Kurrell Rice is like many Duke students. He views the school as a stepping-stone to future success. He spends his time in Durham working to improve himself, hone his craft and break into his industry of choice. In fact, just knowing exactly what he wants to do with his life is already more than some undergraduates can say.
Only Rice isn't a Duke student.
He's a Durham rapper who performs under the name Toon. Sure, you may have never heard of him, but you've probably seen him before.
Until he is able to make his passion his career, Rice, 23, will continue to pay the bills the same way he has for five years-serving sandwiches at the West Campus Subway.
It's not glamorous, but it is honest. And that's all Rice knows how to be, both in his music and in life.
"I was sounding like a whole lot of other artists," Rice said about his early days, from when he wrote his first song in 12th grade. "Then I was tired of rapping like everybody else. Now I got skills. I'm coming up with all this stuff off the top of the dome. Let me make myself come out of the speakers and off the page."
Rice and his producer and good friend John Harmon make their music here, in a small apartment a little ways down 15-501. The "studio" consists of little more than Harmon's laptop hooked up to a half-keyboard, some speakers and an external hard drive-all housed in an alcove off the kitchen that the architect probably envisioned as a dining area. There are thick, black electrical cords strung up from the computer, along the ceiling, around a corner into the living room off the main entrance and into the front closet. Instead of coats, though, a microphone hangs from the ceiling.
"This is the booth," Rice said. "It works best when you leave the door open. We found if you close it, there's too much reverb."
But don't be fooled. The music may not be professional-label quality, but after hearing the tracks, you'll never question the acoustics of a closet again. And so, they make it work. Harmon, who goes by l@w, makes the beats, and Rice raps. He focuses on writing positive lyrics-he's always felt uncomfortable cursing in his songs because his younger sister, now 17, would hear it-and he talks about making the most out of life.
Because even though he's still working at Subway to support himself, and he's still desperately trying to gain a fanbase worthy of a touring contract, Rice has had to walk through some of the darkest shadows, and all he wants now is his face in the sun.
"A whole lot of people my age are always bitching about, 'Oh, I don't have this yet, or I can't do that yet,'" Rice said. "If 100 people are saying that, then clearly you're not the only person going through something.... That's not what life is about. Life is about you finding fulfillment. What are you fulfilling if you're sitting and complaining about everything? Don't complain, just live life."
Rice shrugs when he talks about it, but he does have plenty he could complain about. Growing up in Baltimore, Rice's parents both worked steady jobs and they lived comfortably, he said. But by the time he was 10, both his parents had remarried and problems started up between his mother and stepfather.
There was abuse, he said. His mother, with two children to think about, had to get out of there.
"We came down to North Carolina-with nothing," Rice said. "We stayed in a shelter for a little while. It wasn't that long, nothing to really complain about because some people are still in the shelter.
"We had to climb back up the ladder, I guess you could say. Not finished climbing yet, but life is life. I'm still living.... As long as I've got music, I'm good. Without music, I'd be a sad, sad person."
You can see it when his songs play. Harmon clicks his mouse a few times, and another track starts up. Right there in the kitchen, Rice forgets about the stories of his past and starts dancing and singing his lyrics from memory. In his song "Hulk Smash," he asserts that he's the best rapper he knows. And he believes it, too.
"If I'm calling somebody else the best rapper, then should another fan have confidence in me that I'm the best rapper they've heard?" Rice said. "If I don't think I'm the best rapper, why should they?"
Harmon and Rice talk about their future in certainties. In one year, they will be touring. In three, they'll have three albums under their belts and will be playing bigger arenas all the time. The only time Rice doesn't have a quick, thought-out answer is when he's asked how bad he wants this. He grapples with cliche words and phrases, but none of them suit how he really feels.
"I can't explain it in words how bad I want it," he said. "At this point, for me to really be fulfilled in life, it'll have to happen. So, it has to happen."
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