The Holy City's known for a lot of things: food comas, a stalker-level obsession with the guy from Ghostbusters, and one of the fastest-growing music scenes in South Carolina. But even with the growing acclaim of the local music sphere, regional hip-hop acts are continually underrepresented in their own music community.
"It's almost like there's a shadow scene," says hip-hop artist Fitzgerald "Benjamin Starr" Wiggins. "The people in the shadow scene know exactly what they like to listen to, who they like to listen to. There has always been a scene and there still is one for homegrown 843 hip-hop that's been forced to exist in the shadows, because it just wasn't accepted or respected by the status quo."
Charleston rap music often stays in the shadows of indie, Americana, rock (or any combination of the three), largely because of a lack of hip-hop-focused venues. According to hip-hop authorities, there is currently no all hip-hop venue on the peninsula, or any where else in the Lowcountry for that matter.
- Jonathan Boncek
- Benjamin Starr says Charleston hip-hop operates in a shadow scene
This problem came to a head during last fall's Southern Discomfort discussions on race and inclusion in the local music scene. For anyone unaware of the racially charged Charleston music controversy, the ordeal centered around a racist caricature drawn by Tyler Bertges of Hermit's Victory that was posted to social media by his label, Hearts & Plugs — both of whom have since apologized. The image bore the caption, "slave baby" as a play on former labelmates and local indie-rock band Brave Baby, who were otherwise unrelated to the incident. The image caused outrage throughout the music community and resulted in bands leaving the label. Within a week, Southern Discomfort was created. The four-hour-plus forum's biggest takeaway? How to improve local representation, access, and venue support particularly for hip-hop.
Related Local artists, venues address lack of inclusiveness in the music scene: Southern Discomfort Part II
The lack thereof is a familiar frustration for hip-hop artist Matt Bostick, a.k.a. Matt Monday. "I got tired of having an easier time booking shows outside of my hometown than in my hometown," he says.
His concerns are shared across generational lines with local rappers and are an issue that many local music fans weren't aware of until the 'slave baby saga.'
"At the panel it was almost like there was this cathartic break about halfway through," says forum co-organizer/Very Hypnotic Soul Band composer Elliott Smith. The floodgates opened and the hip-hop scene was no longer so silent about the problems they were encountering with booking shows downtown. Many pointed the finger at venue owners and managers.
Getting a Bad Rap
- Jonathon Stout
- Matt Monday has had better luck booking shows outside of Charleston
"For the past five years, I get rappers, at least once a week, willing to pay me money to get them a show downtown," says hip-hop DJ, Charleston Hype founder, and show organizer Dave Curry, a.k.a. Black Dave. His response to them has typically been, "There's no one that wants to have you." Curry says he's experienced the rejection firsthand. He hosted his Charleston Hype hip-hop showcases at JohnKing Grill & Bar (formerly Joe Pasta) from December 2015 until April 2017, when the venue canceled it.
General manager of JohnKing David Platte says cancelling the monthly event was purely a business move. "That night typically did about half the business [of other nights]," Platte says. Since the beginning of 2017, JohnKing has tried to focus more on live bands and nights with no cover charge.
That makes sense to KJ Kearney, Charleston Sticks Together community outreach consultant. As he says, venue owners have to be able to turn a profit. "I can make $10,000 a month in revenue from a dance club, or $25,000 a month in rent as a family-style restaurant," says Kearney. And that applies to all venues, no matter the size or location.
"As far as rap goes, there are only a few people that can really make you money, and no one wants to take the risk on the people who can't make you money," says Curry. After leaving JohnKing, Curry says he "just stopped" booking Charleston Hype shows. "It becomes taxing to deal with that kind of stuff and those kinds of people," he says.
Instead, Curry's been busy co-producing Matt Monday's new album (its first single "You Know Who" is out now; the album drops in a few weeks) and still has plans to organize future showcases.
- Ruta Elvikyte
- Dave Curry has stopped trying to book Charleston Hype shows downtown
But even if you can secure a space and bring a crowd, there's still a stigma of violence associated with hip-hop.
