The first song on Petey Pablo’s first album is called “Petey Pablo.” He joins such illustrious acts as Motörhead (“Motörhead”), Black Sabbath (“Black Sabbath”), Voivod (“Voivod”), Saint Vitus (“Saint Vitus”) as artists who dared to begin their careers by hammering their names into your head with blunt-force repetition. Manowar, Overkill, Deicide, Metal Church, too, have all snuck songs named after themselves onto their debut records, and if I had to guess when Satan has you sign on the dotted line there’s probably a clause about achieving maximum shreddage through savvy branding.
But Petey Pablo is a rapper, and though he might be able to spit with the same thunderous fury as a bassline shot straight out of Lemmy Kilmister’s fingers he’s a man of God and country, not country like the United States, whose prison system has held him at least twice, but country country, like fields and trees and trucks and shit.
J. Cole, one of the most famous rappers in the country, is from North Carolina. So is Phonte, who along with Rapper Big Pooh and 9th Wonder made up Little Brother, who brought national attention to our state’s vibrant hip-hop scene. Before them, there was Petey Pablo, and before him, there was nothing.
Well, that’s obviously not true. There was hip-hop in North Carolina before Petey Pablo happened, it’s just that I and most other people don’t know about it. Ski Beatz, he of producing-for-Camp-Lo-and-Jay-Z-when-he-still-had-the-hyphen-in-his-name fame, is from North Carolina. Before he made dead presidents off producing “Dead Presidents II,” he rapped as part of an NC hip-hop crew called the Bizzie Boyz. His name back then was Will-Ski, and depending on the track he sounded sort of like De La Soul or an over-enthusiastic, American version of Slick Rick. But between 1990, when Bizzie Boyz’s “Droppin’ It” got a little love from the mixshows in New York, and 2001, when Petey Pablo dropped “Raise Up,” North Carolina rap was all but nonexistent.
So if you are Petey Pablo, effectively the first North Carolina rapper dropping what is effectively the first North Carolina rap album, you must first and foremost do two things. One, you must tell them who you are, because you have no one else to do it for you. You are Petey Pablo. It’s your name on the CD, and now it’s the chorus of that CD’s first song, which you have also named after yourself.
The next thing you must do is tell them where you’re from, because you have no one else to do that for you either.
Enter “Raise Up,” the second song on Petey Pablo’s first album, and easily the best state pride anthem this side of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” It begins with Petey repeating the rhetorical process of the “Petey Pablo”>>“Raise Up” song pairing in miniature: “Who am I?” he roars. “Petey Pab’ mothafucka! First to put it down for North Carolina, but guess what? It’s been worth it!” These words should not, do not rhyme, but when Petey Pablo’s delivers a barrage of syllables, the thickness of his country accent imbues words with a certain malleability. They still might not have rhymed, but man, shit—they still sounded good.
It’s around this time in the incredible music video for “Raise Up” that Petey does a trust fall.
You know the chorus of this one. “North Carolina, raise up, take your shirt off, twist it ‘round your head, spin it like a helicopter.” I live in Los Angeles, and it’s hot as shit right now. I’m not spinning it around a helicopter, but my shirt is definitely off, and the heat is bringing me back home, and thinking about being home is making me remember the thing that I am about to tell you.
If you couldn’t already guess, I was born in North Carolina, right around the time “Droppin’ It” was a proverbial gleam in Will-Ski’s eye. I grew up there, too, in the part of the state that you could charitably describe as “bumfuck.” The towns from around there were so sparsely populated that nobody even bothered to call them towns; you just said what county you were from and that was it. It wasn’t uncommon for kids at school to prank each other by leaving various bits of dismembered deers on each other’s cars, just as it was it was normal to, if your car was in the shop, hitch a ride to school on your dad’s tractor. We’re talking nowhere, like the type of nowhere that’s so nowhere that people from somewhere get creeped out by. I like it, though. Decent people. Cheap gas.
It’s important to understand that so you can understand why it was objectively miraculous that Petey Pablo shouted us out twice during “Raise Up.” Twice! The first is after Petey raps, “Half me and Carolina done time together,” when he starts listing off counties. Ours, Polk–one of the “my itty bitty overlooked hick towns” he raps about later in the track–is the first name he drops.
The second is in the intro, delivered by a hating-ass DJ named David Nevermind (This might have been a real NC rap radio DJ at the time, but I’m pretty sure this was just Petey using a funny voice), who specifically mentioned, “Remember, if I ever talked anything about the Polk guys, nevermind!” If you are 11 and hearing a nationally popular human being talk about your basically nonexistent hometown in any context, this is huge.
To this day, I have no idea why Petey made specific mention of Polk County. The rumor was that when Petey was in the pen he’d been cellmates with a dude from Polk, but barring calling up Petey and asking him myself, there’s no way to know. That could be true I guess? Maybe he just liked how “Polk” sounded when he rolled it around in his magical mouth, which had that same ability that James Brown did to turn everything into a catchphrase if he put enough pizzaz on it. Sometimes the things we think are deep aren’t deep at all, and sometimes the things we think are simple deserve some serious interrogation, and I’m not quite sure which one we’re dealing with here. All I know is whenever someone asks what part of nowhere I’m from, I’ve got that much easier of an answer to give them, because Petey Pablo’s already told ‘em for me.