Harold Stallworth is throwing rappers in the Boston Crab.
J Cole is Fayetteville, NC’s quintessential hip-hop success story. But a full decade before his raspy voice blared from black college dorms across the country, an obscure rap duo known as Bomm Sheltuh was projected to be his hometown’s vessel for national exposure on the music front. Although the group never achieved any substantial success beyond Cumberland County, they can still take comfort in knowing their tutelage played an instrumental role in Cole’s early artistic development.
Like so many of their local contemporaries that predate social media and digital journalism, there’s virtually no trace of Bomm Sheltuh’s existence on the Internet, sans a handful of unrequited message board inquiries. One-half of the pioneering act, Filthe Ritch, still resides in what more than a quarter-million largely black residents affectionately refer to as “Fayettenam.” Dusk is falling over the city; he’s coasting down Cliffdale Road en route to his go-to corner store.
“Look, I’m a brutally honest dude,” he says, “So if I was high off cocaine, I’d just say it. I’m just wired because I’m weird like that.”
Filthe is trying to justify his unique inability to answer questions in a straightforward manner. He has so many untapped anecdotes bouncing around the caverns of his 36-year-old brain, he wants to unleash all of them at once. When asked his place of birth, he testifies to having sex with a pregnant groupie on the Hard Knock Life Tour. He also still bears fresh wounds from witnessing his parents’ struggle with addiction, so he’s self-conscious about the possibility that his eccentric thought-wringing could be mistaken for that of a dope fiend. To top it off, he’s driving his girlfriend’s vehicle, an off-white Kia Sorento, and is paranoid that he’ll somehow be accused of pursuing other women. And he’s still yet to divulge his place of birth.
“To answer your question—because I don’t want you to think I’d go that far off on a tangent—I was born in Walter Reed hospital near Washington D.C., then we moved to Italy. [Italian] is the first language I learned how to speak. In fact, I had to translate for my family when I was 4-years-old. You know how kids can just pick up on some shit? I was like Rain Man over there.”
In 1982, Filthe’s G.I. father was given orders to report to Fort Bragg, one of the largest U.S. military installations in the world. His family wound up settling in LaGrange, a massive residential area located in Fayetteville’s northwest quadrant. He would spend his remaining pre-pubescent years bouncing around the working-class neighborhood, from Kemper Court to Grist Mill to Bonnie Bell to Golf Drive. For such a cluttered personality, he has a seemingly photographic memory, able to recall nearly every person and place he’s ever encountered.
“Do you remember people like Johnny Phelps? You remember David Epps? Dominique Lane? Antoine Lane? AJ?! The one who ended killing somebody or whatever? I ended up moving into his house. Fat ol’ AJ and shit! How about Lamar Blue?”
Filthe’s stay at AJ’s former abode was short-lived. In 1991, as a result of his mother’s mounting drug habit, they relocated to a rundown trailer on a desolate stretch of South Raleigh Road. After transitioning to a new junior high school he was desperate to acquire friends. As an only child and seasoned military brat, well accustomed to being uprooted at moment’s notice, he learned how to win peers over with humor at an early age. Posturing as the class clowning earned him acceptance, but he yearned for unwavering brotherhood.
At this time, with the exception of a few regions that channeled their support into homegrown alternatives, rap music was the reigning voice for America’s black youth. In small pond markets like Fayetteville, simply recording a demo tape, regardless of quality, garnered immediate notoriety. By happenstance, over a lonely holiday break, Filthe crossed paths with a gentleman lurking around his trailer park that claimed to be a true and living record producer. Upon accepting the man’s business card, he was convinced it was the golden ticket to a bustling social life.
“I don’t know how it happened,” he says. “But I knew this was my opportunity to show everyone I was cool and had a connect. The vibe back then was anti-everything. So if you wanted to rap, it was a rebellious thing. It was the equivalent of someone walking up to you and saying they had a gun.”
