“I think we have enough talent,” W. E. B. Du Bois had announced in 1920, “to start a renaissance.” —Tobi Haslett ("The Man Who Led the Harlem Renaissance—and His Hidden Hungers," New Yorker)
Petey Pablo saw promise in his Timbaland-produced 2001 debut single, “Raise Up,” but his record label didn't share in his optimism. “Petey, nobody knows where North Carolina is. You’re gonna have to do something else,” the rapper born Moses Barrett III told Billboard in 2017, citing the response of his then label, Jive Records, who were less than enthused about their latest signing pushing a record that celebrated a city where hip-hop wasn't a major export.
“I’m actually doing music for my people to be happy that someone made it out” —Petey Pablo (“Petey Pablo Reflects on the 'Raise Up' Chorus: 'I Wanted My Hometown to Be Proud of Me'”)
On “Beautiful Bliss,” the 2009 Wale single that yielded his first major guest feature, J. Cole raps, “Who woulda thought a lil nigga from the Ville could get a deal?” The line, delivered eight years after “Raise Up” rose up and six years removed from the release of Durham hip-hop group Little Brother's 2003 critically acclaimed debut The Listening, is a friendly reminder that a record deal for an artist born and based in North Carolina was still a distant dream.
Two-thousand-nineteen marks a decade since J. Cole joined Roc Nation and released his popular mixtape, The Warm Up. Now in his 10th year as a major label artist, Cole hosted over 40,000 people on April 8 in Raleigh, North Carolina, for the first-ever Dreamville Fest, a music festival heralded as one of the most successful events in the city’s history. Instead of choosing a major hip-hop hub like Atlanta, New York, or Los Angeles, the Fayetteville-born headliner returned home and brought the world with him.
During his headlining set, Cole made sure to acknowledge the Charlotte-born DaBaby, a nod that felt well-deserved. Even from the highest ivory tower, it’s impossible to overlook the mountain of accolades currently surrounding Interscope’s latest southern favorite. Besides Megan thee Stallion, no rapper is having a more pronounced breakout campaign in 2019 than the man born Jonathan Kirk.
"Charlotte is a place to come up, and to do what I’m doing is unheard of. It doesn’t happen like that in Charlotte." —DaBaby ("DaBaby Is a Humble Marketing Genius and, Sometimes, a Cowboy" )
DaBaby is the full package: charismatic, authentic, with the same superb ear for production that turned some of Atlanta’s hottest street rappers—Jeezy, T.I., Gucci Mane, etc...—into world-renowned stars. At present, “Suge,” the boisterous second track on his impressive 2019 debut, Baby On Baby, is sitting at No. 51 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
While DaBaby glows brighter by the hour and J. Cole continues to transition from cult darling to industry behemoth, there's yet another crop of talented rappers and producers on the rise who hail from the Carolinas.
Emerging from this boom are newcomers both within and outside Dreamville’s orbit. Lute, Dreamville’s Charlotte-born signee, has the potential to triumph in the everyman kingdom constructed by his label head. There is a soulful, Southern humbleness about his music, which is rooted in a similar Dollar and a Dream ethos.
“Trying to be to my city, perhaps what Cole to the Ville” —Lute (“Morning Shift”)
Lute's introspective, EarthGang-featuring record “Premonition,” from his 2017 mixtape West1996 pt. 2, is a great example of the emcee's understanding—on a fundamental level—of the internal and external pressures of coming-of-age in the South with aspirations bigger than the blue-collar options. This approach is a sharp contrast to DaBaby, who shares the same desire to succeed, but instead of approaching rap with candid vignettes and calm meditation, he's a vigorous bulldozer that is thunderous as he is charming; two sides of a Charlotte coin.
A more fitting juxtaposition, perhaps, would be Rapsody, a now-veteran emcee from Snow Hill, North Carolina, or 21-year-old, Raleigh-born buzzmaker YBN Cordae. One is a seasoned, well-respected 9th Wonder protégé, the other is a young, hungry ball of fire. What they share is a gift for lyricism.
If Cordae had arrived seven years earlier, he would’ve been a blog era darling. He has the capability to produce the kind of wordplay and songwriting that made Rapsody’s early-career offerings—She Got Game, Beauty and the Beast, and The Idea of Beautiful—such refreshing works.