This has been the case in the past with the Music Farm. Nearly every veteran of the scene, from local '90s hip-hop trio Da Phlayva to Matt Monday, mentioned the importance of the Music Farm to Charleston rap — the venue is known for bringing local artists to open for touring acts. But many rappers have been disappointed with what they perceive as a lack of regional hip-hop acts performing over the years, and some in the hip-hop community blame a fear of violence as the cause.
In October 2016 a Black Lives Matter "Stop the Violence" show featuring local rappers, R&B artists, and poets was cancelled beforehand due to "safety concerns" following a shooting that happened near the Music Farm a month prior. Because of this, there have been rumors that the Charleston Police Department has the capacity to fine the Music Farm for violence at shows or after — but that's simply not true. Charleston City Council's legal department says they had not heard of any such ordinance. Music Farm marketing director Thomas Glasgow says the same: "We do not get fined for damages or violence that may happen at our venue," he says. The Farm has also taken steps to welcome more local hip-hop since these incidents, hosting artists via its intimate Den shows introduced by CofC's 1770 Records.
But as creative curators IllVibeTheTribe point out, the stigma is wrong. "We've proven time and time again that we just like to listen to the music we want to listen to and dance," IllVibeTheTribe's Asiah Mae says.
Fortunately, Purple Buffalo owner Dan Dickey gets that. His venue has welcomed events like Curry's Charleston Hype shows and Super Cyphers, Mac N Tee's Live from the Underground series, and the last two shows in IllVibeTheTribe's Elevators series (the Pour House hosted the first Elevators). "I host every genre of show up there," says Dickey. "But, I love hip-hop and art and music in general, so I basically support all genres." The venue is a hot spot for putting rap artists on the bill just as regularly as it puts on rock or any other music form. "[The Purple Buffalo] is sort of all we have," says Curry.
Since Southern Discomfort, another downtown venue to step up to the plate and add rap to its mostly rock lineup is the Royal American — Starr performed at May's Sweet Corn Cook Off, while Monday headlined June's Summer Shindig, for example.
"I consider myself fortunate to have been [at Southern Discomfort] that afternoon," says Royal American manager John Kenney. "This is important to me, and should be to all of us. We get much more done with open lines of communication."
Location Details The Royal American
Issues of proper representation have not been limited to a lack of venue support, however. For the City Paper's Best Of Charleston Awards this year, R&B club the Commodore took home Best Hip-Hop Club, much to the confusion of the venue and rap fans alike.
Z93 JAMZ radio host, Do Work Media podcast host, and show organizer Vaughn Postema was very vocal about her disappointment with the results — posting comments on CP as well as her own social media videos — for the simple fact that, as she put it, there are no rap clubs downtown.
"The only one that was on that [nominations] list that played hip-hop was the Purple Buffalo, but it's still not a hip-hop venue," says Postema.
Commodore owner Taylor Grant agrees. "Although the Commodore has had hip-hop and will again, it was simply just not the appropriate category for the venue ... that's it, but who doesn't like to win?" says Grant.
"If you're going to say 'hip-hop venue' let it be that you're at venues that actually are playing hip-hop, and that's 95 percent of what you're going to hear," says Postema.
The fact that the very paper promoting Best Of is the same one that's written extensively about the limited exposure for local hip-hop culture only exacerbated the issue within the hip-hop scene.
City Paper Editor Kinsey Gidick says the trouble with removing the category is two-fold. "First, we want to be inclusive to all genres. We've always intended the category to apply to the entire Lowcountry, not just downtown, and the operating thought has been that even if there isn't a hip-hop club on the peninsula, surely greater Charleston has one," Gidick explains. "But even if Charleston or an area beyond the peninsula had a great hip-hop club, that doesn't mean it would win the Best Of award. The BOCs are based on reader nominations and reader votes. It's entirely subjective."
Ever since the category was started in 2010, readers have voted for places where they've heard some hip-hop, but not necessarily seen hip-hop in its true form — an emcee and his or her DJ — on a consistent basis. For two years North Charleston dance club Kush Lounge won the reader vote. Trio Club took home the win off-and-on for the next four years. In 2013, readers voted in NV — also not an all-hip-hop club.
Postema's frustrations remain.
"With that category, I feel like there is a need to be realistic," she says. "If there aren't any hip-hop venues or there aren't any venues that make the cut — because there are only the couple of venues that I can think of — you can either put those venues up there or, if those venues are not nominated by the readers, then the category just doesn't need to exist. Because, the way I see it, until we get hip-hop venues that are going to be recognized as legit hip-hop venues, the truth of the matter is Charleston does not have hip-hop venues."
