In the beginning: the cypher

It’s Friday at 4 p.m. on the campus of NC A&T University in early April.

In one of several YouTube videos commemorating the event, the legendary hip-hop emcee KRS-One strides onto the plaza. He towers over everybody else in sunglasses, a Nike athletic jacket and blue jeans, with Terence Muhammad, a Nation of Islam member who often provides security in Greensboro, following about three paces behind. KRS-One’s stature and magnetism give a sense of what it must have been like to be in the presence of Marcus Garvey or Booker T. Washington a hundred years ago.

A voice off camera summons the students milling around.

“Everybody gather ’round. Teacher has something to say. Gather ’round everybody.”

Just then, a white van bearing the university emblem and the word “facilities” pulls up, and everyone looks a little startled, as if the gathering is about to be disrupted.

The driver steps out of the van and hands his cell phone to a bystander so he can pose for a photo with legend.

“This is the foundation right here,” he exults.

Without getting into detail, KRS-One makes passing reference to his concert at Dynacon Event Center coming up that night before getting down the business at hand.

“The point of the matter is you never know when you’re in history until it’s too late,” he says.

“What you want to be is a friend to your future self,” he continues. “Your future self is depending on you…. You’ll never be 15 again, but you will be 30. So the 30-year-old you is hoping that the 20-year-old you is doing it right.”

He makes an argument that knowledge depends on having a large vocabulary to describe the world.

“That’s why emceeing is so important,” he says. “Where the spitters at?”

He commences: Right now the cypher just begin/ KRS-One, we gonna do it again and again/ My man got the camera on me/ You watchin’ a real emcee from 1983/ Dude, I’m gonna pass the mic/ I want to see who’s ready to get down/ Not in the day, but tonight.

Before the breath of KRS-One’s last word is exhaled, an emcee named Mani Parris is on it.

I’m the voice of the oppressed like a rebel in protest.

The Teacher clasps his chin between his forefinger and his thumb.

On the corner with hustlers, Parris continues, in the streets with the homeless/ Y’all worshipping Yeezus? Boy please, I’m Moses/ I was sent by God to come and lead the hopeless.

“Mmmm…” KRS says.

My squad’s skinny, but we push weight like we muscular, Parris says, and KRS roars his approval.

I’m just connected to the plug, Parris says, gesturing towards the legendary emcee, like a USB, and KRS acknowledges the gesture with an outstretched hand.

Next up is G-$antana, wearing a Knicks hat and a green backpack loaded to capacity.

Knowledge reigns supreme over nearly everyone, right? he begins, enunciating the words in the acronym that forms KRS-One’s name. So I should get the mental wealth, increase my fight.

He raises his fists in a defensive posture, as his friend, Kiing Spacely beat-boxes an accompaniment.

Told the Crips in the hood, ‘Back off my back’/ I’m just trying to get home and not move in no pack/ I’d rather go to the stu’, mix up some beats, freestyle off the dome.

He pauses.

Do you like what I speak? $antana asks, clasping hands with KRS. As the freestyle continues, KRS nods with the beat, laughing. A minute in, KRS is looking visibly amazed, dropping his jaw. Then, before KRS can fully absorb the moment, $antana switches up, recounting an adventure with Kiing in Queens when they spent their last dollar on a slice of cheese pizza, and then found they didn’t have enough money to catch the bus.

Talkin’ ’bout Lucky Charms, I was too broke for cereal/ Serial rapper, who the f*** like venereal….

KRS bobs his head like a punch-drunk boxer, delight playing across his smile, as $antana starts the next stanza with the word “diseases.”


Regeneration: Brooklyn born, Greensboro raised

“Brooklyn made me, Greensboro raised me” is the tagline G-$antanauses on his Facebook profile. $antana, who declined to reveal his real name to Triad City Beat, was born in Brooklyn in 1995, a time when the rise of artists like Wu-Tang Clan, Nas and Biggie Smalls was beginning to move hip-hop’s center of gravity back to New York City following a period of dominance by the West Coast. $antana’s mother, Lynne Maillard, was involved in the scene, appearing in a few rap videos.