If Rapsody was a developing artist in this modern era, her response to J. Cole’s "1985 (Intro to The Fall Off)," a standout from his 2018 album KOD, would likely have been a sharp, thoughtful critique on par with Cordae’s viral return fire.
"Just as Shirley Caesar has remained Durham’s ambassador for genre-blending gospel since Williams died, Rapsody’s lyrical dexterity has given Snow Hill—and the state—bragging rights on one who’s true to her roots and willing (and able) to take risks that raise the game’s stakes" —L. Lamar Wilson ("Queen of Snow Hill")
Both Rapsody and YBN Cordae are representative of how North Carolina breeds lyricists who add more to hip-hop’s spectrum of color than punchlines, which is a perfect segue to Mez—formerly known as King Mez—a thoughtful writer and creative from Southeast Raleigh. While it’s been nearly four years since Mez made a splash with multiple feature appearances and writing credits on Dr. Dre’s 2015 album, Compton, the 29-year-old has stayed busy both inside and out of the studio.
In addition to quietly releasing a string of potent EPs, entitled Data Plan .001 and Data Plan .002, the promising wordsmith followed up his invite to J. Cole’s exclusive Revenge of the Dreamers III sessions by directing the music video for Cole's 2x Platinum single “Middle Child.” With nearly 50 million views on YouTube, the most successful single of Cole’s career is undeniably linked to Mez's distinct vision.
Mez has since followed up his directorial debut with the release of a music video for his own single, “MF+G,” directed by Rashidi Harper. Both visually pleasing and musically infectious, it’s a comeback that creates a craving for more.
North Carolina is catching a stride, but South Carolina isn’t without budding prospects. Enter Atlanta-based but Edgefield, South Carolina-born Childish Major. From his work behind the boards on Rocko’s 2015 hit single "U.O.E.N.O." to front and center as a rapper and songwriter in his own right, Major has solidified himself as triple threat talent. His ascendency, which began with the release of his 2017 album, Whoo$ah, includes opening for rising superstar Billie Eilish and leaving his mark musically during the ROTD3 sessions, throughout which Major and frequent collaborator Groove—who is also a burgeoning producer from Durham—arrived early and stayed late.
Another prominent producer present at the sessions who calls South Carolina home is Supah Mario. From Young Thug (“Thief in the Night”) to Drake (“Blue Tint”), countless artists have used Mario's soundbeds to create unforgettable records, and in the process have turned the 30-year-old producer into a household name.
To recognize DaBaby and his skyrocketing career is to call attention to Jetsonmade, the Columbia, South Carolina producer behind some of his biggest records. Whether he's working in his own backyard with DaBaby or he's lending his talents to Lil Gotit, Lil Keed, or 21 Savage, Jetsonmade's producer tag—“Oh lord, Jetson made another one!”—has quickly become a foreshadowing sign of a potential banger.
“In the near future, be on the lookout for... I don't even want to say that (laughs). Look out for everything. Carolina music, period.” —Jetsonmade (“Studio Sessions | Jetsonmade talks linking with DaBaby and wanting a Drake Collab in the near future”)
From “Suge” to Young Nudy's “Zone 6,” the 22-year-old is carving out his niche in the world of trap music. It will come as no surprise if, between Childish Major, Groove, Supah Mario, and Jetsonmade, the next sound to dominate hip-hop is traced back to the Carolinas.
Without attending St. John's University in New York City, J. Cole likely doesn't reach JAY-Z and sign with Roc Nation, and everything as we know it is different. While Cole's dream chasing required him to leave home—to leave the Carolinas—it's not only possible but highly likely that the next generation Cole, or Petey Pablo, will be able to stay local and still be a prospect on the major label radar.
What’s happening in the Carolinas isn’t a singular movement, but the sum of various parts creating waves all at once; a quiet, budding renaissance.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Jetsonmade produced Nipsey Hussle's "Racks In The Middle." Hit-Boy produced "Racks In The Middle," while Jetsonmade produced a remixed version.
By Yoh, aka Petey Yohablo, aka @Yoh31