The Bulls of Durham book project began as a fairly straight forward process — skip past the standard writing practice of beginning with an outline for the book, then find a bull, find the information and person behind the bull and put that all in writing. Key focus: let Durham tell its story.
That created a process of bull spotting, research and interviews. At the end of each interview ask the person who they think would be a valuable contribution to the book. Simple and straightforward, right? Nah. That is the exact point where things became very Durham. To speak to the outsider, this is when things became very unique to the city.
It’s common for Durham locals to use the city name as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, well you name it really. In fact, in the Bull City, it’s a high compliment to be called or referred to as being “Durham.” All of that is a roundabout way of explaining the aforementioned Durham deviation to the writing process.
At the heart of the matter is the true bull of Durham, one many have cited as their favorite, is the community of Durham, the comradery of the people, the collective we, that indescribable and undiscernible thing that binds the people of the Bull City — it’s so Durham. That’s the vantage point, the bull’s eye that The Bulls of Durham is being written from and how some interviews have strayed from physical bull statues, paintings or signs to humans. This is how John Lawrence came up as a vital interviewee to the project.
John Lawrence has been in the Bull City since 1997. Those that have been around for a while may know him by the moniker of The Real Laww. His deep and profound voice is known well in these parts as in addition to being a successful hip hop artist, he’s also a voice over artist and has done work with the likes of the Durham Visitor’s Convention Bureau, LinkedIn, the American Underground, Google and more!
It’s what he says with that voice, how he says it and his person that convey something else that is so Durham — leave your expectations at the city line.
I met up with John on a beautiful, warm October morning at Cocoa Cinnamon on the corner of Foster and Geer Streets. It’s one of the key places the locals like to meet and I thought nothing of his preference to meet up there until, on our way to a prime picnic table, a jovial man, with a Runaway t-shirt boasting a bull image no less, caught John’s attention. The 2 immediately struck up a conversation and John politely introduced me to Leon Grodski De Berrara, one of owners of Cocoa Cinnamon. At this point the conversation quickly turned to Leon’s sweet shirt and the great Bull City.
This is exemplary of something else that is so Durham, supportive loyalty. Everyone has a person or business that they would like to support, but here, for the most, everyone wants every person and business to succeed and they’ll pitch in however they can to make that happen. While us having a cup of unBULLievably great coffee was but a drop in the sea to the success of Cocoa Cinnamon’s name and established caffeine empire, it’s still worth doing. As John would later explain in greater detail, it is part of what we do here. We shop local as much as possible, we pitch in when needed or wanted, and we show up for one another. Add that to the definitions of Durham.
Our premium picnic table spot was still there waiting for us as we parted ways with Leon. In between sips of yet another flawlessly executed Americano, I shot the bull with John, explaining The Bulls of Durham project in full detail and getting to know him a bit better. For a brief moment I got caught up thinking about how he would be perfect to read the audio version of the book, but snapped back to the here and now when John said he has been in the city going on 20 years.
Admittedly I was overcome with a bit of jealousy, but quickly snapped back remembering that there is enough Durham for all of us. I was curious as to what it was about Durham that had kept John here.
John explained, “To be honest this was the most stable place I’ve ever been. Before Durham I was in a different elementary school every year. I got here and went to middle school and stayed there. High school stayed there. College here and there, but stayed in the area. Stable.”
Only knowing the little bit from the person that sent me John’s way, I asked him what all he does. Turns out that his talent is so wide ranging that a bulleted list is required to answer that question.
(Psst… helpful hint, all the hyperlinks below are absolute must click awesomeness!)
· Staff Sergeant in the US Marines reserves. I am the Operations Chief, who handles the annual training and planning for our Company.
· Music for commercials — Durham Summers soundtrack for the Durham Visitor’s Convention Bureau produced by the Storm Loopers: comprised of Laww and co-produce and DJ, DJ Shahzad.
· We also did Dance Durham. That was cool. Got to meet a bunch of dancers.
· Music contribution for Saleem Reshamwala (director of above videos) additional projects with LinkedIn, American Underground, Google and more.
· Voice Over Artist
· Performed a lot. The Real Laww, that was my moniker.
· Now I’m a dad. Two kids.
· CEO and Co-Founder of the DURM Hip Hop Summit.