“She grew up around the pure culture,” $antana said. “So she knew — or knew of — most of the cats who blew up,” including Jay Z.

Maillard exposed her son to Run-DMC, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. In 2001, Maillard moved $antana and his sister down to Greensboro, hoping that the smaller Southern city would keep her son out of trouble.

“My mother was trying to shelter me,” said $antana, who is now 21. “I was playing hooky. My mother did the right thing. I’ve done some things. Up there, I’d probably be in the slammer now if we’d stayed.”

He performed in public for the first time at the Carolina Theatre for A&T homecoming in October 2015. He met Ed E. Ruger, a veteran emcee who has been a linchpin of the Greensboro scene for the past decade, at a beat battle a couple months later in December.

He worked nearly constantly on his craft, to the detriment of his studies at A&T.

“At 6 or 7 o’clock, I’m writing for a couple hours, going over rhymes before I go to sleep,” he recalled during an interview at the Starbucks near his place on Dolley Madison Road in west Greensboro. “I’d wake up at 2 in the morning. That’s when I lose track of time. I locked myself in my closet with a little bag of weed. I have about 15 notebooks now; then I had four. I had a list of what I wanted to finish. This is 3 in the morning, and I’d do it for six hours.”

Ruger, who hosts the monthly Gate City Cypher at Shiner’s, encouraged $antana to keep showing up and to network. In January, an artist had to drop out and Ruger called $antana and asked him to fill the slot. At the time, $antana’s academic career was on the rocks.

“It was like, ‘Why am I getting this notification that I’m getting kicked out of school and I’m getting my first paid gig at the same time?’” $antana recalled. “Maybe God’s trying to tell me something: ‘You’re on the right track.’”

Ruger has been a fan from the start.

“He’s very fresh,” Ruger said. “He’s like the golden era of hip hop, but now. His first show he was freestyling and people didn’t know what it was. He’s just gotten better and better. He’s found his lane.”


The one who is called: Master Blaster and the apprentice

$antana already had a ticket for KRS-One’s April 8 show at Dynacon Event Center when he heard about the cypher at A&T. He had booked some time in a local recording studio at 5 p.m., which left just enough time to make his appearance at the cypher. After finishing the recording session, he headed over to the concert venue and resumed his campaign to connect with KRS-One.

“I finessed my way backstage, and I waited for an opportunity to kick it with him,” $antana recalled. “I wasn’t nervous. I knew what I was doing. I just plan carefully. I really believe if you concentrate you can control the universe. I wasn’t star-struck. I said, ‘What do I gotta do? I know I’m gonna make it, but I need the guidance.”

Before the concert, $antana slipped his phone number to KRS-One.

The intimate concert saw KRS-One jump into the crowd and regale the audience with his hits, and then pass the mic around. $antana got his turn again, and freestyled what would become his track “Puffy in 95,” in which he puts himself in the shoes of Sean Combs in hip hop’s pivotal years.

The lyrics lay out $antana’s position pretty clearly: “Hip hop saved my soul, so I’ll rap ’til I die.”

He had to be at work at McDonald’s on Guilford College Road the next day at 5 a.m.

“He didn’t call Sunday,” $antana recalled. “He didn’t call Monday. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m gonna forget about that.’ A couple days later I’m staring at the cash register and it’s the end of the shift. I thought, ‘I’ll just go home and smoke down a bag.’ My phone rings and I see a New Jersey number. My OG lives in Jersey, so I thought it was him. I pick up the phone, and he says, ‘Ha ha ha this is KRS-One.’”

The legendary emcee asked $antana if he could join him late that week for two dates in Florida, culminating in Orlando that Saturday.

