Almost a decade ago, Durham's Median illustrated that idea with one of his first recorded songs, "Two Extremes," arguing that he was trapped between the dualism of pursuing an audience versus making what he felt he had to make. "Can't sell my soul/ gotta get paid," he rapped. "Not playin' myself for my record to get played."
At the time, it might have seemed that this situation would work itself out for Median, or James Livingston. After all, he was an original member of the newly assembled all-star local hip-hop crew, the Justus League. That crew soon spawned the career of the critically acclaimed hip-hop trio Little Brother and the wide-ranging careers of its three members--Phonte Coleman, Rapper Big Pooh and producer 9th Wonder. The prevailing attitude and competitive spirit of the Justus League suggested that everyone was indeed "hungry" for an opportunity to rhyme and beat battle with hip-hop's stars, though their days as "starving artists" seemed bound for obscurity. After the release of the League's two-volume mixtape NC State of Mind, these rappers and beat makers were building a considerable nationwide buzz and an allegiant local scene.
Not only was Median part of a rising tide, but his contributions to the League's boom-bap repertoire (tracks like "Relectric Elaxation" and "Comfortable") were early fan favorites. But a few major events prevented him from stepping squarely into the spotlight: Before finishing his degree at N.C. State University, he elected to spend several months in Ghana as an exchange student. That was 2002, the year before the release of Little Brother's The Listening--in other words, a good time for sticking around. Following graduation, though, he moved back home to Wilmington, N.C. Soon thereafter, Median and his girlfriend gave birth to their daughter, Amya. When Little Brother eventually released The Listening, it included only one guest emcee, Median, on the festive track "Shorty on the Lookout."
"It was pretty clear from the start that Little Brother was going to move at a different rate than everyone else," Median says of the other pieces of the Justus League. He's nibbling on a bean burger inside Chapel Hill's dimly lit Jack Sprat Cafe, frequently used as a performance space for up-and-coming rappers. "The fact that they allowed me to rap on the album was an honor and even though they were ahead in the race, I felt like an equal. So I used it for motivation."
But he stalled before he could capitalize: It would take five years for Median to release his long-awaited debut LP, Median's Relief, through a small indie label, Halftooth Records. North Carolina's hip-hop moment seemed to be at dusk, as 9th Wonder had exited Little Brother, which in turn exited Atlantic Records after one album. But Median's Relief was a confluence of Median's theatrical, deep-thinking lyricism that included a number of producers, including several Justus League beat makers. Median handled the creative direction on his own, something he's still proud of. For his next project, though, he wanted to focus solely on his writing.
"I knew what I could do on my own after executive-producing my first album, but I always liked what Phonte and 9th did together in Little Brother as far as song order and transition and skits," he says. "I just wanted to rap and just let everyone else handle orchestrating the project's direction."
What he's saying, essentially, is that he wanted two people--Little Brother's Phonte Coleman and 9th Wonder--to help him build his album. Trouble is, they had barely spoken in years, let alone worked together. Their split with Little Brother had been controversial and difficult, so a reunion seemed highly unlikely. What's more, neither was waiting around for a call, like some forgotten starving artist: 9th had won a Grammy with Mary J. Blige after becoming an in-demand producer, DJ and label head of his new Jamla/ The Academy enterprise. Coleman had been nominated for a Grammy for his busy soul outfit The Foreign Exchange. Along with producer Nicolay, he worked as a curator and collaborative force behind various projects under the +FE Music banner.
But maybe they owed him. Aside from his Little Brother cameo, Median appeared twice on The Foreign Exchange's 2004 debut, Connected, and once on last year's Authenticity. That's why, when he presented to Coleman the idea of possibly working on a full-length project, Coleman admitted he and Rooks had already explored the idea because it made sense from a branding standpoint; Median had already worked with The Foreign Exchange. Soon thereafter, the feud between Coleman and 9th reached its climax after the two exchanged harsh words via Twitter. Throughout the ordeal, Median stayed neutral. His philosophy was that he'd just sit back, wait and let the two sort it out like grown men. Time eventually led Coleman and 9th Wonder to mend their relationship, and the bulk of work that Median had recorded with 9th would be welcomed into the fold without question. Not only did Median become the first rap act on +FE Music, but the release of The Sender soon became the first joint venture between +FE Music and Jamla Records.
Median split The Sender's recording between 9th's Bright Lady Studios and Coleman's The Peanut Gallery studio, giving a project that could have easily become nothing more than a Foreign Exchange rap album some needed variety and heft.
"I would have loved to put out an album that sounded phonetically and instrumentally like Connected. It wouldn't have strayed too far from who I am," says Median. "But Phonte wasn't really interested in doing that, and his honesty is exactly why I went to him."
Median's relationships with Coleman and 9th meant that he would have coaching, great songwriters and an experienced marketing machine behind his new album. Production-wise, Jamla's beat squad, the Soul Council, buttresses outside contributions from French producer Astronote, the soul-sampling Kev Brown and recent Kanye West collaborator S1. They provided Median with the direction for some of the rough song-sketches he had squirreled away.
"There was a time between my two albums where I wasn't getting beats from people, but I was always interested in beat making. All I had at the house was a mic, so I would either beat-box or make the instrumentals by beating on the table. Some variation of those songs ended up on the album," says Median.
And so The Sender's final form is an unmitigated extension of Median's Relief. Median's cutting alter ego, Moody, appears more than it did in the past. Even though this persona isn't extreme enough for one to accuse Median of pretending to be a badass (he's a rather soft-spoken fellow, after all), tracks like "Okie Dokers" showcase Moody's minefield: "Blatant, give 'em pulse till it's pulsating/ fade-away, give 'em tre's till it's frustrated/ And-1 the flagrant ... then eliminate them." Ironically, producer Khrysis lifts the song's sample from the Tyrone Davis soul classic, "In the Mood."
Median knows that he's most valuable when he's designing vivid rhymes, as on The Sender's "Crazy Visions," "Kiss the Sky" and "Hi-Five." "My approach isn't really a competitive approach. I'd rather paint pictures and rap about things that give people visual impressions," he says. "I don't feel like people take my verses and ask if I outdid someone. I'm not rapping for other rappers. I'm rapping for my music to be useful to the public.
"I'm kind of in a spoiled situation because I don't have to do it," he continues. "If this music doesn't work out for me than it's not like I missed my meal ticket. As far as the hunger and the creative process, there's something in me that's always going to drive me to make music. I have never seen any money from this, but if I had to go back and be a starving artist, I would."
At 32, Median and Moody and James Livingston all thrive off that outlook. They're all comfortable, and unmatched, right there in the middle.