Microphone Check!

Local hip-hop artists discuss Myrtle Beat’s rap scene

For Weekly SurgeNovember 28, 2012 

Almost five years ago, Weekly Surge’s Staff Writer Timothy C. Davis wrote a cover story entitled, “In Search of the Lost Rhyme: Sizing Up Murda Beach’s Hip-Hop Scene.” Davis dove into the local hip-hop scene to swim around in Cristal and let the dollar bills rain. It turns out, there was no Cristal to be had and there was a dollar bill drought. Back in 2008, the year the Great Recession began in earnest, local hip-hop artists were already feeling the crunch, living in a small market for rap and a surplus of rappers. Back then, like today, most local rappers had day jobs and didn’t see prospects of quitting them any time soon. At the end of Davis’ article which was published Jan. 31, 2008, he asks the subjects, “Where do you see the Murda Beach hip-hop scene in five years?” Well, the time has come, five years gone and we’re back to see – what’s going down in Myrtle Beats? (Yeah, we changed the nickname).

In order to find answers, we convened our first-ever Surge Hip-Hop Roundtable on Nov. 9, inviting local rap artists, promoters and venue managers to come together and talk about the current state of hip-hop affairs and where they see the scene going. We were quick to find out that invitations aren’t enough. Of the 10 people we invited, four actually made it. But we pushed on and met at a neutral location, Fresh Brewed Coffee House in Myrtle Beach. We drank coffee, talked hip-hop, drank more coffee, and talked faster.

The participants of the roundtable – Phil “DJ QP” Jackson, a veteran of the local scene since 1999, was interviewed in that first article. He’s one of Myrtle Beach’s hip-hop torchbearers, half of the rap tandem, Shamroc-N-DJ QP, and a spokesman for Raw Underground Rap, a DJ, a developer of artists, and a promoter of hip-hop events. He’s played or promoted every major venue in town and is working with Jason Black at The Boathouse to bring more hip-hop to the schedule. They’ve scheduled The Boathouse’s first Hip-Hop-Palooza on Dec. 12. David “Focus” Owens, also a returnee from that first article, is a former member of the group U.C. Stradegez. He’s a born-again rapper for the Lord now but still in the game as owner and producer of U.C. Studios. AJ Case, another returning contributor, calls his musical style, “Acoustic-Rap-Country-Hop.” He’s been a resident of the Grand Strand for 10 years but plays gigs across the U.S. and Europe. Clarence Frazier is our newcomer. He’s from the Bronx, New York and was a U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman, wounded while saving a Marine in Desert Storm. But his role as the Head of Music Production for Frazier Entertainment is what brings him to the roundtable. He’s spent the last three years on the Grand Strand promoting and producing local DJs and hip-hop artists.

Others who couldn’t make it to the table, we eventually tracked down by calls, text messages, and e-mails. We didn’t get a chance to talk to everyone, but we believe we’ve rounded up a fair representation of the people making things happen locally. Anyone we missed, hopefully it won’t be another five years before you get a chance to chime in. For now, we put the past, present and future in a Lazy Susan and let the roundtable spin to discover what the hip-hop scene sounds like in Myrtle Beats.

Big Fish in a Small Sea

Five years ago Davis wrote in Surge, “Hip-hop was once an underground phenomenon that bubbled up in the mainstream, but here in Myrtle Beach, the local scene appears to have holed itself up in a big way.” So, is it still holed up? Or have artists dug themselves out into the open?

Jackson would say no. “The local talent don’t want to do the legwork, don’t want to promote themselves. Then, when they see the flyer for one of my shows, they call and ask why their name’s not on it. And I have to tell them, they don’t bring anything or anyone to the show.” He tells us how some of the local talent is a poor representation on the scene as a whole. “That’s why I offer artist development. I develop talent, show them stage presence. But I also show them how to talk to people, to be professional.”

AJ Case elaborates on the business side of this creative endeavor, “It’s like a guitar player. A guy buys a guitar and takes his time and learns to play it.” He tells us how a hip-hop performer in the club market today should learn how to adapt to an evolving community of listeners. “What I play depends on the crowd. It’s a mixture of rock, hip-hop, country. I don’t want to empty out a place, so I’ll test out a crowd as I play.” As far as the new rappers on the scene, he gives this critique: “With rap, it’s developing lyrical content. Now, they’re saying the same shit and using less words to say it. Rappers have to move people, but now it’s all about the hook and a hot beat.”

