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In ‘Carolina Noise,’ Nigel Malone Analyzes the NC Hip-Hop Sound

Musician continues working toward a brighter future for Charlotte artists

Nigel Malone portrait
Nigel Malone. (Photo courtesy of Nigel Malone)

If you’re a fan of the Charlotte hip-hop scene, you’ve likely been touched by the imprint of Nigel Malone. Powerfully soft-spoken with a humility that carries the authority of experience, the multi-talented creative who’s also known as NXGXL could be described as a jack of all trades. 

As a rapper in his teens, Malone trained under figures that would rise to define not just Charlotte’s scene but the North Carolina scene at large. As an engineer, he has helped sculpt the sounds of multiple generations of lyricists ranging from Cuzo Key and Myles Harris to rising talents like Ahmir. 

As an educator, he has built programs in conjunction with Charlotte institutions like the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, where he’s taught an after-school music masterclass series throughout the spring. 

With the release of his 2024 debut film Carolina Noise, Malone can now add documentarian to his long list of creative titles. The film asks a simple question that begs a winding, complex answer: Does North Carolina hip-hop have a sound? 

In search of an answer, Malone took his camcorder to interview a number of folks who play important roles in North Carolina hip-hop, including many with whom he has collaborated in the past. Sources range from storied Triangle-area producer Khrysis to NC A&T applied music lecturer Dr. Van Hall to Queen City emcee Lord Jah-Monte Ogbon. 

Malone presents the answers heuristically, letting the interviewees present their own respective responses — many of which in disagreement with one another — adding minimal narrative interruption himself. 

Nigel Malone in the studio. (Photo courtesy of Nigel Malone)

Throughout the 30-minute documentary, the answers are indeed as variegated as the interviewees. Ski Beatz — the Greensboro native known for producing artists like Camp Lo, Jay-Z, Bahamadia, Lil’ Kim, and more — argues that North Carolina’s sound represents our artists “staying true to the culture of hip-hop.” 

Mavi, one of Charlotte’s acclaimed young rappers, suggests that our sound is a mélange of aesthetics due to the city’s placement in the path of the Great Migration. Others like Charlotte artists Yung Bizzle, Verbal Van Gogh and Makeda Iroquois deny that North Carolina has a singular discernible sound altogether.  

However, one theme emerges throughout the film’s interviews: soul. 

Boris “Bluz” Rogers, the master of ceremonies for so many Queen City hip-hop events over the years, is one of the first in the documentary to identify soul as the standout characteristic of the state’s scene. 

Charlotte’s shapeshifting R&B songstress Cyanca compares this soulfulness to the taste of her grandmother’s cooking. Cheryse Terry of Archive CLT suggests that the non-singularity of the state’s sound is due to its reflection of soul’s authenticity. 

Malone, who did not tell the interviewees how others had answered, also drew out this common theme. 

“I know a lot of people spoke on soul,” Malone explained to Queen City Nerve. “Soul to me is just Black culture, personified. What we went through slavery, what we went through in the Civil Rights [Movement], what we’ve always gone through: it’s the art that we create from that, which is authentic to the Black experience.”

It seems fitting that hip-hop’s presence in North Carolina is marked by the thing whose texture you can feel before you can see its shape. Hip-hop, after all, is a genre so deeply articulated through spatial identity that individual neighborhoods can have a particular sound and tradition. 

North Carolina has been the fertile ground upon which social, spiritual and musical movements have been planted. Malone’s documentary — deploying its own soul aesthetic through his living-room interview style, including in his own family home in Hickory — helps us to see how hip-hop emerges from this much broader tradition. 

Coming up in the Queen City

The Carolina Noise documentary is just the latest iteration of Nigel Malone’s work in the Charlotte hip-hop scene. He got started in his teenage years as an emcee. At the time, a future Charlotte luminary by the name of Lute was part of a collective called Forever FC, which practiced and performed at the house of their manager Amy Goudy, aka Miss Amy. 

When Nigel was 15 or 16, Goudy began inviting other local artists to these gatherings. He began to hone his craft alongside Charlotte greats, coming together at the center of the burgeoning new wave like Lute, who would later sign with J. Cole’s Dreamville label, and longtime underground cornerstone Elevator Jay.

By the time he turned 18, Malone was looking to further his education. After a rejection from NC A&T, he became discouraged about the four-year college route. He packed up and moved down to Atlanta, enrolling in the SAE Institute, one of many campuses for the international entertainment industry vocational school. 

Nigel Malone in Archive CLT. (Photo courtesy of Nigel Malone)

In his one-year program, he learned from some of the best artists who defined Atlanta’s third wave of hip-hop in the 2010s. Malone quickly landed an internship in Blue Room Studios, where artists like Big K.R.I.T. and YFN Lucci would record. 

Though he did menial tasks at first, running errands for the staff, the engineers began to mentor him more closely over time. After a stint at the Stankonia-adjacent Uptown Studios and eight years of working in the capital of Southern hip-hop, it was time to return to Charlotte. 

Inspired by the rise of Lute and DaBaby toward the end of the 2010s, Malone knew he wanted to build up the music industry in Charlotte with the skills and wisdom he acquired working under hitmaking producers and engineers in Atlanta. 

At first, he stayed within the networks he had left eight years prior. 

