Greensboro hip hop from the Cradle

by Lauren Cartwright

The Cat’s Cradle looks inconspicuous from the outside and that’s where the subtlety ends. The Cradle is a place of local musical lore where $25 and blue Siamese cat hand stamp gets you a night full of the Triangle’s hip-hop scene, a scene on the brink of something big.

Heart-thumping rhythms wash over me after entering the main room of the Cradle. About 200 people mill around, scouting out a foothold near the stage that is empty except for a DJ spinning beats.

The Cradle is in all-age mode’ tonight. The pack of teens and college-aged kids bob their heads to the tracks, eager for the show to start. Cliques form, friends who are meeting up for an evening out, and guys do the handshake with the half hug greeting;’ girls not sure if they picked the right outfit for the evening check their hair with their hands.

On this steamy July Friday evening the Greensbroro-based Urban Sophisticates open for Blacksmith Music/ Warner Bros. artist Talib Kweli. Moths flit around the lights as the opening act takes the stage. Social Memory Complex is a rap threesome from Chapel Hill. They jump around the stage with the energy of circus performers.

The group’s front man is L in Japanese, a tall drink of water who might be 160 pounds with his dreadlocks soaking wet. The hype man for the group is a small dude with waist-length dreads who goes by the name of Staj Presenze. The trio is rounded out by DJ Trizzack on the mixing board. The group isn’t ready to go platinum, but have a youthful enthusiasm that warrants a listen. The crowd grows as the first set winds down.

After a intermission and introduction the lights go down and a heavy snare drum beat erupts from the darkness. A funky guitar starts to play and the deep, creamy voice of Aaron James joins the mix. The Urban Sophisticates fully own the stage when front man Benton James hops out from the back.

‘“Lazy Eye, I could read both sides of the paper at the same time,’” Benton raps.

The horn section ‘— a trumpet and trombone ‘— stays hidden until the second song and comes out blazing, blowing a whole other vibe across the crowd. Benton dances around the mic stand, which because of his height makes a person realize that it’s probably adjusted to its full extension, but is still too short for him. He hovers over the stand, sometimes holding it with two hands like he’s talking right into someone’s face to make them understand.

With catchy lyrics and jazzy jams the Sophisticates keep the near-capacity crowd in a bumping and bopping fury. The horns are like a big band production but mixed with Aaron’s smoothness and Benton’s words it’s like a lemon twist in a raspberry martini ‘— fresh, with an intoxicating flavor explosion right before it goes down.

Keeping on the hip hop beats ‘—’ ones where the bass is so heavy it vibrates your eyelids ‘— the guys launch into a sample of Q-Tip’s ‘“Vibrant Thing.’” Ten people deep in the mob of hot bodies wave an arm and jump. Michael Reklis, of Reklis Entertainment and the musical guru behind this evening, says that the show was sold out with 600 tickets. As hot as the room is it’s believable that each ticket-holder snuck in a friend.

When the Sophisticates go on to ‘“Chapel Hill,’” an ode to the city that embraces them, the crowd goes nuts. The Sophisticates are based in Greensboro but have found more success in the Triangle and neighboring states. They may have found a growing niche in the Triad with a steady gig at Churchill’s on Elm Street on Saturday nights, but here is their base. Twenty-something girls hold up their drinks with one hand, shake their asses and give out loud ‘“Whooo’”s every time Benton raps the words ‘“Chapel Hill.’” The Sophisticates end the set by

saying, ‘“We love you, Chapel Hill. We’ll be back.’”

There’s now an electric buzz in the air; the crowd anxiously waits with alcohol-laced anticipation and a touch of heat exhaustion for the headliner to start. The main man of the evening ‘— Talib Kweli ‘— is an artist that Jay-Z has said to be an inspiration. Kweli first came onto the national scene in the late ’90s as half of the group Black Star, the other member being Mos Def.

Kweli, who has his own record label, Blacksmith Music which is distributed by Warner Bros., just released a new album Ear Drum, his sixth overall. When he takes the stage the crowd ‘— on the verge of musical combustion ‘— hollers and some shout the words that Kweli spits. There’s a musical energy Kweli brings ‘— some in the audience stand entranced at his words about real life. His music is excellent hip hop minus the commercial bling of 50 Cent.

After seeing what I came for ‘— the Urban Sophisticates ‘—’ Kweli was an added bonus. He’s an underground hip-hop genius that Michael Reklis deemed, ‘“awesome.’” I smile as I leave the Cradle ‘– born again with a new interest in music thankful for the 80-degree temperatures that cool my skin as I leave the inferno.

To comment on this column, email Lauren at