David “Focus” Owens agrees. “People need to learn how to use equipment. They get a $10 mike from Walmart and plug it into a laptop and think they’re a rapper. At a show, they think they sound good because people are cheering, but you have to have integrity, learn the trade.” Jackson jumps in, “Anyone with an iPad and dad’s credit card is a rapper. Add Auto-Tune, a hook and a beat and don’t give a shit.” Jackson laughs and goes on, “You should send a message, tell a story. Self-expression has been lost in the music.”

In the mix, promotion and the marketing

Since the late ‘70s, mix tapes have been a cornerstone of hip-hop – spreading rappers’ word from hand to hand. Now, mix tapes are mp3 downloads and burned CDs – hip-hop artists are able to launch viral and street campaigns with these mix tapes. No muss, no fuss. We asked the roundtable participants about the use of mix tapes locally and the response is immediate. Owens, who produces the stripped-down mix tapes, as well as fuller-sounding albums in his studio, says, “They’re very popular. Young rappers jack for beats to get their name out. I haven’t sold one album yet, no one wants to invest in themselves.” Jackson answers, “The problem with the mix tape is you can’t tell the album from the mix tape. They spent 15 minutes making both.”

Case says, “I will never do free downloads. This is how you can tell who’s going to be around. It used to be people bought music or came to a show to see an artist. It wasn’t the artist bringing crowds in. We’re taking money away from our kids to chase our dreams.” He takes a sip of coffee and continues, “I’m traveling around to make money. I want to play to a packed house, but no matter how many people are in the crowd, I agreed to play for X amount of money and for X amount of time. I don’t play for free.”

Chandler “Chandler Ave.” Costner is one of the members of Exklusive Musik, a local three-man group with a regular producer. He couldn’t make the roundtable but afterwards we caught up with him and discussed the topic of mix tapes. He thinks they are an essential way to, “Know what an artist is about. There are two kinds of mix tapes – a traditional mix tape is rapping over industry beats, more or less remixing songs. But a lot of artists are pretty much making an album and calling it a mix tape. They use all original production, usually these artists don’t have a mainstream deal, so they consider it a mix tape. We have both styles of mix tape. Our ‘Ex-Files Mix tape’ with industry beats and ‘Sex, Nags, and Rap’ with original production. Both are available for free on our Web site. Also, we’re dropping a new tape on Valentine’s Day called, ‘Love Knows No Love’ produced by Rasher Beats.”

Costner and Exklusive Musik seem to have a full-blown marketing plan. “We use, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, some music sites like Soundcloud, Reverbnation, Datpiff and we own our own domain, www.exklusivemusik.com, which we have set up through bandcamp.com, so you can find all the other sites on it. We also have CDs and stickers we give away free at the majority of our shows. We got shirts made and flyers and word of mouth.”

Richard “Decm” Crout is our resident beatboxer and rapper. He’s been in Myrtle Beach since 1990. Crout has been an integral part of the local scene. He recently completed a mix tape of his own, and thinks putting yourself out there is the only answer. “People are all over the Internet and in the streets with self promotion. I carry CDs, business cards and flyers when I do shows. I paint my own Decm lighters and sell them bitches at shows or sometimes give them away. I take my portable amp and mike everywhere I go, start beatboxing and attract a crowd on the Boulevard or at a gas station. I don’t know what other cats do but I promote in my sleep.”

Kimberly Wilson runs Kimmie Kim Entertainment. She’s an artist manager, promoter and the host of Hip-Hop Open Mike Night on Mondays at the Myrtle Beach club, R.E.D. She tells us she has a compilation project in the works, “Linking-up with Rich Black, C.E.O. of 3D Entertainment, and we’re putting together a mix tape, "Next To Blow," featuring artists from the Carolinas. We’re going to throw the biggest mix tape release party and showcase of 2012.” A date for the showcase hasn’t been confirmed yet.

Making waves in deep talent pool?

So what fish is making the biggest splash in our little sea? At the roundtable discussion some of the names are a reflex and everyone agrees – artists such as Exklusive Musik, Sunni G, and Critical. Case tosses in, “South Chillz, he’s got a nice Dirty-South flow.” Owens adds, “Precise is new and different.” Jackson adds some newcomers, known as The Fam.

