One Year Later: How "North Cack" Became The Biggest NC Anthem In A Decade
North Carolina has an interesting history with hip-hop.
Recognized nationally as early as 1991, when A Tribe Called Quest dropped a reference to “North Cak-a-laka” on the song “Scenario,” North Carolina has put unmistakable stamps on hip-hop culture in the years since. You’re probably familiar with some of the names: 9th Wonder, J. Cole, Rapsody, and yes, even Fred Durst.
But oddly, there hasn’t been a proper North Carolina anthem since Petey Pablo’s 2001 smash hit, “Raise Up.” At least, not until last year.
If you lived in North Carolina during the summer of 2017, along with the fierce debates about politics and barbecue, your Facebook timeline blew up with “NORTH CACK,” a song and video by G Yamazawa.
Thanks to the song’s trunk-rattling instrumental and a raw “one-take” video, “NORTH CACK” inspired the highest use of fire emojis per capita in the country (data not available), and helped it win Best Music Video at the 2017 Hip Hop Film Festival.
With the right combination of precise planning, spontaneity, and controlled chaos, a small crew was able to create a new anthem for the Tar Heel State.
Recently, I spoke with director Saleem Reshamwala (aka KidEthnic) and Yamazawa himself to learn how the video was made, how almost everyone involved in its creation has at least two names, and how the insanity of 2017 helped this video blow up.
For all the questions that could be asked after watching “NORTH CACK,” the most common is perhaps the most basic: “Is it real?”
“There’s actually a really funny debate online as to how it was done, with somebody speculating that it was targeted cameras and green screen,” says Reshamwala. “I’m super flattered that they thought that, but they’re way overestimating an unsigned rap video budget and my technical knowledge of targeted cameras.”
Ned Phillips, the director of photography, didn’t even use a dolly or a wheelchair.
“We experimented with him riding in a wheelchair while he got pushed,” says Reshamwala. “We decided that was too much of a pain. We went out and scoped the location and it was problematic because it was so muddy.”
That means Ned carried the 20 pound Ronin camera rig around the entire time.
“He did a great job,” says Reshamwala. “He basically sacrificed his arms to it.”
So just how did they do it?
Here’s the short version: every time you see someone disappear out of left frame, they sprint behind the camera to their new mark and immediately must A) look cool in the background, B) dance, C) rap on cue, or, D) all of the above.
But the long version is so much more fun. To give you an example of the controlled chaos that helped make this video possible, I’ll walk you through the blocking.
The video opens on a grassy field in rural Durham County. The plan was to shoot in Reshamwala’s neighborhood, where they had originally tested the concept with his iPhone. But with the frequency of cars driving by, that soon became problematic. Being a born-and-raised Durhamite, G Yamazawa had an epiphany.
“Yo, why don’t we just go out to the country?”
G remembered a friend’s house near where he grew up, called him while they were testing, and within a few minutes, there was a new shooting location.
During shooting, Ned is holding the camera. Saleem is behind Ned, shouting commands. Production assistant Dionne Liles is behind Saleem, holding an ice light to counteract the setting sun. And assistant director Mandy Padgett is behind Dionne, holding a speaker to help the performers sync up with the music. Like a flock of birds, they remain in this formation for the entire video.
(Editor's Note: Reshamwala himself explains the format at the 6:39 mark of this video.)
As the frame pushes forward, a dirt bike races past (with a broken transmission, by the way—more on that later) and we come upon G walking through the frame, with the production crew staying stride for stride. As Yamazawa begins to repeat the opening chorus, the amazing krump dancer Ryan Taylor (aka Native) first appears, along with rapper Kane Smego (aka… actually it’s just Kane Smego).
As soon as Native and Kane disappear out of the left frame, Saleem yells at directs them to run behind the production crew. Soon, Native is ready to pop back into frame right while Kane waits further down the road.
Yamazawa continues for a few more bars before getting pushed out of frame by Native, while we see the track’s third emcee, Joshua Gunn (aka J. Gunn), looking super cool in the distance.
As soon as J.Gunn passes out of frame, he books it to meet Kane for their conversation, which will take place behind G as he finishes his verse and restarts the chorus.
Once they’re out of frame, Smego trails the production crew, while J. Gunn runs to his mark for the second verse.
As the camera pans past a pickup truck (with a man with a broken leg, known simply as W.F., in the bed), Kane sneaks into the passenger seat, Yamazawa hops on the hood, and Native starts krumping. This is the moment where the camera crew gets a hard lesson in Kepler’s Laws of Orbital Motion.
While Ned, the DP, has to move at a slightly brisk pace around the rapping J.Gunn, the rest of the crew have a much more difficult task. Saleem, Dionne, and Mandy all have to move progressively faster to avoid ending up in the shot.
“Mandy’s basically running at full sprint as we’re circling around J. Gunn,” says Reshamwala. “And Mandy is not tall.”
After the spin cycle, we go back to the truck. W.F. has donned a wool cap, we have a father and son in the bed (they live nearby), Yamazawa is on the hood, and Smego comes out for the third and final verse of the song.
“You see Kane get out of the truck. He’s actually a little late, but we ended up using that take because it ended up looking kind of casual. Like you don’t realize he’s a rapper,” says Reshamwala. “That was my favorite part about that take.”
Perhaps the most amazing fact about this video is that they executed all of the above in one take, on the first attempt. And perhaps the most heartbreaking fact about this video is that half of that take was unusable.
