When rapper and producer Lavonte “FLLS” Hines leads a class on music and video production for local after-school organization Kr8tive U this summer, he’ll be teaching kids about more than the technical aspects of the job.
The real message will be about teamwork.
“A lot of people don’t know that, in the music studio, there is a team of people, you know what I’m saying? Like, everybody adds their little piece to the puzzle to make a project,” he told me during a recent sit-down at Optimist Hall.
“I’m teaching them how to be a team, how to build and create as a team. You’re only going to see the star because that’s who the team pushes for, but behind the scenes, you got four or five, sometimes 10 people doing their part to make this all work. Because if you push this person, like, this person hits the jackpot and it trickles down, then we all hit the jackpot.”
FLLS knows the value of teamwork. He is part of a creative family — a dysfunctional family, as he calls it — made up of Charlotte musicians and artists who are constantly pushing each other to be better.
In March 2021, that collective of vocalists, producers and visual artists put out an album titled The Hovis House, named for Hines’ home where the group hangs out and records much of their music. The project included production from FLLS, Simon SMTHNG, and CJ Chat; lyrics from Jah-Monte Ogbon, Autumn Rainwater, Cuzo Key, DARKMASTER and Jay Pluss; and graphic design from Josh Henderson.
Each of these artists has built an impressive resume in Charlotte’s music and arts scene with their own solo efforts, but the release of Hovis House highlighted just how well these longtime friends play off each other, with raw, ferocious lyrics that fit like needles in the grooves of boom-bap beats — reminiscent of a style that is so rarely pushed or celebrated in today’s mainstream circles.
Now, with the release of Lavonte Is My Real Name, a debut full-length album that FLLS dropped on May 1, Hines is breaking out on his own and looking inward, sharing personal life stories while at the same time ratcheting up the gritty, hardcore style that local rappers like Jah-Monte and Cuzo Key have done so well with.
That why it’s true to his nature that, even in a solo effort, Hines would never say he did it alone. In fact, his friends in the Hovis House crew are the ones who pushed him to transition from producer to rapper in recent years.
“They’re always supportive, you know what I’m saying?” he said. “Even when I don’t have anything coming out, they just keep asking me, am I making new stuff, ‘Let me hear something,’ so I’m like, ‘Okay.’”
Now everybody has the chance to hear something.
A page from the ‘Journals’
On Lavonte Is My Real Name, which Hines has been working on since before COVID-19 struck, the rapper shares pieces of himself that could never be expressed through beats and production. In songs like “Journals” and “Blood & Oil,” he directly addresses family drama he has gone through over the past few years — and he’s not afraid to name names.
“It so happened that, during COVID, a lot of things were happening around me and with my family and I was just like, I just needed an outlet. I was like, ‘Why not just put it in the music?’” he explained. “I was nervous about it, but then I was just like, ‘Why would I be nervous if I’m just telling people what’s really going on?’”
The process was therapeutic. Hines, who is now 30, has long had a strained relationship with his mother, who became pregnant at 19 and had him when she was 20. He said addressing those issues through his music has helped him put things into perspective.
“She’s a young parent, you know what I’m saying? Sometimes I felt resentment, but I’m pretty sure nobody want to just get pregnant when they’re 19 and have a baby when they’re 20,” he said.
“And that’s what I’ve started to understand now. I used to be angry about it, but then I was just like, I’m 30 now and I look back when I was 20 like, damn, I was irresponsible. I couldn’t have had kids. I would have gone crazy.”
While the first half of the project gets personal, he slowly starts to pull back the focus with storytelling tracks about his recent regular trips to New York City with Jah-Monte, then goes into his comfort zone with hardcore tracks like “No Lies,” just 1 minute and 37 seconds of straight verses over a spaced-out beat.
Hines was purposeful about how he put the album together, finding it important to share those personal stories but careful not to lose the folks who showed up for the gritty hip-hop they’ve come to expect from him.
“It’s just like when you have a deep conversation with your friends and you’re like, ‘Alright, enough of that soft shit, let’s fucking wild out,’” he said, laughing. “So that’s what I wanted to feel like; I wanted it to feel like an intimate conversation, and then we just like, ‘Alright, yeah, let’s get back to it,’ because I didn’t want to make it all like that [beginning half], because I didn’t want people to be like, ‘Ah man, this is a sad album.’”
In and out of Charlotte
As noted in tracks like “A Day in BK” and “A Different Year (Out in NY),” Hines has been spending more time out of the state in recent years, following the lead of his longtime friend Jah-Monte Ogbon, whom he calls his biggest musical inspiration.
In March, he traveled to Portland, Maine, with fellow Charlotte rappers Railz the Principle, ReeCee Raps, LS and Phaze Gawd. He laughed while discussing how these trips have gotten him more attention in Charlotte than the gigs he plays in the Queen City.
“It’s done things for me just being here hasn’t done,” he said. “I don’t know, I guess it’s that Charlotte thing. Like when people see you going places, that’s when they start to look.”
Still, there’s no love quite like hometown love. When we met in late June, Hines was still psyched about the experience of his album release party at Petra’s on April 30. He was surprised that Petra’s owner Perry Fowler, a musician himself who performs as one half of popular folk duo Sinners & Saints, gave him the full amount made from the door that night.
He’s hopeful support from folks like Fowler will help shed Charlotte’s reputation as a city that’s not supportive of its hip-hop artists.
Then there’s the unbreakable Hovis House collective, which will always be a reason for FLLS to stay close to the city where he grew up. I checked in with a couple members of the crew while working on this story to get their thoughts on working with FLLS over the years.
Cuzo Key said he’s been working with FLLS for six to seven years and at this point it “feels like home” when the two link up.
“Working with FLLS is a breeze,” he said. “His understanding for music is unmatched.”
Mariah Scott, an integral part of the Hovis House crew who served as project manager for the album, coordinating recordings and making sure it all got put together the right way, has known Hines since 6th grade, she said.
In fact, Hines credits Scott with introducing him to many of the players in Charlotte’s hip-hop scene whom he would later work with.
“Once [FLLS] began to make music as a producer and rapper he just continued to outdo himself in his craft,” Scott told me. “Lavonte is a student to music. He’s one of the hardest working musicians I know. He literally eats, sleeps, and breathes music every day.
“Like many producers, I don’t think folks anticipated taking him serious as a rapper due to his animated personality,” she continued. “But when you sit and look at him and his ability to tap into numerous styles and genres, you can’t help but appreciate and respect that he is an all-around incredible creative.”
Lastly, there’s the responsibility Hines feels toward the broader Charlotte community.
His upcoming Kr8tive U classes won’t be his only projects that involving serving the youth. In 2019, local artist Janelle Dunlap brought Hines on to teach a class at the Beatties Ford Road library as part of her RCLM 37 project, in partnership with Johnson C. Smith University.
Teaching children on the Historic West End, right near where he grew up, was a meaningful experience for Hines.
“For me, to see kids walking in from around the corner where I used to stay maybe 20 years ago, I was just like, damn. I’m hoping that I can help these kids’ lives in a way that I didn’t have, because I didn’t have people around like that. There weren’t those programs around. So I felt like I just did the best I could to keep them entertained and interested … I just like to see kids learning and doing something different.”
Family can mean a few different things, but for Hines, it all comes down to teamwork.