Making Art Pay

This story is part of a series profiling working artists as they try to make a living in the Triangle. We’ll talk to musicians, dancers, performers, painters and poets about the state of the Triangle arts scene and the possibilities for its future.

J. Rowdy Gives North Carolina a Hip Hop Of Its Own

North Carolina author Thomas Wolfe once famously observed that you can’t go home again. Clearly he never met Josh Rowsey.

Josh, aka J. Rowdy, is a hip hop artist, actor, and writer in Chapel Hill, and his story shows that sometimes, home is exactly where you need to be to fulfill your destiny.

As an undergrad at UNC-Chapel Hill, Josh was already involved in the local hip hop scene, organizing cyphers on UNC’s campus. Cyphers are free-flowing rap sessions where lyricists, beatboxers, and other artists gather in a circle to freestyle and riff off of each other. Josh was involved in helping to build up Cypher Univercity, an association of freestylers that now has chapters at college campuses all across the state -including at UNC, NC State, and NCCU.

He and some friends also founded No9to5 Music, an underground hip hop label run as an artists’ collective. They wrote and produced their own music, and had some early success, including opening for artists like Juicy J and 2 Chainz.

But then, the “real world” came calling. After graduating in 2013 with a degree in Business Administration, Josh got a job at an insurance underwriting firm on Wall St and moved to New York. It was a job that would prove to be great for paying off college debt, but terrible for creative self-expression.

“I found myself on a trajectory to be very successful in the corporate world,” Josh recalls. “But I hadn’t really been writing too much music, and I found myself not being able to thrive in a way that best fit who I was as a person.”

That feeling of unease continued right up until the day, one year later, when Josh realized that he had to return to North Carolina. The moment of epiphany came during a meeting at the corporate offices of one of his clients, performing rights and music sales giant Broadcast Music, Inc (BMI).

“At that point I was basically looking for a sign from God about what my next step was to be,” says Josh. “And so I go to BMI, and I’m up there with all the head people, and I look at their business plan, and I see how much hip-hop accounts for the profit that they’re making… and something just hit me.”

“I put my two-weeks notice in three days after that.”

He decided then and there that the longing he had to make music was more than just nostalgia for the glory days of college -it was his true calling, what he was meant to do. And judging from BMI’s balance sheets, there were profits to be made doing it.

“Everything just kinda clicked for me then. “

So Josh resolved to go back to North Carolina and continue the work he had been doing before -helping to cultivate a hip-hop culture of, by and for the South.

“It was funny to me to see [at BMI] who was making these decisions about hip hop culture,” he remembers. “And who was profiting from hip hop culture.”

It was time, he figured, for Southern hip-hop artists to make a profit of their own.

“There’s a void that has yet to be filled as far as somebody from north carolina, really representing this area,” Josh says. “I feel like there’s a formula out there as far as artists being able to sustain themselves through the internet and utilizing what they have in their hometowns.”

As an example, he points to artists like Chance the Rapper in Chicago, who have successfully leveraged social media and a loyal local following to build a profitable brand without having to suck up to the major labels.

“I think you’re able to build anything right from your own home,” he says. And now, nearly two years since his epiphany in New York, what J. Rowdy is building is a following.

“I think I’m able to rock a 250 person venue right now,” he says. “But I want to rock a 250,000 festival. That’s what I train for every day.”

At a recent performance at the Hillmatic hip hop festival in Chapel HIll, Rowdy was rocking so hard that he nearly tore the leg off the black suit he performs in. His aggressive MC skills are reminiscent of DMX or Busta Rhymes and they contrast nicely with the cool, mid-tempo jazz cranked out by his impossibly young-looking backing band, The Night Shift. The result is an exciting and somewhat disquieting mix.

“The biggest thing I want people to take away is that the culture of hip hop is alive and well,” he says of his music. “A lot of people are scared that what they hear on the radio is the only thing out there. But the underground is beginning to rise…”

And watching J. Rowdy work the crowd, it’s easy enough to believe that he’s onto something. Maybe this is the birth of a new era in North Carolina hip-hop and  J. Rowdy is at the forefront of a new sound forged in the crucible of the Triangle’s well-educated, jazz-influenced cypher scene and destined to take over America’s airwaves and earphones. But as far as Josh is concerned, only one thing is certain: when it comes to following your passion, there’s no place like home.

You can check out more of J. Rowdy’s music here.

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