“We thought we nailed it (on the first try),” says Reshamwala.
The stars had aligned… literally. The golden hour was happening right as the crew was ready to do a practice take and it created a beautiful lighting effect piercing the forest in the background. And they ran a flawless shot. Not a single flubbed line. Not a single miscue. Except for one problem.
“We looked at (the footage) and as we’re walking back, you see a very tall, robot-looking shadow and that’s Ned with the camera and then you see this descending height group of shadows which is me, Dionne, and Mandy just like clear as day against the trees,” says Reshamwala. “We all just wanted to cry.”
You may have noticed that I used the phrase “one-take” in quotes earlier. Although they did indeed film the entire sequence without interruption, the shadows cast some darkness on an otherwise perfect take.
So they took the two different takes and artfully stitched them together at the 1:39 mark. Saleem was worried the edit was a blemish on an otherwise remarkable smooth shoot.
“All I can see is the cut because I knew what it was,” says Reshamwala. “I was really worried that everyone would notice it. And then come to find out, everyone just thought that the sun actually set at that point and that somehow we were able to do it to where the sun just set out behind the trees in the middle of that one shot.”
Serendipity was a recurring theme with this music video.
Many of the people involved with the shoot had not met prior to that day. The aforementioned dirt bike’s transmission was broken so the rider was only able to start it, run it, and stop—hence why you see it parked in the distance later in the video.
The guy in the pickup, W.F., broke his leg, leaving the crew scrambling to find someone else to drive his pickup with the skeleton arm to the location.
Although it wasn’t planned, it ends up being one of the more entertaining details of the video.
“It’s actually kind of my favorite part,” says Reshamwala.
Originally there was no plan to have a dancer in the video. But as they were planning the shoot, watching performers go in out of frame, they noticed there were these long moments with nothing interesting happening.
“Then G said, ‘Yo, I know this crazy krump dancer.’ And that’s Native,” says Reshamwala.
The concept was tested on Saleem’s iPhone in his neighborhood streets with Ned sitting in a wheelchair.
“That day when we got there, a lot depended on everyone being up for me yelling at them to sprint in circles around me,” says Reshamwala. “I knew this was a concept that could be really cool, but a lot depends on the performances. And whether everyone is really down for taking weird commands,” says Reshamwala.
And because everyone was up for it, it all came together.
Listen to our interview with G Yamazawa on Episode 14 of the Super Empty Show.
So that’s how the “NORTH CACK” video was made, but how did it become a song that’s heard in clubs, sports arenas, and blasting out of cars with the windows rolled down, a year later?
“The first day was kind of what I expected,” says Yamazawa. “The first day, we posted it on Facebook. It got maybe 90,000 hits in that first day. But sort of trailed off at that point. I was confident that a video of that quality with the kind of following that I had would be able to garner 100,000 hits.”
The next morning, TeamBackPack, a major hip-hop media platform, shared it on their Facebook Page.
”It went bonkers. It sort of tripled the speed that it was growing at and it was getting like 20,000 hits an hour. That’s when I started to realize how special this video is.”
The song has since become a hit with choreographers around the world.
“People in Portland, Indonesia, Guam, people all over the world listening to this record and dancing to it has been dope,” says Yamazawa.
Even Duke, for years known as the Gothic Disneyland walled off from the rest of Durham, has embraced the song and the hometown anthem. Now you routinely see students, alumni, and even the new university president alike throw up the horns with pride.
You’ll find Yamazawa’s song in Blue Devil hype videos and hear it in Wallace Wade Stadium during games. Even certain Tar Heel fans can appreciate the love.
And most recently, the video gained attention from one of the most famous DJs of all time.
However, things aren’t exactly all hip-hop and rainbows in the Tar Heel state. North Carolina is experiencing just as much turmoil, if not more, as the rest of the country. And that turmoil may have had a hand in the video’s popularity.
“I was working at The New York Times for 10 weeks last year,” says Reshamwala. “One of the things my editor said was, ‘If I were to put a reporter in one place for a year, it would be North Carolina right now because there’s so much happening politically and it seems like such an interesting microcosm for America in a way.’”
A state that is known just as much for its “bathroom bill” as it is for basketball. A state that voted for Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump. A state receiving national attention for racially motivated gerrymandering that also has, for the first time in its history, six female African American police chiefs. And yet in the summer of 2017, this video might not have been released at a better time.
“I think North Carolina just needed some good news,” says Reshamwala. “To have this multiracial crew jamming on an anthem feels good.”
Right in the middle of a year regarded as one of the most chaotic and stressful in recent memory, a melting pot of cast, crew, and extras came together to create an incredible piece of art.
The video is a dichotomy of polished and raw, of planning and spontaneity. In front of the camera, the video appears meticulously timed to the second. Behind the scenes everyone is scrambling around a nondescript dirt road in the North Carolina country.
At times the camera seems to be on a rail, incapable of breaking focus. At others it appears to have an Alfonso Cuarón-esque character to it, getting distracted by something out of frame.
Yamazawa’s verse is beautifully complex, filled with references to classic hip-hop bravado but also to culture, race and geography. And personally, I love that his rhyme scheme is based around the word “y’all.”
North Carolina wasn’t asking for a new hip-hop anthem, but it couldn’t have asked for a better one at a better time.
Craig Carter is a local writer, improviser, and proud Durham resident.