New to the area and yet the DURM Hip Hop Summit sounded familiar and to as John is the CEO and Co-Founder, I wanted to know more. I asked him to explain what it was and what his motivation was behind it.
John say, “Before the summit hip-hop was hard to find in Durham. So one day we, we being Professor Toon, Steve Gardner and I, talked about how we can bring a more positive light to the hip hop scene in Durham. The DURM Hip-Hop summit was born. Since then… people aren’t scared to come to Durham for a hip-hop show.
“Started it in July 2012. It was nuts. The first time we did it, it was a big ol’ like a monsoon outside, but people still showed out. We based it on the pillars of hip hop. We had emcees, b-boys, DJs, producers… We had graffiti artists set up and it got washed out, literally. But after that we were able to expand it. We couldn’t do it this year, because of my [Marine] training in California.
“It’s spread across Durham’s downtown area from MotorCo to Pinhook to Durham Central Park, Tooties on Rigsbee, the rooftop at American Underground. We have different events going on at each location: B-boy battle, producer battle, DJ battle — which was really cool. People love the producer battles. An addition to last year’s summit was the DJ battle, which everyone thoroughly enjoyed!”
He said all that matter-of-factly, as though beginning a hip hop summit and changing the perspective of a city is no big deal. Not to mention, a few of the areas he casually mentioned used to be notoriously some of the most dangerous areas in this city, yet today you would never know it.
However, to someone who hasn’t been to the Bull City in a quick minute, there’s a lot of stigma to get over regarding the them. John and his group brought people to these areas and gave them a positive music experience to associate with the locals. He did all this like it was no big deal. This too, this humBULLness, is another thing that is distinctively Durham. To John it is something he and some good friends did, no explanations or hype necessary. I wanted to know why he did it.
He said, “There’s a lot of artists in Durham, hip hop artists in Durham. Nobody was coming to Durham because the reputation it had. Durham’s Downtown used to be not that good. A lot of change has definitely happened.
“I can definitely see that. A lot of things happened. Before it was the American Underground, there was the Bull City Stampede in the basement of at American Tobacco. Now it’s two buildings. The Art of Cool festival was still being thought of at that time with Cecily and Al Strong. We all would be talking about what needs to happen downtown and what would be cool. Runaway was just starting at that time. I came back from the Marines, from Afghanistan at that time. [It was] a bunch of people with cool ideas coming together and people are catching on and coming together that’s cool.
“2011 is when I got back from Afghanistan was around the starting point of all that. Actual momentum started to pick up in 2012. That was the best part of these same groups of people. We all knew each other. It’s really cool. I don’t know how often it happens in other places. A lot of people have a problem with something. Most people would complain, but here it’s been “how can I help?”
“Cocoa Cinnamon was just a bike and it’s 3 buildings right now. It was a bike, right over there at the Farmer’s Market. I literally helped knocked down some of the walls in here. How can I help? That’s what’s different to me about this community. That’s what makes it dope. It’s not about a competition. It’s all a common goal to make Durham, to make our surroundings dope.”
That’s the aforementioned true bull of Durham — the spirit of the city — coming from a longstanding resident. With his finger on the pulse of the city, I wanted to know what stands out the most about Durham to John. At first he took my question very literally and looked around the surrounding area in deep thought.
Looking around he answered, “The construction over there on Liberty just kinda stopped. There’s a pickle building over behind 85 — that’s awkward and standoutish. It’s not even in the sky line. That’s random.”
Giving it some more thought he went on to say, “The people are pretty cool. That’s cliché, but it’s true. That’s going to make up any city. That attitude of ‘how can I help’ is the first thing that comes out of people’s mouths as opposed to ‘that sucks’ or ‘figure it out.’
“Everything intersects — the sets. If you’re a techy, hipster, whatever, all those genres mix. You’ll find bike club people rolling over to Fullstream and everyone is intertwined together. In Raleigh, once you find your click — it’s high school. There’s something more here. It’s not just that one or groups. These groups of people intertwine with other people. Ecclecticness.”
Ecclecticness. It’s a word. Well it is in Durham. It’s the common way locals describe what they love about the city. You’ll hear it from artists, business execs, doctors and even the Mayor, who is as cool as all the locals say by the way. Across the board everyone is on the same page about everyone being different. That’s so Durham.
