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Taking The Rap 

Local outfit helps keep it real

Until somewhat recently, independent and underground hip hop in Charlotte has always been relegated to outcast status -- unlike, say, Atlanta, where similar acts are rapidly gaining OutKast status. The occasional radio-program chattin', dub-rollin' star appears at an out-of-the-way place on The Plaza or Independence Boulevard, or perhaps as part of a downtown festival bill. Some local and regional rappers with national reputations -- maybe someone like the Grammy-nominated Petey Pablo -- appear at the odd club show with some professional athletes.But where is there for the independent regional hip hop act -- say, Little Brother or Supastition -- to play? How does a national act, feted by critics but unknown to all but a hardcore group of fans, go about convincing a local club that they should book him? And what of the local kids, black and white, who are committed to refocusing the music's reputation as a brain-centric, heritage-celebrating, complete lifestyle choice? Where to go?

Ray and Claudia Blackwood wondered the same thing. And so, three years ago, along with sons Scott and Justin, they formed Trilogy Productions with the goal of booking and promoting hip hop shows in the Charlotte area.

The company initially acted as representatives for Dominant 7, a local hip hop group made up of the Blackwood brothers and friends, as well as other local artists. After Dominant 7 finished up work on their debut CD, Rappers vs. Poets, they began looking for a venue to host their CD release party. The rest, as they say, is history.

"It was obvious that it was important to bring in larger acts that would draw larger crowds if the group wanted to be heard," says Scott Blackwood. "(All) the guys were big fans of the Anticon collective artists and noticed on their web site information about booking them for shows. It seemed like a long shot, but there was nothing to lose extending the invitation to have one of their artists in Charlotte. You can imagine the disbelief when the response came back asking if we would be interested in having Sage Francis headline the CD release party. We immediately accepted and the wheels were set in motion."

Soon after announcing the show, Scott Blackwood was contacted by Patrick Elder, another Charlottean interested in promoting underground and independent music. When the Sage Francis/Dominant 7 show drew upwards of 300 people, the Blackwoods and Elder sat down to think.

"(We realized) we're not the only ones in Charlotte that like this kind of music, and we realized that this could become something we did on a regular basis," notes Blackwood. "This became even more evident when we immediately got offers from Sage's booking agent to bring the Anticon and Mush tours to town and independent artists like AdeeM and Josh Martinez contacted us about the possibilities of a show in Charlotte. We learned quickly that the indie/hip hop artists had been looking for a Southern show town that provided a much needed tour stop between Baltimore and Florida, as well as a promoter that they could rely on to establish a local scene and provide a quality show environment."

The next step, of course, was finding a place to hold the acts the family began booking.

"As we were offered larger and larger shows, it became obvious that Fat City was not large enough to accommodate some of the acts we were being offered," Blackwood continues. "As we began contacting local clubs, we soon learned that we were up against a stereotype dilemma -- they would hear hip hop or rap and run. It's one thing to play hip hop records, but when you start talking about shows, all of a sudden they would either say, "We don't do hip hop shows' or they wanted $2,000 security deposits, five to seven security guards, and wouldn't give us a "prime' night. And most of them simply didn't return our phone calls. We did, however, get a call one day from Jeff Lowery of The Hungry Duck. They were reopening the club and would be interested in meeting with us to talk about doing our shows there. At last we found a venue, and we've been there ever since."

Patrick Elder concurs. "The Hungry Duck and Fat City were the only places that gave us a shot. No one else wants us even now, even after the numbers we pull in."

Part of the Blackwood family's winning formula is making sure to include a number of local bands on every bill they promote. This helps create a community atmosphere that, in theory, helps benefit everyone: Headliners can travel light, local bands get a high-profile gig and larger crowds, and the Blackwoods can continue to spread the word.

However, the family notes that blanket promotion of each show is still critical, especially with the lack of local labels and radio play.

"We have a list of mom and pop record stores, college radio stations, promoters, clothing stores, etc.," Blackwood relates. "We design, print and send out thousands of flyers for each show. In addition, we have a mailing list of about 150 people who regularly get information about upcoming shows. We try to hit the area college campuses. This genre of music is particularly popular on college radio stations, and the lack of one in this area is a big disadvantage."

And so, despite having booked folks as disparate as J-Live, Atmosphere, Francis and others, the family-run "company" still struggles to break even.

"I think before we can move to the next level, we need a club/venue that can put in some financial backing," claims Blackwood. "Right now we cover all expenses, i.e., artist guarantees, lodging, meals, extra sound and promotion. We've had offers to do De la Soul, DJ Shadow and the like, but without financial backing, it's just not possible right now. We're not rich, and up to now we have barely managed to break even. If we could get to that point in the game where club owners wanted our shows, our vibe, our crowd bad enough to throw some money in the equation -- even a small investment -- the indie hip hop scene in Charlotte would explode."

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