When classes finally reconvened for the spring semester, he shared the business card with a likeminded circle of aspiring rappers: Marcus Womble, Brion Unger and Harrell Thigpen. Up to this point, Filthe never fancied himself an emcee; he marketed himself to the other boys as an artful facilitator. But in the days leading up into their first session he secretly toiled over his notepad, scribbling lyrics for hours on end. By the time the ragtag crew descended on the makeshift studio nearby Marketfair Mall, he was fully prepared to resign as general manager and don a jersey. As fate would have it, Harrell’s overbearing parents refused to allow their son to entertain a rap career.
“Once Harrell didn’t show it was on,” he says. “The only thing you could hear was paper un-crinkling from somebody’s back pocket. It was the silliest rap: ‘I jumped into this rhyme just to say a line or two!’ Then something about: ‘I don’t have the lines to make you jump jump!’ Because Kris Kross was out back then, so you kinda’ had to throw a sneak diss and shit.”
Mission accomplished. In one fell swoop, Filthe scored two lifelong friends and a larval identity. He was now a 14-year-old rapper from hailing from North Carolina. The trio continued to record under several monikers—Da Wolf Pack, Ruffnecks and Necessary Ruffness—until Marcus eventually fell out of the group on good terms. Shortly after his departure, the remaining members landed their first deal with Kurrupt Records, a Piedmont Triad-based label headed by a prominent Raleigh drug dealer named Red. Filthe suspected the imprint existed for the sole purpose of laundering drug money. He had reservations about going into business with an alleged criminal enterprise, but with home life rapidly deteriorating, he was in dire need of money and healthy distractions.
“Red drove the pearl white Lexus 300 and a mean ass BMW,” he says. “We was only on his label for a good three months in 1995. It was like niggerish summer camp. Complete with impromptu walkthroughs at Applebees, Club Ritz and Bennett College.”
Their brief stint on Kurrupt Records was laughably unproductive. None of the songs funded by Red were heard beyond his tight-knit camp. But before the working relationship dissipated, Red at least upgraded the duo’s individual stage names. Brion—who at the time was going by “Paba Tan,” a bizarre crossbreed between Grand Puba and Coppertone sunscreen lotion—was dubbed “Nervous Reck.”
Meanwhile, “Chatterbox”—which, in retrospect, was an especially appropriate handle—was ditched in favor of “Filthe Ritche.” Both names were derived from arbitrary soap opera dialogue. Apparently, when Red wasn’t trafficking narcotics he was engulfed in sappy daytime television.
The teenagers returned back to Fayetteville with a new newfound appreciation for artistic freedom and financial independence. They were determined to build from the ground up, even if it meant setting up shop in Nervous Reck’s childhood bedroom. They furnished the homespun studio with Ensoniq’s ASR-10 sampling keyboard and a Numark mixer. Filthe practically moved into Reck’s home in Old Ponderosa, a dank blue collar neighborhood buffering Yadkin Road and McPherson Church. One stormy evening in 1996, they were huddled inside a utility room hitched to the carport with Reck’s older brother, brainstorming ideas for future music. Outside, violent winds surged with more speed than a major league fastball. Hurricane Fran was swallowing the Mid-Atlantic coastal plain and moving inland. When it was all said and done, Fran was responsible for claiming 22 lives, $400 million in federal aid and at least one enduring namesake.
“We were in the shed being silly ass kids,” Filthe recalls. “We were just zoning out and having fun until someone said ‘man, we’re sitting up in this muthafucka like it’s a bomb shelter.’ Brion was like: ‘yooooooo, that would be an ill ass name yo!’ And that was the birth of Bomm Sheltuh as we know it.”
Circa 1998, a close friend of the group brokered a meeting between Filthe and a young man named Alvin “Germ” Lattimore, who had the good fortune of being blood cousins with EPMD’s better half, Erick Sermon. They acquired Sermon’s contact information and left umpteen humbling messages on his home answering machine, none of which were returned. Germ soon fell into Bomm Sheltuh’s inner sanctum and took a personal stake in the group’s success. He used his connections to secure backstage passes at the southeastern leg of Def Jam’s historic Survival of the Illest Tour. The plan was to introduce Bomm Sheltuh to Sermon’s high profile protégés, Redman and Keith Murray, in hopes they would be more receptive than their green-eyed mentor. Ironically, their big break would reveal itself in an Atlanta hotel parking lot rather than Lakewood Amphitheater.
