From Raleigh to NYC: Kooley High Members Charlie Smarts and DJ III Digitz Craft an Ode to Early 2000s Underground Hip-Hop

Charlietape is a labor of love, an ode to the mixtape era, and homage to early 2000s underground hip-hop. Rapper Charlie Smarts invites us to enter his world via storytelling carried by the flow of soulful beats, invoking a sense nostalgia and emotions even though the stories belong to him. The project features production from the legendary 9th Wonder, 2x Grammy-nominated Jansport J, and Grammy-winning Eric G. Guest MCs include Skyzoo, J Scienide, Nolan & Kooley High’s Tab-One.

Released on April 28, 2023, I had the chance to sit down with Kooley High members Charlie Smarts and DJ III Digitz to talk about the process behind their first release as a duo.

Catch the NYC Charlietape album release show tonight at the legendary Nublu venue located in the Lower East Side from 7-10pm.

Reminiscent of a spaceship voyage in a sci-fi flick, a robotic voice initiates the start of the project that gently reminds, rather than warns, the start of a great adventure through a glistening channel of sounds. Once the sample cuts in, the voice tells us that everything shall be returned at the end of the voyage. Suddenly, the invisible camera pans back and we are thrown into another perspective, that of someone sliding Charlietape into the tape deck. Click. It’s meant to be epic. Then, we enter the world of Charlietape with their single, “Haters Anonymous.” Meant to hit the listener in the gut out of the gate, it’s meant to acknowledge where they stand musically. “I know we nice and other people know we nice,” Charlie Smarts proclaims.

Staying true to the fashion of alternative NC hip-hop, the project remains laid-back, but also serves as a tribute to the city they now call home. The group’s deep connection to New York’s hip-hop culture influenced their sound and gave birth to a 19-track list that feels like a true love letter to the city that embraced them. 

“Time for the truth, sit back.”

– “Haters Anonymous” by Charlie Smarts

Chapter 1: Roots in Raleigh, NC

The group’s story begins in Raleigh, North Carolina, a state steeped in rich musical history. Attending the same university brought the Kooley High members together, similar to the inception of legendary NC alternative hip-hop groups L.O.T.U.G. and Little Brother. Situated in a perfectly random spot on the map, North Carolinians carry developed musical palates with hits coming in from the North, the South, and New York. Also surrounded by the legacy of artists like Nina Simone, George Clinton, and John Coltrane, the budding hip-hop scene in the state ignited their passion for making music. It was in this diverse musical soundscape that Kooley High members first assembled as a student-run club on campus, known as H20, their bond formed by a shared passion for hip-hop. 

The H20 Hip-Hop Organization @ NC State 2005-2008

From their college days performing at the student lounge to sharing the mic with the likes of Ghostface Killah and J. Cole, Kooley High was receiving all the green lights along their journey to signal that choosing music was the right thing. Kooley High has since released numerous individual and group projects that have been well-received.

Rap Olympics with 9th Wonder in 2005

In true mixtape style, shoutouts were interspersed from the likes of DJ Rhettmatic from The Beat Junkies to past collaborators like rapper Rapsody and producer Statik Selektah. 

Left to Right: PTK, Tab-One, Ill Digitz, Charlie Smarts, and Rapsody in 2005

Chapter 2: The Big Apple Beckons

With dreams of reaching new heights in the music industry, members of Kooley High decided to move to New York City. 

Squeezing themselves into a one-bedroom apartment in Bushwick, their dedication to their craft fueled an entire year of music-making, rejecting conventional jobs to focus solely on their passion. Together, they transformed their living space into a maker’s haven and came out with Never Come Down

More than a career choice, it’s a way of life. “Nobody could listen to my records. And I’m going to make records,” Charlie Smarts shares, “creating an album is like a true joy…I’m just painting pictures.”

The duo’s first year in NYC

Chapter 3: Charlietape – A Musical Conception

While the group oscillated between the two cities over the years, DJ Ill Digitz and Charlie Smarts remained tethered to the Empire State. As opportunities for the group in New York City arose, logistical challenges sometimes limited their availability to perform as a full ensemble. After dealing with the difficulties that can come from collaborating across state lines for years, Charlietape was a natural conception. The album was a reflection of their nostalgic, raw, and unfiltered love for hip-hop, crafted to evoke the feeling of the classic mixtape era.

