One summer night in 2017, James Blackmon, better known as Elevator Jay, was fresh off the release of his new album, Ain’t Nothin’ Finer. From the stage at Snug Harbor, where he was celebrating the two-year anniversary of the monthly Southern hip-hop party he launched in 2015 with friends Shane Coble and Adam Huffstetler, Blackmon peeked out the window to see a line stretching all the way down Gordon Street.
“I always look outside to see what’s going on, to see what it’s lookin’ like,” he recalls, “and there was a line from the front all the way down past Sherwin-Williams, and I was like, ‘Damn, we did this shit?’”
It was then that Blackmon fully realized that Player Made: An Ode to Southern Rap had become a true staple of the Charlotte hip-hop scene. But he didn’t get long to revel in it, because Huffstetler, who DJs as A-Huf, started spinning the opening beats to his new record’s title track.
Blackmon wasn’t expecting to perform, at least not in that moment, but he knew what had to be done.
“They kicked off ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Finer,’ I think A-Huf played it out of the blue, forced me to do it,” he says. “He’s always doing stuff like that, he will set it off, so then we just performed it. Everybody was chanting. I was just like, ‘Damn, this shit crazy, man.’”
Blackmon and Huffstetler are sitting in the offices of Kevin Taylor, aka Radar, who has been designing graphics and printing merchandise for Permanent Vacation, the team responsible for Player Made, since before the monthly Player Made party was ever dreamed up. They’re here to pick up some special tees Taylor printed for what might be Player Made’s biggest party yet: All-Star Weekend.
The party is on Feb. 15, which isn’t the usual Player Made slot on the second Tuesday of the month, but it only made sense for Blackmon to work it out so he could put on a show representing the Queen City while the crowds were in town. He’ll be performing that night, and he’s bringing in Atlanta DJ Sofa King Evil to join regulars A-Huf and Jaboi B Rab on the ones and twos, plus a few “heavy hitter” surprise guests to share the mic.
Other than that, though, it’s just like any other night for Blackmon. He’s never been one to buy into his own hype, after all.
“It was a situation where I just felt like, at the time I came up with the idea, it’s All-Star Weekend, I ain’t got no shows, I’m always the person to go make my own show. I’mma book myself,” he says, his heavy drawl dripping with Southern grease. “Let me book myself for All-Star Weekend, and do it like that. And along with that, let me call the homies and tell them to be a part of the show with me. Let’s do it like a regular Player Made night, except it’s All-Star Weekend.”
It’s nothing new for Blackmon to want to put on for his city. He’s been doing it since a teenager at West Charlotte High School, when he recorded an entire album on a Hewlett-Packard computer rapping through a mic that wasn’t even a mic, just a pair of headphones that he broke in half and plugged into a microphone jack.
He burned his songs onto a case of blank CDs and handed them out at school. Songs like “Blankin’ Hard” struck a chord with folks on the Beatties Ford Corridor where Blackmon was born and raised.
“A lot of people was digging it, because it spoke to the people, because they could relate to it,” he says. “It was like some Charlotte stuff, you feel me?”
Fast forward about 14 years, and Elevator Jay is a name that any Charlotte hip-hop fan will tell you is at the top of the list of rappers who represent Charlotte in everything that they do. But like anyone else, he gets along with a little help from his friends.
In 2011 Blackmon met Shane Coble, who then went by Stranger Day but now goes by Rapper Shane. The two clicked immediately, and Blackmon quickly joined in with Coble’s Permanent Vacation crew, which is how he met Huffstetler.
The group grew a reputation for throwing sick parties, most notably the annual summer Squirt parties. Later, when Coble and Blackmon started DJing on the side, the two came up with the idea for Player Made while on a road trip back to Charlotte from the beach in 2015.
“He was getting into DJing, I was getting into DJing, I was like, ‘Man, let’s just throw a party. We can play anything we want to,’” Blackmon said, “Both of our favorite genres was Southern rap. So we were like, ‘That’s all we want to play.’”
To hear him explain it that way, it sounds like any conversation two stoned twenty-something dudes on a road trip might have. What was different was these guys had the experience to pull it off, and perhaps more importantly, the passion to see it through.
To hear Blackmon speak about Southern rap is like hearing an evangelical talk about Jesus.
“That’s me, I don’t know nothing else,” Blackmon says when I ask how important the Southern rap culture is to him. “I know music, and I’ve been inspired by other parts of the map, but at the same time, man, from me first being turned on to music, one of my first groups came from the South: Kris Kross. Then I started listening to 36 Mafia, UGK, Outkast, stuff like that. It’s important to me.”
It’s a culture that Blackmon sees dying before his eyes. For all the popularity of trap music and the mainstream success of rappers from the South, Blackmon fears the original sound is being forgotten.
Every song he records, every Player Made party he throws, is a way of keeping that alive.