Later, through messages, CEO/President of Stiletto Promotions & Management, Kendra “Mizz Keke” Darity adds Young Hood to the list. Costner mentions his favorites by geography, “Two of a Kind and B.G.T. doing things on the north side of the Strand and you got Critical out in Conway doing it.” Crout elaborates on a few of the previous names, “Exklusive Musik, The Fam, and Young Hood have some dope, real hip-hop flava. Actually, the list of talent on the Grand Strand is very deep.” Wilson’s list sounds familiar, too, but with a couple of new additions: “Whit, Young Hood, Lil Z, B-Eazy, and Critical should be recognized. They are artists who produce beats for the majority of the underground industry around our area.”

Jason Black, general manager of The Boathouse and old-school hip-hop connoisseur, offers his own list. “I have to give props to J Sneeze (Jamaal Cheatham). This man has skills. He’s been on a couple shows as a guest over the last couple years, but you never really hear much out of him. He still gets my respect. Chris Johnson brings a good crowd when he’s on. Zac Keelo seems to have a good following. And because they’ve been around long enough to owe Jesus money, QP and Shamroc always bring a hype crowd.”

Frazier seconds the vote for Shamroc-N-DJ QP. “They’re capable of competing with anyone, anywhere.” And to this, Jackson allows himself an aw-shucks look before screwing on his business face and saying, “We try to get something every time we touch a mike, tweak something until we’re dead on and make our live performances stick out.”

In all these names, we begin to notice this is a bit of a boy’s club – where the ladies at? Yes, there are women out there promoting but where are the female hip-hop artists? Jackson replies, “What women are going to sing on a hook about bitches? Besides me, the promoters in town are mostly women and they bring in big crowds. If they can get together, they can make something special.”

We check back in with these women who can make, “something special,” Darity and Wilson. Darity confirms the gender disparity. “There are a few women on the scene but for some reason it’s hard for us to unite. Shout out to Kelly Kells Promotion. She has been in the game for a minute. I haven’t had a lot of females at my shows but the few I have had over the two years are pretty good. Lady K is a very good singer under Kelly Kells Promotions.” But Wilson has a different opinion. “Of course, we have some great female artists. There’s Lady K., Risa Lee, Mz. Feenom, Hannah The Voice, and an awesome hip-hop group, The Carolina Queens. The ladies are definitely representing for the underground industry.”

So, there is a school of new and veteran talent working to make a name, dropping mix tapes, making new music – but where can we see them bust rhymes live?

The showcase – from no place to any space

In Davis’ article a half-decade ago, Jackson talked about the state of local hip-hop shows: “You can put six of the hottest local acts on stage and be lucky to get 200 people. But put Soulja Boy on stage and you won’t be able to get in the door. It’s sad hip-hop has come to this, but it’s up to us to change that." The fact that Soulja Boy was used as Jackson’s example should stand alone as a statement to the disposable character of beats in hip-hop. But how does Jackson describe our current scene? “Selfish,” he says and explains, “Bars want to have a rap show and charge a cover charge. They delete responsibility of paying you by giving you the door or a percentage of the door. They say they’ll promote, but that’s bullshit.”

AJ Case uses the word, “Broke.” He says, “Somewhere along the way we forgot to pay the artist. I play a lot out of town. It’s just me and a bongo player and whatever I can fit in a van. My crowds are a lot bigger in Charleston, New York, all over Florida. The hip-hop scene is different from market to market. Here, it’s acceptable for everyone to get into it, like you’re hanging with the cool kids.” He continues, “There’s really not an underground hip-hop movement here. It’s a very above ground, open mike. They’re stuck on the same stages and venues, playing for the same audience as the last open mike.”

Jackson says, “There’s always a showcase or an open mike, that’s not the problem. There’s R.E.D., 2001, Bikini Beach Club, Zulu Lounge. The problem is a lot of artists go to these open mikes all week. No one wants to come out and see you five times a week. They put out a shitty song on YouTube and it sounds like shit and they’re wondering why there’s no love.”

Sean “Sunni G” Grissett was mentioned earlier as one of the rappers making a splash and was also featured in Davis’ 2008 article. He’s from Brooksville in the Little River area. He takes a different slant on getting his music and name out there. He says he’s played, “Every club, hole-in-the-wall, and birthday that wanted us. House of Blues to the G-Spot, been as far north as West Virginia and as far south as Jacksonville (Fla.).” He believes in order to make an impact, you have to be good and be seen. He describes the scene as, “overlooked.” And says, “I’m happy being independent but I would like to reach the regional level again so I can really make this a source of income. In my opinion, the underground will not prosper until we come together and make our presence known. If I go to Columbia and they don’t know me, I can’t expect the respect back home.”

