This year marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop—a genre that revolutionized global music. It originated on the streets of New York City in the late 20th century, with an infamous back-to-school jam hosted by DJ Kool Herc and his sister Cindy Campbell on August 11, 1973.

In the decades since, hip-hop has transcended its humble beginnings, revolutionizing global music, not to mention film, television, marketing, fashion, language, education, and so many other elements that permeate our daily lives. A genre that melds rhythmic beats with intricate wordplay and storytelling, hip-hop has challenged societal norms, given voice to the marginalized, and drawn together people from different backgrounds and countries.

As we reflect upon five decades of its evolution, it is now more clear than ever that the story of hip-hop is a collection of regional stories with shared elements—local venues, DJ collectives, and curators. In North Carolina, hip-hop’s lineage is directly connected to the rich traditions of Black Southern music.

From Negro spirituals to blues, jazz, funk, and gospel, North Carolina is home to a number of important musicians and styles, and its contribution to the development of Black music, including hip-hop, cannot be overstated. Nevertheless, the Tar Heel State often remains overlooked for its significant contributions to the genre.

In this oral history, the INDY delves into the dynamics of the artists, DJs, producers, and curators who have woven the fabric of our state’s rich hip-hop legacy. From Durham’s veteran DJ crew The World Famous Butta Team, and Little Brother, one of hip-hop’s most influential rap groups, to Jozeemo, one of Durham’s most notorious emcees; Kooley High, Raleigh’s hometown heroes; and legendary movements such as Microphone Mondays and Carolina Waves—these voices illuminate the often untold stories of resilience and creativity in North Carolina.

Below, these trailblazers share their earliest memories of hip-hop in North Carolina and what they consider their greatest contributions to the state’s hip-hop history to be.

Late 90’s, Grand Opening of MADD WAXX, a Black owned record store in Durham. Photo courtesy of DJ Bro Rabb.

DJ Samps | DJ/Radio Host | Fayetteville/Durham

I began the Street Flava Mixshow on Duke University’s college radio station in May of 1994, and almost 30 years later, I have supported a number of independent North Carolina hip-hop artists over the years. One of my favorite moments was when 9th Wonder came straight from the recording studio with a new song titled “Speed” for me to debut. I played it at least two times, maybe three. After the show, he, Phonte, and Rapper Big Pooh went to the parking lot and had a discussion for several hours. What came from that discussion was what we now know as Little Brother.

Khrysis (Jamla/The Soul Council) | Producer | Durham

If you notice, all the OG rappers from the ’90s and earlier have moved to North Carolina. We got Big Daddy Kane, Special Ed, Mike Gee from Jungle Brothers, and Sadat X.

One of my most favorite recent hip-hop moments is definitely Gene Brown’s beat battle, “The Gene Brown Beat Down,” with Nottz and Bink! That night was electric! I did a beat battle back in like 2003–2004, and I wanna say J. Cole was in the crowd that night and he challenged 9th [Wonder] in the parking lot. That’s some wild shit to look back on because he wasn’t even J. Cole back then, he was Therapist. I have so many great moments!  

Being a part of The Justus League—we were doing shows at a lot of the local venues such as Local 506, the Hideaway, Cat’s Cradle when they had the video store next to it, and the Brewery. A lot of these venues are gone now.

Shout-out to Mike Nice, Courtney C., DJ Bro Rabb, and the whole Butta Team, because they had the crazy college radio show at North Carolina Central on Saturdays called Straight from tha Crate. Shout-out to DJ Samps, because he had a radio show at Duke on Fridays. Shout-out to DJ Resident, he had the show at NC State. College radio was super heavy in the early 2000s in North Carolina. That was where I was getting a lot of my underground stuff from. I heard “Tru Master” by Pete Rock for the first time from Bro Rabb. That was a moment for me to stop everything I was doing to try to figure out what that was.

YouTube video
After releasing his debut independent album in 2003, Kevin “Kaze” Thomas released a remix album entirely produced by 9th Wonder. The album was distributed in Japan by Universal.

Bro Rabb (The World Famous Butta Team) | DJ | Durham

Sweet Emma’s was a record store that my dad used to take me to right off of University Drive. Back in the mid-to-late ’80s, it was a record store that looked like a house and you would walk in there and there were all these used records. By the time Sweet Emma’s closed, the Old Man Record Shop was going, we also had the Record Rack in Forest Hills, and another commercial record bar in South Square Mall [Camelot Music].

