Around Asheville, local music promoter Duke Finley has earned the name “Party Man” for organizing house and apartment parties over the past decade. But he’s encountered difficulty when it comes to securing shows for local hip-hop artists in the city’s performance spaces.
“I can’t get any venues. I’ve tried. I’ve called and left emails,” Finley says. “[A lot of] the venue owners don’t like hip-hop. Hip-hop, you know, you get all that B.S. — guns, fighting and smoking in their venue. That’s one reason why it’s kind of hard for local acts like myself.”
Finley says an occasional lack of respect for the environment by concertgoers negatively affects hip-hop’s standing among venue bookers, making it less likely for musicians within the genre to get shows. That means fewer gigs for black artists like CJ Harrison, who raps under the name YE. Harrison has had some success: He praises The Boiler Room for giving “everyone in the city” an opportunity to perform and is thankful for Timo’s House and its support of local hip-hop. He says The Orange Peel is also welcoming and that The Grey Eagle recently started working with more area rappers.
“The people who are trying to do better, they’ve got a vision to do something. … Everybody deserves a chance, in my eyes,” Harrison says. “We just want to show our talents, but you’ve got to open the door for me.”
Most of the time, however, Harrison says that door remains shut. He feels that many local venue owners are scared of the crowd that hip-hop attracts, despite the influx of money from entry fees, drink sales and artists’ willingness to provide extra security and meet bookers’ requests. Though fights break out at any style of music show, he says that when one occurs at a hip-hop event, the genre is unfairly discriminated against. Harrison cites a party at the now-closed Olive or Twist a few years ago when an altercation between four or five people ended hip-hop’s presence at the venue.
While spaces welcome R&B shows, Harrison has experienced multiple instances, when inquiring about a hip-hop event, of being told bookers don’t want “that type of crowd” — which he says is the same people who pay to see R&B. When certain bookers do make him an offer, they ask for close to $2,000 to rent the room for the night, a figure that independent musicians like Harrison are unable to afford.
Harrison sees music as a means to be a productive member of society and escape the negative stereotypes many people associate with hip-hop and the black community. But without the opportunity to foster a successful career and better his circumstances, he’s concerned that the racial divide will persist.
“We want to perform, we want to have fun, we want to have a good time. We’re not trying to start anything, cause any complications, do anything to put anyone in harm’s way. We’re just expressing ourselves,” Harrison says. “I want to do my music here and let my people from my city hear what I’m doing and that it’s different than everything else. I don’t have to be in the streets. I have a job [at Classic Event Rentals]. I work full time, every day, but I still do music, and the time that I put into my music, I want to show my city that I’m doing something positive.”
Harrison would prefer to perform locally and see businesses and the community reap the benefits of the economic cycle. But the lack of support he’s experienced has forced him to reach out to what he says are the more organized hip-hop scenes of Atlanta, Greenville, S.C., and Charlotte, all of which are quick to give him a shot.
Devante Jordan, who records and performs as City Jordan, has endured a similar coldness since he relocated from Mississippi in 2007. “I moved here thinking this was a city that was going to help local music,” he says. “Where I’m from, I could go back there and probably get a record deal in three or four months.”
Jordan saw how fast the music business worked for his Alabama-based acquaintance Yung Bleu, who’s now signed to Columbia/Sony Records. He’s yet to give up on the local scene, however, and remains optimistic thanks to positive experiences with White Horse Black Mountain owner Bob Hinkle. “He treats you as an artist,” Jordan says. “He lets you come rehearse three days before and the day of the show, he lets you do what you want to do.”
Due to Hinkle’s approach, Jordan says he’s able to “make it a real show.” A fair split on door sales also keeps him coming back, but other than the White Horse, The One Stop and Fairview Tavern, he’s had little success booking local venues. He says he’s told to request consideration through email but usually never hears back.
Opportunities do exist beyond traditional venues. Noticing a lack of youthful hip-hop shows in Asheville, Emily Parworth, owner of Toki Tattoo in Canton, and her boyfriend, Jonah Koenigsberg, aka hip-hop producer Kudzu, asked multiple West Asheville and downtown venues about booking gigs for artists with whom Koenigsberg works. They were denied each time for familiar reasons.
“People will be like, ‘Oh, people are going to bring guns,’ or I’ve even had people say black people have no money and I’m like, ‘Wow, OK. I don’t even know what to say to that,’” Parworth says.
Calling it “a glorified house party,” Parworth and Koenigsberg launched free shows on a quarterly basis in the basement of her shop and have so far compensated performers with complimentary tattoos. They’ve had no problems with drugs or fighting in the 50-person underground space while providing a performance spot for a popular, underbooked sector within the underserved genre.
“Young, youthful rap is really hard to get in Asheville,” Parworth says. “I think the only rap scene that is around in Asheville is old-school, like Digable Planets-old or Wu-Tang Clan … or superwoke, conscious — maybe if you’re 35 and [older you’d] really like it. But there’s nothing for the youths, that’s for sure.”
