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By STACY CHANDLER, The News & Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Sometimes being a packrat pays off.

Over David Menconi’s nearly three decades writing about music for The News & Observer, he got into the habit of tucking away the notes and mementos he collected in the course of research and interviews for his articles.

It made for a daunting amount of office clutter, but it came in handy when he decided to start writing his book on North Carolina music history, “Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk.”

One seed that gave rise to the book was a family tree of sorts — a giant hand-drawn diagram Menconi made for The N&O in the mid-1990s that charted out the North Carolina popular music scene at the time. It was impressive to behold, and it barely scratched the surface of years and genres.

Menconi knew that virtually every branch bore a story he was uniquely positioned to tell, and that there was a whole forest’s worth of trees just like it to explore.

About five years ago, after completing a book about Texas-based Western swing kings Asleep at the Wheel, he dug out all those bits and pieces of North Carolina music history he’d stashed away and got to work in earnest.

“I had just boxes and boxes of stuff, interview transcripts, demo tapes and CDs and little tchotchkes and things, and step one was going through all of that to jog some memories,” said Menconi, who left the N&O in 2019.

“Step It Up and Go,” published by UNC Press on Oct. 19, spans around a hundred years of history, from Charlie Poole, who took up the banjo to escape from work in textile mills in the 1920s, to the state’s outsized share of winners and high-profile runners-up on TV’s “American Idol.”

But Menconi acknowledges he didn’t cover everything — and he didn’t try.

“I didn’t want to try to tackle an encyclopedia, just sort of a set of Wikipedia entries,” he said. “I was more interested in coming up with kind of the story with a through line, and a group of artists and chapters that made sense to be together.”

But he couldn’t resist a few tasty asides, which appear in shaded boxes sprinkled through the chapters.

One zooms in on an iconic video for the song “’74-’75” by 1990s Raleigh jangle pop band the Connells. The video, by director Mark Pellington, featured then-and-now photos of 16 members of Broughton High School’s class of 1975. In 2015, Menconi worked on an N&O project that updated the video for the class’ 40th anniversary, “the project I’m proudest of from all my time at the paper,” he writes.


Menconi’s book takes its name from a 1940 song by Durham’s Blind Boy Fuller that endures as a symbol of the Piedmont blues that arose as a byproduct from the region’s tobacco industry.

Black workers employed by tobacco factories rose to a comfortable middle class that was hungry for entertainment, and plenty of talented musicians — most notably Fuller, Gary Davis and Sonny & Brownie — were able to oblige. Their songs and signature style were heard on front porches, then record players, throughout the Triangle and far beyond.

Not every state can merit a hefty book about its music history, or fill an index with so many well-known names.

It’s notable that there’s so much to North Carolina’s music scene that even one of its biggest names, James Taylor, can only be spared a short excerpt in the book (a full-page one, though). Titled “Carolina in My Mind,” the mini-story traces Taylor’s childhood in Chapel Hill, his garage band with his brother and his scene-stealing, toga-clad set at Chapel Hill High School’s 1965 Junior Follies Variety Show. Not long afterward, Taylor left North Carolina for bigger stages, but of course the state continued to figure prominently in some of his most-loved songs.

North Carolina offers fertile ground for music just as much as for tobacco, Christmas trees or college basketball.

“North Carolina has always had a very strong populist tradition,” Menconi said.

He traces that history back to people who settled here because it reminded them of faraway homes and gave them hope they could make a living and put down roots on their own terms.

“I’ve always thought of it as kind of the day-job state where the arts are concerned,” Menconi said. “There’s more of a historical context here than a lot of places for the band, where everybody’s working a day job and they’re putting their records out on their own. That’s not too far removed from what was going on in textile towns a hundred years ago.”

Menconi, asked to swing his view from the state’s musical past to its future, said he sees that independent spirit becoming more important than ever.

“Americana is extraordinarily strong right now,” he said, pointing to ascendant Triangle bands like Hiss Golden Messenger, Lydia Loveless, H.C. McEntire, and Sylvan Esso.

“I think that’s going to just go right on, simply because it seems so self-sufficient,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to rely on outside support and that’s very important at a time like this when there is no outside support, and nightclubs and record companies and everything are gasping for breath and you don’t even know if they’re going to survive at this point.

“As for what’s the next big stylistic breakout, that’s a good one. That’s the beautiful part about it. Nobody really knows.”


“Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk,” by David Menconi. Published Oct. 19 by University of North Carolina Press, 320 pages, $30

Find a playlist Menconi created to highlight some of the artists and songs mentioned in the book on Spotify. Search for “Songs From ‘Step It Up & Go.’

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Mama Phife lets readers into Phife Dawg’s world with new book

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“Now here’s a funky introduction of how nice I am / Tell your mother, tell your father, send a telegram,” rapped Phife Dawg to kick off his classic verse on “Check The Rhime.”  Now four years after the A Tribe Called Quest star’s passing, his mother is the one telling her stories and preserving her son’s legacy.

Read More: How Phife Dawg made us all ‘Check His Rhime,’ #RIPPhifeDawg

Author Cheryl Boyce-Taylor wrote “Mama Phife Represents” in honor of her son, known to the world as the five-foot assassin. Born Malik Taylor, Phife Dawg co-founded A Tribe Called Quest in 1985 along with Q–Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and former member Jarobi White. The group evolved to become one of hip-hop’s most revered rap collectives with multiple platinum albums, career accolades, and immeasurable cultural impact.

Rapper Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, DJ Rasta Root, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, mother of the late rapper Phife Dawg, rapper Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, ASCAP SVP of Membership Nicole George Middleton, and rapper Jarobi White of A Tribe Called Quest accept the ASCAP Golden Note Award during the 2016 ASCAP Rhythm and Blues Awards.