There was a Butta Team before I even got involved, but The Butta Team that really made a difference was myself, Skaz Digga, Mike Nice, DJ Mad, Courtney C., DJ LiL B. We were a collection of DJs [and] producers, we had accounts with record labels where we would go out and work the records for certain labels—we were one big self-contained unit of everything. We did the radio. Mike Nice and DJ Mad had a radio show at Duke in ’93, and then in ’96 Mike Nice started hosting Straight from tha Crate at WNCU and I joined him in ’97. For a number of years we hosted a rap battle called “Duel of the Iron Mic” named after the GZA song; we did parties and the Welcome to Durham documentary.

I’ve been professionally touring with Kidd and Play since 2016, they have taken me all around the world, and Skaz has been Big Daddy Kane’s DJ at least since 1999.  

Kaze | Rapper/Curator/Host | Chapel Hill

The first time I saw a group from North Carolina in the source was ’95. Bomm Sheltuh is a group from Fayetteville made up of Nervous Reck and FilthE Ritch. When I was really on my shit, I put out my first album and would drive city to city on some Master P shit. It was nothing to see me pull up in the Honda and pop the trunk and have like 1,000 CDs. I did that in every city. Fayetteville, when I got there, I developed a relationship with a Nerve [Nervous Reck] of Bomm Sheltuh.

Then they started coming to Microphone Monday and would bring a 16-year-old light-skinned kid named Therapist. Nerve used to be like, “Ay Kaz, I got my man with me. He too young to be in here.” I was always like, “Nah, y’all good. Just come around. Just you know, long as he not drinking, we good.” Of course, Therapist is now known as J. Cole today and one of the biggest artists to represent North Carolina.  

Rapper Big Pooh (Little Brother) | Rapper/DJ | Virginia/Durham

My earliest memory of hip-hop in North Carolina is 1998, when I came down to school for college. Hearing all of the different regions and styles and it was all infused into one. I’m from Virginia, the DMV area, so it was either go-go or New York rap, for the most part. So coming down to North Carolina and really getting a melting pot of hip-hop was refreshing.

2000–2001 was a moment in time for North Carolina. The underground hip-hop scene was thriving, as there were a number of venues to perform at. There was the Hideaway in Chapel Hill, Local 506, Cat’s Cradle. The scene, which was still kind of new, was filled with a bunch of hungry talented people that wanted to show that North Carolina not only had something to say but that North Carolina wasn’t what people thought or perceived Southern hip-hop to be. Everybody supported each other, and it was a great, great time.

Tab One (Kooley High) | Rapper | Raleigh/Burlington

In the late ’90s I saw Sankofa and Tyfu at Cat’s Cradle. They were the first NC-based hip-hop groups I saw live. North Carolina hip-hop is undefinable. There are too many different styles and variations to put a pin on it. North Carolina pulls influence from all over. I have a ton of favorite hip-hop-related memories. If I had to pick one, I’d say it was opening for Little Brother at Hopscotch in 2019—what a great moment in time!

Nanci O | Hip-Hop Enthusiast/Blogger | High Point

My favorite memory related to hip-hop in North Carolina is when Little Brother reunited at the Art of Cool Festival in 2018. For many years, we heard from Phonte, 9th Wonder, and Pooh that the group was never getting together again. I’ve been a huge Little Brother fan since 2001, and the first time I ever saw them perform was that year at the Cabaret—a “club” that was in the basement of UNC-Chapel Hill’s old student union. From that point on, I was a fan. It was so exciting to see them together again at the 2018 Art of Cool Festival. The performance was so energetic, and the moment brought back so many great memories. I was so excited I literally broke out in goosebumps!

My greatest contribution to North Carolina hip-hop, first and foremost, is being a fan of the culture. Second is the work I did with (the site remains active as an archive) and my YouTube channel from 2008 to 2018 to document North Carolina hip-hop. It brought me a lot of joy to the point where it didn’t feel like work. I have a lot of great memories and positive experiences. I loved going to live shows, other events, interviewing artists, meeting people, talking about the culture (offline and online) and so much more.

Around 2017, a student archivist from UNC-Chapel Hill Wilson Library’s Southern Historical Collection reached out. He conducted an extensive interview about my blog, radio show, etc., to archive in the library as part of North Carolina’s hip-hop history. Up until that point, I didn’t even realize the work I was doing would create space for a historic opportunity like that. At the end of it all, I was just having fun, trying to be positive, encouraging, and sharing what I learned about North Carolina hip-hop through the blog and radio show.

