“If you don't play, how can you expect to win?” —Julius (Everybody Hates the Lottery)
To play the lottery requires no cards to be dealt or dice shaken; just a ticket bought to be scratched and numbers chosen with the chance of being selected. It’s an effortless, accessible gamble tailored for dreamers who carry more hope in their hearts than money in their wallets. Each purchase is a currency exchange in the church of possibility: pennies that could become dollars, and dollars that could become millions. Alchemy without the magic.
In North Carolina, along with 26 other states in the U.S., Lucky for Life is a game promising a payday that never ends. Promotion for Lucky for Life’s $1,000 a day, every day, for life offer appears in the pilot episode of Hype, a fictional Durham, North Carolina-based web series written and directed by 24-year old filmmaker Holland Gallagher. In this particular scene, series protagonist Smiles (played by Willie Raysor) stands at the gas station counter and ponders which game to play. He is no child, but this place is his candy store.
Smiles eventually decides to purchase a $20 Millionaire Bucks scratch-off; back in August 2018, a woman from Durham won the $4 million dollar prize scratching as Smiles does, but unfortunately, he doesn’t share her luck. There’s a certain familiarity in the body language of a disappointed man made visible as the camera fixates on Smiles just long enough for viewers to absorb the brief, pensive atmosphere that follows quiet defeat. Luck doesn’t exist in the version of Durham that Gallagher has created, only the hope of what could be.
Hype, Gallagher's debut as a director, magnifies blind faith through the lives of four characters: Smiles, the cringing, naïve optimist who is working to save enough money to buy the childhood home of his high school sweetheart that moved away from Durham due to gentrification; Ava English (played by Andie Morgenlander), an ambitious entrepreneur working in Durham’s budding startup scene who’s searching for an idea worth investing in; Bulldoze (played by Dartez Wright), a seasoned Durham rap artist caught in the crossroads between his dream and career reality; and Rakim Wilde (played by Leroy Shingu), the rising rap star from Durham who is coming to terms with more than newfound success.
“Fundamentally, the guiding principle of the show is to what extent is the hype around something more important than the actual thing?” Gallagher says over the phone from Durham. Throughout its five, 20-minute episodes, the series explores, overlaps, intersects and ultimately combines the developing storylines to create a relatable depiction of hype and what it means to believe.
As a music producer who has lived as a Durham native since 2005 by way of New Orleans, and through his experience working at the North Carolina fashion house RUNAWAY, Gallagher found, through the context of hype, a parallel between the indie music scene and the business-startup community. The recent developments occurring in the UNC graduate’s backyard inspired a story that encapsulates real lives in a real city going through changes.
“Even at the very beginning, it was a show about Durham. Ideally, it's something that would be good for the city; the first of its kind in the way how Atlanta has a show about them and in a different way how Portlandia is a show that’s really tied to a sense of place. That was always apart of the plan for me. When you’re looking around your community you see people that you kind of want reflected as a character.” —Holland Gallagher.
In smaller cities, where there are fewer industry resources than say, New York, L.A., or Atlanta, the ceiling is higher and harder to break through. To accurately reflect the music scene in a city like Durham, especially from a hip-hop perspective, it’s essential for a show like Hype to demonstrate the hardship of breaking out. An early scene in the pilot shows rapper Bulldoze visibly irritated by comments made by the much younger Rakim in a recent interview. After a decade of effort, frustration is a reasonable response to watching an overnight sensation boast about being the only artist from their area on the rise.
“Working with independent artists in North Carolina where there is not a lot of industry, all the industry feels external; it’s like this machine or something that’s happening to you rather than you being a part of it. I’m really interested, I’m finding through what I’m writing about, is where ambition meets economy,” Gallagher says while discussing what influenced Bulldoze's circumstances. He is aware of what many artists understand over time: there are decisions made for the sake of business and decisions that are made for the sake of art.
The Bulldoze character is described as, “This cat who did a song with Little Brother like eight years back,” a reference to the biggest rap group to ever emerge from North Carolina. When Gallagher wrote the scene in his bedroom, the thought never entered his brain that veteran rapper Phonte, formally one-third of Little Brother, would be impressed enough in his web series to get involved and join Hype as an executive producer.
