By Patrick Phelps-McKeown
Around 3 pm on a weekday I walked up to American Underground, answering a call for extras in Professor Toon’s new video, and ran into producers Sup Doodle and Slums talking about Live Nation by the entrance. A second later, the Professor himself opened the door and led us down into the belly of the beast, where a few figures in all black were already lounging around a conference table. Some tongue in cheek jokes about how only the producers were on time to the shoot, an involved discussion of Kendrick albums, and an hour later the basement was thirty deep listening to the track “Who Gon (Stop Me),” off Toon’s forthcoming record Take Notes (out on Cardigan Records), on an iPod boom box.
Minutes later, as our black-clad troupe migrated from AU to Durham Central Park looking like we were about to re-create Kanye West’s notorious Brit Awards performance, I looked back at the pack and saw a veritable who’s who of local hip-hop: Raleigh-based beat guru Slums; artist, vocalist and manager Mballa; Cardigan Records label-mate Bigg Brad; multi-instrumental producer and Party Illegal organizer Sup Doodle, and interdimensional being BrassiousMonk, among many others. We congregated on the bridge in Central Park, briefly parting ranks to let through a family out for a walk with their young son. The little guy didn’t seem to know what to make of us, and when Toon bent down to dap him up the kid took an apprehensive step back. “Well, it is Durham,” someone quipped to widespread laughter.
Professor Toon, a.k.a. Kurrell Rice, Toon, Rell, or one half of former local hip-hop duo Toon & The Real Laww, has been making moves in Durham and beyond for over half a decade. I first encountered the work of the Professor in 2011 via the video for his song “Hulk Smash” and the recommendations of friends in the band LiLa, who had shared a bill with him and spoke highly of his performance. Kurrell Rice is much more than a rapper. As well as an entrepreneur, promoter, former food trucker and father, he is an MC in the truest sense of the word: the man knows how to move a crowd.
There is no tenure in the world of hip-hop, and today’s success is no guarantee of tomorrow’s survival. Yet the Professor has managed to stay relevant through constant hard work and a willingness to change lanes when appropriate. Toon and Laww’s DURM Hip Hop Summit fesitval, despite logistical difficulties and disparaging press coverage, has nonetheless been a force in catalyzing NC hip-hop’s much-lauded renaissance. Organizing, booking and promoting a festival is an insane amount of often thankless work, and those who take critical aim at programming and organizational decisions overlook the opportunities that the Summit creates for up-and-coming rappers, producers and DJs to connect and build community.
Professor Toon has been strategic about the moves he makes. An early proponent and ally of Durham’s wildly successful Runaway Clothes, he has also taken the stage to MC several Party Illegal events at The Pinhook and has established himself as American Underground’s in-house rapper, delivering a strong flows on AU’s year-end wrap up video. These alliances and connections have kept him in the conversation even as the constant onslaught of content available to listeners has made it hard for artists to stay in the spotlight.
“I don’t get nervous before shows,” Toon remarked as we sat in the AU basement. “Before a big show, we’ll be backstage and some of the guys will be nervous, pacing, and I’m just like ‘let me out there.’” This confrontational streak, a hunger for audiences, has been a constant thread in Toon’s work even as his style continues to evolve. His hunger has not led him astray. In the past few years he has shared stages with icons such as De La Soul and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, as well as landing a spot on this year’s Moogfest lineup. This Friday, he takes the stage at Durham’s Motorco Music Hall to release his full-length album Take Notes.
Take Notes is a survey of Toon’s trajectory. Following up on his 2013 EP You Know The Name, this new offering sees the Professor perfecting his in-your-face flow over production by an array of local beatmakers such as Ben Trill (who produced the beat for George Yamazawa’s stellar “Dining Room”). In an era where radio rap is dominated by medicated psalms to bottles and models, Toon focuses on more populist topics: fatherhood, the daily grind of the working class, the struggle to make a name for oneself in an oversaturated market. The last few years have seen him take cues from the present and past of hip-hop without compromising his core. He sings hooks on several tracks, punctuates bars with barking and whooping adlibs, and challenges listeners with convoluted rhyme schemes reminiscent of Phonte’s wordplay.
The Professor has been hinting at new work for a while: he recently teased “No Lectures,” a lengthy cut of him spitting over a variety of beats ranging from J. Cole’s “Tale of Two Citiez” to EDM-laced house music, and the standout track “The Elephant,” released on SoundCloud more than a year ago, has become a fixture of his live set. “The Elephant”, one of the most moving tracks on Take Notes, is a searing indictment of an absentee father peppered with Toon’s signature adlibs and sports metaphors. The minimal, menacing beat takes a downtempo turn midway through the track, showcasing Toon’s rhythmic switch-ups and impassioned delivery.
There are things that I feel could have been done better. The pacing of the album feels at times unintentional, and simple track order changes like switching the position of the first two tracks could make for a more natural flow. The mixing is good overall but inconsistent, with some tracks sounding polished and radio-ready and some sounding like they could have benefited from more studio tweaking. Some of the slantier rhymes feel forced, and there are notes of the casual misogyny that has become an unfortunate hip-hop trope. A few tracks end just as they are gaining momentum, leaving the listener hungry for more.
Despite these flaws, Take Notes stands solidly on its own as a more mature and calculated version of the aesthetic we heard on 2013’s You Know The Name. Longtime fans will welcome this evolution, and new listeners will have a lot to pull them in. Stylistically, the record swings from more contemplative, mellow numbers like “Who Gon (Stop Me)” to the minimalist trap of “Professor” and the anthemic bombast of “Millions.” The production is solid and compelling, ranging from melodic sample-based beats to sparse, ATL-inflected 808 workouts, and makes an excellent canvas for Toon’s versatility.
The second-to-last track of the album, “Millions,” stands as an excellent introduction to the new Toon. Based around a cinematic loop and a driving backbeat, the track poses the pointed question, “Will a million dollars fix your problems?” We tend to measure success in numbers and material, but Toon undermines this schema, asking us to redefine how we look at wealth and reminding us that money in your pocket won’t fix your relationships or stop calamity from happening in your life. In the midst of an economic and social structure that devalues and degrades individual lives, the Prof insists that we “realize your value … and make them give you that pay,” and his recent accomplishments indicate that he has been hard at work doing just that.
For his album release show this Friday at Motorco, Professor Toon is joined by a strong supporting lineup including NYC-via-NC scene veteran Tab-One of Kooley High, rising star Ace Henderson, and a DJ set from Made Of Oak. Pre-sale tickets are available at http://motorcomusic.com/event/
As the sun began to set on the video shoot for “Who Gon (Stop Me),” the cast and crew made their way up the hill to the skate park, where fellow Moogfest artist Trandle materialized for a dramatic shot featuring skateboards and plenty of colored smoke as Toon rapped from the bottom of a pool surrounded by a cheering mob. Video director Saleem Reshamwala (a.k.a. Kid Ethnic) brought the camera in close for dramatic twilight portraits culminating in a final shot of Professor Toon holding his daughter and staring into the camera surrounded by an array of shadowed, stony-faced figures. It felt emblematic of the new Durham: a diverse and talented crew of young people staring unflinchingly into the dark uncertainty of a rapidly changing city, unsure of the future but determined to come out on top.