The Very Hypnotic Soul Band was almost willed into existence in the aftermath of the tragic events of the last year. Formed initially for Charleston Music Hall's Hi Harmony community concert in the wake of the tragedy at Emanuel AME Church, the band members came together less in a conscious desire to make music and more with the sense that this type of music was needed.
"We wanted to put that concert together with a lot of different genres, so one of the sets was hip-hop and R&B focused," explains keyboardist Elliott Smith. "We reached out to KJ Kearney, who recommended Fitz."
Fitz is Fitzgerald Wiggins, a.k.a. Benjamin Starr, a prominent South Carolina rapper whose 2015 album Free Lunch was a soul and R&B sample-infused effort that showcased the emcee's formidable technical skills and keen political and social consciousness, music that harkens back to hip-hop titans like Nas and Talib Kweli. While the initial group had 10 members and also featured spoken-word poet Marcus Amaker, something clicked with Wiggins and the core group of Smith, singer McKenzie Eddy, drummer Quentin Ravenel, and guitarist Jimmie Choate. After playing a second show as a five-piece of mostly covers for a Bernie Sanders rally, the group realized they wanted to continue and make new music together.
"It wasn't hard," Wiggins said of adapting to a live band. "It's not really a difficult thing. Most of the music I've been making over the years has a lot of samples or is sample-based, sampling from the '70s, soul music when it was all live instrumentation. And I'm kind of used to bringing in session players to replay things. So the opportunity to be part of a band, especially a soul band that plays hip-hop music, was great. And plus everybody clicked."
Indeed, there is a spooky alchemy at work on the group's debut EP. While very much soul-driven, as their name suggests, there's also a slinky minimalism at work, with much of the grooves built around sparse guitar and Smith's airy use of synthesizers and keys. It's almost as if the group is tracing the pocket, a ghostly take on music that's in keeping with natural touchstones like the Roots or Lauryn Hill, yet with an indistinct distance from them. And when Choate takes off on his smoldering solos, the group can often sound more like Dire Straits than a hip-hop band.
"I think it's been pretty organic," says Smith of the new music. "One thing we wanted to do was to take all of our influences and break it down into something that can be reproduced live."
The vocals are evenly split between Eddy, whose silky croon balances the neo-soul ease of Sade with the indie-pop trance of Sylvan Esso's Amelia Meath, and Wiggins' sharp counterpoint verses.
"At least for me, and the way I see everyone else, we're all in our own way and in our minds, trying to come from a spiritually centered place," says Eddy of the band's chemistry. "It was really cool for all of us to come together in this way."
But while the music can be impressive and even revelatory, Wiggins' lyrics and the racial politics and realities that brought the group together — the shooting of Walter Scott, the massacre at Emanuel AME, the Confederate flag coming down off the State House grounds — are always, inevitably, front and center.
"I'm that cold that creeps in your veins when speaking about pain/ message like wine cellars, records with no refrain," spits the emcee on "Inhale," one of the three new tunes on the record. "I came to light up the pulpit/ we are free, God is back/ I see pistol smoke from the gun that shot Walter Scott in his back/ you inhale that."
Wiggins' raps are littered with such stunning moments, and the entire band leans into them both on stage and off.
"There has to be a real conversation that has to happen about race. These are systemic problems that, at their root, are caused by racism," Wiggins says. "I live in the reality of being a black male in the South, in South Carolina. It's something, something that you never fail to pull enough inspiration from."
"In the South, a lot of times when these issues and conversations come up, we'll hear that we shouldn't be talking about things that divide us, we should be talking about unity," he continues. "When really, it doesn't divide black people to talk about race. A lot of the time, black people don't have any issue, because we live the issue as a minority. You can't solve a problem without having a real dialogue and actually talking about these things. Elliott and I have talked about this a lot since we got together. Unity is not a plan. Unity is a state of being. And ideally we want to share that state of being, but what are we uniting around? We have to have some type of course, some kind of justice, some kind of solution, to ensure these things don't repeat themselves."
Smith agrees, noting that much of the band's bond comes as much from talking about these issues as it does from making the music. "We're not afraid to talk about it," he says. "In-between takes, we were really having these very open discussions. That comes through in patent ways, like the lyrics, but I'm sure that filters into the vibe and the way we've learned to play together."
And while the group is reveling in their creative bond, they are also keenly aware that their diversity and live-band approach sets them apart from the larger hip-hop community in Charleston.
"As a band, we understood the privilege that we have, since we play hip-hop soul music," admits Wiggins. "I have some contemporaries in the Lowcountry who are very talented artists, but they are not allowed in these spaces to perform, to thrive, to put their art on display. And I don't want to live in a colorblind place. I want to live in a place where you can see black art or black culture or black music, and say, that's enough. I want representation for the people who are there, without assimilating to the fucked-up standards of what is acceptable and what is respectable and what makes us feel safe. It's bullshit. "