You don’t always observe change as it happens. While deliberating over the most important music stories from the 2010s, it’s hard not to notice just how much the music scene has grown in the last 10 years. At the end of the decade, Charleston seems to have more original music, more esteem across the state, and better recognition of all local artists by the press. There was triumph and heartbreak in the 2010s, with hard battles fought — and an unlikely encounter involving a ‘90s rap icon. It all helped structure a scene that’s ready for a new decade, stronger than before. Below are the moments that shaped the scene’s current landscape the most.
High Water Festival, curated by Shovels & Rope, becomes a new local staple (2017)
Did anyone expect High Water Festival to become one of the biggest music gatherings in Charleston when it premiered in 2017? The answer’s debatable, but the lineup always hinted at the festival’s potential. Performances by the Avett Brothers, the Shins, Charles Bradley, and Dawes helped build High Water’s initial hype, while Band of Horses and Jason Isbell in 2018 solidified it. And 2020 has the best lineup yet, thanks to anticipated shows from Wilco, Brittany Howard, and Andrew Bird. The festival’s success has helped sustain the ongoing legend of indie-Americana duo Shovels & Rope, who already made huge waves in the national circuit this decade with several albums and high-profile performances.
Southern Discomfort is formed, Hearts & Plugs dissolves after racist caricature is shared on Instagram (2016)
At the risk of downplaying everything that happened in just two months, we’ll refer to this one as a “doozy.” In 2016, record label Hearts & Plugs was a rising empire, supporting artists like SUSTO, Brave Baby, and ET Anderson. But, after label head Dan McCurry shared on Instagram a racist depiction of a black child with large lips and ears, with the words “Slave Baby” written underneath it, the outcry was enough to essentially kill the label. Southern Discomfort, a forum for African-American artists to discuss their frustrations with racism in the Lowcountry music scene, was formed soon after. It’s a story that many are tired of talking about. Ex-Hearts & Plugs members have told us they’re sick of it, several black artists have told us they just want to move on. Even at the City Paper, we’re still exhausted by Slave Baby and its fallout. But, no one can deny the indelible impact it had on the community. It forced many white artists to look their black counterparts in the eye and discuss the sometimes purposeful white-washing of Charleston music. We’re still seeing that impact today.
Popular music venue the Royal American opens as a humble dive bar (2011)
Several great venues have opened in the last 10 years, including the Sparrow, the Commodore, Purple Buffalo, and the now-closed King Dusko. But, while the City Paper loves all venues equally, we’ve got to give a story-of-the-decade slot to the Royal American’s opening. In eight years, Royal went from an upper peninsula dive bar to one of the most prominent venues to catch local original music. Almost all of Charleston’s biggest bands of the decade cut their teeth performing on its bar-side stage. Even its swinging overhead lamps have become a popular in-joke for Holy City music fans. Yeah, there are plenty of fantastic venues from recent years, but few have helped cultivate the scene as well as the Royal American.
City’s first hip-hop/R&B festival, Cultura, celebrates young black culture and music (2019)
We can gab about how great Cultura was way past the 100-odd words we’re allowing ourselves, but we won’t do it justice. Being at the event was the only way to really know how special Matt Monday’s hip-hop/R&B festival was. By committing his festival to “young black culture,” as he told the City Paper this year, Monday put some of Charleston’s best artists on the stage. In addition to his night-ending performance, he brought out Benny Starr, Jah Jr., Shaniqua McCants, Abstract that Rapper, Contour, plus some underground artists like Nory. Most importantly, Monday helped create the only event to celebrate black culture for Millennials and Gen Z in Charleston. If we get a Cultura 2020, put it on your list of “must attends.”
Ohm Radio establishes a commercial-free locally owned/operated radio station (2015)
Ohm Radio, Charleston’s commercial-free and community operated radio station, began broadcasting Charleston-centric content in August 2015 and they haven’t let up since. Shows from Marcus Amaker, Mika Gadsden, Kate Ledbetter, Adam Chandler, and others are in regular rotation at 96.3 FM, along with a host of different music styles and genres. There’s a little bit of something for everyone at Ohm, and in 2018, they integrated themselves further into the community by moving to an open space in the Workshop, the city’s downtown food court. Since then, anyone stopping in for a bite to eat can stay and watch the radio shows in person as they are broadcasted.
Popular Radio DJ Richard “Box” Bachschmidt dead at 43, videographer Drew Gardner dead at 29 (2018/2019)
The last two years have brought the sudden deaths of two beloved members of the music community: Richard “Box” Bachshmidt in 2018 and Drew Gardner in 2019. Bachschmidt was a well-known radio DJ and podcast host who spent time promoting the local arts scene, and Gardner was a prolific videographer who filmed many music videos and live shows. Although they were unrelated, the two incidents incited a similar reaction. Both deaths came with little warning, led to a groundswell of tributes from musicians and songwriters, and ignited discussions on mental health among some in the music community.
52.5 Records closes after 13 years downtown (2010)
52.5 Records, hailed as an “independent victory” by the City Paper, shuttered its doors in 2010. The beloved record store was a popular stop for music fans for 13 years, thanks to its wide selection and presence downtown on Wentworth Street, and later, King Street. Sadly, the store succumbed to the damage dealt by digital music downloads, with store owner Clay Scales noticing a marked decline in sales and stock. What’s worse is that 52.5 Records closed just a few years before the vinyl boom midway through the 2010s.
Jump, Little Children hold a reunion tour after 10-year hiatus (2015)
Jump, Little Children broke every Charleston indie fan’s heart in 2005 by announcing a hiatus. 10 long years later, the band returned with a four-night run in the Holy City at Dock Street Theatre and the Music Farm. All performances sold out in advance, proving that, while the city’s music scene changed remarkably in 10 years, Jump’s fans didn’t. Not content with just a couple reunion shows here and there, the band dropped Sparrow in 2018, their first release in 12 years. They continue to do an annual Charleston show at the end of the year, keeping their roots close, despite the national recognition that the band’s received.
Rapper Benny Starr records his long-awaited second LP live at the Charleston Music Hall (2018)
We would say that it’s hard to believe that we’re still talking about the live recording of rapper Benny Starr’s sophomore LP, A Water Album. But, just like Cultura, if you were there you would know how unique of an experience it was. Starr brought the recording studio out to the public, allowing them to be part of his 2019 release. Audience members are heard on A Water Album chanting and cheering, giving the LP an excitement that’s just as infectious as it is tangible. The music was great, but this live recording earns a story of the decade slot because of its volumes of community involvement. Starr brought so many people from disparate backgrounds and ethnicities to put the recording together. To this day, when we put A Water Album on, we don’t think of Starr acting alone. We think of every person in Charleston that made that night a success.
Rapper and chef Coolio teaches Bully Pulpit’s Rex Stickel how to cook a panty-dropping meal (2015)
When we asked Tin Roof doorman and Bully Pulpit guitarist Rex Stickel to conduct an interview with rapper Coolio for our “Unlikely Encounters” series in 2015, we didn’t expect this. The results were — to put it poetically — friggin’ magic. No one thought there would be a two-hour convo about how to get laid with culinary skills alone, no one predicted Stickel would use the phrase “Shaka Zulu” as a formal goodbye, and no one expected Coolio to stump for a Waka Flocka presidential run. Even Stickel didn’t know where the conversation was going, telling the City Paper in 2019 that he was more or less just trying to get Coolio to see his sense of humor. Whether he did or not, we’re still unsure. But, it made us laugh to no end. Shaka Zulu to all and to this decade a good night.