$antana set out with Kiing Spacely and another emcee, Slim Lieu on a Thursday. The car, which was owned by Lieu, broke down several times, and they ended up stranded in northern Florida, missing a date in Gainesville. During the perilous journey, Kiing fell asleep at the wheel late at night and their vehicle was struck by a truck. At another point, $antana recalled, they caught a ride with a meth head.

When they finally arrived in Orlando on Saturday, $antana said it was the first time he really experienced an audience going wild during his performance.

During his opening set, he gave a shout-out to his hometown: Gate City Cypher back in December, tons of great energy/ I purchased a ticket from an artist who will not be mentioned — why?/ Cos G-$antana spittin’ and I need for everybody to listen.

Then a nod to his mentor: See the thing about me, I always recognize you gotta check out the venue first/ And I learned from KRS you gotta put most of these rappers in a hearse/ See, I hurt on emcees, I shoulda won a gold medal/ I’m shockin’ all these cats, my static energy is so high level.

They limped back to Greensboro, and Lieu’s car finally gave out. But by that time, $antana had an offer to join KRS-One on his European tour, beginning in May.


On tour: Siren at the cypher

Those three and a half months “offshore” are like a dream, $antana said. Back at Shiner’s for the Gate City Cipher in mid-September, $antana let himself be transported from the humble venue tucked in a suburban office park near Guilford College: “I want to be standing with my feet in sand/ Bottle of Fiji and joint in my hand.”

The tour took them from Spain to Germany, with stops in England, Scotland, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

With $antana performing opening sets and acting as hypeman for KRS-One, they shared a stage with Mobb Deep, Redman and Cypress Hill at Festival des Artefacts in Strasbourg, France, and partied with Waka Flocka Flame in Switzerland.

“We didn’t plan on wilding out,” $antana said. “I told my mother: ‘We’re going out to work.’ Waka Flocka came out to our show, and, ‘Why don’t you guys join us at the club?’ We said, ‘Why not?’”

$antana said Waka Flocka’s newer music is a little more sophisticated than his raw reputation would suggest, and his off-the-chain lifestyle is belied by the fact that he’s a practicing vegan. $antana was impressed by Waka Flocka’s ability to freestyle and control an audience.

“Most people who went to that club, they wouldn’t have been able to survive the next day,” $antana said. “Me, I just got out of college. I know how many shots I can take. One more shot of Hennessy — that’s it. I see that Patrón — nope, can’t do it. My homie got me breakfast, and four hours later we’re sober.”

$antana’s experience in Switzerland was particularly magical.

“We had a cypher outside one of the venues,” he recalled. “People were passing me and the DJ joints. I was freestyling to this lady. She was like, ‘I feel in love with this American boy.’”

The crowd in Turin, Italy was nuts, he said, with people stomping the floor so hard it felt like an earthquake, while the vibe in Amsterdam was extremely chill. In Strasbourg, $antana was taken aback to hear fans whispering, “Oh, that’s him,” as he walked past, and on the second of a two-night stand in Berlin, a stranger complimented the crew on the previous night’s show.


Down to earth: Can’t stop, won’t stop

Since his stateside return in late July, adjusting to life back in Greensboro hasn’t been without frustration for $antana. He knows he needs to work on building his local fan base, and selling tickets hand to hand at cyphers can be a humbling experience for someone accustomed to performing for a built-in audience of hundreds or thousands. He wants to book a college tour, and he’s planning to record a track with Ed E. Ruger. Meanwhile, he’s talking about leaving Greensboro, maybe relocating to New Jersey, where he could save money and be closer to New York, or Atlanta, which he sees as a good place to network.

On Sept. 4, $antana vented his disappointment in a Facebook status update, writing, “Ever since I’ve been on tour and back I’ve realized the fakes and the snakes. I’ve realized others outside of where you live will truly appreciate and buy your music. They will become fans! Supporters as well… but at home! Even if you toured with KRS-One, it’s still like, ‘So?’

