Dope Folks dig up another Greensboro hip-hop rarity

by Ryan Snyder

Follow Ryan on Twitter @YESRyan

Milwaukee hip-hop explorers Dope Folks Records call its latest unearthing from Greensboro’s deeply undervalued mid-‘90s hip-hop scene a get that’s “…impossible to find…” and though that may not be precisely accurate, it’s not far off. Lord V.I.’s Free Cheeze EP does indeed qualify to be notched in Rare Groove’s post-Golden Age hip-hop annex, but an original pressing with the nowdefunct 6th Boro imprint can be had. There’s a decent enough wax pressing presently floating around on that can be obtained from its Dutch owner for a mere $240 plus change, an absurd price even for your typical DJ special.

If its 2012 reprint of Bear Creek, N.C. emcee Omniscience’s The Funky Oneliner offers any precedent, Dope Folks’ reissue of the still semi-active Lord V.I.’s obscure 1996 gem Free Cheeze won’t exactly do much to bring that price down. The Funky Oneliner’s 300 copies went quickly and are themselves going for a premium on the resell market. There’s marked similarities between the two though: Both have pile-driving boom-bap as the core aesthetic, and their concrete, observational-over-confessional lyrical styles adhere to all the ways in which one can keep it real. Neither were especially groundbreaking EPs for their time — The Funky Oneliner coming a couple of years before — but they would have been undeniably fun listens.

The real overlap between the two, however, is the 6th Boro imprint — quite possibly THE reason these rarities have become so prized among collectors. 6th Boro was a collaboration between Eli Davis and Andreao “Fanatic” Heard, two essential figures of early Greensboro hip-hop who broke out. Most recently are their credits on Charlotte soul man Anthony Hamilton’s Grammy-nominated Back to Love, though Heard has had a hand in countless rap and R&B hits as a member of Diddy’s Hit Men production team.

The re-release of Lord V.I.’s Free Cheeze does beg one important question. Who was he? There’s not a story of a near-hit behind him like there is with Omniscience — who is capitalizing on his resurrection by putting out new music — and his EastWest Records debacle. Born in Mount Vernon, N.Y., rapped out of Greensboro, and now based out of Charlotte, Lord V.I. has more or less retained the underground profile the Free Cheeze EP, which in essence imparts the value to this reissue. Lord V.I. was not a name that anyone outside of the most hardcore hip-hop heads knew before the new pressings shipped in early February 2014.

The title track to Free Cheeze is a manifesto of sorts, as in there really is no such thing. V.I. raps for it, hustles dope for it, and other Mount Veronites are both spoken and implicit archetypes by which he will pursue it. “I want the glory like Denzel,” he says over Fanatic’s “icing on the cake” beats, unaware that his producer’s next move will be into the employ of the Mount Vernonborn P. Diddy.

The original B-side “Not Tonight” investigates the lengths to which V.I. is willing to go to etch himself into that southern New York Rushmore. The opening rebuff from Mary J. Blige’s “Mary Jane (All Night Long)” serves as the foundation for V.I. to put off his lady’s advances for just a little longer; he has his reasons — his wares won’t push themselves and there are power moves to make, and maybe he had one too many Heinekens. In retrospect, it might have been more about his own insecurities.

Along with instrumentals from the original two tracks — blasé drum breaks probably of great value on their own — the reissue picks up three tracks from the vault seeing the light of day for the first time. It’s easy to see why “Glow” — an arid boast featuring his lyrical partner from the title track, Big Cheeze the Parmesan Don (who likely staked out that awesome handle while Carmen DiNunzio was still on the petty crime detail) — didn’t make the original cut. It’s just not that great. Put “Switch Shit Up” in that same vein, though both the Don and V.I. display remarkable dexterity, even if the tedious hook does put the clamps on how far they can take the track.

“Tonight’s the Night,” however, is the real prize for the lyrical hound on this reissue. There are shades of “Teddy’s Jam” in the bubbly New Jack bass groove, and hearing someone rap in the moment about wanting to hit the club to see It Is Written-era Nas with Foxy Brown is about as authentic as it gets. That alone is enough to make it worth a grab — its inevitable resell value is just gravy. !