Notes from the High Point hip-hop underground

by Jordan Green

Mercedes Harrington is seated on a barstool, beer bottle clutched between her knees, as the disco ball casts fractured light on an empty floor and master of ceremonies June Buckner hurries around the premises making last minute preparations.

Harrington, who’s currently based in Salisbury, tells of her experience working for Motown and Island Records, writing for the African-American weekly the New York Amsterdam News, watching the New York hip-hop scene come of age, and losing her record label job during an industry shakeout. Now she’s here in post-industrial High Point at this club across from Wal-Mart, where the highlight of the week is the Saturday night wet T-shirt contest.

She sees the same energy and innovation that she witnessed a decade ago in New York cropping up with these new hip-hop artists bursting from the Triad’s stunted economic landscape. As the creative cycle comes full circle and the Triad takes its place in hip hop’s Southeast pantheon along with Atlanta, New Orleans and Houston, she says she believes she could play a vital role in it, girded this go-round by the wisdom and maturity of added years.

June Buckner, a former social worker who goes by the moniker Just June, is optimistic for other reasons.

June insists that despite the brazen sexuality, conspicuous consumption and violent imagery that drives the profitability of hip hop, the underground could redeem it, and even improve society. Tonight will be the third installment of her weekly hip hop open mic, Spit Fiyah, and she’s eager to prove her point.

‘“I think a lot of times you can make a bigger difference in the arts,’” says June, whose pink top blaring the Pelle Pelle brand in jagged letters gives her the spunky, urban rap-punk crossover look of New York City ca. 1982. ‘“The media is so saturated with materialism and misogyny. There’s very little conscious music. I don’t know if that’s by design or demand. The eighties hip hop was fueled by positivity with Public Enemy and KRS-One. We live in a society where sex sells. Cash rules everything around us.’”

She testifies to the latent heat of the Triad hip-hop scene, a subterranean magma pool percolating beneath the surface.

‘“It’s amazing the talent we have in the Triad,’” she says. ‘“Atlanta ruled with Usher and Outkast. The thing that made Atlanta so good is that the artists stuck together. That’s what we have to do here. It’s about the art.’”

Pepper’s, which marked its one-year anniversary on June 17, might seem an unlikely location for the Triad hip- hop scene’s gestation.

‘“The club that was here before us was rated the worst or most dangerous club in the Triad by some publication,’” says Karl Thompson, an English-born, Jamaican-raised mortgage broker in Greensboro who own Pepper’s. ‘“The police department was real adamant about not wanting to open another alcohol-related establishment here.’”

He’s relaxing by playing a game of solitaire on his laptop computer at the end of the bar before the MCs start throwing their rhyme onstage.

‘“We’ve had zero incidents in a year,’” he reports, rapping the wooden bar rail and smiling. ‘“Usually, I can head off any kind of trouble. You can tell when somebody’s having a bad time. I just throw my arm around them and say, ‘How ya doin’?’ They don’t know how to deal with it.’”

By about 11 p.m. the premises begin to fill. The two feature acts, Illpo and Gav Beats, have each made a fashionably late appearance.

Mercedes Harrington, the erstwhile New Yorker, is not the only one monitoring the talent. The streets are watching, you might say.

Two Triad area radio stations have representatives at the club: 97.1 WQMG, the smooth R&B and classic soul station, and 102 JAMZ, the market’s dominant hip-hop station. In fact, 102 JAMZ on-air personality Young G will be sharing hosting duties with June. There’s a staff member from The Source magazine here too.

DJ Fantastic plays some frenetic beats while June and G hype the assembling crowd. The two hosts play off each other to dramatic effect, their voices struggling to prevail over the din. June’s presentation is high pitched and femme as she lunges and waves her arm, balanced on translucent high heels.

A sample of Sam Cooke’s ‘“A Change Is Gonna Come’” surges through the ether, and June calls out: ‘“Real hip hop is going down. We’re about to get the show started. It’s gonna be crazy.’”

G bounces in place, sunglasses obscuring her eyes. She drags on a cigarette in the most laconic manner possible. A backwards baseball cap covers her Mohawk. In a gruff voice she joins June, saying, ‘“Every Thursday. We’re gonna get this thing poppin’, y’know.’”

Soon the group Illpo is onstage.

They start with a piece called ‘“Grind Harder.’” They are physically imposing and lyrically vigorous. One the two lead MCs, Boone, wears a shirt that features the backside of an amply proportioned female model wearing nothing more than a G-string.

The following is a lyrical sample of ‘“Grind Harder’”: ‘“A hustla is a hustla; a snitch is a snitch; a baller’s a baller; a bitch is a bitch.’”

‘“It’s a motivational song,’” Boone’s partner, J Bond, will explain later.

The mixed gender crowd is mass of huddles, high fives and shoulder throwing.

J Bond implores the crowd at the end of their set.

‘“Please support local and global artists,’” he says. ‘“It gonna take you all to campaign for us to get these DJs to play us.’”

Soon Gav Beats will be onstage rapping with his foil, Brandon Mayo. Though it’s his custom to perform with a full band, Gav is making do with a DJ and a revolving cast of guest MCs tonight.

He eschews the hardness of his predecessors, leaning on humor and crowd participation. He brings a female audience member up to the stage and serenades her. He starts chants like, ‘“Engine, engine, number nine, on the New York transit line; if my train falls off the track’….’”

He namedrops Gucci jeans and quips about getting ‘“more head than a beauty chair.’”

He’ll wrap his set with an enigmatic sign off, saying, ‘“I’m out of here. I’m done for the year.’”

While Gav and guests are rocking mics, the boys from Illpo are back at the bar soaking up adulation. A female friend sells out her stock of the slim-case CDs soon after the end of their set.

‘“North Carolina hip hop hasn’t expanded beyond North Carolina yet,’” J is explaining when a young fan approaches and clutches him in an emotional embrace.

‘“I get so frustrated with the scene,’” the guy tells him. ‘“We gotta keep pushin’ it.’”

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