“All I had was my Apollo interface and my laptop. I would just pull up on people and record them,” Malone told the Nerve. 

To make ends meet, he worked as a pharmacy technician during the day and engineer by night. Soon he linked with old-time collaborator Kevin McCloskey, who by then owned his own studio. What would become Safe and Sound 704 (then Black Pearl Studios) turned into a mandatory stop for up-and-coming artists. 

Malone knew that if the industry were to build up in Charlotte, he would have to create a competition pool quickly. In a sense, he wanted to saturate the market in order to raise its value. 

“The best way I could do that is to teach what I know to people at a younger age,” Malone said. “So it’s not just five great engineers, I wanted there to be hundreds of great audio engineers. That was my first step.”

Nigel Malone’s ‘Colorful Noise’ photo book. (Photo courtesy of Nigel Malone)

McCloskey and Malone’s studio quickly became a haven for all Charlotte hip-hop and R&B artists looking to access a professional studio environment. Building this network, in a sense, came naturally to Malone. 

“I’m born and raised here. A lot of these people knew me and I knew them before anything,” Malone reflected. 

Most importantly, Malone documented the whole process through the Instagram page of his 2021 creative startup, Colorful Noise. The process, in a sense, was simple. Malone would snap a picture of each artist in the studio as he was working with them.  

“Everybody that I work with, I look at them like the biggest people in the world, even though to the world they might not be,” Malone explained. “I’m taking a picture of them because they’re superstars to me. And I want the world to also see that and appreciate them as that, too.”

Also a merch line, the Colorful Noise Instagram account became one of the most comprehensive compilations of Charlotte artists across generations, documenting well over 100 Charlotte artists at work. Malone eventually turned this project into a small photo book with patented QR codes that link to the music being created in each behind-the-scenes studio shot. 

Musician turned educator

After working with internationally recognized artists in Atlanta, Malone believed that Charlotte had a level of talent worth documenting and cultivating. Still burdened by the loans that funded his year at SAE, he figured there was an easier way to train up a new generation of artists to be the backbone of a vibrant industry. 

He began mentoring artists through his Home Grown Producer Showcase in 2021, followed by two producer programs called After School in 2022. But these were one-offs, and an industry wasn’t going to be built off siloed events. He wanted to build a stronger training ground for students as young as middle schoolers. 

With support from the Gantt Center, he launched his first Music Masterclass — a six-week vocational training series for students from Wilson STEM Academy — in 2023. The program teaches the basics of each major role in the music industry, from production and engineering to songwriting and deejaying. 

Nigel Malone with a student
Nigel Malone works with a masterclass student. (Photo courtesy of Nigel Malone)

Drumming up student interest was more difficult than one might expect. “I literally had to go inside the school, they would blow a horn every lunch and be like, ‘Hey, this is who I am. This is what I’m doing. If y’all want to sign up, come,’” Malone told the Nerve. 

Several students did attend his masterclass to receive training from Charlotte greats like Myles Harris, Cyanca and DJ Pauly Guwop. For some, it was their first time in Uptown. Malone installed production technology on 20 computers in the Gantt to make sure the students had the equipment they needed. Four students made it to the end and received the certificate for completing the series.

Malone is slated to run another Masterclass at the Gantt this summer. In future iterations of the class, Malone hopes to address issues with transportation (students had to provide it themselves) and access to technology. 

With plans to scale the program up, Malone aims to create something that will become a method of economic empowerment as much as a cultural training ground. 

“What I’m teaching is a trade, you know what I’m saying? It’s an actual skill,” Malone told the Nerve. “You can use this for the rest of your life.” 

What’s in an identity? 

All of these creative ventures — documenting the Charlotte scene, emceeing, engineering, filmmaking, and education — are part of Malone’s plan to build a self-sufficient infrastructure so that creatives in Charlotte have viable career paths. This, in a way, is the thesis of his documentary. 

“I think identifying that North Carolina sound is something we should do so we know what is the utility of our music, and every economy is different,” he explained. “What makes Charlotte, Charlotte? Is it the breweries? Is that where we listen to music? Is it Archive [CLT]? Is it this place? Where’s this music being utilized?” 

Read more: Archive CLT Brings Black History Home to West Charlotte

Once we identify the utility of our music, Malone argues, Charlotte can build an economic system around that utility to ensure artists can thrive in it. Not to mention, audio engineers and videographers have more career opportunities than, say, a rapper, since churches, sports arenas, and other entertainment venues need those professionals to function. 

This kind of quiet strategy, the methodical care in which Malone is building his work, is what makes “jack of all trades” a bit of a misnomer for Malone, especially paired with the silent rejoinder, “master of none.” Malone is not just another multi-hyphenate mogul in the making. 

In contrast, Malone’s artistic practice is almost singular in its purpose: to train, build and facilitate the rise of the music industry in Charlotte. His many mediums — emceeing, engineering, documenting, educating — all serve to shape that industry into a viable financial pathway in a fundamentally economically inequitable city. 

It is this synthetic vision in his practice that makes Malone’s work so compelling. 

If executed with foresight and care, this impending industry is more than a mere money grab. With Malone’s vision, this industry could place artists formerly seen as marginal at the center, which could in turn transform the city’s relationship to its artist and its citizens.

Nigel Malone will host the next screening of Carolina Noise at beSocial Charlotte on May 30 from 7-9 p.m.

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