But is local hip-hop pulling in a crowd? Darity, who promotes shows at Bikini Beach Club and 2001, responds, “Turnouts are hit and miss. Due to the fact that promoters that deal with underground don’t want to work together. They want to go head-to-head and the underground market is not big enough.”

Jackson believes the artist doing the shows should also cut the friction. “The sky is the limit as long as everyone works together and uses the outlets presented to them. Basically, stop hatin’ on the dude down the street. You’re in no position to hate on another artist, work together, unity.” Jackson has put this practice into motion as promoter and artist. He collaborates with the best Myrtle Beats has to offer and he and Shamroc have been opening for national and regional acts.

Costner has a theory everyone else seems to be veering away from. “I think the biggest problem around here is getting a real following. There are so many people in and out of Myrtle Beach. There are enough artists working together, but no one is reaching a mass audience because there isn’t a consistent one here. It’s just not a music city. We have (club) DJs and cover bands.”

Crout calls for consistency, too. “Artists, DJs and promoters have been saying for years the same thing, ‘We have no unity. No love and support for each other. No local radio spots.’ But there have been a ton of venues pop up with local hip-hop shows over the years but very few keep them going for long. Promoters scream about this club one week and the next, they’re at a different club. What happened to make them switch so fast? It would be purely speculation to say it was from violence. Or maybe folks aren’t buying drinks and these clubs lose money on a hip-hop show.” He says the turnouts for his shows can vary from “15 to 500” people.

And those seem to be the issues – artists/promoters in-fighting, bars inability to make money with hip-hop acts, and the violence associated with the scene. We went behind the bar to get the scoop from club GM Black of the Boathouse. “Turnout with hip-hop is like any other genre. You have shows that blow up and some that are so-so.” He commented about crowd violence, “We’re fortunate in the crowds we attract. We have very few problems for any show. We don’t do any ‘hard core’ rap shows. We stick with more ‘mainstream’ acts and our management team and floor staff keeps a good handle on the crowd to identify and eliminate any potential problem before they arise.” OK, the Boathouse general manager likes hip-hop and he’s willing to take a loss to offer diversity, right? Black says no. “Amazingly enough, old school hip-hop creates the biggest buzz and crowd for us. These aren’t ‘local’ but we’ve had Nappy Roots bring great crowds. Ying Yang Twins blew the roof off. 2 Live Crew brought a ton of people out. Coolio brought one of our largest crowds this summer.”

There’s the trick – to get locals to care about their hip-hop artists at least half as much as they do for national acts. This is Jackson’s goal. “Right now, I’m trying to put rock, punk and hip-hop acts together on the same bill. But you have to put the right bands together or it’s not going to reach out. I want to bring in big crowds and they don’t have to yell or cheer, just don’t leave the dance floor.” That’s why he puts together a jam session at the end of each of his showcases that he calls a “cipher.” Different DJs spin beats and all the rappers on the bill come out and run a verse.

Crout sounds optimistic about the recent changes. “The scene is actually growing and more genres have popped up. Shamroc and DJ QP are killing shows on the regular at the Island Bar and Boathouse. And they usually open for majors like Bubba Sparxxx and 2 Live Crew. You got Kimmie Kim Enterprises doing it big at Club R.E.D. every week. Stiletto Promotions and A Team doing big things and showcases everywhere. Isis in Pawleys Island just had a huge show with Blind Fury and local talent. Beatbox Battle 2 Beat Breast Cancer went down in October at Kono Ultra Lounge.”

At the roundtable, we addressed the fear of violence at shows and Owens says, “A lot of people associate hip-hop with violence but here, rappers bring a laidback vibe.” Jackson adds, “I haven’t had a problem in years. People want to party with the performers. If they party, they’re going to drink and if they drink, they’re going to drive sales. That means everyone is happy.”

Darity responds to the violence question in a very pragmatic way: “It’s always an issue but it’s better than before.” And Wilson adds, “We may have some artists that make dis tracks, but at my events, it’s always unity.”