I keep the site active as an archive as a testament to the extensive and momentous impact North Carolina artists, personalities, music, producers, other content creators, etc. I have contributed to hip-hop culture around the world. Hip-hop may not have been born in North Carolina, but it most certainly lives here—in the past, present, and future.

Fin The DJ (formerly known as Chaundon of The Justus League) | Rapper/DJ | New York City/Durham

My favorite memory related to hip-hop in North Carolina was having legendary artists like Boot Camp Clik, Jean Grae, and Murs, just to name a few, fly down here to work with everyone in my crew, The Justus League. Those recording sessions will live in my mind forever.

Phonte (Little Brother/The Foreign Exchange) | Rapper/Singer/ Songwriter/ Producer | Red Springs

Shout-out to The Butta Team! They used to host these rap battles called “Duel of the Iron Mic” at the Durham Armory. The first year, I lost in a round to a guy from Durham named Omotade. He went on to battle Joshua Gunn, who was a teenager, damn near a child prodigy, won the entire competition. I never lost a battle after that!

North Carolina has always been a bridge for hip-hop. We’re literally in the middle. We are the South, but we’re not Deep South. Like, we’re not Louisiana. We’re not Florida. Growing up here, there was always a melting pot of different sounds heard because of the number of transplants, the surrounding colleges and universities, and up north drug dealers moving up and down I-95.

Me and all of my brothers that
I came up with doing this with, I think,
were the example
of how to make it
from North Carolina without having to leave North Carolina.

We have always offered a little bit of everything, and of course, there’s a heavy East Coast influence, but also there is definitely Southern influence because the style of life here is very much Southern and very laid back. It’s really not surprising when I see so many OG rappers like Big Daddy Kane and Sadat X from Brand Nubian have moved here.

Me and all of my brothers that I came up with doing this with, I think, were the example of how to make it from North Carolina without having to leave North Carolina. I’ve been blessed enough to see the world, but none of those places ever compared to home. I’ve always considered North Carolina to be an additional group member of Little Brother.

Joshua Gunn | Rapper | Durham

I remember being in like fifth and sixth grade, and I would call into the radio late-night to rhyme on the air. This was back when being on the radio was a big deal, and anytime you were on the radio, you felt like “you made it.” Then we started finding out about college radio, WXDU at Duke, led by DJ Samps and Big Dho, and WNCU had a show with DJ Bro Rabb and Mike Nice called Straight from tha Crate.

These were spots where you could actually go up to the radio and rhyme. It made us feel like legit superstars because everybody listened to the radio back then. I used to call in and spit my rhymes, and the DJs would go crazy—that’s really how I started to take my craft seriously, and also how I got exposed to all the other dope emcees in North Carolina. Hip-hop radio was so vital to the culture back then—it probably sounds crazy to say in today’s context where most people don’t really tap in with radio unless it’s to hear a mainstream artist, but the radio really helped us build our scene, especially in the Triangle.

The national hip-hop scene wasn’t paying North Carolina any attention, so we had to build our own scene.

My favorite hip-hop memory is actually an entire era. I was in high school (the early 2000s) and we had a crazy movement of talent happening in the Triangle. Although we were all competing with each other, there was also a spirit of cooperation. We had movements like Tyfu, Kaze, The Justus League, K.Hill, M.O.S., Jozeemo, so many dope emcees, producers, and groups, all really cultivating their own sound with legitimate followings. This was back when the national hip-hop scene wasn’t paying North Carolina any attention, so we had to build our own scene.  

I was also heavy into the battle scene, and had some dope battles against folks like Phonte, Jozeemo, Kaze, and so many others; we really were living the culture back then, and being the best emcee was the only thing that mattered. That was the greatest period in the history of North Carolina hip-hop … you just had to be there.

YouTube video
Joshua Gunn’s first music video, filmed in 2001 when he was 16. The song was produced by Khrysis and the video was directed by Matt and Ross Duffer, who would go on to produce the Netflix series Stranger Things.

Jozeemo | Rapper | Fuquay-Varina/Durham

My earliest memory of hip-hop in North Carolina is Microphone Mondays at Local 506 run by Kaze and Beyond. This was the first spot where local talent or underground talent would come and get a chance to get their bars off. Microphone Mondays was the biggest local show around. People would come all the way from Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, and Fayetteville just to come to Chapel Hill to rock.

I don’t feel like North Carolina hip-hop has a style or identity—there is no North Carolina sound. We’re East Coast and we’re Southern. You get the best of both worlds here. When I think about my greatest contribution to North Carolina hip-hop, I was like that organic guy before social media. You know, before everybody had smartphones. I was showing up to venues with 75 people. I was even selling out venues before I really got noticed. I had a real organic following that grew from word of mouth.

