A new online series stars the Durham music scene. One of the city’s biggest stars is behind it.

One day last year, filmmaker Holland Gallagher spotted a familiar sweater at Los Angeles International Airport.

Gallagher had just flown in from Durham and was waiting for a ride when he saw it and checked images on his phone to confirm that the man in his Uber line was Phonte Coleman, charismatic frontman for Foreign Exchange and local hip-hop legends Little Brother.

“I only recognized him because he was wearing the same sweater as on the cover of his solo album,” Gallagher recalled with a laugh. “‘No News Is Good News.’ Yep, that’s him!”

Gallagher told Coleman he was a big fan, and they struck up a conversation. Gallagher was there to pitch the new online series he created and directed called “Hype,” a fictional drama set in Durham.

Coleman was in Los Angeles to work on various projects, including “Questlove Supreme,” the weekly Pandora podcast he stars in with Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.

Coleman, invited to check out the “Hype” series, went to a premiere screening back home at Durham’s Carolina Theatre in September. He was impressed enough to sign on as one of the project’s executive producers.

Phonte album cover.jpg
“No News Is Good News” by Phonte Coleman

“A lot of people talk the talk, but it’s very rare to find people in the business that actually have follow-through to get things done,” Coleman said in an interview. “We talked about how Holland had shot it with his dad doing sound and it reminded me a lot of Little Brother making ‘The Listening,’ just guts and tenacity and figuring it out as we went along. I told him I’d help in any way I could.”

‘Changing the shape of the city’

Following September’s premiere of the first season, all five episodes of “Hype” are now online, debuting Jan. 20, on Youtube and Vimeo. Gallagher’s crew is working on fund-raising for season two, including a launch party Jan. 20 at Durham’s Motorco Music Hall — one of the locations filmed in season one.

“Hype” flips back and forth between several storylines that merge at the end: Durham’s business-startup community, the local hip-hop scene and a young man nicknamed “Smiles” (played by Willie Raysor), who is depressed because his one true love has moved away. She didn’t go far, however.

“My favorite part is when the guy goes to see the girl,” Coleman said. “He’s been talking about their relationship, like she moved so far away, and we find out she just moved to Greensboro! Dude, that is so on-point. If you live in Durham and your girl moves to Greensboro, she might as well be in Boston. That was some North Carolina (expletive), man, so real.”

There is verisimilitude aplenty throughout “Hype.” One of the musicians higlighted in the first season is Leroy “Well$” Shingu, a rapper Gallagher has worked with for years as a producer. Gallagher also worked at the local fashion house Runaway, and local viewers should recognize the Durham Hotel, the music of electronic pop duo Sylvan Esso and other Durham reference points.

“The narrative of Durham right now is these startups coming in and changing the shape of the city,” Gallagher said. “When I thought about this show set in Durham, it was in two main areas: indie music, and this startup scene. I’m familiar with both.”

Smiles and Ava by the Rusted Trucks (1).jpg
Smiles (Willie Raysor) and Ava (Andie Morgenlander) in a scene from “Hype,” the online series about music and high-tech startups set in Durham.

Suspending disbelief

Gallagher, a 24-year-old New Orleans native, has lived in the Triangle since his family moved to Durham in 2005. To make the first season of “Hype,” he raised $10,000 on Kickstarter and shot it as “guerilla-style low-budget indie filmmaking.” His father, a film-sound professional who has worked on films with renowned director Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven”), helped out.

In addition to talking up season one, Coleman’s role as executive producer for season two is to be a fact-checker of sorts for the music side of the story. “Hype” follows a number of performers, with jealousy and rivalry as major themes.

Gallagher wrote the first season a couple of years ago. For the startup company’s product technology, he picked virtual-reality live-streaming of concerts as a hypothetical technology seemingly far off in the future but realistic enough for a story set in the present day.

“You do have to suspend some disbelief that they could put together a live-stream VR demonstration so fast when it does not yet exist in real life,” Gallagher noted. “So that’s somewhat unrealistic. But it felt honest as a way to show this community of young entrepreneurs who all have similar goals. Aspects of it are dramatized and the characters are a little more cynical than the people I know, at least in Durham.”


“Hype” will be available for online viewing on Youtube and Vimeo beginning Sunday, Jan. 20. Find it at hypedurham.com.

What: “Hype” Season One Release Party, hosted by Phonte with Well$, Pat Junior, Ace Henderson, Zensofly and others

When: noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20

Where: Motorco Music Hall, 723 Rigsbee Ave., Durham

Cost: $5-$30

Details: motorcomusic.com

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David Menconi has covered music and the arts for The News & Observer since 1991. He can be reached at 919-829-4759 or dmenconi@newsobserver.com.