Winston-Salem Label Does Grassroots Hip-hop
Hip-hop has its centers of gravity. New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston and Memphis all have thriving scenes and names associated with their sounds. North Carolina may not be linked with a lot of high-profile nationally recognized hip-hop but still, there are artists working away here, trying to carve out a name for themselves and for the state. Last year marked the 20th anniversary of J.O.T. Records, a small independent Winston-Salem hip-hop label.
The label was founded by James O. Terry Jr. in 1996, first as a CD-only project, moving, over the years, to release vinyl and into the realm of streaming music, with many of the label’s albums available on the Spotify and Tidal services. Terry, 46, grew up in Winston-Salem, where he attended Carver High School in the 1980s.
Terry was a communications major at NC State in the early ‘90s, and launching a record label made a kind of sense to him, given his background.
“It kind of fell right under that umbrella,” Terry said.
But there was no real template or how-to-guide for launching a rap label. “I didn’t have any classes to teach me,” he said.
He had been DJing hip-hop parties since he was a young teenager, spinning records at events at the Sawtooth Center and the National Guard Armory. Terry made a decent amount of cash DJing, so when he went off to college he was able to go in a style suitable to a budding hip-hop impresario. This included “gold rings on every finger” a flashy gold chain, and “a butter soft $700 coat trimmed in real mink and matching mink headgear,” as he writes in Breaking Stereotypes, one of the several books he’s put out telling his life story and documenting the work he’s put into the label and his hip-hop projects.
Eventually, Terry decided to shift his focus to writing lyrics, rapping and making original music instead of DJing. He started performing under the name Grande Gato. One of the things that made Terry’s songs stand out was that he rapped in Spanish, even though English is his first language, and no one spoke Spanish in his household.
“I wouldn’t say I grew up speaking Spanish,” Terry said. “I learned Spanish in high school and then I kind of would run into people who knew Spanish and they would teach me, but they were teaching me like the informal Spanish, whereas in school I was learning the formal Spanish, and between the two I kind of was able to learn. I wouldn’t say I’m super fluent in it, but at the same time I can speak it.”
To rap at all requires a degree of confidence, and rapping in a second language takes extra gumption. But Grande Gato has had success, given the challenges. He’s been asked to perform in Miami, as a part of Latin music events where he was the only African-American rapping in a second language. Teaming up with other hip-hop artists from the region, he’s assembled a collective known as North Carolina Street Heat. Grande Gato is joined by rappers Jon Notty, Don Caban, Fire Marshall and Ms. Crystal on most of the releases under the collective’s name, and other artists join the team as special guests as well.
Terry had met Notty and Caban when he was a student at North Carolina State University and they were attending North Carolina Central. Before fully committing to pursuing music as a career, Terry worked for a time as a BED teacher, teaching “behaviorally-emotionally disabled” students.
“The kids in my class, when they found out I did music, they kind of gravitated more towards me,” Terry said. He saved up his earnings to focus on music and the label.
“I didn’t officially go full-time until about 2003,” he said. This year marked the 10th year that Grande Gato, North Carolina Street Heat or some combination of the collective performed at the Dixie Classic Fair in Winston-Salem. The collective has released seven records, and Terry and his collaborators are readying the eighth one for early 2018.
Going full time has meant a number of things for Terry. He spends a significant amount of time driving between Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Charlotte to the record stores that carry J.O.T. Records releases. He also sells his books, some of which are photo-heavy documents, almost like physical copies of an Instagram feed, featuring informal pictures of Terry and the North Carolina Street Heat crew at clubs, hanging out with other artists, connecting with fans.
“Pictures are worth a thousand words,” Terry said. “I could tell people all day, but they see the pictures and they get it. I always believe you don’t have to say a lot to make an impact.”
And for devoted fans, the books offer a glimpse into the origins of J.O.T. Records as well as the day-to-day life of Terry and his collaborators.
“I talk about how I started out selling out of the trunk of my car,” Terry said. “There’s a lot of history in there that lets people know stuff that they wouldn’t normally find out about us unless they did a deep dig, and a lot of people aren’t going to do that — you know, we live in a fast-paced society and if you don’t show it to ‘em in five, ten seconds, you’ve lost their attention.”
In addition to the CDs, LPs and books, Terry is big on what he calls “multi-level marketing.” He and the collective members sport watches, hats, jackets, necklaces and other items branded with the North Carolina Street Heat logo (a DJ with two turntables). It gives the impression of a large and unified organization.
“I try to do stuff a little different to make it stand out,” Terry said.
When people think of folk music, hip-hop isn’t always the first style that comes to mind, but there are elements of the J.O.T. Records output that can be viewed as folk for the digital era. It’s small-batch: Terry presses up 100 copies of each vinyl release. This music emanates from the people and from this place, giving it a connection to the region. Listen to Jon Notty’s “Cam Newton” from the collective’s 2014 release The Album. It’s a 21st-century pop-culture praise song about the Carolina Panthers’ star quarterback. With its ominous rising synth-string line and slowed-down vocal textures, it has a vaguely trap-ish sound, but it’s also appealingly raw and weird. The Caribbean inflected rapper Fire Marshall’s woozy and slightly crazed “Diamond Touch” is a catchy bit of warped dancehall. Grande Gato’s “Para Ganar” presents a syncopated slice of North Carolina reggaeton. Terry’s wife, Ms. Crystal, performs an atmospheric and slightly dark trap-gospel song called “Save Me.” (“Heal me, heal me, don’t let the devil kill me.”)
Terry isn’t necessarily trying to grow the roster of J.O.T. Records. He’s excited to just keep doing what they’re doing.
“Everybody that I work with, I like them because they’re unique, they didn’t sound like anybody else out there,” Terry said. “That’s why I gravitated toward everybody. That’s why I wanted to continue my relationship with everybody and put ‘em out there. I tell them ‘We don’t have a big budget, but you can do what you’re doing.’”