 As theGrio reported on March 23, 2016, Phife Dawg died of complications from diabetes at age 45. He battled the illness for decades with the support of friends, family, and fans. In the 1993 song, “Oh My God,”  he called himself  “a funky diabetic.”

 According to BBC, the rapper’s health took a turn in 2008. He suffered renal failure and received a kidney transplant from his wife Deisha Head Taylor but four years later Phife was back on the waiting list for another kidney. In the 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life on ATCQ, he opened up about his experience with diabetes and his never-ending craving for sweets.

“It’s really a sickness,” he said according to the report. “Like straight-up drugs. I’m just addicted to sugar.”

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A post shared by MALIK I.”PHIFE”BOYCE- TAYLOR (@iamthephifer)

The intimate stanzas printed in “Mama Phife Represents” due out next year, are a continued part of the grieving process. Boyce-Taylor highlights a deep love between a mother and son who empowered each other.  

In the book, she shares how the rapper became Phife Dawg and how he chose his many clever nicknames. Published by Haymarket Books, the collection of poems and short stories, along with Phife’s own hand-written notes, sketches, lyrics, and writings build the story of the man behind the rhymes. Boyce-Taylor offers a full look at Phife Dawg – the creative child, inquisitive son, loving husband and father, and iconic rap artist.  

theGrio spoke with Boyce-Taylor about the process behind her work, raising a world-class rapper, dealing with grief, and more. In the conversation, she shared an unreleased album, Phife Forever is also due next year. Read the interview below:

Book cover via Haymarket Books

theGrio: Your son was an iconic hip-hop artist. How did his fans help you with the grieving process?

Cheryl Boyce-Taylor: I have to take a deep breath for that one. I have to tell you that this was one of the most stinging blows I’ve ever experienced in my life losing my son. It was very hard to be grieving and grieving in public. But I have to tell you, that the fans supported us so immensely. People from all around the world [sent] notes and cards. There were murals all over Paris, South Africa, Trinidad. It was so positive. The fans were beautiful. They supported us. There were days when my heart would break and I felt like I can’t go on. And then I may go on the internet or something and see a story or go on his page and his Instagram and see what people were saying, and that really helped us.

tG: Was there anything specific that you think contributed to him being able to become a revered artist?

CBT: There were several things. We’re from Trinidad originally, and in Trinidad, one of the academic cultures was poetry. It was a very large part of the school curriculum. My mother loved poetry. She never wrote her own, but she and her classmates were given these long poems. Of course, they were British [poems], however, they had to study and memorize, and then recite [them] before the class. I remember my own education. On Tuesdays, my teacher would take our class out under the tree, and we all had poems that we had to memorize, then recite. My mom read poems to me at bedtime and we actually brought that into Malik’s life.

We were also part of a Seventh Day Adventist Church and I would say that our church family also had a lot to do with his growing up loving spoken word. When he was about six, my mother worked with him on the Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have a Dream” speech. There was a cotillion a number of weeks later, and Malik had to recite this in front of the whole church. He got a kick out of it, and he really did well. He got a lot of response from that, and so he began learning that this was a good thing for him.

Q-Tip and Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest perform at Barclays Center on November 20, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)

tG: How do you think religion and his upbringing shaped him as an artist?

CBT: When we moved him from public school, we put him in the Seventh Day Adventist School, which my heart was not fully into doing because I didn’t feel like their education was up to standards. My husband and I talked it over and we decided that’s where his family church is. It will be the same people he sees on the weekends. Whatever he doesn’t get there, we will just have to teach him at home. A lot of what we did at home was we listened to the Black Panthers, we listened to Dick Gregory, The Last Poets. That was what my household was like. We [played] Caribbean music, Calypso, reggae. Bob Marley was our guru. We surrounded [Malik] with art. I would say that that’s probably is what helped him in that way. My mother would pray with him, read his Sabbath School lessons with him. She was the co-parent.

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A post shared by ATCQ (@atcq)

tG: Can you talk about when Malik became Phife Dawg and you became Mama Phife?

CBT: He had a lot of girlfriends, I don’t mean romantic, and a lot of guys. The guys were always over at the house, especially when they started delving into the music and so they would all come in and say “Hey mama.” Q Tip lived around the corner from us, and he and Malik went to the same school. They were friends since they were two years old. His dad told the story that he was in the garage, and he saw Malik’s bookbag in there. He looked in the bag, and he saw a notebook full of rhymes. He called over Malik and he said, ‘Whose bag is this,’ and Malik said, ‘I don’t know.’ It wasn’t our goal for him to be a rapper. [We wanted him to] go to college and do something else, so he was hiding it by that point. He finally said ‘Mine’ and his father said, “What’s this notebook?’ and he said, ‘Rap I’m writing.’ His father took it out and checked it over and it was OK, and I was OK with it. We really encouraged him and that is how he became Phife.

tG: Was there anything different about the process writing this book?

Read More: A hip-hop community center could bring change to Syracuse youth: it needs the funding first

CBT: As an artist, I knew it was necessary. As a mother grieving, it almost broke me down. This is my sixth book, so I know from writing other books that they’re healing in a way. It was so painful because I was writing it during the first one to three years after Malik’s death. There were a lot of things that I held back because I felt ‘that’s my secret with Malik,’ that I would probably write down now. In the wake of that first year, I wanted to keep everything that related to him as a secret and I’ve never had that experience with a book before.

“Mama Phife Represents” is available for pre-order and is slated for release on Jan. 5, 2021.

Have you subscribed to theGrio’s new podcast “Dear Culture”? Download our newest episodes now!

TheGrio is now on Apple TV, Amazon Fire, and Roku. Download theGrio today!

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