“Get this, he's wearing the same hoodie from his album cover,” the young filmmaker says gleefully, painting the picture of their first, random encounter.
In May 2018, after flying into Los Angeles from Durham, Gallagher recognized in person the sweatshirt Phonte wore on the cover of his critically acclaimed, sophomore album No News Is Good News. Initially, he approached the celebrated rapper in the Uber line of LAX with the intention of having him as a guest on a friend’s podcast. The two exchanged numbers, and even though the podcast featuring Phonte didn’t manifest, he did, to Gallagher's surprise, attend Hype’s September premiere at Carolina Theatre in Durham.
“I was really moved by the spirit that drove [the series],” Phonte remarks over the phone about what drew him to the project. During our talk, Phonte reiterated a point he has made in past interviews: Gallagher’s guerilla approach for Hype reminded him of Little Brother’s come up. How the director pulled from every nook and cranny, every friend and resource to bring this idea into fruition resonated.
“I just applaud people who can get shit done. In order to make something that you love, it takes a lot of guts and tenacity. Kind of flying by the seat of your pants and figuring it out along the way. A lot of people have ideas and talent, but, from what I’ve seen, what really separates those that are thinkers from those that are doers is a certain amount of tenacity to put your nose to the ground and make it happen.” —Phonte
When asked about the characters in the series, Hype’s strongest component, Phonte replied with glowing reviews of the cast. “I told Holland after watching the series that Ava’s performance reminded me of Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler. You know, she just has that look of a motherfucker that will do anything to make it,” he says with a laugh.
Phonte went on to praise the authenticity of Bulldoze’s character (“I thought he did the character justice capturing what it looks like in North Carolina to have a dream, but maybe it's time for me to get a job.”) and the acting of Willie Raysor as Smiles (“I got to give props to the brother Willie for turning in a great performance. We met and he is nothing like that in real life.”) Even though he didn’t have a hand in writing the script or creating the characters, the enthusiasm and excitement Phonte spoke with is telling of how the series genuinely drew him in.
Out of all the show's characters, though, Rakim Wilde is the most compelling. No matter if he’s high on shrooms, fumbling his words in an antagonizing Instagram video, or punching in vocals, Rakim’s every scene is a convincing portrayal of a young rapper going through the layered motions that come with having a buzzing single. Played by Leroy Shingu, better known as the Charlotte-born rapper Well$, Rakim Wilde is authentic; akin to watching Brian Tyree Henry as Paper Boi on FX's Atlanta. Unlike Henry, Well$’ background in music feels essential in creating a real identity.
Hype’s entire cast is made up of actors, musicians, and friends that Gallagher made locally. His father, a sound-film professional, lent his expertise, and cinematographer Bruce F. Cole, who Gallagher credits for giving his first series an exquisite visual look, came aboard as the Director of Photography. The ambient score is mostly self-produced by Gallagher, and Hype’s entire soundtrack—currently available on Bandcamp—features only North Carolina-based artists. When you consider how Hype’s first season was funded through a successful $10,000 Kickstarter campaign, it’s essentially a series for, funded, and brought to life by the people of North Carolina.
“It’s kind of a hack as a producer. You want producer's placements, but rappers are getting beats in their inbox like 24-hours a day. What makes you so different?. You know what I'm saying. As a producer I've learned that rappers like to act, that’s one way to make your relationship with a rapper as a producer is to have a show and cast them in it. On the other side, artists like the idea, I think, of having their songs in a show so it's an easy ask to get my artist friends to contribute songs to the show because it's something that's a little bit different.
“If we build this out for like two or three more seasons we could really involve a lot of really really dope artists. And that's the other thing about a show that's more inclusive, there's more space to bring in a bunch of people and still have something cohesive. You can only have so many features on an album, but you can have a cameo from whoever you can extend the cast.” —Holland Gallagher
The great prophet Flavor Flav told the world in 1988 not to believe the hype. Thirty years later, a series is upon us that may convince you otherwise.
By Yoh, aka Yoh Believes The Hype, aka @Yoh31