Costner tells us his group has played “Island Bar, The Boathouse, Zulu Lounge, Uncle Tito’s, The Sound Hole, Cool Daddy’s and a few others and violence has never been an issue. It all depends on the artist and the type of music and crowd they bring. It’s just as possible to have violence at a rock show.”

When times are tough…diversify

The opportunities are growing, but hip-hop is far from a full time job along the Grand Strand. Two of our roundtable panelists, AJ Case and Clarence Frazier, are lucky enough to make a living doing what they love but most every other performer has to find day jobs. Jackson manages Mellow Mushroom pizzeria in Myrtle Beach and it seems he takes it upon himself to employ every local rapper that needs a job. Shamroc and two of the three members of Exklusive Musik work for Jackson.

Owens has gotten out of the game to focus on his newfound Christian beliefs. He went from playing clubs to playing churches. He still runs a studio and produces all the genres of local hip-hop. Jackson says, “It sucks to lose a talented group like U.C. Stradegez, but we support what Focus did, making changes in his life.” Owens says, “People think Christian rap is corny, people don’t want to be preached at, but it comes across as a regular rap. I just had to get more creative to replace the curse words.”

Brian “Precise” Prater was endorsed earlier in this article as a valid new voice on the scene, but that and five bucks will buy you a cup of coffee from Starbucks. Prater is a 26 year-old man learning the rap ropes, doing hooks and producing beats. But by day, he makes a living transporting cars. Crout is a renaissance beatboxer, also serving as a part-time wedding officiant, a DJ, a videographer, and a window-cleaning guru. Grissett is a solo artist but he’s also one-third of the group B-1NZ, and half of the Beach Brothers. He also writes songs for other artists and films videos and features with Jon Randall Films. He says, “Without at least a regional buzz there’s no way to make ends meet.”

In Another Five Years

Five years ago, in Davis’ article, Jamaal “J-Sneez” Cheatham mentioned, “Contacting local radio stations, asking them to host more local music segments.” You would think that would be an outdated means of promotion today. But at our roundtable discussion, Jackson recalls a 98.5 KISS-FM show, “Rep Your City,” where local artists competed for a Def Jam record deal. Jackson calls the competition, “Bullshit.” Then he offers his services, “I will do a radio show that highlights local hip-hop for free. We can call it, DJ QP’s Local Love Hip-Hop.”

It feels like the past and the future of our hip-hop community is a timeless tradition of struggle and survival, rivalry and unity – keeping it real with a flashy attitude, a blue-collar work ethic and bitching about those who don’t work hard enough. Owens says, “As far as the future of hip-hop from this area, I’d like to see it get out of this area. People spend too much time relying on social media. Throw your stuff in a van and get out there. Just go bust your ass.”

Jackson agrees with Owens. “People need to get out there and learn all of the business. I put myself out there and I learned. I can speak the terms. I know the language.” Frazier nods his head in agreement. “He knows his stuff. If he was in New York, he’d be signed. And if one artist makes it, it would be a domino effect for the others out there. I know the talent level here. Artists just need to take their craft more serious.”

Prater echoes this sentiment. “Unity and more shows in more venues, so a variety of fans can come support us at the places they like to go.” Crout says, “This place is a bubble of talent about to burst. Someone is about to blow from the beach, C-Way, G-Town, or Charleston any minute now.” Crout is also planning a Spring Break Beatbox Battle Royal and he’ll continue The Breast Cancer Awareness Beatbox Benefit Show every October in honor of his mom and his two sisters. He says, “In the meantime, I’ll be teaching beatbox to anyone who wants to learn the art of human mouth music.”

Costner wants to make an impact on the permanent residents of Myrtle Beats. “We hope to see a bigger influence on the area, the people and culture, as well as more support and opportunity for those putting in the hours and dedication. That goes for all genres of music. The Strand has talent, we just need to reach a bigger scale.” Wilson seems to be in agreement with Costner, “There’s no market here. But in five years, I would love to see a strong market here.”

Jackson again shows his support for his community when he says, “If we ever got on, my tour would consist of local artists. Because a lot of people here deserve it more than we do, it’s my duty to help my friends.” Until then, Jackson plans to lift up Myrtle Beats by doing a showcase every month until March starting with Dec. 12’s Hip-Hop-Palooza.

“Other venues have backed away from this for whatever reason,” says Black, the Boathouse general manager. “I chose to embrace it and grow it. I plan to collaborate with DJ QP to make it a bigger event year after year. After all, we’re a live music venue and it’s what we do.”

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