When I met James Blackmon, better known around Charlotte as Elevator Jay, at Lancaster’s BBQ on Beatties Ford Road in Huntersville on a recent Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t help but feel like it’s a symbolic spot for an interview.
After all, the Beatties Ford Road corridor is not only such a rich part of Black history in Charlotte, but a critical part of Blackmon’s history. He grew up bouncing between Oaklawn Park, Lincoln Heights, and other neighborhoods in what is now called the Historic West End. West Charlotte High School is also where Elevator Jay first came up as a rapper, recording an album on his computer using a pair of broken headphones as a mic, burning it onto blank CDs and handing them out in the hallways.
And yet Lancaster’s is such a far cry from what Jay calls “the bottom” of Beatties Ford Road where he grew up. It’s more rural, serving as a spot to get away during his childhood.
“It was kind of like a getaway,” he says of the part of the corridor located in north Mecklenburg County. “My grandma used to take us up to Latta [Plantation & Nature Preserve] and stuff like that. Hornets Nest [Park]. Coming out here it was kind of like a vacation, like a getaway.”
And if one thing’s clear in Elevator Jay’s music, it’s that both sides of Beatties Ford are present.
Elevator Jay has always had that rural twang in his rap — a country vibe that’s there in the production and the lyrics, featuring lines about fishing and kicking back.
On April 29, Elevator Jay will show that he’s been doing anything but kicking back during the pandemic, as he celebrates the release of his new album, Summer Rooster, with a listening session and live podcast recording at Snug Harbor.
No spring chicken
The album is Elevator Jay’s first project release in four years, after dropping the For Y’all EP in July 2019. It’s his first project ever as a co-producer; after having always produced his own work, this time he teamed up with Texas producer 2nd Prez for each of the album’s nine tracks.
The title is meant to contrast with a “spring chicken,” which Jay makes clear that he no longer is in the lead-off title track of the album. The rapper said his willingness to collaborate on the new project is a sign of growth for him, among other things.
“I feel like with this record, I’m growing in a lot of different areas,” said Jay, who’s now 34. “The way I talk on there, what I’m talking about is kind of like on a different level than what I ever done talked about before. And not saying I was talking some chap shit, being a chap on past records, but we just growing. We just mature. I used to do all my records by myself. Now I’m maturin’ because I’m working with other people. That’s growth for me.”
Jay met 2nd Prez online during the pandemic and the two immediately connected over their similar tastes. The Texas producer was familiar with Jay’s past work and was down to send him a few beats to work with, which Jay hopped on with enthusiasm.
Once this process played out a few times, a partnership began to bud.
“You know how some people, when you tell somebody something, everybody don’t stay true to their word,” Jay said. “I told [2nd Prez], I said, ‘Man, I say we keep at this rate, we ‘gon have a project.’ And that’s what happened.”
The producer’s vibes mixed well with Jay’s laid-back style, reminiscent of the UGK and DJ Screw sound that came out of the same Houston area where 2nd Prez lives.
“Texas rap has always had a slower BPM [beats per minute] than everybody else in the South, you know what I’m saying?” Jay said. “Just because of the culture and how they like to ride and stuff like that. You had to slow it down.”
The exception comes on the track “Hol Up,” which was Elevator Jay’s way of bringing back a vibe that has all but died out in recent years: crunk music.
When I told him that was the first word that came to mind upon listening to the track, he immediately went into a spiel defending the word and everything it once stood for.
“When you talk about that record, I want the crunk to come back,” he said, excitedly. “I want crunk to remain here like it never left, you know what I’m saying?”
He emphasized that “Hol Up” is the song he’s most excited about playing at during his upcoming release party, just to see how the audience interacts.
Flying the flag
Elevator Jay will team with the guys behind the Jack of All Spades podcast to host his album listening session at Snug on April 29.
The podcast — launched by David Spellmon, Ken Wabibi and Lloyd Whitfield in July 2019 — aims to bring folks together by introducing the audience to the people, places and things they should know, highlighting hidden gems in Charlotte and steeping their information in hip-hop culture.
The partnership is the perfect way to kick off what has become a passion for Elevator Jay: preserving the creative spirit in Charlotte by acting as a connector in that sprawling network.
“You don’t want that creative stuff to disappear outta here, man,” Jay said. “It’s already getting swamped by everything else. You could talk about breweries more than you could talk about music. You could talk about new developments and condos and apartments more than you can talk about the music. That’s all the city got to talk about right now.
“It’s too much going on that ain’t got nothing to do with nothing creative,” he continued. “It’s flooding stuff out to the point where, man, we need to just hang on to this creative stuff, beef it up that way. Just as much as they talk about building up South End and new developments over here, all this other stuff, I just want us to be known for this music, because it’s too much here for it not to be known for no music.”
For Jay, the transplant nature of the city allows for folks in the creative community to remain siloed, working on their own thing when he’d like to see more strong connections being made.
He praised folks like the Jack of All Spades team; Cheryse Terry, who opened Archive CLT on Beatties Ford Road and LaSalle Street; and others who serve as incubators among Charlotte’s oft-dispersed creative community.
“The scene is growing, most definitely, but it’s kind of everywhere right now, it’s all over the place,” he said. “And I’m trying to help keep it in order, keep it in line, you know what I’m saying? People still doing they thing, but it’s still a little bit hard to tap into … I get tired of people coming from out of town and be like, ‘Who we need to see, who we need to look for?’ And then people not really knowing what to say. That ain’t cool.”
It helps that more events are returning to the calendar, allowing folks to come together and connect more often. As an organizer of one of Charlotte’s most iconic hip-hop parties, Player Made: An Ode to Southern Hip Hop, he knows the importance of such functions.
Though it’s been on hiatus since COVID shut it down, Jay promised that Player Made will be back soon. As with his return to releasing new music, he just wants to ensure Player Made comes back strong.
“Nobody on the team is going to allow Player Made to come back half-ass,” he explained.
In the meantime, he’ll continue to represent Charlotte the best way he knows how.
“My thing is I’mma always be the flag flyer; I’mma fly the flag,” he said. “I’m going to be the one who, when people need to know what this is — what Carolina is, what Charlotte is — you going to know it from me. If ain’t nobody else going to tell you, I’m going to tell you.”
Having built himself into a local legend over the past dozen years, I asked Jay if he feels pressure to break through on a national level with Summer Rooster.
As expected, his response put his hometown first.
“I want to, but I’m comfortable … because it don’t matter where I go. Like I say, I’m the flag flyer. If we go do a show in Georgia, I’m going to take the flag with me. We go do a show in Japan, I’m going to take the flag with me,” he said. “A lot of people, they change, you know what I’m saying? It’s almost like the mission change when they get to a certain level. I can’t see my mission ever changing.”
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