Introduction by Fatima Johnson, Interview by Ryan Lyons
Based on the way Kooley High’s lyrical frontmen, Tab-One and Charlie Smarts, enthralled the crowd at their most recent show in Brooklyn, you would have never guessed the two North Carolina expats had been recent immigrants to the Big Apple. Their approach to hip hop and musicianship might have convinced you they were New York born-and-raised, because their traditional style and authentic musicianship feel native to Hip Hop’s home. For example, after Kooley’s show, the Crown Heights crowd, which featured an eclectic mix of native Brooklynites, NY Hip Hop connoisseurs, and long- time Kooley High fans, had nothing but positive things to say about the group’s “pure-ist” energy and underground spirit. A fan told us, “ They actually put time into making their music look professional. They’re notwalking round the place with blunts acting like people they're not. I like the casual-ness about the whole thing they’re doing.”Like their sold-out show in Brooklyn, Kooley High’s latest project, The Heights EP, perfectly captures the group’s old school style and underground feel. Though the tape’s title references ascent, it’s clear that Kooley High could not have reached such a peak without first laying down a strong foundation in hip hop fundamentals. Starting back in 2008, the group initially began as a five-some of hip hop aficionados from NC State, with three rappers (Tab-one, Charlie Smarts, and Rapsody) and two producers (Foolery and Sinopsis).
The troupe’s conscious content and throw-back instrumentation set them apart as approachable entertainers, and demonstrated their passion for speaking about ideas millennials can relate to. Their first Youtube video, for instance, captured fans with a homemade four minute clip of Tab-One freestyling while driving on his way to work. Casually spitting rhymes about working two jobs, while including snarky lines like “Really don't stop man it's not complicated, see a cop to my left but I'm still skating”, Tab-One set the precedent for Kooley High’s focus on blue collar workers and the everyday-man’s grind.
Since then, under the mentorship of producer/legend 9th Wonder, Kooley High has spent the last 8 years perfecting the art of storytelling through complex lyricism and making an impact on the hip hop community, despite parting with and adding on new members to the group. In fact, right now only two of the troupe’s original members, Tab and Charlie, still remain: Rhapsody, the fiery female emcee who’s powerful poetic lyrics marked her as one of the leading ladies in contemporary hip hop, has gone on to do three solo projects with 9th Wonder. Meanwhile, Foolery, Tab and Sinopsis still make music back in NC since DJ Ill Digitz and Charlie left for NYC. Some critics are still unsure whether the new members of Kooley High can continue making the brand of music the group is known for without Rhapsody’s unique feminine touch or Stooley and Foolery’s production prowess. However, Kooley’s admiring fans and cult-like following prove that Tab-One and Charlie Smarts are still holding it down for the 919, and should have no problem upholding the high standards set by NC hip hop pioneers like Little Brother, the Just-Us League, and J Cole.
Charlie, you’ve expanded your voice on this project, doubling as an emcee and singer. Did you have any hand in production?
As far as production with Kooley High, I deal in the construction of the songs. It’s democratic when it comes to selecting which songs make the final cut. I don’t handle making the beats at this point. All those duties go to Sinopsis, Foolery or outside assistance. I usually pick the beat that I’m rokcing with, cook up an idea and run it by the crew. If everyone is down, we flesh it into a jam as a group.
North Carolina feels like a hub for Hip Hop purists. What do you attribute that to and what do you think has helped shape Kooley High’s sound over the years?
The success of Little Brother gave all of us in NC something to look up to. Their album, The Listening, was a purist's wet dream in the 2000’s. It helped birth the flavors of many talents like J Cole, King Mez, and Rapsody.
How would you describe the time when Little Brother dropped The Listening. Have you had conversations with your NC peers about the records influence?
When The Listening dropped it sent shockwaves through the scene in NC. It was great to see a local product make an album with such national acclaim. That album made people in the area take music more seriously... it opened our eyes to more possibilities.
“My mom is a singer, and I grew up singing in the choir in church, so I wanted to bring some of that experience to the table.” - Charlie Smarts
I was listening to an old Rapsody interview the other day and she spoke about H20, an organization you formed on campus that led to the beginning of Kooley High, and also led to an environment where she began rapping for the first time. Can you speak a little bit about those early days of Kooley High and getting to know each other?
It was a fun time. We made an organization that gave students a chance to express themselves in a Hip Hop centric way. We threw parties, had MC battles, beat battles, handled promotions, did graffiti, and eventually made an album. When no one is paying attention, you can make your own rules and enjoy yourselves... I know we did.
I kind of feel like you guys have that same energy at your shows that was created at the radio show. What do you attribute that magnatism to? And how do you keep it going independently, at that?
We like what we like. Our sound is a product of our taste. That good shit.
On “Alone” y’all brielfy touched on the nation that we’re living in. A$AP Rocky recently mentioned that he didn’t necessarily feel like that was his job as an artist. Where do you and Kooley High fall in line?
I speak about my world. If I am affected by it, I talk about it. When a black man dies from police brutality I feel as if it could have been me. I’m not rich.
Rapsody's gone on to collaborate with Kendrick Lamar, one of the most prolific lyricists of this generation. Are y'all all still collaborating? What’s the feeling on all of these things? What’s it like without having that feminine energy around in the group? Has the dynamic changed?
We aren't collaborating at this time. We may collaborate on the next Kooley High album. We've had talks. Rapsody is no longer a member of Kooley High, but we are still homies. We all agreed her focus should be on her solo career with the momentum that she has... I mean after Jimmy Fallon, she got a grammy nomination for her part on the Kendrick album.
"We are working on an album executive produced by 9th Wonder. I want our catalogue to be the best of any NC Hip Hop group ever.” - Charlie Smarts
I’ve been hearing Kooley High’s music for a while now, but I never heard such melodies from you Charlie. What made you bring your vocals to this record?
After we dropped the David Thompson album, I decided to push myself to improve as a songwriter. When people listen to music they generally focus on the beat first, then the chorus, then the verses... so crafting choruses became important to me. My mom is a singer, and I grew up singing in the choir in church, so I wanted to bring some of that experience to the table. The fellas were cool with it and it made it on to "Heights".
Digitz, I have been listening to a couple of your mixes for a while this year and still go back. Spotify recently updated their app to have DJ’ing. Does it really matter if you’re using Spotify, Serato, or Technics?
I pretty much do all my gigs with Technics 1200's and Serato. I love to cut, so I need that turntable. Maybe one day I will check out DJing with Ableton or a controller. Spotify is tight for checking out new music, but I still curate a MP3 collection that I DJ with. I have also been buying records again, so it's funny you ask that. I hadn’t bought real wax since 2006, and its been great to get back into it.
Any record stores our readers should check for while in North Carolina or Brooklyn?
My go to spot in NY is Human Head Records in Williamsburg BK, shouts to the Homie Shawn Dub. I haven't been digging in NC yet, but bigups to the Homies Chris, RJ, and Rob who have been hitting the basement flea markets heavy in Raleigh.
You guys have the Hopscotch music festival in North Carolina coming up, right? What else can we look forward to seeing from you?
Yup, Tab put out a solo project this year. I got one coming. We are working on an album executive produced by 9th Wonder. We working breh. I want our catalogue to be the best of any NC Hip Hop group ever.