that still sounds more like a rap-studio slumber party than guaranteed success. The Kooley High spirit is an excellent experiment in rap righteousness. It’s hard to predict whether that demeanor can be effectively exported for cash, though.