It’s also Finley’s goal to reach younger listeners. He hopes to more thoroughly connect with different communities and public housing projects, using his established good reputation as an Asheville native to help the next generation.
“The gang problem is really serious for our young people. They don’t have any outlets besides school. Once school’s over … they have nothing to do,” Finley says. “Too many kids are carrying guns.”
He plans to bring in motivational speakers who can share their life stories as examples of success without joining a gang. Foremost on his list is Miya Bailey, an Asheville native who moved to Atlanta and started the successful tattoo shop City of Ink. Finley hopes that the more artists he’s able to shepherd to sustainable careers, the more positive role models he can connect with the youths.
Finley also wants to bridge the gap between artists and venues. “All the music is positive that I’m working with,” he says. “I try to stay away from that gangster rap. I see there’s a lot of Christian rappers coming up. They’re rapping over nice beats with clean lyrics. That’s where I’m heading.”
Finley is trying to grow his professional skills in order to help local artists and encourage national acts to come to town. To achieve those dreams, he’s working with numerous small-business services, including Mountain BizWorks, and is currently taking entrepreneurship classes at Blue Ridge Community College.
Standards and expectations
Justin Ferraby, operations manager at The Orange Peel, welcomes emails and calls from local hip-hop artists and is willing to give them a chance. In following up, he asks where they’ve played recently and how many people were there.
“Some people will saturate the market, and that’s what hurts the local music scene sometimes, because why do I want to go see you here and pay $15 when you’re playing [elsewhere] for free next week? It doesn’t help anyone — although you’ve got to get the reps,” Ferraby says. “I just want a hard worker and someone who treats it like a business, because it is.”
Two Asheville hip-hop artists who fit that mold are DJ Audio and Trig, who individually contacted Ferraby looking for a shot. He set up showtimes for them at the venue’s downstairs Pulp space, which holds close to 80 people.
“Both those kids worked their asses off and they sold out Pulp,” Ferraby says. “If you show that you can do the work there, then we’ll bring you upstairs, and that’s what we’ve done with both those guys.”
From a security standpoint, Ferraby says the venue has a responsibility to artists and fans alike. Staff members receive regular training and prepare for the worst possible scenario so that if it arises, they’re ready.
“You have to be the same across the board,” he says. “You pat people down, keep the room safe, you spot the problems [and] you don’t overserve people.”
Micah Wheat, general manager of Asheville Music Hall and The One Stop, says booking an artist comes down to meeting the venue’s professional expectations and standards.
“For hip-hop, there’s promoters and there’s artists I have to distance myself from because it’s not a good fit,” he says. He adds that, from violence to marijuana use to guns, “if I’m not working with you, there’s probably a reason why … and that’s [true for any genre].”
Consistent with the venue’s current success with jam band, jazz, funk, fusion and Grateful Dead tribute shows, Wheat is especially fond of live hip-hop bands. Due to that personal preference and its potential for success in the space, he’s more likely to book artists who combine instrumentation with vocals than those who take other routes.
“I don’t want to mess with a lot of prerecorded stuff. That doesn’t echo with our standards. If you’re rapping on top of yourself or if you’re just saying words on top of a prerecorded [beat], that’s not art to me,” Wheat says. “That’s nothing disrespectful to what they’re doing, it just doesn’t vibe with what we’re putting out here at Asheville Music Hall.”
Getting the gig
Parker Dotson, concert promoter for Salvage Station, grew up in Raleigh making hip-hop beats and knows it’s a pain to get shows. He would love to follow up on the success of the venue’s recent Natural Born Leaders and Spaceman Jones performance and a fundraiser for LEAF’s Burton Street ONEmic Studio and book more local hip-hop acts. Since he took a more prominent role in the venue’s booking four months ago, however, he’s yet to receive inquiries within the genre. When the requests do arrive, he has some suggestions for approaching the 750-person capacity room.
“Even the biggest local bands would have trouble filling out this room, so, as a standard practice, we don’t really pursue local bands,” Dotson says. “The only ones that end up playing in here are ones who come to us with a night planned where it’s like, ‘It’s going to be us and two or three other local bands, and we’ll bring people out.’ And even then, after the fact, if the show doesn’t go well, it’s less likely to happen again, just from an attendance standpoint.”
Like his booking colleagues, Dotson stresses the importance of professionalism in landing shows. Salvage Station often sees artists come to concerts and leave their CD with a sound engineer or ask to see the booker when they should be emailing him directly. Dotson says he reads every email and replies to performance requests and suggests that artists follow up with another email if they haven’t heard from him after five days. He expects a similar timeline in return. He says not writing back promptly suggests a lack of reliability on the artists’ part, potentially making them not worth the headache.
There’s a lot more to crossing Asheville’s hip-hop divide than correspondence courtesies. But that simple step — like opening the dialogue — seems like a good place to start.