Bunny Gregory was the "weird" kid in her school. For one thing, it was the '70s and '80s and she was a black artist in Charlotte who liked poetry and listened to everything from country to R&B, jazz and even crooners like Frank Sinatra. It only made sense a couple of decades later that in Charlotte, where few music venues cater to black artists, particularly hip-hop artists, Gregory, 52, would start a basement venue on Monroe Road that catered specifically to artists who were shunned everywhere else — artists like Tizzy and Kizzy of Th3 Higher, who are not only rappers but also poets, visual artists, merchants of psychedelia, and (dare I say) philosophers.
Gregory's venue was called the Underground, and after a few different location changes and an extended hiatus, it's now back as a floating event, presenting shows at places like New Era Music House on Old Concord Road and Three Spirits Brewery on Old Pineville Road. We talked with Gregory — call her "Bunny," please; only journalists use last names after first reference — about why she decided to launch her amazingly selfless showcase for young, talented "weird" artists.
Creative Loafing: So you told me earlier that you listened to everything from Loretta Lynn to Sergio Mendes growing up. When did rap grab you?
Bunny Gregory: I had listened to a lot of old-school R&B, and a lot of them were essentially rappers — they'd do some talking parts over the music and that was something that I really enjoyed. It was like poetry. And so when the Sugar Hill Gang hit, I loved them. That was one of first records I ever bought, but the very first album I bought was a Parliament-Funkadelic album.
What inspired you about hip-hop in Charlotte, decades later, to start a venue catering to hip-hop art in all its forms?
Being black here in Charlotte, there was nothing here for black artists. Knowing that and growing up with that, I felt something needed to be done about it. They always called me weird growing up. And when I started thinking about opening the Underground, I wanted a place where people could just do what they do, express who they are. We had people who would write poetry, do other kinds of art, and just hang out and be comfortable being who they are.
I'd had another place over in NoDa, but to make money we had to start doing rave-like parties and I didn't like that. It wasn't working out the way I had envisioned. But the good thing is that I met a lot of kids there who still come to the Underground. They were some of the more talented ones. And I still have great relationships with all of those kids.
I recently interviewed Tizzy and Kizzy of Th3 Higher, who consider you a sort of goddess of Charlotte music. Then I noticed that you wrote a comment on the story at CL's Facebook page saying they were the ones who inspired you to do the Underground. It is that true?
I met Tizzy when I moved to Monroe Road, and he and Kizzy wanted to do something with me. From there it sort of snowballed. We started in 2014 in a little white house on Monroe Road next door to the Auto Bell, and were there for two years but ran into a lot of opposition — "code violations." It would have been crazy expensive to do the necessary improvements, so we took it outside and started doing them as bonfires.
You're very resourceful.
You gotta be.
Did you feel like you were being singled out because you had rappers?
Yes, the cops were coming by constantly. They'd say, "If you guys are just showing art, that's fine." But they wanted us to have dancehall permits. And they weren't helpful when we needed them. They were always parked next door, but six or seven cars got broken into, and the cops never did anything about it.
If anybody, who would you say set the tone for the creativity that's happened at the Underground?
Tizzy and Kizzy definitely set the tone of it. They had been working on the music they do for quite a while and were going to other venues and trying to do something like this.
Let me guess: They got, 'We don't do rap.' Am I right?
[Laughs] Yes. Anybody who know doesn't know anything about rap thinks it's all the same — they think gansta or trap. But Tizzy and Kizzy are doing amazing things. And everybody else at the Underground was like that. Every time you came it would be a different genre. Leanna Eden would come in and do her folky stuff. It was one of the most diverse crowds you'd see. It could be very folky, lo-fo acoustic music, and I even had some guys playing heavy metal-type things there. And in all the years I had it, we never had any problems. Never. Everyone seemed comfortable in their surroundings there.
Kids even came on days we weren't doing an event. They'd just come, hang out and talk about working with each other. I just let them have the basement. They painted it, they made the stage, and from there, I just met so many other young people in Charlotte who wanted to do things but couldn't find a place.
You stopped at some point. When did you start back and why?
We started back in March of this year at my home. I started back because we'd been gone for about a year or so, and people were asking about it, and I was thinking, 'You know what: I can start it back out here at the house." Well, the first night so many people showed up that there weren't places for them to park.
I had no idea how much these kids missed it. I can't even tell you how quickly it kicked in. I didn't realize to the great extent that they needed this space.
Would I be correct in assuming you've moved the Underground out of your house now?
Yes, we're doing them now at the New Era Music House on Old Concord Road, and we have since talked to the owner of Three Spirits Brewery and have done a few shows there in the past month and a half.
How did the Underground inspire you as an artist?
I started painting again. A lot of my art is very Afrocentric, and I never felt like there was a place for me and now I do. It allowed me to think, "There is a place for me. There is a place for us." I guess sometimes if you can't find it, you gotta make it.