Drawing inspiration from early 2000s underground hip-hop like Common’s Like Water For Chocolate and iconic compilations like Sound Bombing Volume Two by Rawkus, they set out to create a mixtape-style album that defied the constraints of modern music release patterns. The intention was to make the album an auditory collage to emulate the days before the Internet became a ring for streaming artists to vie for favored algorithms. They accomplished this with the use of skits and creating a tracklist longer than 10 songs. Influenced by works like Donuts by J Dilla and Alone Together by Karriem Riggins, they opted for a string of soundbites that cut in and out of songs, crafting an album that seamlessly flows.

A collaborator at heart, Charlie Smarts likens the musical making process to playing basketball. “I can go out there and work on my jumper and do drills, but I want somebody to pass to and I want somebody to pass to me. I like the group aspect of it.” But, with this project, one of its purposes was to get some more of his personal stories out.

Chapter 4: Crafting Charlietape

The project’s creation took shape during the early days of the pandemic. Dedicating themselves to a vision of nostalgic and rugged hip-hop, the duo chose to stay true to their roots and embrace the rawness and authenticity of the genre.

“We wanted this shit to be raw, rough, and rugged.”

– Charlie Smarts

The duo’s intention was to create an immersive experience for listeners, reminiscent of a classic mixtape. Something that you can listen to from beginning to end. From soulful samples and scratching to FM radio vibes and sound clips from New York City, they crafted an album that feels like a journey through time. To Charlie Smarts, when he thinks of hip-hop, he thinks of tapes.

Charlietape BTS

Chapter 5: The Art of Collaboration

The process was a delicate balance between the general and the sniper, each contributing their unique creative input and skills to shape the project. DJ Ill Digitz handled the musical direction, while Charlie Smarts added his lyrical prowess. Embracing collaboration in new ways allowed Charlie Smarts to explore new depths of creating, obeying the robotic voice in “Charlietape Intro” to “leave behind the ego.”

But the journey was not without its challenges. The pandemic hit just as they were making significant progress. For the first six months, Charlie Smarts found himself back in North Carolina, but the distance did not deter them. If anything, all those late nights DJ III Digitz found himself would eventually inform much of the album, falling into the void of the digital landscape in search of obscure audio clips.

Charlie Smarts’ personal growth as an artist was evident throughout the album. Shedding the idea of rhyming for the sake of rhyming, he experimented with new styles, delving into the fantastic and relaying mesmerizing stories based on his own experiences. 

With experience and age, he’s acquired more tools in the toolshed and now he gets to pick and choose when to use them.

“I take the mundane and I’m focused on telling it through the rhythms and beats…I went from one style of painting to another style – I just do more of a realistic painting now.”

– Charlie Smarts

It’s a natural continuation to his last project, We Had A Good Thing Going, which was released right before the pandemic hit. Rather than “hey, I’m this North Carolina artist and I’m seeing these skyscrapers and want to go to the top of this skyscraper someday,” Charlietape is where he is more firmly grounded, saying “I’m in New York right now, I’m doing my thing, and this is what it is.”

Haters Anonymous MV BTS

A Nostalgic Laced Ode to New York City

Charlietape serves as an ode to New York City, capturing the essence of the city’s vibrant hip-hop culture. They meticulously crafted a tapestry of beats, rhythms, and sound bites that transported listeners back to a different era. 

Amidst the challenges, the DIY spirit of Kooley High stands strong. For this project, the duo reveled in creating an all-original album, leaving behind the safety of remixes and cover tracks. They wanted to offer a tangible experience, so they released the album on tape, embracing the essence of analog and longevity.

The Charlietape on cassette

Acknowledging that this work is “something that’s just off the beaten path” amongst today’s hip-hop sounds, Charlie Smarts admits he just wants the listener to “walk away with a feeling of just realness…And that it felt like New York City.”

As the city soundtrack exposed on “Yadda Yadda” reminds us, in the moments between the impatient energy of traffic and the gripe over crowded spaces it’s essential to pause and find solace in the timeless beats of nostalgia.

“[Early 2000s underground hip-hop] is such an important period for us and it’s still one of my favorite eras of hip-hop. Even the artwork – we just wanted some simple ass underground hip-hop shit. Like, let’s take a picture on the roof on some New York shit. All of that was intentional to create this simple hip-hop, East Coast New York.”

– Charlie Smarts

On his bucket list is to make the “most North Carolina album of all time” that would include the likes of DaBaby, Rapsody, 9th Wonder, Phonte, Supastition, and Median…just to name a few.

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