So why don't we have hip-hop venues? Is it because we don't have a hip-hop audience?
"For me, the music scene is not diverse," says Charleston Music Hall Director Charles Carmody, who, after Southern Discomfort, organized the Music Hall's first ever hip-hop show, the first edition of the venue's Charleston Live series. "I think the issue really just is how do these venues diversify their programming, period." Variety in the local music scene has been discussed before by many, including a recent City Paper column by local show promoter PJ Taylor. In his "Singing into the Void" op-ed, he wrote, "It is local, diverse, original music that grows a scene."
So the solution may actually stand with audiences to go to more rap shows, prove their interest, and show venue owners the monetary value these shows have. "The venue owners need to diversify their programming and the audience needs to come out," says Carmody. "The audience needs to be open to different programming. It's that simple, but it's also that difficult."
Monday shared a similar sentiment with his view that local audiences are not conditioned for hip-hop. "There's not even a crowd here to enjoy or appreciate the music because the culture's been so depreciated and diluted," he says.
This diversity dilemma creates a loop that can't be easily escaped. "If I am an up-and-coming rapper, where am I supposed to practice my trade?" asks Kearney. "How am I supposed to learn about booking if I can never get booked? How am I supposed to learn about stage presence if I am never on stage? How am I supposed to know about how to interact with the media when there is no media covering me?"
Let there be Phlayva
There are many parallels between the Charleston rap scene's history and its present, especially in its battle for venue and media representation. When looking at Charleston rap music's past, it's easy to assume that the local hip-hop scene is not old enough to drive. Many of the better known local rappers, hip-hop producers, and DJs are in their mid-to-late 20s and didn't actively participate until 2007 or 2008. In addition, most newspapers (including the City Paper) weren't documenting the scene very closely until a few years ago, leaving significant gaps in what was, at times, a fruitful landscape for some rappers.
What's important to note though is that, despite the size of the rap scene in the '80s and '90s, there were artists making homegrown hip-hop here. Sean Dolby is by most accounts the man who brought rap to the area with his own radio show "The 25th Hour" back in 1982. He enlisted rappers like Skipski and Double Dee, DJ Wizz, and Prince DLB on the program and would spin some of their regionally released tunes. "We still had real rap battles, break dance battles, graffiti battles," says Dolby. "We'd be on the Battery on Sunday with boomboxes."
One of the earliest Lowcountry rap success stories was golden age rap trio Da Phlayva, who put out the first nationally released Charleston rap album, titled Phlayva 4 Dem All. That was in 1994. "There were several groups [before us], but there wasn't anything that really stuck," says Herman "Chawle Dawk Da Superstar" Rice. In the early and mid-'90s, most rappers were performing in North Charleston, with the occasional excursion to the Music Farm or the long-defunct King Street Palace.
Da Phlayva, consisting of Chris "Maximillion" Witty, Jermaine "Shrimp Boogie Down" Benjamin, and Rice, had enough hype to score a distribution deal with Los Angeles record label SOLAR Records, with Eazy-E even scouting them out for his own label. Soon after the release of Phlayva 4 Dem All, the three rappers embarked on a national tour.
So how did a Charleston rap trio make a potential underground classic in L.A., land national headlines with a controversial album cover that featured a pan-Africanized Confederate flag, garner a small international fanbase, and not come back to the East Coast hailed as the new heroes of the rap scene? Sadly, Da Phlayva's relationship with SOLAR and local label Vertical "fizzled," but not on bad terms, according to Rice. "We came home, something else was supposed to happen, and we were just kind of in limbo," Rice recalls. They recorded some new music that they claim is still floating around and formed Langston Hughes III (which Rice and Witty currently perform in) and supergroup Da Carolina Pathfindaz.
The group made one of their biggest contributions to Charleston hip-hop by hosting two radio shows, one in 1995 on 100.9 titled "Carolina Vibes" and one in 2001 on 98.9 called "Saturday Nite Ciphas." Both programs heavily featured local rap at a time when platforms were scarce, bringing new attention to artists like Infinity tha Ghetto Child, DJ Bless, and eventually the next generation of Holy City rappers.