“After the show we go back to the hotel and niggas is out there rhyming,” says Filthe. “This was back when it was a blood sport. Next thing you know X1, Sticky Fingaz’s [now deceased] brother, turns around and starts rapping at me! Like, word?! We got tons of rhymes. I’m looking at Brion like ‘let’s go have fun, fuck it.’ Back then it wasn’t the whole super-duper-off-the-top-of-the-dome shit. But the raps would be insinuating so much violence, you couldn’t help but seem like you was threatening the person standing directly in front of you.”
While Bomm Sheltuh went toe-to-toe with Sticky Fingaz and X1, a bearded onlooker wearing a fisherman hat observed from a distance. When the cypher concluded, the man revealed himself to be DMX’s cousin, Mike Braxton. After exchanging a round of handshakes and pipe dreams, he was hired as the group’s first real manager. The following year, Braxton finagled a faux gig on Jay-Z’s Hard Knock Life Tour. They weren’t actually featured on the bill, but tagging along on the nationwide tour afforded them a unique opportunity to rub elbows with rap royalty and shop their self-produced debut album, Food Clothing & Sheltuh.
Before long, Bomm Sheltuh was buzzing throughout Cumberland County and reaping praise from critical circles. Food Clothing & Sheltuh garnered XXL’s Chairman’s Choice honors and flew off the consignment rack mounted in Paradise Records (Fayetteville’s now-defunct but then-preeminent music outlet). But as with any product on the open market, glowing acclaim wasn’t universal.
“Dame Dash dissed our shit,” Filthe admits. “He picked up the album and said: ‘Food Clothing & Mehhhhh. I’ll listen to this shit while I’m counting money. Then again, I won’t! Hahahaha!!!’ Then he just crushed the CD right in our faces.”
Had Dash bothered listening to the album, he would’ve found that Filthe and Reck had a knack for stark narrative and aggressive battle rap. Like most underground east coast rap releases around the turn of the century, their music re-purposed ominous production techniques spearheaded by Rza in the mid-90’s. The record was an impressive—albeit slightly derivative—coming out party that showcased the group’s raw talent and potential; it’s their greatest achievement to date.
They returned home from the tour to a surprisingly warm and fuzzy reception. During a birthday event thrown in celebration of Filthe’s 22nd birthday, dozens of fans flooded Duh! Skate Zone—now known as Daville Skate Shop—to witness Bomm Sheltuh perform. It was a far cry from the Gladiator-esque crowds drawn by Def Jam’s flagship artists, but for the first time in their careers, Bomm Sheltuh was the clear-cut main attraction. Midway through their extended set, Filthe invited several patrons onstage to freestyle while he and Reck caught a much needed breather. One of the courageous volunteers was a lanky 14-year-old kid named Jermaine Cole (though, he insisted on being introduced as Blaza).
“We let these four dudes get onstage,” says Filthe. “One of them was this kid that contacted Brion on the Internet. He was our number one fan—and I mean this—he was basically stalking us via email and chat rooms. You can ask his mother; she’ll verify this stuff. So we offered him a ticket so he could come and check us out. His mother dropped him off.”
Filthe and Reck took an immediate liking to Cole, allowing the young rapper to nestle tightly under their wings and soak up experience in the studio. Flithe gave him the name “Therapist,” a play on Canibus’ understudy, Journalist. Also, if you dim the lights and squint hard enough, the pseudonym could be mistaken for “the rapist.” He would wisely abandon the squirrelly handle for his government name years later.