As someone who has brought about a huge, positive change to the city, I wanted to know what other changes John would like to see for Durham. He went into deep thought before answering, “I guess the… with all the real estate and higher prices that are going… I don’t want to see that happening as fast, or not allowing people the opportunity to catch up with this economic growth. The residents that are already here, I don’t want to see them falling behind. It does fall on the person to catch up or stay with the time. Work. Be in the curve of what is going on.
“As far as pushing this gentrification… Really I don’t know if it’s gentrification. Because really only 20 people lived downtown. But beyond Ashe street on the other side of Alston Ave down to Cheek Road, that’s another story.
“There needs to be more businesses and communities where training can happen there, to allow people that don’t have the resources to get a better education to try to advance and stay up to speed with the growth. So when another great expansion happens again, 5 to 10 years down the road, opportunities will have been afforded to all folks. And not them secrete opportunities either. Like grants that you have to go thru all this red tape to get to, but programs that are frequently advertised and readily available to everyone.
“These communities and companies, that maybe full of middle class and upper-middle class folks, CAN NOT have meetings without the lower class, boarder line poverty class being involved in the meetings. That’s like your parents having a discussion about YOUR future, but you’re 28. You need all perspectives. That’s what happened back in 2011/2012 [referencing conversation involving everyone] and now look at Durham. Good stuff happens when cliques and classes overlap.
“Side note, I hate the word “class” it reminds me of mid-evil times. People are people, some are just richer than others, and if “class” is used to define that, and not the actual definition and character of the individual person, so be it.
“It’s been happening since the 20s and then in the 60’s, 70's, 147 (Durham Freeway) cut into Black Wall Street. There was no need for 147. There was an economic growth of Black Wall Street. There were all these churches. That’s been a part of the history. It started with 147.”
John stopped for a moment to recommend the documentary “The Lessons of Hayti” to give more insight and perspective to what he was referring to regarding the Durham Freeway and its impact on Black Wall Street and an entire community within Durham. The story and it’s longstanding effects are still a frequent topic of conversation, rightfully so, and what we need to do as a city and as a whole to learn from that and do better.
It’s in John’s nature to put a positive spin on things, find the silver lining and he ended his thoughts on changes for Durham in that way.
“I would like to see parking change — more of it. Actually it’s pretty cool having limited parking. That’s like the line to get to the club. Parking is the “line.”
Considering there are 100s of locals grumping about the parking issues downtown, that’s a pretty awesome way of looking at the matter.
“That’s the whole thing about growth and change. That’s what going to affect. When things get bigger there’s going to be more cost to it. That is the balance we’re all trying to figure. It’s booming too fast. I think that’s why Pat McCory seems to be coming in with these back to back horrible laws — to slow the growth. That’s my optimistic rainbow and sparkles on why he’s doing this stupid shit.”
Reaching deep into his creative DJ wheelhouse, John went on to put an optimistic spin only a true creative could come up with on the highly publicized and divisive laws passed by Pat McCory in his time as Governor of North Carolina to attention-getting popstar Miley Cyrus. Comparing in a hopeful, yet tongue in cheek manner that perhaps all that was a way to get his name out there before doing something really awesome for the state, like Miley’s notorious antics prior to dropping a highly rated album.
As John put it, “Crazy and then dope ass album and you’re already in their mouths. I hope he’s about to drop something really epic. I mean it’s getting too late for him.”
Well that’s one way of looking at all of it, a really creative way. Deeply humored and impressed with his way of finding the silver lining, even somewhat abstract ones, I almost hated to hit him with the hardest hitting question every Bulls of Durham interviewee must answer. As soon as I could stop laughing long enough to make a complete sentence, I asked John which bull in the city was his favorite.
“There’s one inside of the golden belt that is pretty colorful. It’s in the main building. The neon the bull on the Old Bull.” Both bright bulls in their own ways reflected John’s bright outlook on life and our city. Going forward it will be great to see what other contributions John makes to the city and to literally hear what he’s up to next.
Check out John’s latest music video HERE.
For more on John check out any or all of the following:
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Sheila Amir is a health & nutrition writer who fell in love with Durham, North Carolina and starting writing a book about it.