Back "In The 336," Pt. I

A 2011 time capsule, a tribute to collaboration, and a needle worth finding in the NC hip-hop haystack.

Back "In The 336," Pt. I

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It’s an odd and weirdly nostalgic thing, in an age of almost limitless access to information and infinite “cloud” storage, whenever something falls between the digital couch cushions, findable only by those who know exactly how and where to search for it. In other words, those things that no string of magic words will make Siri or Alexa capable of finding for you. The enigmatic, mostly forgotten song “In The 336,” — created when three generations of North Carolina emcees were spontaneously brought together for a streetwear brand mixtape back in 2011 — is one of those needles in the Internet haystack.

You won't find it on Spotify or Apple Music. Nor will you find the elusive L.S.D. mixtape that it supposedly was a single for. Who else was on this mixtape? What year did it officially come out? Or did it even come out at all? I've asked friends, I’ve searched the DatPiff internet archive, all in vain. And yet, despite so much around it having evaporated into the ether, “In The 336” has valiantly outlasted Internet obsolescence for more than a decade — an NC hip-hop fossil kept alive by, as far as I can gather, little more than a couple barely-trafficked links, a few popsicle sticks and some duct tape.

Any day now, it could be sucked into Internet vortex for good — so we'd better appreciate it while it's still here.

"In The 336" single artwork, by Jason Clary

For starters, there’s a distinct tell in the opening moments of “336” that what you’re hearing is a relic from the early-2010’s.

Characteristic of an era in which rarely a new mixtape came out that wasn’t in some way affiliated with a lifestyle or clothing brand, Phonte begins the song not with the opening lines of his verse, but with obligatory shoutouts to The Dropouts and Likuid Nation — two brands that North Carolinians of a certain time and place may remember, created by former NC State basketball player Cam Bennerman and designed by Jason Clary.

Another sign that it’s 2011 (or thereabouts)? Well, it’s helpful to ground ourselves in the other works of Phonte Coleman at this time. He’s just given two standout verses to The Roots’ widely acclaimed 2010 album, How I Got Over (Now or Never” and “The Day”). He’s in the midst of releasing his first solo LP, the stellar Charity Starts at Home (including the great “Life Of Kings” video with a cameo from his mom), and bringing Little Brother flavor to multiple songs on 9th Wonder’s The Wonder Years compilation album. Even for a rapper whose unique blend of buoyant delivery and incisive lyrics had already earned him near-universal respect from his peers, the releases from this period felt different. The golden era of LB may have been increasingly distant in the rearview, but Tay — maybe liberated by the merciful dissolution of Little Brother, or maybe with something to prove because of it — sounded hungrier than ever. Blistering from the outset, his verse to open “In The 336” seemed to capture the moment in time perfectly:

Back to handling business,
Tay rap like a vandalist spit it,
Like a can of acrylic,
Spray paint/ they ain’t seen ya man in a minute,
He’s possessed, he’s a man on a mission,
Y’all soundin like amateurs, innit,
Stay scannin the blueprint, but
can’t understand how we did it…
Everywhere y’all wanna go, I done gone there,
I’m in my lawn chair,
So fuck these armchair analyst n——s,
Always wanna lick off shots, but ain’t took a round,
Criticize my field, but ain’t took a down,
Shook when they see a legendary rap n——
And if you ain’t know about The Dropouts?
Homie that’s a cop-out,
And you a Tackleberry-ass n——,
Wi-Fi thug, Bluetooth fairy-ass n——,
Cam hit me up and said, ”Tay, have a beat,”
So at bar 16, competition can have a seat, holla

It’s all there: the wide-ranging metaphors, random references, and vivid imagery (shoutout to Bluetooth, Police Academy, and sitting in your proverbial lawn chair after “going there”), the comedic put-downs, the irregular rhyme scheme, the self-satisfied boasting that comes with being the first trailblazing, breakout act from the state, the still-raw feelings over indignities suffered on the journey from the underground circuit to the Major Label Machine.