Kooley High Interview - Locally Grown

Front Porch concerts, block parties, club concerts, and even Franklin Street’s street performance culture, are all par for the course in the many ways to experience Chapel Hill’s diverse music scene. But, a rooftop concert?  That seems like something you’d only expect to find in larger cities. However, on every Thursday evening until the end of August (with the exception of July 4th), you can expect to find free, family-friendly concert and movie events on top of the Wallace Parking Deck in Downtown Chapel Hill.  

In its sixth year, Chapel Hill’s LOCALLY GROWN Music and Movies Series kicks-off this summer’s festivities with the locally respected, six-piece hip-hop band, Kooley High.  From the crew’s early days as students and hip-hop enthusiasts at N.C. State University, throughout their 8-year career of releasing fun and well-gelled albums, members Tab-One, Rapsody, Charlie Smarts, The Sinopsis, Foolery and DJ Ill Digitz, have set a remarkable standard for how to create a loyal, local fanbase that has helped them reach a nationwide platform.  With a new album in the works, executive produced by Grammy Award-winning, Raleigh producer, 9th Wonder, Kooley High continues on its mission to grow both locally and worldwide.  A few days ago, we chatted with one of the group’s lead rappers, Charlie Smarts, about the group’s long musical journey from Raleigh to Brooklyn all the way back down to Chapel Hill for Thursday evening’s rooftop party.

DowntownChapelHill.com: Let’s just start off by you telling us what it means for a well-established, local music act such as your band, Kooley High, to headline an event called “Locally Grown”?

CHARLIE SMARTS: It means a lot, because this [the Triangle] is where we started.  When we did the Hopscotch Music Festival or Shakori Hills it feels really good to perform outside with large crowds.  There’s no better feeling than that--when there’s good weather and you’re outside. It’s the best feeling I could ever have on stage.  I’m really looking forward to it.

DCH: When you hear a term like “Locally Grown,” are there any other area groups that automatically come to mind?  

CS: You can probably guess that it’s people like 9th Wonder and The Justus League.  They opened so many doors for us.  I really look up to them.  I especially look up to Phonte [Coleman, solo emcee and frontman of Grammy-nominated R&B group The Foreign Exchange].  He went to the same high school as my sister.  I’m from Greensboro and I remember being back home, watching the Grammys in the year that Phonte’s group was nominated. I remember seeing his mom on the local news talking about how her son was nominated.  I’m a hometown dude, so I’m always happy for anybody who’s local and doing big things.  There are also so many people in entertainment--from Danny McBride and  Zach Galifianakis to Nicholas Sparks on down to music groups like The Avett Brothers and Carolina Chocolate Drops. It’s inspiring to see that they get national recognition.

DCH: So, when you think back to 2011 when four of the six members of Kooley High--including yourself--decided to relocate to Brooklyn, what do you remember most about the feeling of being away from your homebase, here in North Carolina?

CS: Well, I stil live in Brooklyn. I’m up here right now working on the next Kooley High record.  9th Wonder wants to executive produce it and we’re just in the stages of cultivating exactly what it’s going to sound like.  But, me and Ill Digitz still live up here. As far as when we first moved up here--it was all about the music.  Our whole lives were surrounded by the music.  We were out of town and we didn’t know as many people, so it made our brotherhood stronger.  I look back on those times and I loved it.  I had a studio and I could just wake up and make music.  We couldn’t have picked a better place than New York, which is where hip-hop comes from. Their local scene is crazy too.  

DCH: Hearing “New York” and “local scene” in the same sentence sounds a little weird if you’re not from there, right?  I think most people assume that if you’re constantly doing shows in NYC, than you’ve graduated to the big leagues. 

CS: Man, there’s definitely a local scene.  We’ll do shows in North Carolina where we’ll have several hundred people. So, I’m thinking that when a local artist in New York does a show, they’ll have hundreds of people as well.  You don’t get that unless you have national exposure.  A$AP Rocky, of course.  Action Bronson, of course.  But then you have people that I really respect like Fresh Daily or Sene or ScienZe, and when they do shows there aren’t necessarily 300 or 400 people there.  It surprised me because there are so many people in New York.  But, being a local artist is always a fight.

DCH: So, now that you’ve had the chance to live elsewhere and view Chapel Hill’s local scene from a distance, what are your thoughts?

CS: About Chapel Hill, specifically? Well, the last time I came down we did a show out there and I was surprised at how many people knew about us.  We haven’t really done that many shows in Chapel Hill, but there was a huge line for our show that night.  The place was packed.  Chapel Hill’s in the know, man.  Those kids really know what’s going on and are really spreading the word about us.  The fact that it’s a college town has lent itself to music growing organically and virally amongst the community.  I will I say that I don’t know about very many new hip-hop artists anymore.  I know JSWISS, though. He just graduated from UNC and he’s been growing as an artist. He’s gotten better on every album that he’s dropped.  When he performed at our show he had his own crowd.  When we play with people, we can tell whether they bring a crowd or not. People come early just to see them.  People came early just to see JSWISS, they knew his words, they were chanting with him and everything.  So, you could see that he brings something to the table.  So, big shoutout to JSWISS.  Actually, he’s from New York, but he deserves a lot of credit for keeping Chapel Hill’s local scene going. But, I don’t see as many new artists out there as I would have hoped for locally.  King Mez was really killin’ it, I like what Drique London is doing, and the artists on Jamla Records are doing their thing thing too; but I just thought that there would be an abundance of upcoming artists.  But, just because I’m not in North Carolina as much doesn’t mean that I’m not intrigued. I’d still like for someone to put me on to who’s hot.  

DCH: Is there anything else you’d like to add?  

CS: I just want to give a big shoutout to everyone in Kooley High that wasn’t able to be a part of this interview--Tab, Sinopsis, Rapsody, Digitz, Foolery.  We’re all going to be at Locally Grown and we’re all ready to party with some friends and family because we love it down here. 

- Eric Tullis