Cole couldn’t have had better timing. Bomm Sheltuh was gearing up to release a compilation under the banner of Fayettenam Bommuhs Volume 1. They recruited the brightest local talent at their disposal: Marcus “Snipes” Womble, founding member of Da Wolfpack, reunited with Reck on a Bigg Mike produced posse cut titled “Terra Firma”; Blaque Watch, an articulate, burly-voiced street rapper hailing from Bingham Drive found a second home for what would go on to be his biggest record, “Nothing”; and most notably, Therapist logged his first official liner note credits with “The Storm,” a self-produced karmic tale of love and betrayal distinctly inspired by Nas’ “Undying Love.” At the tender age of 16, Cole mustered the most grim and introspective performance featured on the 22-track project. For better or worse, austerity is an attribute he would ultimately carry over into adulthood.
“He’s always been an excellent storyteller,” says Filthe. “He can keep the subject going and then hit you with a sharp twist at the end. That was something Therapist came through the door with on his own. We coached him through everything else.”
The compilation was a Hail Mary pass that fell depressingly short of completion. Bomm Sheltuh’s movement slowly waned to an apathetic murmur, and its proponents splintered off. Cole accepted an academic scholarship offered by St. John’s University. Reck moved 60 miles north, enrolled in a studio engineering program, recorded two unsuccessful solo albums and established a custom T-shirt printing company. Meanwhile, Filthe was tethered to the streets of Fayetteville, wandering aimless without the prospect of a viable music career.
“I went a little nuts because this is all I ever had,” he confesses before stepping out the minivan and scurrying into the corner store.
“Natural Ice or Icehouse?” Filthe poses as he peers inside the sliding glass cooler, probing for a beverage likely to appease a friend that pitched in on the beer run. “What do you get an alcoholic without insulting them? I guess an Icehouse, right? I’m going to [get myself] a cheap ass beer. The shit that’s brewed at the bottom of the barrel.”
In 2009, Blaza aka Therapist aka J Cole became the first rapper to ink a deal with Jay-Z’s glorified vanity label, Roc Nation. The move was a resounding punctuation to an otherwise anticlimactic Bomm Sheltuh storyboard. Cole kept in close contact with his mentors during his ascent to rap stardom. They received notification of each and every milestone, from Cole’s first encounter with Lil Wayne to Columbia green lighting his breakout single, “Lights Please.” His solo debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, was released in the fall of 2011 amid his 66-stop promotional tour. Coming off a gig in Winston Salem, his tour bus made a rouge detour towards Fayetteville so he could trot a much-deserved victory lap.
“Me and Brion caught up to him on the tour bus,” Filthe remembers. “So I ask him—because I had recently fell into some money by [illegal means]—can I tag along on the tour, free of charge, so I can soak up game and get my music popping and shit. I didn’t even want to ride on the bus. Just tell your security team you’re not being stalked by a guy in a minivan. He turned me down.”
Cole’s passive dismissal over the years has left a lingering, dispirited taste in Filthe’s mouth, though you would never be able to tell from the outside looking in. He still champions his surrogate sibling in barbershop deliberations. Whenever “Crooked Smile” or “Power Trip” spins on Foxy 99 he turns up his girlfriend’s factory speakers to an ungodly volume. He understands that his legacy will always be inextricably tied to to Fayetteville’s pride and joy.
“It was never in the plans for J Cole to be a star,” he says. “We always thought Bomm Sheltuh would be the stars; we were supposed to take everybody with us. So it’s always surreal when you realize: ‘ohhhh yeah, I’m the other guy now in the story now!’ We all still keep in contact. It’s just that my famous homeboy is too busy, and my other homeboy feels like he doesn’t have it anymore.”
Filthe isn’t waiting around for Cole to jumpstart his career, though he’s confident that their recent collaboration, “Liquor Courage Part II,” will eventually see the light of day.
In the meantime, he’s been recording new material with Trife Trackz, a fledgling young producer from Fayetteville’s sister-city, Spring Lake. The odds certainly aren’t in the legendary Carolinian’s favor, and he’s recalibrated his expectations accordingly.
“The only thing I can do is keep trying to make quality projects,” blurts Filthe as he plies the cap from his 22-oz bottle. “I just don’t want to be wack.”