A few weeks back, while sitting on a porch overlooking the Ashley River I shared a bushel of crabs with my mentor while discussing all-things Charleston. We both shared stories about what the city meant to us, and the recent changes around the city that may be threatening to things in discussion. While he elaborated on the ongoing gentrification and new development stifling the culture, I felt almost petty responding, with my main concerns being centered around the lack of attention and appreciation for good art, and, more specifically, hip-hop. He laughed before asking me to elaborate.
I expressed my concerns with the potential deterioration of the culture due to the lack of understanding of said culture. His reply was simple and profound at the same time: "Like anything else in this world, how can you guys see progression without a thorough knowledge of the foundation?" My initial reaction was confusion, and then it sank in — he was absolutely right. Somewhere down the line there's been a disconnection between what the culture here was and what many are pushing for it to become. Think of it as old regime vs. new regime in a sense. Although this conversation is becoming a convoluted one, I'd like to offer a perspective from someone who was born and raised in the city along with some perspective of even those before me. There also isn't one major point to tackle so I'll present several points to think about. Everything stated is strictly my opinion based on observation.
1. The Charleston Hip-Hop Community Then & Now
Growing up, the local hip-hop community was fairly small but the city was also much smaller. The artist-to-consumer pipeline was also still in a fundamental stage. During this time the artists were afforded the opportunity to have their records played in light rotation on Z93, which was the only hip-hop radio station at this time. This resulted in everyone hearing the same music at the same time, and from there you could go to one of two stores to purchase the music of local artists, Manifest Records (Monster Music) or Loco Records. Loco was for everyone, North Charleston and above, while Manifest served the West Ashley area. In these stores there were sections marked local music, meaning you knew exactly where to go to get what you wanted, and that was the basis of the system. Radio straight to in-store consumption.
But oh boy, how times have changed. Now there are two radio stations that may or may not play the songs. Loco Records has closed and Monster Music, while still alive and well, does not carry the same volume of physical copies as it used to outside of vinyl — most local hip-hop artists don't print. And to top it off, a major event occurred that we could not have foreseen: streaming. What makes streaming interesting is now instead of going directly to your local record store and purchasing a physical copy, the consumer is bombarded with thousands of artists that are now all sharing the same marketplace that you can find directly on your phone. The problem with this formula is that no consumer base can be reconditioned to change the manner in which they consume overnight, especially in a market that was already 10 years behind.
This brings us to present day — you'd be surprised to know how many local artists are not privy to streaming and neither is the consumer. Charleston is not a heavy streaming market for hip-hop. In fact, a large portion of people still receive their content from radio or mixtape sites, and if the consumer is not consistently exposed to the content the artist cannot grow a fan base. If an artist cannot grow a fan base, they will not have a draw for live performances and won't get booked for shows. This is a big deal because shows/merch are the top two ways to make money as an artist. So in many cases the problem is not the lack of work for the artist — it's the lack of visibility. Which leads me to my next point ...
For every 10 artists in Charleston who do receive the looks from fans, eight have questionable quality. When I mention quality, I am not speaking on skillset. I am talking about basic mixing and mastering of your music. If you cannot afford to spend money to have your songs mixed and mastered properly, you are not taking your craft seriously and therefore should not expect your fans to take you seriously. Furthermore, if you feel you don't need a mix and master for your music, you are taking the risk of being overlooked by fans simply because the song sounds trash from an audible standpoint. Please take note: a terrible song with a great mix/master will always be overlooked by a great song with terrible audio quality. This leads back to my point of streaming, where you are now competing against thousands of songs with great audio quality. As far as skillset goes, rap has become very subjective as to what is considered good and bad, but sound quality is not one of those things. There are at least 10 mix/mastering engineers within the city limits — find one and get your sound right.
3. Subsidiary Communities
The lovely Kris Kaylin, of the relatively new video series Next Up Charleston, recently interviewed me and during this interview she asked why do I think a rap artist from Charleston hasn't blown out of here yet? I told her there are too many subsidiaries of the hip-hop community here. I then went on to explain my answer, and eight hours later I had a phone full of text messages and an inbox full of DMs. I would rather not reiterate my opinion (you can watch the interview); however, I would like to give a little more detail on my response. Here in Charleston, I would say there are several promoters with their own followings, who consistently cater to their crowd. However, each promoter has his or her own specific audiences that rarely interact with that of another promoter. So now we have five different promoters who may prefer a certain artist in particular, and please let's not act like promoters don't have artists they prefer over others. I'm guilty of this myself as I would constantly book Ben Starr or OXYxMORON when I would have shows. KJ Kearney of Charleston Sticks Together has been a friend of mine since I was a kid, so he'll more than likely look my way before other artists, and there isn't a real problem with this as I see the same thing repeated with other curators.
