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Greensboro: The Gateway to NC Hip Hop

By bryon d. turman—Lecturer of Composition and Hip Hop
English Dpt. North Carolina A&T State University

Grammy fever is upon us and the 2018 Grammy’s should be special for music lovers from North Carolina. From John Coltrane to Rapsody, NC has produced many important musicians and artists. With four artists from NC nominated for a Grammy this year, the sleepy Mid-Atlantic state is once again in the musical spotlight.

The most impressive aspect of the previous statement is that of the four Grammy nominated artists, two, Patrick Douthit aka 9th Wonder and Marlanna Evans aka Rapsody, are in the Rap category. 9th and Rapsody collaborated to produce, Laila’s Wisdom, which is nominated for Rap Album of the Year as well as the single, “Sassy”, which received a nod for Rap Song of the Year. North Carolina isn’t necessarily considered a hotbed of music production and that’s especially true of the rap genre.

However, this isn’t the first time that North Carolina placed its’ imprint on Hip Hop history. Some rap fans may be familiar with 9th from his previous production credits and Grammy nominations. In fact, just last year, he and Rapsody received nominations for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Although the previous success is important, North Carolina’s influence on rap music began nearly 30 years ago in Greensboro.

Founded in Greensboro in the late 1980’s, Payroll Records helped launch the careers of producers David “Will-Ski aka Ski Beats” Willis, Andreo “Fanatic” Heard, Jonathan “Mark Sparks” Blount, Mixmaster D aka Dana Lucci as well as artists like DJ Nyborn, The Bizzie Boyz, B.A.D. Rep and N-Tyce. Collectively, they’ve sold millions of records and are well-known and respected within the music industry. So, why don’t rap fans from NC know their names? This question and the answer to it force us to take a trip down the musical memory lane of NC Hip Hop history.

When New York City transplant, Roland Jones, opened a record store in Greensboro, he couldn’t have predicted how that moment would impact the music scene in central NC and beyond. In the 80’s, rap music was considered a flashpoint, a fad or an anomaly within the music industry. Beats were crafted using simple recording equipment and rhymes amounted to little more than basic “A-B-C” deliveries. “Rapper’s Delight” had dropped less than ten years prior and the music itself was seen as regional and nothing more than folk music emanating from NYC and urban locales in the Northeast. Few record stores that sold rap existed below the Mason-Dixon Line and not many people predicted the global success of rap music and the culture surrounding it. In fact, there was not even a Grammy award for Rap until 1987. Into this wasteland of opportunity stepped Payroll Records. But, why Greensboro? Well, the short answer is North Carolina A&T State University.

Students from NY City have made the trip down the highways into NC for over 100 years. As it is with migration, transplants generally bring aspects of their cultural production along for the ride and this was surely the case with Hip Hop music/culture. It didn’t take Jones long to learn that others shared his affinity for rap music and culture. His record store became a gathering place for those people. Of the early entrants into this new world were folk who would establish themselves as important artist and producers who paved the way for 9th Wonder and Rapsody. Out of this small group of rap aficionados came Grammy Award winning producers, artists, and managers. In fact, many are still working today.

Nowadays, several North Carolinians have established themselves as respected and successful artists in the music industry. Rapsody, Ninth Wonder, J-Cole and Petey Pablo have each made their mark. But, what about The Bizzy Boyz and Payroll Records? The ancestry of NC rap artists begins at the infancy of the culture. Payroll Records was founded by Roland Jones in Greensboro, NC in 1988. At that time, rap music hadn’t reached its zenith and was still relatively unknown outside of the most populous areas in the U.S. The 1990 Census lists Greensboro’s population at 183,521. By comparison, New York City had 7,322,564; L.A. had about 3.4 million people and Chicago came in at just at 2.786 million at that time. When Payroll Records launched in 1988, there wasn’t even a Hip Hop radio station to play their music. The area’s flagship Hip Hop radio station, WJMH 102 JAMZ, was founded in December 1988. College radio was the only rap game in town and North Carolina A&T State University’s WNAA 90.1 was the primary location of rap on the radio. Payroll Records was an anomaly especially in the South. Greensboro’s nickname is “The Gate City” and that’s just what it was for rap music in North Carolina.

Jones was a part of a new collective of Hip Hop heads who wanted to pursue music their own way. Even though rap was not a hot commodity in the area, they had the belief, motivation and skill to create music. Before J-Cole, there were the smooth flows of DJ Nyborn. Before Ninth Wonder, The Rhythm Fanatic, as he was known then, crafted soulful beats. Before Rapsody, N-Tyce hit the airwaves with “Hush, Hush Tip”. Before the bravado of Petey Pablo’s NC anthem, MC Will-Ski was “Droppin’ It”. Before Little Brother, The Bizzie Boyz dropped “Hold the Lafta” and before managing Anthony Hamilton, “Fly” Eli Davis managed the Payroll Records crew. From a small studio on the Southside of Greensboro, Jones’ crew dared to do the impossible. They brought what was considered an urban culture to the Piedmont of NC.

The progenitors of any cultural phenomenon are often overlooked as the culture grows and flourishes and this is exactly what happened to the Payroll Records crew. They may have been forgotten by future hip hoppers in NC but many of them are well-known in the music industry. Their individual catalogs are extensive and belie this omission. Readers may be shocked to learn how productive they were.