A Scene is Born
- Ruta Elvikyte
- Donovan "Twin D" Kinloch is often cited as the godfather of Charleston hip-hop
Even though the genre was active before him, Donovan "Twin D" Kinloch is often cited as the godfather of the rap scene in Charleston. "That was a big movement for the city. It probably was the most successful," says Rice.
Twin's career began around 2000, when he and his brother David Kinloch set up shop at their studio Twin D1st Century Entertainment on Savannah Highway, where it still stands today. When looking back on his start and the layout of Holy City hip-hop, he recalls it being sparse, aside from one or two artists. "Around that time, it was kind of empty," says Twin. "We had a dude by the name of T-Mac. He came out in the late '90s and he did good, he did well, but he got himself locked up."
T-Mac's debut album Shinin' & Bigtymin' was released in 1999 on 263 Records and is reported to have sold 186,000 copies since then (City Paper attempted to fact check this number; many sources point toward the albums being sold by hand, leaving few written records. Monster Music & Movies has sold over 600 copies of Shinin' & Bigtymin', and believes that, given the circumstances, it's completely plausible that 186,000 copies of the album were sold.) T-Mac is still active in the rap scene today.
According to Twin, once T-Mac went to prison, the scene stagnated. "Everybody was searching for something going on ... they needed a void to be filled, and that's where we came in."
Twin and Kinloch picked up the torch and ran with it. It also didn't hurt that they were one of the few studios in Charleston at the time. Many local rap heroes, like Mista Taylor, Marly Mar, and Pachino Dino, walked through Twin D1st Century's doors at the beginning of the new millennium. In 2001, the producer released a compilation of what he considered the best of the best, titled South Carolina Playaz. The album became a local hit, with a little help from Da Phlayva's radio show, and brought attention to many local rappers. In one album, Twin D1st Century planted the seeds that the current rap scene grew from.
Most of the artists on South Carolina Playaz released solo albums soon after, like Mista Taylor's Pergatory and Pachino Dino's Dummin' Out, which saw varying success. Twin, being the business mastermind behind the operation, was filling orders from Manifest Records stores all over the state, requesting hundreds of CDs, between 2000 and 2005. Order requests were often made twice a month. Twin remembers having an 18-wheeler parked outside of his mom's house with CDs that were being shipped out. "One of the store people told me, 'Hey, you're going to have to get a distribution deal,'" says Twin. Clearly there was a market for the music, but depending on who asked, there weren't many downtown venues hosting rap shows at the time.
"We had to go to different neighborhoods throughout the state to get recognized as being an artist," says Mista Taylor. When asked where they would regularly perform, both Marly Mar and Mista Taylor provided plenty of clubs and venues outside of Charleston. "I tell any artist that I sit down with that if you can conquer this city, you can conquer any place," Taylor says. "It shouldn't be hard because this is one of the hardest places to get recognized."
Even when there was better rap representation downtown in the mid-'00s, at businesses like Purple Tree and Level 2 on North Market Street, Calhoun Street's Club Trio, and Toucan Reef on Concord Street, it was through dance clubs instead of venues. Typically, the clubs weren't doing hip-hop shows, making the situation more difficult for rappers.
As Matt Monday remembers, a lot of shows he attended when growing up in the rap scene were not at typical venues. Stardust Skate Center would turn into a hip-hop club after hours that was geared toward teenagers, while a military armory on Cross County Road would also act as a club for the youth. Naturally, they were dubbed "armory parties."
While the rapidly expanding rap scene was taking shape throughout the 2000s, gentrification was affecting businesses on the peninsula. Many of the dance clubs that focused on rap music were closing down. The landscape was changing, and that included the way music was being distributed. Taylor, Curry, and Starr note that a new generation of local talent was making waves in the latter part of the decade online. Monday released his 2009 album Chaos Theory under the name Righchus and by 2010, Starr put out his first offering, The Experience.
Many of the scene's veterans were still releasing music, but the new crop used the internet as their main means of distributing fresh works. In addition, the internet further proved an interest in the music. Over the next few years, the media finally began to take note.
