The greatest musical experience of my life happened during the blistering summer of 2014. J. Cole was on his second “Dollar and a Dream Tour,” performing songs from “The Warm Up,” and one of his stops was in my hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina. The price of admission was only... wait for it... a dollar, but the catch was that the name of the venue would not be released until just a few hours before the performance. Unless you had an inside source, you couldn’t be sure that you were at the right venue until Cole tweeted the location, and if you guessed wrong, good luck.
The night before the show my boy Tazz slept at my crib, and we stayed up all night trying to guess where the show was going to be, listening to songs from a burnt CD I made to give to Cole. The CD contained a handful of beats and some full records I recorded that summer. I kept thinking if I could just get the disc into Cole’s hands and spit a verse for him I would be signed on the spot. Tazz and I were up early the day of the show, mainly because we spent the entire night before brimming with excitement. After making a few calls to some friends and engaging in some serious coin-flipping, we eventually decided to head over to downtown Raleigh’s Lincoln Theater with high hopes that we were heading to the right spot. When we arrived at about 6:00 AM, we were happy to see ten fans who already formed a line in front of us. The fact there was already a line at the venue made us more confident in our guess, and at the very least, we knew that if we were wrong we'd have company.
When we first arrived the sun was still down, it was nice and cool outside. But as time passed the sky got brighter, and the sun got hotter. As more fans showed up at the Lincoln the line got thicker, and eventually evolved into a hot, huddled, mass of bodies that wrapped around the building and went on for blocks. Before we knew it there were literally thousands of fans, all hungry, starving, and famished just for the chance to experience a “Dollar and a Dream.”
As we stood outside for hours on end, the heat began to bear down on our backs, sweat dripping from our skin like paint off of freshly tagged graffiti. Good Samaritans paced up and down the line, passing out waters to the drained and desiccated masses, and as we drank our bodies and spirits were replenished. We were hot, tired, hungry, and dehydrated, but the anticipation of the concert kept us on a high. If Cole was the prophet, and the Lincoln was the mosque, then the concert would be the sermon, and the 12 hours we spent outside in the heat would be like our pilgrimage to the Mecca.
At around 4:00 PM Cole finally tweeted, “I heard the line was wrapped around the building. Damn, how y’all find out?” and the crowd let out a collective sigh of relief as we realized that all of hours spent in the heat would not be in vain. Another two hours passed before we were given our wristbands and welcomed into the venue, but as our excitement level grew, time moved faster, and before we knew it the show had begun.
After the opening acts were done, the slow, soulful keys of the piano melody from Cole’s “The Warm Up” intro began to creep into the venue, and the energy and excitement in the room gradually grew to a boiling point. Everyone in the crowd recited the record’s poetry word for word, like a church congregation reciting scripture, and when the beat finally dropped on “Welcome” the place exploded. Because Cole was performing songs exclusively from “The Warm Up” for this iteration of the “Dollar and a Dream Tour,” Tazz and I had spent the entire summer bumping his classic tape and memorizing the lyrics. As you could imagine we were rapping our asses off. And by the time Cole got into his performance of “Can I Live,” my favorite track on the project, the tone was set.
The Lincoln Theater is a small venue. Most of us, especially those trying to reach the front of the stage, were packed together, shoulder to shoulder like canned sardines. And although the building was air-conditioned, the sheer size and density of the crowd made it almost as hot inside as it was outside. We all stood there, dancing and rapping the verses along with Cole in a perfect unison like a multi-voiced spirit. And when the music hit our souls we connected. The power of the drums pounded our chests while the wrath of the bassline cracked the earth beneath our feet. The guitarist and pianist played off of each other with the elegance of a praise dance and the laser-focused aggression of crump.
When Cole told his story, he told also told our story. As he would put it, he was just a “lil nigga from North Carolina who followed his dreams,” and as an audience full of North Carolinians, we all aspired to do the same. As he got further into the tape and began to perform classics like “Dead Presidents II,” “Light Please,” and “Losing My Balance,” he gave his testimony like a pastor delivering his doctrine. As we all stood there, drenched in sweat, coated in holy water from the concert’s musical baptism, I couldn’t help but reflect on some of the trials and tribulations that were affecting my own life at the time. My favorite Uncle, Peter, was in a desperate battle with cancer that had attacked his spine, my mother was dealing with kidney stones, and my grandfather’s health was declining rapidly. I could look into the eyes of my family members and see not only were they sick, but they were scared, and uncertain of the future. I was too. But when I heard Cole testify about his mom getting evicted while he was in New York, and watching him perform records like “The Badness,” “I Get Up,” “Hold It Down,” and “Losing My Balance,” my essence was replenished. I understood that it was okay for me to fear for my family, and it was okay that I didn’t know what to do. Because just like any other low point in life, things would get better and time would heal. It was the message that my conscious needed.
After the concert I handed over my burnt CD to one of the guys working the merch table, who told me he would hand deliver it to Cole. Tazz and I left to get some food from the Cookout on New Bern Avenue with some friends, and talked about the possibility of actually getting signed to Dreamville. We joked about how Cole would sign two artists with names that rhymed with Bas and Cozz, and I pondered whether or not it would be smart for me to change my rap name to Vaz; we quickly agreed that “Vaz” would be a trash name for a rapper. We talked about how, although it wasn’t the biggest or most grandiose concert we had ever been to, it was the best show we’d ever experience in our lives. The intimacy of the venue combined with the power of the performances penetrated our hearts and ripped out our spirits. And if music is indeed the language of the spirit, we couldn’t have possibly asked for a better blessing for the 12 hours we spent tithing in the sun.
Cole's “Dollar and a Dream” show literally changed the way I thought about music. It wasn’t necessarily meant to entertain, teach, or minister. It wasn’t required to be catchy and danceable, nor was it obligated to be political. In its purest form, music is merely meant to communicate with the spirit. I learned that, regardless of whether I make music about vices, money, or women, or write songs about my soul’s scars and burns, if I can touch people the way Cole touched that audience at the Lincoln, that is what the beauty of life is all about.
By Vinnie Johnson,you can follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: JDotShots