In theory this creates sub-communities that you have to visit in order to partake in the experience they provide at their specific event. Although this is where we currently are in our local culture, I would love to see artists crossover into other communities of hip-hop in Charleston. For example, Charleston Sticks Together recently held an event called Live in Color at Purple Buffalo in lower North Charleston. I performed, but I wasn't out of the norm because I frequent events put on by KJ, and another artist B-Kiddo performed as well. The cool part about this scenario is while I entertained my normal crowd, Kiddo was a fresh face for many people in the venue because she frequents a completely different crowd of hip-hop and in my opinion neither crowd is really much different from the other. On top of that, Kiddo brought a lot of her following to the show that had never seen me before either and in a single night both of our followings had grown. The even crazier part is we are all from the same city that has a very low population compared to other cities with major breakout artists, so gatherings such as these should be easy and frequent. It doesn't make sense that a B-Kiddo, VT, Ben Starr, Scooda Sease, Abstract, Anfernee, Poppy Native, or Harley Boys, just to name a few, all have almost completely different followings. Each of these artists, and several more I could name are all great artists, and deserve maximum exposure, at least in their hometown.
This is a problem that could easily be solved by artists just linking up more. I do this all the time. If you're an artist and have a show in town, invite other artists to perform, I guarantee you once the cycle begins it will create a ripple effect that will benefit all parties involved. The artists will grow in following due to fresh exposure and the promoters will grow in following because of the artists continuously bringing new people to the events. Everyone wins and the community becomes more familiar with each other over time. Once familiarity sets in, we can all say we know most of the same artists and the followings of these artists can reach max potential. Simple, right?
4. Venue Support
I know many of you are extremely tired of the conversation that venues don't have an acceptance for hip-hop in Charleston. Although this may have been true a few years ago I feel times have changed. There was literally almost nowhere we could easily access to showcase hip-hop music in the city, but this is no longer an excuse. The Royal American, The Pour House, The Alley, and Purple Buffalo are all great venues who have been consistently hosting really dope hip-hop events. In fact I'd go as far to say this is the most support I've seen for the culture in a long time and I hope it continues to grow.
In addition to the growth of spaces where we can congregate my only other desire is for venues to not just book artists but help educate them on the proper booking process. For the most part, artists cannot learn if they cannot experience. Yes, you can watch a YouTube video on how to book a show the same way you can watch a YouTube video on how to do anything else, but actually going through the steps in real time is a different teacher altogether. I literally learned everything about booking through Benton Montgomery, who was once the talent buyer at the Music Farm. Benton would book me for most of the hip-hop shows that come in town and Charlotte, and because of this I was able to have a first-hand experience of the process and eventually book my own shows. I really feel like this is something all artists should have the opportunity to learn. Although it is not the responsibility of the venue, it's an idea that could make booking easier for everyone if we all had a clear understanding of the process. Outside of that I'm seeing more and more new artists and couldn't be more impressed with the way many of you are promoting and curating your shows.
5. Don't Let Up
Despite these small areas of development, I believe there has never been a better time in the history of this city to be a hip-hop artist. More and more resources are becoming available to those who are looking to properly utilize them in order to progress your creative career. City Paper, Syllabus Mag, Do Work Media, Kris Kaylin, Courtney The Poet, The Fringe, and Ill Vibe the Tribe are all exposing us to new talent every day. Our little community has blossomed exponentially in such a short period of time, and this is barely the beginning. The key is to not let up. I'm inspired by everyone I come into contact with who continues to put on for our city. Continue to create, continue to push, continue to strive, and I look forward to witnessing each one of you become the best MC, producer, DJ, graphic artist, curator, or singer the city has to offer.
This week, Matt Monday, voted by City Paper readers as 2018 Hip-Hop Artist of the Year, dropped the highly anticipated Filthy 2, the follow-up to 2016's Filthy. You can catch him live at the Piccolo Spoleto finale on Sat. June 9, 5 p.m., at Hampton Park.