The Elephant in the Room
So where are we today? For the hip-hop community, the problem of venue access and representation boils down to race. "They want the culture, but they don't want the people," says Curry. "If you start playing trap music, then it gets too black. If you want to do an EDM remix of it so it doesn't get too black, we can do that."
Curry also says that, while a lot of venue owners have been very helpful about moving the conversation of race and music forward, the only way for him to get a show is to know the right people. No prior affiliation with the scene, especially for a rap artist, means a harder time getting a gig.
This can partially be blamed on the racial makeup of the peninsula and how it has changed. "Geographically speaking, 10 years ago, 20 years, Charleston was way more black than it is now," says Kearney. A 2011 report from the Post and Courier shows the black population downtown has decreased by 5,000 people every decade since 1980, while the white population has increased by 24 percent. "Now with the peninsula's demographic changing, the focus of Charleston as a city, as a brand has changed."
And its effects are clearly felt in the music community. "There are a lot of people who have been disillusioned with downtown Charleston, who really don't come anymore," says Starr.
Many black artists and participants of Southern Discomfort firmly believe that the lack of representation for rap artists is an extension of gentrification. "Generally speaking, it's the symptom of the same problem," says Elliott Smith. "We live in a segregated city that tends to celebrate a lot of its traditions that shouldn't be celebrated."
Sustaining a Solution
Twin D tells a story about a "2005 or 2006" Christmas party he and Pachino Dino threw at a North Charleston club that doesn't exist anymore called The End Zone. They had rented out the venue and booked a security detail. The show didn't happen. "People called the club and told the club owner, 'Oh, don't let that guy perform.'"
It's hard not to draw a parallel between that and the 2016 Black Lives Matter show at the Music Farm that was shut down before it began. The scene still encounters problems it saw a decade ago, and there have been plenty of solutions suggested by venue owners, promoters, fans, and artists. The answers range from being more business savvy, to the audience going to shows en masse, to better community communication, to hip-hop fans opening a dedicated rap venue themselves. And none of those are bad answers.
Related Monday's Black Lives Matter show at Music Farm canceled, venue and Charleston police respond: CPD and Music Farm cite "safety concerns"
But, one of the most common resolutions provided wasn't about what needs to be done to fix the problem of access and representation. Instead, it's simply to keep the progression happening and not wait until a controversial event happens.
In the months immediately following the slave baby saga and Southern Discomfort, Curry noted that "everyone tried and everyone stopped" helping out the rap scene. "Let's say we keep that energy lifelong," offers Matt Monday.
Both Postema and Starr agree that one of the most effective ways of dealing with these issues is by widening the lens to see more than the peninsula. "With all the big publicity Charleston's been getting, it focuses on downtown, immediately," says Postema. "In order for our scene to grow, we're going to have to see it all as one scene."
"Everybody loves the music, but we're divided as people," says Mista Taylor. "There's just a big divide. If we come together as a unit and work together differently and just try to show a movement in the city itself, I think it would open our eyes."
The "shadow scene" is still there, but thanks to regular underground hip-hop showcases organized by crews like IllVibeTheTribe, Mac N Tee, Walter Brown, Black Dave, Soul Power Productions, the Holy City Hip-Hop Committee, and more, the sun is beginning to peek through and shine on hip-hop artists. Venue support continues to grow with venues including Kingdom Bar & Grill, Tin Roof, Charleston Music Hall, and the Pour House, as well as among smaller, less traditional music venues like Cory's Grilled Cheese, PURE Theatre, APB Store (a long-time supporter), and Elliotborough Mini Bar. But so much still lies with the audience.
Wayne "Bass Ghost" Hampleton believes the power lies with the people. "Everyone: Show up and support local musicians. Buy their music, merch, and help spread the love. Let venues know you want more diversity, and show up when they give that to you," Hampleton wrote in his "Hip-Hop Hurray" column for the City Paper last year. "If you're an artist, share other local artists' music with your followers, including your personal friends in other cities."
It's possible for the Charleston hip-hop scene to repeat the positive parts of its history, but since other thriving rap music scenes like Atlanta and Texas have developed into the industries they now are, it will take more work for the Holy City than it would have in the '80s and '90s.
That's not to say it's impossible, of course. Postema sees it as a matter of connecting everyone to create a tight-knit community. "Networking will sustain the solution," she says. "Passion will sustain the solution."