Kooley High, North Carolina’s much buzzed about hip hop collective, has relocated to Brooklyn, New York and the new city hype is already building. The group, minus a couple of members, performed this past weekend at Cine-M-Artspace 17 in Manhattan, a small venue in Amber Village meant to showcase indie music, films and art to a crowd of interested onlookers. The aesthetics of the room undoubtedly suited the band, who describe their music and mission as a “grassroots initiative” meant to slowly seep its way into the ears and minds of hip-hop fans everywhere. The stage was modest, flanked by canvas paintings of Biggie Smalls and Jay-Z, along with a wall decked in African mosaic art. It was the quintessential backdrop for a batch of young rap ingénues, who pride themselves on sampling, break-beats, and conscious, clever rhymes.
Kooley High, a band that formed originally on the campus of North Carolina State University, consists of three MCs (Charlie Smarts, Rapsody, Tab One), two producers (Foolery and The Sinopsis) and a DJ (Ill Digitz). Rapsody and Tab One were not in appearance for the show, so Sinopsis filled in as guest MC. On the heels of their sophomore album release, the group performed a set of past favorites opening with the uptempo jam “Well Done,” then merging into slower swoon singles, like, “There You Go,” before previewing their latest work. With subtle hints of Digable Planets and the Fugees, the band came across as a fresh, unrefined and well-assorted collaborative preparing to own the limelight. Their N.C. sentiment also called to mind the sound of another southern rap group, Little Brother, as both artists have collaborated with producer, 9th Wonder.
The show was not without its technical flubs of course; one microphone fell out of synch with the others, so three artists tossed around the remaining two during their set. Additionally, the performance would have been greatly enhanced by the presence of the group’s two star MCs. Regardless, the audience was in vibe with the band, and they made the best of the scene. The crowd nodded their heads and raised their arms to the stylistic scratching of Ill Digitz, and the deep, smooth vocals of Charlie Smarts, who sometimes had an air of Andre3000. Kooley High’s command of the room was professional and impressive, as Charlie used his subtle humor and charisma to maintain attention for the entire set.
“I’m on stage tearing the roof down,” he rapped, as the group threw their right arms into the air in archetypal hip hop intimation. “I’m broke as hell, but I don’t care, I’m still smokin’ Ls.”
Moving to Bushwick with a penny in their pocket and the hope of expanding their network to the next level, they are a posse of hustlers with effervescent allure. Upon entering the club, both Charlie and Sinopsis greeted attendants, offering each a copy of their latest mixtape. Additionally, free CDs were available at the merch table along with lollipop-colored t-shirts, meant to satisfy the ‘lost days of youth’ ethos of the group’s imaginative undertaking.
“Do your dance, do your dance, do your dance,” they rapped, forming a slight soul train and bouncing to the left and right across the stage. It was Crip-walking Kooley High-style, with audience members joining along in the mantra. “It’s a bonanza, said she want a bonanza, so put your hands up cause mommy is a dancer.”
It was a humble beginning to what appears to be the start of something that will spread quickly into house parties, clubs and local stages around New York. Kooley High has a naïve charm that suits them well, and has already teamed with a host of other young acts in their realm including Wale and J. Cole. If nothing else, their creative spirit blows with the wind of Brooklyn’s predecessors, making the mural of Biggie all the more poignant as centerpiece for their debut.
“Party and Bushwick,” they chanted, raising their Heinekens in toast with the crowd. “Cheers.”
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– Courtney Garcia