Hip hop promotors find new home, gigs in GSO

by Jordan Green

When Katrina hit, Frank Smith was tending bar on a Mississippi River steamboat, pouring liquor for senior citizens. His girlfriend, Erica King, had been serving Hurricanes and counseling tourists on how to avoid purse snatchings at the famed Pat O’Brien’s in the French Quarter.

Smith and King are hip-hop people, both of them part of the semi-professional entrepreneurial phalanx that undergirds the hype for rising performers. Smith, a videographer who grew up in the Bronx reveling in the artistry of founders like Grandmaster Flash, took bartending gigs to finance his film projects. King, a native New Orleanian, grew to be tight with Crescent City rappers Joe Black and Tre-8, and the crew at No Limit Records, a label that rose to prominence in the mid-1990s.

Then they lost everything. Smith’s townhouse apartment in New Orleans East was submerged in 13 feet of water, and most of his personal mementos and video equipment were destroyed. And there was also no longer work. The tourists disappeared and the hip-hop community scattered.

‘“It’s basically finished,’” Smith says of the New Orleans hip-hop scene. ‘“There’s not enough business there to support what I’m doing. Most of those guys are in Houston.’”

The videographer went to Houston for awhile. His girlfriend took a private plane to Greensboro three weeks after the hurricane at the urging of an aunt who married a man from here. She got an apartment set up with the help of Lutheran Family Services and her church, All Saints. King called her boyfriend in Houston. She told him the hip-hop scene was ripe in the Carolinas and he would find work here.

Local rappers have been talking up the potential of the Gate City for a couple years now. When two outsiders steeped in the music of the Bronx and New Orleans ‘— both landmarks on the hip-hop map ‘— take notice, it lends some validation.

‘“I see a grassroots music movement that’s about to be a music Mecca,’” Smith says. ‘“People are patiently waiting to see what’s going to come out of here.’”

Fantasia Barrino is to thank for Smith getting hooked in with the Gate City hip-hop scene. King heard about a Fantasia appreciation party in High Point and she suggested to her boyfriend that they go.

‘“I watched a whole season of ‘American Idol,’ and I voted for her,’” she says. The couple met Young Gee and Big Bull, two on-air personalities at 102 JAMZ, whose sideline promotion enterprise is On Point Music Group. That led to Smith’s role producing a video for Luv, an On Point artist, in April.

In conversation the two convey a sense of gratitude that belies the individualistic and mercenary striving brimming from the music into which they pour their passion.

‘“I help do promotion and I do cooking of gumbo for Habitat for Humanity and churches, whatever I can do to give back,’” says King, who’s wearing a dress-length basketball jersey today and confesses to feeling a bit under the weather. ‘“People are really nice here and they have a lot of talent.’”

Smith’s video for ‘“Ease Up’” (currently available for viewing at displays a gritty, narrative style that allows the camera to linger over the scene and fleshes out the cruel tale of betrayal and punishment that springs from Luv’s authorship.

Over the smooth-rolling Carolina-proud track, Luv conceives herself as a local crime boss, troubling herself over the disloyalty and indiscretions of underlings. ‘“They must have forgot,’” she spits contemptuously, ‘“the block ain’t got witness protection,’” before hitting a chorus of ‘“I got the funniest feeling/ Like n*ggas is snitchin’/ Nine out of ten n*ggas is b*tches/ I got the funniest feeling/ Whenever you’re around’….’”

In the video young hustlers revel in scenes of urban decay, cops rush up on brothers, stacks of cash change hands in the front seat of a car, a detective browbeats a young woman and in the final frames the same finds herself on the receiving end of a merciless beat-down.

‘“Some of those were Luv’s friends,’” Smith says. ‘“We had to make some impromptu actors, people pretending to be detectives, snitches and people fighting. Everybody fell into their role.’”

During the melodic refrain, a coterie of Greensboro hip-hop luminaries dance in the frame, among them rapper Brandon D, lyricist Mr. Rozzi and poet Amaris Howard.

Smith takes a detached view of the song’s social message.

‘“She wants to let people know that there are people doing business, doing what they need to do to survive, and it might not be socially accepted,’” he says. ‘“Don’t release any information because that might be their bread and butter.’”

Whether struggling to overcome obscurity or hurricanes the hip-hop artists in North Carolina and down South ‘— Smith’s term for New Orleans ‘— have something their better-connected peers in the East and West Coast scenes do not, Smith suggests. That’s determination born of the struggle for survival.

‘“In the streets we call it grinding,’” he says. ‘“If you’re willing to get up off your ass and work it like you’re running for office, you can do something.’”

He mentions how gratified he is that Brandon D made a cameo appearance in his video.

‘“I talk about Brandon D a lot,’” Smith says. ‘“You see him at the gas stations. At every club he’s there pushing his music. He reminds me of the artists down South.’”

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