Rapsody finds a foil for her romantic jam during the Jamla Records showcase at Ziggy’s on March 29. (photo by Caleb Smallwood)

by Jordan Green

Everette Witherspoon, a young county commissioner with a master’s in social work, resplendent in a pink jacket leaned against the bar. Michael Hewlett, the cops and courts reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, had been getting down on the dance floor since producer 9th Wonder had taken to the turntables around 10:45 p.m. And April Hargrove was leaning against the barricade when artist Big Remo asked for a moment of silence for Hargrove’s brother, Cranston, who was murdered in a random, as-yet unsolved shooting in 2013.

It was that kind of scene — like Shakespeare, but the royals threw the court open to the people, and rather than a drama of envy, intrigue and vengeance, the pageant ended on a high note of supreme unity.

9th Wonder, like Big Remo a Winston-Salem native, played the convener. It wasn’t exactly a homecoming; as 9th noted in the green room after the show, he comes back to Winston-Salem all the time to visit his family, even if his name isn’t always on the marquee. He’s a monster talent whose services are in high demand, a label exec and artist who hasn’t wavered from a single-minded vision or compromised his integrity. He would be doing the same thing even if the public didn’t care, so he isn’t one to gloat about his triumphs.

“A lot of people know what I do, but they don’t get to see it,” 9th said. “This is a good way for them to see what the city made.”

9th Wonder, whose birth name is Patrick Douthit, leveraged his production work for Jay Z, Beyonce and countless others into his own label, Jamla Records, based in Raleigh, and has built a considerable roster of talent with artists from both within North Carolina (Big Remo, Heather Victoria and Rapsody) and without (Add-2, HaLo and GQ). When the students in Len Neighbors’ entrepreneurship class put together the Dash Pop music festival, they landed on the golden idea of turning March 27, their opening night, over to 9th for a label showcase. Add-2 flew in from Chicago to join the label’s three North Carolina natives, along with 9th, for the concert.

Heather Victoria, the label’s R&B chanteuse opened the set with an emotionally direct if sometimes halting performance of sultry balladry.

Add-2 put in a frenetic workout, by turns terse and comedic, displaying conceptual wit. Case in point: a jam where heaven is imagined as an exclusive nightclub and “Jesus is the promoter.” He killed with a contest to see which volunteer could do the best rendition of the theme from “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” He wrapped up his set up with “Death of Chicago,” a smoldering jeremiad that boils addiction, community violence, police violence, sexual abuse and educational divestment into an apocalyptic stew.

Big Remo turned in a gutsy performance that vacillated between hard street lessons and erotic vulnerability.

The community ethos championed by 9th and Add-2 in particular found expression in an opening slot by Illpo. Momentarily relieving DJ SK, who spun classic hip-hop records before and after the showcase, 9th personally introduced Illpo, eliciting a roar of approval when he mentioned the group is from Greensboro.

“I truly believe in supporting local hip hop,” 9th said. “It’s not a certain sound. It’s that we’re doing it here. You gotta support us now; you can’t wait until we get big.”

Recently reinvigorated by the energetic DJ style of Ena Pop, Illpo’s J. Bond and Mundae Boons have been around for awhile — a dynamic captured in the couplet: “When I first stepped on the scene n****s was petrified… And they still are.”

But the undisputed reigning queen was headliner Rapsody, an emcee with impeccable flow, clear articulation and fierce attitude.

Having established dominance on her opening track (“I’m God gifted/ I’m Derek Jeter pitches” from “Godzilla”) the Snow Hill, NC native laid out her larger agenda.

“People ask me why I do this,” Rapsody explicated from the stage. “Outside of having a supreme love for hip hop I do it for you, you and you. I do it for your sister, your aunt and your niece. If anybody asks about me, tell ’em I’m a motherf***in’ beast. There’s no man that raps better than me. If you a lady and you want to be a rapper, DJ, doctor, mechanic, referee — you want to be the best basketball player, don’t even worry about it; just do it. And then when they say, ‘You made it,’ just say, ‘Thank you very much.’”

Rapsody’s recent splash of notoriety doing a guest turn on Kendrick Lamar’s new album seemed like an afterthought given the abundance of stellar material from her 2012 debut The Idea of Beautiful, 2014 EP Beauty and the Beast and numerous mixtapes since 2010. She duly performed the Lamar collaboration, “Complexion,” but for a declaration of black pride, it was hard to beat her unyielding attack on her own “Hard to Choose.”

In an era when wealth and celebrity — in hip hop, certainly — seem inevitably to redound to a charmed circle of postracialism, it’s refreshing to see an artist take an unapologetic pro-black stance. In the most salient passage, Rapsody rapped, “The blond Barbie scars ’em, we gotta save ’em/ No love lost for the whites, Latinos and Asians/ Loyalty to all, but when I look in these black girls’ faces/ I understand why I chose to be better, not basic.”

Seated next to 9th on a leather couch in the green room after the show, Rapsody described her development as something akin to training to be a boxer. She noted that she was signed to Jamla Records two years before she put out her first album.

“A lot of practice, doing development, studying flow,” she said. “I listened to a Tribe Called Quest and studied their craft. Sleeping in the studio, you know.”

The criteria 9th uses to select artists for his roster has more to do with “a certain belief system” than a particular style.

“We’re all different, but at the core we have the same values,” he said. “I’m looking for artists who are not going to compromise themselves to get to the next level. Just to make sure their heart is in the right place. Like Rapsody was saying, it’s all about development. If you do that right, then when something big happens you’re ready for it.”

9th’s creativity feeds off the individual styles of the rappers he works with, but the unifying element is heart.

“It’s so many realms to what the 9th Wonder sound is,” the producer said. “There’s the R&B side, the hip-hop side. I try to explore all the realms. There’s a certain feeling in the records I make with each artist. If you understand the power of feeling and emotion, there’s no limit to what you can do and what kind of beats you can come up with. But if you don’t feel the emotion, then you don’t have anything.”

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Scenes from the Jamla Records showcase (slideshow by Caleb Smallwood)

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