“This is it, man. We’re actually down here,” says Kevin “Kaze” Thomas, almost in disbelief. 

The veteran Triangle rapper is standing in the second-story front room of VibeHouse 105, his new performance space and recording studio in downtown Durham. The floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto Main Street, where, in recent years, African-American and Latinx business owners, activists, and artists have strived to reenergize the entrepreneurial and cultural spirit of Durham’s historic Black Wall Street

Located at 105 West Main Street, VibeHouse 105 is the sister space of VibeHouse 405, which Thomas opened in Chapel Hill in February 2018, and which is now temporarily closed for renovation. But the inspiration came five years earlier, while he was living in Los Angeles for a few months.

For two decades, Thomas had been a staple of North Carolina hip-hop, respected equally as a rigorous, stage-ready emcee and the de facto hip-hop ambassador of Chapel Hill. He built a local open-mic scene where rappers and beatmakers from all over the state—including  an up-and-coming J. Cole—found a consistent place to show their talents. In 2015, his mini hip-hop festival in Chapel Hill, Hillmatic, was the culmination of these efforts. 

“That was a good run for me, but I wanted to transcend and not look like I was content with being local,” Thomas says. “[VibeHouse] was a step toward showing my whole repertoire.”

While he was in LA, Thomas noticed that the music industry had begun to take as much interest in “creatives” and “influencers” as it did in entertainers. It appeared that artists-turned-podcasters such as Joe Budden; brand gurus such as Spotify’s “RapCaviar” playlist gatekeeper, Tuma Basa; and Louis Vuitton director Virgil Abloh were on track to have as much cultural cachet as the hottest rappers. 

“If I’m going to be back here, how can I create that energy I just left, where I go out and bump into photographers, producers, show promoters, and web designers who all work with each other?” Thomas remembers wondering. “I didn’t see that collaboration of community [in the Triangle]. I saw how fragmented the music scene was.”

Upon his return, Thomas decided that instead of just rapping, he would try to curate an environment that would foster the collaborative creative culture he witnessed in LA. With an initial investment from Al Bowers, the owner of Al’s Burger Shack, Thomas and his then-business partner, Wendy Mann, installed VibeHouse next to a tattoo parlor on the second floor of 405 West Franklin Street.

“I realized that the energy and the beat of the 919 was taking place in Durham. I didn’t want to miss that renaissance.” 

It quickly became a bustling recording studio utilized by local musicians such as Ethan Taylor and Defacto Thezpian; a 2nd Friday ArtWalk destination featuring works by Gemynii, Jen Tidrow, and Anthony Patterson; and a mentoring workshop space for young “creative rebels.” 

“A lot of people asked me why I didn’t start off in a better-suited place like Durham,” Thomas says. “But with Chapel Hill being such a big place in my heart, as an incubator for me, it needed an ecosystem more. There were at least a couple of things in Durham for young artists to be a part of. There was nothing in Chapel Hill.”

Still, after a year spent establishing VibeHouse, it was time to make a move on the Bull City. 

“I realized that the energy and the beat of the 919 was taking place in Durham,” he says. “I didn’t want to miss that boat. I didn’t want to miss that renaissance.” 

When VibeHouse 405 opened, Thomas and Durham entertainer Karim “Bishop Omega” Jarrett had begun the second season of Intelligently Ratchet, a jaunty, barber shop-talk style Facebook Live show featuring a range of local guests, from Durham Mayor Steve Schewel to musicians such as Phonte and Rome Jeter. The show expanded the Durham network that Thomas needed to jump into the city’s creative community.

In May 2019, after VibeHouse 405’s neighboring tattoo parlor had moved out, Thomas and his new business partner, Stephen Kay, were approached by Michael Levy, the CEO of Bluedoor, a Chapel-Hill-based digital-health agency that had recently moved in downstairs. Levy had acquired the adjacent space and wanted to renovate the entire floor. But instead of shutting down VibeHouse for several months during renovations, Levy suggested that Thomas and Kay temporarily move their operation to his own second-story property in downtown Durham.

“You can gentrify the buildings and the blocks, but people are coming because the culture is present.” 

According to Thomas, Levy thought that there was great value in teaming up with a community-forward studio and art space like VibeHouse, which could complement Bluedoor’s mission of “nurturing relationships” while also helping to provide some of their multimedia and marketing needs.  

“It fit perfect,” Thomas says of the walkup space, which is conveniently located on the Bull City’s main urban footpath. He and Kay decided that, although they would return to Chapel Hill after renovations were complete, they also wanted to remain in Durham. Levy agreed.

“What you have with me and Kaze is a real and serendipitous relationship between two like-minded individuals,” Levy says. “VibeHouse and Bluedoor share the same vision on how creating dedicated space for culture and art can promote change and awareness across health care and education as well.”

VibeHouse’s new Durham residence is the latest highlight in the nexus of minority-operated creative and entrepreneurial spaces downtown. It joins Beyu Caffe, Skewers Bar & Grill, Kompleks Creative, NorthStar Church of the Arts, Blackspace, Knox St. Studios, and North Carolina Mutual’s Provident1898 coworking space in a sort of contemporary Green Book of cultural symbiosis. 

VibeHouse 105, which recently hosted a listening party for Durham rapper O.A.C.E. of Spades, picks up where the now-closed RUNAWAY store left off, curating a diverse brand of urban cool. The space’s “Live at the Loft” music series has showcased acts like D’Shawn & Soul and Ally J. It’s also an electric environment for priming emerging talent; poet and educator Dasan Ahanu recently used it for a spoken-word cypher for Durham Public School students.

“I’ve come to understand the legacy of Black Wall Street, and I very much wanted people to see a Black-owned creative space on both Franklin Street and Main Street. And I’ve shown up like this,” Thomas says, grabbing the bill of his VibeHouse-logoed baseball cap and pointing out the rest of his streetwear to emphasize a kind of unflinching Black representation. 

“But with this brand, it was important for me to broaden things,” he continues. “So you see a white girl playing the banjo. You see rock-type bands as well as hip-hop and R&B artists. You see singer-songwriters. I wanted it to extend outside of, ‘Oh, it’s Kaze, so it must be a rap studio.’ That was the obvious association.”

Still, the rapper association comes with racial and social stigmata, and Thomas says he’s had to deal with neighbors in both spaces who tried to get him kicked out. But he’s got other things on his mind than a few petty complaints. To hearken back to the name of his past record label, Sound of the Culture, his ear will stay to the streets and away from the cynics.

“You can gentrify the buildings and the blocks, but people are coming because the culture is present,” he says. “The art and the people make Durham.” 


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