Let’s start with the lead producer, Andreao “Fanatic” Heard. He’s worked with some of the most successful artists of all times and has both the plaques and the scars to prove it. Fanatic has a long and storied history with music. Early on, he realized that making music would be his life’s work and set out to make that a reality. Before landing on the Payroll roster, he had already made records with a number of groups. He always had an inquisitive mind for the science of making records and used every opportunity to learn the craft. Late night sessions with the likes of Eddie F of Heavy D and the Boyz and Biz Markie gave him important insight into how records are made. In fact, while Biz helped Fanatic learn the nuances of “drums and such”, it was Eddie F who showed him the ins and outs of recording equipment and the importance of delivering a great live performance. He used these impromptu study sessions as the building blocks of his music career. Unlike many beat miners of those days, Fanatic actually studied music production and graduated from the Art Institute of Atlanta. Long before the Payroll Record days, he’d already experienced the joys and struggles of the music industry. He mastered the art of production during his Payroll Record days and leapt headlong into the music industry. He moved to New Jersey and pounded the pavement looking for song placements. His first break resulted from those efforts.

The Hits Factory was a preeminent recording studio in NYC until it closed in 2005. Many classic records were produced within its confines. After stalking the sidewalks outside of the studio for weeks, Fanatic and his friend/manager, Eli Davis wiggled their way into a listening session with Bad Boy Records. Fanatic played several beats which he’d created. The Notorious B.I.G. liked a few for a new group under his tutelage. Eventually, a deal was struck and Fanatic went on to produce “Crush on You” for Lil’ Kim and it reached Number 1 on the Billboard Rap Charts and Number 16 on its Hot 100 list . Fanatic’s “six degrees of separation” also includes a stint being managed by super manager, Vincent Herbert, while living in NJ. From there, Fanatic would go on to work with a literal laundry list of major artists including Michael Jackson, Beyonce’, Will Smith, Anthony Hamilton, Ma$e and Boyz II Men to name a few. He was even awarded a Grammy for his work on Beyonce’s Dangerously in Love (2003). Not bad for a guy who started out making beats in his bedroom and he’s still at it!

David “MC Will-Ski aka Ski” Willis went from one of the lead MC’s in the Bizzie Boyz to one of the most sought after producers in the music industry. Like Fanatic, his first break was a result of hard work, effort and perseverance. Ski Beats, as he became known as a producer, is the creative musical force behind Jay-Z’s “Dead Presidents” and “Feelin’ It” from Reasonable Doubt (1996). He’s also worked continuously as a producer since that time with efforts for Camp Lo’s “Luccini (This Is It)”, Jay-Z’s “Who Ya Wit II” and “Streets Is Watching” as well as songs with Fat Joe and a host of other artists.

Another MC from the Payroll roster also launched a successful career as a record producer. Johnathan “Mark Sparks” Blount learned how to produce records from his time at Payroll Records. Like Will-Ski, he learned the basics from Payroll’s number one in-house producer, Fanatic. He’s another North Carolinian who’s a known commodity in the music industry. With almost 30 years in the business, Blount has established himself as a go-to craftsman. He’s the sonic inspiration behind Sunshine Anderson’s debut album, Woman (2001) which contained the hit single, “Heard It All Before” and has worked with the likes of Craig G, Kurupt, Boyz II Men, Anthony Hamilton, Red-Head Kingpin, Ky-Mani Marley, Guru, and Will Smith. Sparks also produced “Shoop” for Salt-N-Pepa which climbed to Number 1 on the Billboard Hot Rap Singles Chart and Number 4 on its Hot 100 Chart.

When “Fly” Eli Davis met Fanatic as teenagers, neither could have predicted just the length and productivity of their relationship. Davis worked at NY Sounds which was a record store located in Greensboro in the late 80’s which was owned by Roland Jones. Davis and Fanatic attended the Weaver Academy together and quickly recognized that they shared a love and appreciation for music. Once they joined the Payroll Records crew, Davis found his lane. While Fanatic and the others concentrated on developing their skills as artists and producers, Eli learned the business side of the music industry. He became the de facto manager of the Bizzie Boyz and most of the Payroll roster. When the label disbanded, Davis became Fanatic’s manager and has remained as such for the last 30 years. Their bond isn’t just a derivative of doing business together. The pair maintain a close relationship as friends as well. Eli currently manages Super Producer, Ninth Wonder, The Hamiltones and legendary R&B singer, Anthony Hamilton as well.

The Payroll Records roster also included Mixmaster D aka Dana Lucci and DJ T-Luv. Dana has been a fixture in the local Hip Hop scene ever since. He’s worked alongside the likes of MC Brandon D and DJ E-Sudd who produces for 2 Chainz. Lucci is another producer who worked with Fanatic during the Payroll Records days. Currently, he’s a budding film producer and launched Funmasterfilms a few years ago. His time at the fledgling record label still influences him today.

Ninth Wonder, J-Cole, Rapsody, Little Brother and even Petey Pablo are well-known quantities in Hip Hop. Who knew that they weren’t the first North Carolinians to make a name for themselves in the rap music genre? Well, those who were in Greensboro in the late 80’s did! The Payroll Records crew not only rocked local audiences; they also brought us producers who are collectively responsible for over 10 million records sold. So, the next time North Carolinians are nominated for a Grammy, remember their musical ancestors, Payroll Records in Greensboro, NC.

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