The lines of the South shift depending on who you talk to, but the Mason-Dixon line of 1763 — written during British occupation on stolen land — set very clear boundaries about what the South was composed of. While the Mason Dixon Line created a physical line from the North and South, it upheld a cultural boundary that defines the South to this very day.
North Carolina has been the quieter of the southern states under the umbrella of the South’s rap legacy. It has only been within the past five years, with the rise Dreamville (and most recently DaBaby’s stardom) that the newest generation is taking North Carolina seriously. The music industry is taking a harder look at what’s happening in the Tar Heel state.
North Carolina is special in that it holds nearly 11 HBCUs. It also holds a legacy of birthing some of the greats of Black music, from Nina Simone to George Clinton, John Coltrane and Shirley Caesar. This legacy of dynamic and soulful Black music provided a platform for Hip-Hop to finally emerge.
The history of North Carolina’s skin in the rap game begins with Biggie, who in the early years of his life lived in The Triangle (which includes Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill) briefly in the early 1990s in need of a break from NYC. It also began with Ski Beatz of Greensboro, NC, who produced “Dead Presidents” on Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt in 1996. In that same time, 9th Wonder of Winston-Salem, NC joined the burgeoning rap group Little Brother with fellow members Phonte and Big Pooh out of Durham, NC.
Little Brother impressed many folks in hip-hop at a time when the south, and even more specifically Georgia and Texas, were taking up the most space. 9th Wonder, while a member of the group, would become one of the prodigal producers of hip-hop alongside the likes of Timbaland, Dr.Dre and Pharrell Williams. He left the group in 2007 to solo produce and currently teaches a Hip-Hop industry class at North Carolina Central University.
No one in Hip-Hop was ripping their shirts off until Petey Pablo released “Raise Up” in 2001, an anthem that is still played throughout North Carolina. Petey Pablo brought NC Hip-Hop to the big times when “Raise Up” debuted at #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2001.
“I just really wanted the recognition because my label [Jive Records], at first, didn’t want me to do that. They were like, ‘Petey, nobody knows where North Carolina is. You’re gonna have to do something else.’ I was like, ‘No, I’m telling y’all, ‘cause I’m actually doing music for my people to be happy that someone made it out,’” said Pablo in a 2017 interview with Billboard about the significance of the anthem.
Pablo followed up his debut album with a guest appearance in Drumline (2001) and a feature on Ciara’s “Goodies” in 2004. He later released “Freek-A-Leek” while still signed to Death Row Records in the early 2000s.
Rapsody, who hails from the same city of Snow Hill, NC as Petey Pablo, began rapping at NC State. While her claim to fame by many may be her mentorship from 9th Wonder or her work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Rapsody, however, has built a career based solely on her stellar discography of work that spans over decades. Her 2011 project For Everything got the attention of industry execs and led to her later signing to Roc Nation in 2016. She has remained rooted in working locally with NC rappers such as King Mez and 9th Wonder.
The historic rise of J. Cole and Dreamville Records in the early 2010s cemented Fayetteville, NC as a southern city with something to say. The release of 2014 Forest Hills Drive and the Dollar and a Dream tour of 2015 relished in the idea of coming home and how nurturing your hometown is all you truly need to make it. J. Cole often speaks about the trials of growing up in Fayetteville and what it means to shift the idea of hometown success without leaving the South.
Dreamville Fest, Dreamville’s first music festival held in Raleigh, NC this past April, brought an estimated 40,000 people to North Carolina.
It would be impossible to talk about North Carolina’s rap history without mentioning Charlotte, NC. The largest city in NC, the city has birthed the likes of Deniro Farrar, Nigehood, Lute of Dreamville, and DaBaby. Charlotte’s rap scene has been brought to the forefront with the success of Da Baby’s latest 2019 album Baby on Baby.
All of these artists emerged around 2010-2012 and are the forebearers of Charlotte’s well-known Black music scene, from playing at Dupp & Swatt to opening at Amos Southend before it’s recent closing. Local spaces such as The Clean Slate USA and F4mily Matters are still fighting for the city of Charlotte to embrace its Hip-Hop community, and many are still building space for Hip-Hop to thrive in spite of those circumstances.