“But I see where I must go,” $antana’s screed continued. “I must follow my music. And my music is telling me this isn’t the place. The money shows as well. Too many opportunities outside of these walls, and my music has opened way too many doors that NC cannot understand. I have [given] this some long hard thought, but it’s come to this. So…. On that note…. It’s been real, Greensboro. I’m taking my talents where they belong. Real rap. Where it’s appreciated. Where the culture is represented and not disrespected. Where true fans support. Not haters. Back to my real home (and my next tour).”

The reality, as Ed E. Ruger will tell anyone, is that even with some mainstream exposure making hip-hop music is still a struggle. A couple hundred people is a good draw for a hip-hop show in Greensboro, Ruger said, and he’s been to events in New York City, where attendance wasn’t much better. A good night at a local show might net an emcee $60 to $100, with whatever they can pull in from merch sales as a bonus.

If $antana continues to tour with KRS-One, Ruger said he can expect to gradually convert the headliner’s fans to his own, but at the same time it’s not wise to neglect the local fan base, whether it be in Greensboro or Brooklyn. Building an effective fan base is a complex undertaking that requires attention to both an internet audience and a personal network of friends and supporters. A solid hip-hop career is built like a pyramid, with mass appeal at the base and trusted colleagues near the top: If one element is pulled out, the artist at the top doesn’t have to worry about falling too far, Ruger said.

At the same time, Ruger said he wouldn’t fault $antana if he decides to relocate to a more active locale like Brooklyn.

“That’s kind of the purpose of the platform I’m building,” he said. “I honestly don’t want the same people at shows after five years. I want you to go away, and come back and headline.”

For the most recent Gate City Cypher, held at Shiner’s on Sept. 17, Ruger booked nine acts, including himself, with G-$antana in the prime slot from 12:05 to 12:25 a.m. Jay Mac, a South Carolina emcee who would look more at home in a death-metal band than at a rap show, projected electric fury and hip-hop unity, while Indo da Diva drew a surge of crowd love with her intimidating flow and support from her sister and friends. At the end of the night, Ruger would pronounce himself satisfied to have pulled in 191 people in a venue with a capacity of 299, including 168 paid attendees.

Ruger acted as emcee in both senses of the word, rocking the mic during his own set and hyping the other artists.

“This man has just returned from an international tour and he’s been taken under the wing of KRS-One,” Ruger said, introducing $antana. “Please show this dude some love.

“I ain’t gonna lie to you,” Ruger continued. “I’ve sold more records outside of North Carolina than in North Carolina. He’s gotten more love outside of North Carolina than in North Carolina. We’re the only ones who can fix that s***.”

$antana’s set opened with Kiing Spacely beat-boxing before returning to the turntables. $antana interspersed freestyles with staple tracks like “Puffy in 95” and “Everybody Wants to Be a Rapper.”

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Introducing “Put ’Em Up,” $antana said, “This is like a crowd joint. Picture hundreds, picture thousands of hip hop-crazy heads. I usually stage-dive on this one, but I’d probably break my neck here.”

When $antana and Kiing finished their set, they waded through a throng of supporters, reciprocating hand slaps and bro-hugs.

“As a veteran, we proud as s*** of you,” Ruger said. “You reppin’ all over the world for us.”

“Everywhere I go all over the world I mention the Gate City in my freestyles,” $antana replied.

Pointing to $antana as he turned to the audience, Ruger said, “This dude proves that dreams can come true.”

During the Shiners cypher, in conversation and on his Facebook feed, $antana has been making it clear that what he wanted more than anything else was to be back on tour.

And so it would come to pass that on Sept. 22, he would post a freestyle on his Facebook feed from a tour of the United Kingdom with KRS-One.

Bruh, I’m in f***in’ Scotland, hearin’ about my brothers getting killed/ I had to take time out of making my music to go ahead and tell people what’s really real/ Real recognize real, and realize realize realize realize/ And I’m realizing that the lies from the government is bull****/ Goodbye.

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