Jozeemo. Photo by Brett Villena.

Brian Dawson | DJ/Radio Personality | Durham

I actually met Kurtis Blow when he was performing at the Durham Armory. My dad had a hair salon that was around the corner, and there were all these flyers about Kurtis Blow coming to town. I walked around the corner, and at the time, unbeknownst to me, I caught Kurtis Blow walking in for what was to be a sound check.

I had no idea what a sound check was back then. I ended up talking to him, and he gave me two tickets. Years later, I had a chance to catch up with him in a recording studio. He was doing a record with DJ Nabs and I had an opportunity to talk to him and thank him. His kindness at that time meant a lot to me. He was one of the biggest artists out and The Breaks was a historic record. I’ve never forgotten that moment.

Big Dho | Manager/DJ | Connecticut/Durham

I’ve been the DJ, manager, driver, booking agent—you name it. I helped start The Justus League and the Hall of Justus production company. The Justus League was just making music. Once you make music you have to do something with it. So my thing was to get out and try to do more. In addition to managing The Justus League as a collective, I have also managed individual members. The same for Little Brother.

I’ve managed the group as a collective and have also managed individual members. Managing 9th took me to some places that LB didn’t get to. You know, getting the call about the Mary J. Blige album, getting the paperwork done for Jay-Z, going to meet with Mariah Carey. Right now I’m working with Lute, who is signed to Dreamville. I know we—The Justus League or Little Brother—didn’t get a chance to go platinum, but we definitely paved the way and showed other artists that their success didn’t rely on radio or support from home.

Kash (Jamla/The Soul Council) | President of Jamla Records | Rocky Mount

My best friends that I grew up with, Brandon and Brian, introduced me to The Justus League. My brother was already listening to them, but he was in college so I wasn’t getting it direct from him. I was getting it from, you know, the guys I was going to high school with. Once I said something to my brother about them he was like, “Oh yeah. I know Phonte, and me and 9th used to hoop together at State.” And I’m like, “Oh, shit, so you know these dudes.” My brother knowing them made it even better, because the music was just so phenomenal. It was kind of hard to imagine that they were just, you know, regular Joes.

I have a number of favorite North Carolina hip-hop moments, but Rapsody performing at the DPAC during the Art of Cool Festival was such a dope moment. It was her and Common on that show. At that time, she was working on a Netflix documentary and the camera crew was there. It was just a really dope moment. When Little Brother had their reunion at Art of Cool a few years back, that was also a dope moment.

Miriam “” Tolbert | Curator/Radio Host | Maryland/Raleigh

In 2015 I was working at K97.5; we got a new program director and he wanted us to be more involved in the local scene, and the first event that was coming up was the DURM Hip Hop Summit. I volunteered to host it, despite never hosting an event before. That was the first time I had ever been to a local hip-hop event. I met Well$, G Yamazawa, Deniro Ferrar—it was also the first time I saw Will Wildfire perform.

There were just so many dope artists and I was inspired. My program director wanted to bring back a local show called 919 Radio and I volunteered to host it. When it relaunched in 2016, the show became really popular. I had also started doing small shows for local artists so I decided to rebrand it under one title so it can be an overall platform and entity that does multiple things. Carolina Waves is now the biggest and most consistent touring platform in North Carolina.

Charlie Smarts (Kooley High) | Rapper | Greensboro

One of my earliest memories of hip-hop in North Carolina was my mom [Sandra Thompson] opening a show. KRS-One was one of the headliners, and I got to shake his hand. North Carolina has a huge musical history, and it’s a hotbed of hip-hop talent—Little Brother with Phonte and Pooh, Jamla with 9th Wonder, Rapsody, and Reuben Vincent. Dreamville with J. Cole and Lute. Can’t forget about DaBaby and Mez—just so many talented people here. When I think about my greatest contribution to North Carolina hip-hop: Kooley High has supported the local scene in Raleigh more than just about anyone. Since we started H2O [a student-run hip-hop organization] in college, we never stopped representing our town to the fullest. That’s almost 20 years of classic albums, sold-out shows, and dope parties.

Ill Digitz (Kooley High) | DJ | Cary

My earliest memory of hip-hop in North Carolina is when I went to go see the X-Ecutioners perform at the Cat’s Cradle in 2002. This group I had never heard of before was opening up for them and they killed it! At the end of their set Phonte said, “Yo, our debut album The Listening is dropping soon.” The rest is history.

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