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Charlotte hip-hop label raises its standard

by Bryan Reed

Charlotte hip-hop label raises its standard

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Picture by Charlotte Reeves Bowman

March 19, 2011

Local music can be an elusive creature. Without the business processes and promotional engines that large labels and for-hire hype-mongers provide, local acts have to fight through the noise of high-profile acts to emerge from the darker corners of the music industry. The internet has made finding new music easier, but again, seekers are flooded with more of the same. It’s a bit of a wonder that I found hip hop label Black Flag Records at all, scrolling through titles tagged “North Carolina” on Bandcamp.com. But I did.

With its four-artist stable – A. Moss, JJ Bass, Dow Jones and Deniro Farrar – Charlotte’s Black Flag Records has defined a sound, as impactful and driving as Southern hip-hop acts like T.I. and Outkast, but with equal debts to ‘90s gangsta rap like B.I.G. and Ice Cube, and the alternative hip-hop of 00s acts like Common and Brother Ali. “Underground hip-hop is the blues music of our generation, using rhymes and beats as vessels to communicate a message and hopefully freeing many from the class of forgotten,” says Black Flag’s owner David Luddy, via e-mail.

Underground hip-hop has taken many different forms from the often monochromatic and politically optimistic Midwestern style many dismiss as “backpacker” rap. There’s the soul-sampling A Tribe Called Quest discipleship of 9th Wonder and Little Brother in the Triangle, as well as Kanye West’s adventurous production and left-field sampling. In Black Flag’s MCs, those sounds mingle with the mainstream. Snare drums skitter and clap, synthesizers paint broad strokes of neon beneath agile vocals.

“Black Flag Records’ main belief is to let the artists do what they do best – speak to us through their music,” Luddy says, directing me to a YouTube video for “JFK to LAX,” a hook-free crew cut by Deniro Farrar, JJ Bass, and A. Moss. In the song’s three verses, each MC assumes complementary but distinct personae. Deniro Farrar offers a dark counter to Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day,” deadpanning, “The dope boys in my city was gettin’ money/ I open up my refrigerator and see nothing/ Fuck that. I’ma get me a meal.” JJ Bass plays the indie-rap misfit, calling out, “Lived this way since I was a whippersnapper/ When rednecks called me a whigger rapper.” And A. Moss spans the gap, boasting with an elastic flow like Eminem’s: “This is not an anthem for mainstream to dance to/ These are letters out of a magazine for ransom/ I am the grandson of a man with no chances/ Due to the lack of grams in his hands to cure his cancer/ So my fuck-the-world attitude is just.”

Their music is aggressive but accessible, featuring a mournful-but-bold soul sample. Its depiction of life is beak, but swaggers like a prizefighter. “We make music that the streets understand,” Luddy says. “I laugh when hip-hop heads say something isn’t hip-hop – if it’s too violent or filled with ‘trap’-like overtures…If you don’t speak the language or understand the street politics you lose the ears of this very important audience, and if you do that, how in the hell could you ever make a difference?”

But the label’s artists are hardly immune to pop sensibilities. Dow Jones’ “Tweeters,” from the EP Lyrics & Liquor, layers keyboard phrases and a shuffling beat behind Jones’ rubber-band drawl which evokes, at turns, T.I., Big Boi and B.o.B. The lean-back refrain “You should this up in your speakers/ Let this bleed straight through your tweeters/ You should let the music take you away/ And don’t care what no one say/ You should let the music play.” It’s a casual dance tune, but it’s also a triumph of playful, celebratory hip-hop.

Even if the music usually leans more on biographical storytelling and self-definition – timeless hip-hop tropes – there’s a sense that these are MCs enjoying the very act of rapping. It’s the too-rare quality that propelled Wale’s acclaimed Mixtape About Nothing to acclaim, and is exhibited in subtle inflections throughout Black Flag’s roster. It’s in the way A. Moss grins through his drawl bending the word “here” into “hyah” 45-seconds into “Backwoods.” It’s in Deniro Farrar’s coupling of Kanye West phrasing and Gucci Mane rasp on “Chuck Taylors,” from November’s 31-track Feel This.

“I started listening to hip-hop heavy when I was nine years old,” Luddy says. “A kid on the bus put me on to Geto Boys’ ‘Mind Playing Tricks On Me.’ Never really looked back after that.” Today he unspools an endless list of favorites that could function as a primer in thoughtful, articulate, and innovative hip-hop from Biggie to Rakim to Jurassic 5. Those artists cast long shadows on the crop of Black Flag MCs that Luddy describes as “a new generation of non-mainstream hip-hop artists, emerging from the South with a tight sound and an undeniable message.”

But Luddy portrays Black Flag as more than a label or a collective of likeminded artists. I asked why he decided to name the label “Black Flag,” and he cites both the pioneering punk band and Bobby Sands, a martyr of the Irish hunger strikes of 1981. To Luddy, this act of musical declaration is a political statement, even a movement. “In our world today many people are negatively affected and left behind in the wake of greed and capitalism,” he says. “And while we, being Black Flag, will not solve world hunger, I guarantee that the few who join our Black Flag family will have a platform where their voice will be heard.”

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