When Professor Toon speaks about the hip-hop scene in Durham, it's clear how much value he puts on hard work. It is not idle talk.
Most things hip hop in Durham are touched by Toon and his partner The Real Laww. There's the DURM Hip Hop Summit, an annual concert and showcase that shines a light on the skills of Durham MCs. There's also Local Hip Local Hop, a monthly concert series featuring rappers from the area. The two events are an essential part of the local scene, pieces that help provide the framework for artists to build a following and hone their abilities.
And organizing them isn't even Toon's second job – it's his third.
Toon's real focus is his own rap career. Toon & The Real Laww released You Know the Name / End the Beginning in 2013 and they opened for the legendary De La Soul at Hopscotch in September 2014.
But it was a long road to that billing, and when Toon retraces it we come back around to hard work again.
"I started at the bottom. I was a terrible rapper," Toon says of his career's inauspicious beginnings. He didn't start rapping until after he finished high school. He wasn't even a big hip hop fan in his younger years, preferring pop music. But what Toon always had was the desire to entertain, to attract a crowd.
"The performance value brought me to rap. One of my theater teachers at Southern [High School] told me to go to Hillside [High] or Durham School of the Arts because I had a knack for performing. He said, 'You perform all the time and I'd rather you do it over there where you'd be doing work rather than here where you're keeping other people from working.' Going to DSA kind of changed me."
Toon crossed paths with Laww when Toon visited a high school friend from Southern who had a child with Laww; Toon would later become the child's godfather. The two began talking about music one day when Toon noticed Laww's studio equipment. "I spit him the worst impression of Snoop Dog I had," Toon says.
"He was a much better rapper than I was, but he was so depressing. Really good, but really depressing. By that point he had had meetings with Eminem's manager."
They began working together until Laww left for the Marines. He let Toon use his studio equipment while he was gone and Toon added production to his skillset. Then he began playing shows, working his way onto a bill for a Scrap Exchange benefit at the recommendation of another local MC, Cayenne the Lion King. He ended up working at the Scrap Exchange. He also spent time working at a Subway on Duke's campus, passing out CDs to students who would share them with their friends when they went back home in the summers. Toon kept working, performing at Duke and bars around town.
"I got a bunch of lucky breaks I wasn't ready for," he says.
But at some point it started clicking. Toon still puts in hard work, but it's not because he has to learn how to rap now – he has that part down. Now he works to grow the scene and expand his sound.
"I brag a lot, and to back that up with good beats I have to listen to other music. I have to go sit in the studio with [his labelmates] Must Be the Holy Ghost. You have to be inspired by different things. I get tired of listening to the same rappers."
That doesn't mean Toon doesn't want to listen to rappers, though – it just means he wants more of them. "It helps just being around awesome people and artistic minds. It helps to be around different stuff," he says. Hence the Hip Hop Summit and Local Hip Local Hop. It's all a way for Toon and Laww to help grow hip hop, to help create the kind of music that they want to see here – either by making it himself or helping others make it. He's not stopping either: his new project, Imma Neva Die, came out in July 2014.
"Art is not a selfish thing," he says. "You have to share it. (I just tried to sound philosophical. I don't know if it works.)"
"These are the people I look up to, the people who put lyrical fear in my heart and who I know work hard."
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