“I don’t want it to be like a lost art,” Blackmon says. “I’m trying to keep that going. That’s like if somebody culture started to fade out, you don’t want it to die. Prime example: A lot of Charlotte history, don’t nobody know what it is because they don’t like to keep it, they always trying to rebuild. Only thing you know is what somebody tell you, you can’t see it. I don’t want Southern rap to get to a point where it’s like that. That’s where my music come in.”
For Huffstetler, the magic of a Player Made party is in the playlist. He says it’s his favorite gig to spin at, because it offers him more room to work than other shows.
“To me, it’s always interesting trying to figure out what avenue of Southern rap we haven’t explored yet,” Hufstetler says. “There’s so many niches, like do we play enough Miami bass, do we play enough NOLA bounce, are we reaching back to things? Those are always in my mind. The things that I don’t get to do in the normal, everyday gig. I get to play 2 Live Crew tonight and nobody’s going to say anything, or I can play every UGK record I want to, or every Gucci Mane record I want to. I can play every Outkast B-side record I want to and they’re not gonna be mad at it.”
Huffstetler, raised in the Derita area of Charlotte, says he didn’t have anything like the Player Made parties when he was coming up in Charlotte. That’s one reason he and Blackmon — who would bring on Brandon Trammel, aka Jaboi B Rab, to fill out the Player Made crew when Coble moved to Portland, Oregon — feel it’s not only important to showcase the classic sounds of Southern rap, but to highlight local talent as well.
Over the years they’ve brought in up-and-coming rappers who they think deserve more shine to perform short sets at Player Made. For Blackmon, who’s always lifted up fellow Charlotte rappers, being able to spotlight new talent has been an important aspect of the monthly party.
He sees it as a way of uniting the scene, rather than make it more cliquey and competitive.
“Instead of bashing and debating about who breaking records and who ain’t, forget about all that man, we’re gonna put it to action. You ain’t gonna hear no whole concert, but you can come hear one, two, three songs from somebody we think is hot in the streets,” Blackmon says. “We like to get those people from the neighborhood that you might not know about. They brand new. You never heard of these people before ever.”
One rapper who was still on his way up in the local scene when he performed at a Player Made party in 2016 is Ismael Abdallah, known as Brio. He still remembers the experience as a pivotal moment for him in his music career, if not for the exposure alone than for the perspective it gave him.
“It really gave me a different outlook on other people accepting the music here, and just the diversity that it creates in the community as well,” Abdallah says. “I really appreciated that time because it gave me a different outlook on what I was doing, who my music was touching, who I was reaching out to and just seeing how it can affect different people.”
The diversity of attendees is what makes Snug Harbor such a valuable commodity as a home to hip-hop. The venue has long hosted a weekly hip-hop and b-boy party called Knocturnal on Monday nights.
It’s one of the rare venues in Charlotte that opens its arms to the local hip-hop community, but the fact that it also hosts a wide range of genres on any given night makes for a diverse crowd of walk-ins.
Add to that the fact that every Player Made party is “Free as Fuck,” (save for All-Star Weekend, which will run you $5 at the door) and it’s one of the more inclusive and accessible regular events in the city.
Huffstetler says he’s been seeing a change in the Charlotte scene, and believes the reluctance around hip-hop in Charlotte venues is beginning to wear — maybe due to the success of Snug Harbor, but also because there isn’t really a choice.
“I think more clubs are getting accustomed to hip-hop because it is Top 40,” he says. “If you look at the Top 40, the Top 100 Billboard, it’s going to be 90 percent hip-hop, and I think Charlotte is having to adapt, which is a good thing.
“When we go to Atlanta, it’s like there’s no place in Atlanta where you can’t play hip-hop, from old to new, and I think it’s going to be the standard in Charlotte, too, like you’re going to walk in and hear Outkast, you’re gonna hear A Tribe Called Quest and that’s gonna be the playlist for a restaurant that’s serving 5-star dinner. That’s classic music now.”
Huffstetler’s comparison brings Blackmon back into a historical state of mind. His appreciation for the past frames the way he sees the future when it comes to Charlotte music and his role in it.
“The difference between us and Atlanta is them people got history, music that hip-hop was birthed on,” Blackmon says. “We talkin’ ‘bout blues and soul and all that stuff, Georgia been had that. North Carolina had a little bit of it, but in Charlotte, we’re coming off a scene where that history — when it comes to music — ain’t visible to everybody like that. So we really starting from scratch trying to tell people this the movement.”
When I sit with Blackmon in the west-side studio owned by his longtime friend and engineer Black Pearl on a recent Thursday afternoon, he’s back to work on solidifying that movement, mixing tracks for a new EP he plans to release in spring, Though he’s mum on most of the details, he plays me a track that would make any Elevator Jay fan hype at the thought that he’s got 10 more like it ready to go.
When I ask more about the new project, he’s reluctant to share, as he admits he’s “really not into teasing things,” but he eventually gives me the name. It couldn’t be a more fitting one, considering his career in the local music scene.
It’s called For Y’all.
[Correction: An original version of this story mistakenly stated Adam “A-Huf” Huffstetler’s first name was Aaron.]