“Unicorn” rapper Elevator Jay aims to preserve Charlotte’s culture through music

“Unicorn” rapper Elevator Jay aims to preserve Charlotte’s culture through music

Elevator Jay drinking Sparkle Party at Legion Brewing. Paige Hopkins/Axios

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Elevator Jay is a fishing, DJing, horse-riding rapper who prides himself on staying true to his Charlotte roots, which run deep through “The Ford” and wrap farther south into Union County.

Why it matters: Jay, who started rapping at age 12, says Charlotte’s rapid growth has made natives like himself seem like unicorns in most spaces, but he’s committed to preserving the culture of the version of the city he grew up in.

The 32-year-old takes refuge in his neighborhood, the Beatties Ford Road corridor, where transplants are still in the minority and where gentrification hasn’t yet taken a strong hold. These are the places that inspire his songs and music videos.

“I always put the city first,” he tells me in his deep southern accent over drinks during our Monday evening interview. But the city he portrays where Black folks ride horses down city blocks and business owners know all of their customers by name, will feel foreign to many, maybe even most, Charlotteans.

Elevator Jay, Charlotte rap, Southern Rap, West Charlotte, Beatties Ford, The Ford

Elevator Jay in his element. Photo courtesy of Paul “DJ Pauly Guwop” Duncan II

The Beatties Ford corridor is an area city officials are trying to improve. There are plans in the works to provide additional resources and infrastructure in an effort to increase upward mobility in the area and decrease crime.

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But you wouldn’t get any sense of struggle listening to Jay talk about the area.”My neighborhood is great. I wouldn’t trade it for nothing else,” the West Charlotte grad tells me. “I wouldn’t be from nowhere else in this city.”

  • And he feels the support goes the other way around, too. “My city supports me,” the rapper says. “If you don’t know about Elevator Jay, then you’re not tapped in foreal, foreal.”
Elevator Jay mural, camp north end, Bree Stallings, Charlotte rap

A picture of Elevator Jay by Kevin “Surf” Mitchell, portrayed in a mural at Camp North End by Bree Stallings. Photo: Emma Way/Axios

What Up Babe,” Jay’s newest song and music video, is a prime example of his country yet city disposition and incorporation of Charlotte, as he’s experienced it, into his music.

  • The name of the song is a commonly used phrase that simply means ‘hey.’ But, Jay tells me, it’s not gender specific and is used by all sexes and gender identities to greet each other.
  • The video for the song shows Jay going from a field with a horse to one of the city’s oldest strip clubs, Paper Dolls, off Wilkinson Blvd. Can’t get much more country/city than that.

Jay says fans can expect more music from him in the future, but right now he’s focused on promoting “What Up Babe,” and hoping it will catch on not just on a city-level but across the country.

His discography includes a couple albums, EPs, plus a variety of singles. He also a couple of songs with Lute, a fellow Charlotte rapper that’s signed with J. Cole’s Dreamville Records.

Zoom out: Charlotte’s rap scene continues to grow, and includes Grammy nominated DaBaby, up-and-coming Deniro Farrar and Mavi, and many more.

Before the pandemic Charlotte’s hip-hop artists struggled to find places to perform. Now, as more music venues have had to close permanently due to COVID-19, that problem has gotten worse.

  • Jay says he and other local artists will continue to create their own spaces and opportunities to share their music. His Player Made rap event, which he plans to start up again, is just one example.

Southern rap: While he’s working toward nationwide exposure, Jay is steadfast in his commitment to representing the south. Even though rap is no longer exclusively associated with New York City or California, there’s still some pressure for southern rappers to give off big city vibes, but Jay isn’t with it.

  • He acknowledges Charlotte’s growth, but believes at its core, it still feels small.
  • “Some of these people be trying to act like they’re from New York or some sh-t,” he says. “I’m from right here, Mecklenburg County.”

And though he loves his city, he agrees with critiques that Charlotte is too quick to build new stuff without preserving or appreciating the old. Jay says he wishes that could change, but he’s working to save “old Charlotte,” in his own way.

“If  I can’t get nobody else to preserve some sh-t, I know I can preserve. I know I got control over what I say on the music or what kind of party I throw, where I throw the party…I’m doing my part.”

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"It's good. I promise." - Emma   Emma Way