Milah (8:45 p.m.) and H3RO (11:45 p.m.) play The Aristocrat. Vorov (10:30 p.m.) plays Hunter-Gatherer. GRÜZER (11:30 p.m.) plays Art Bar.
A big emphasis for Music Crawl is diversity, making sure to include things like heavy metal and hip-hop alongside folk- and rock-leaning fare. Looking forward to this year’s festival, we reached out to artists on those first two musical fringes, asking how they build a crowd with sounds that have historically had a hard time in Columbia.
Go With the Flow
Milah, a Columbia hip-hop artist whose tough but lyrical flow lands in a particular sweet spot amid today’s popular rapper/singer hybrids, enthuses that she’s found a warm welcome since remerging on the scene this year, dropping the full-length Love & Liquor in May.
“I’ve heard how hard it is to really get on a lot of hip-hop shows around Columbia,” she relates. “But I’ve been blessed enough to be able to be a part of the Soda City Pop Up [showcases at The White Mule]. That’s what really got my audience to me. And at the Tapp’s Arts Center. ... Maybe I curse a little too much to be in some venues. But for the most part people have been pretty receptive to me.”
Such opportunities as Milah’s at The White Mule and Tapp’s represent vital recent additions to a city that has long been hit-and-miss when it comes to live hip-hop.
“It doesn’t seem to be a lot of venues that have a lot of hip-hop shows,” she adds. “It seems to be the same ones over and over again.”
One difficulty she points out is that most shows in Columbia are structured around the idea of a rock band. With bills that are structured to favor longer sets than aspiring hip-hop and R&B acts regularly play and clubs that often prefer artists who play with live backing, challenges abound.
“I think it’s harder for me to find a live band to remake some of the type of music that I have,” Milah explains. “A lot of my music is like a ’90s sample just flipped or something like that. It’s hard to get that exact sound from a live band if you weren’t playing half of your track from an actual DJ, and then with the drums on the back. So I’d say for me that part is a little bit harder to get live.
One local artist who took the step of rallying a live band is the rapper H3RO (aka Justin Daniels). He’ll play with his Villains at this week’s Music Crawl.
Having played big stages at St. Pat’s in Five Points and the Jam Room Music Festival, he affirms that it was a vital step to find greater success.
“You almost can get barred based on not having a band in a city like this,” Daniels says. Even if you can put on a really good show with just a DJ and an artist, I feel like that’s almost something that can keep you out of certain avenues, keep you out of certain places, or it can change the way you’re perceived.”
Though H3RO recently moved to Greenville for work, he still believes in the viability of Columbia hip-hop. One thing holding it back in his mind is a “crabs in a barrel mentality,” with artists wary to band together for fear of diluting their audience in a modestly populated town.
“The hip-hop scene could have more unity,” he contends. “It’s like a lot of hip-hop artists don’t support other hip-hop shows and things going on. They’re so isolated. ... People should be drawn together, and building a network. I feel like right now you have fans of certain artists and sometimes they intermingle at different shows, but there is not like a [general] hip-hop audience in Columbia.”
Pooling resources and influence is one way H3RO thinks the scene could solve one of its bigger problems: a lack of mid-level touring acts, hitting spots like The Senate and New Brookland Tavern, to stimulate audience excitement and provide opening and networking opportunities for local artists.
“Hip-hop is the No. 1 form of pop music in the world now, and you don’t see it represented on that mid-level,” he says. “It’s not that there’s not a market for it in Columbia.”
Carry That Weight
Claude Spurlock says it’s important to take the long view with Columbia’s heavy music scene. The singer for GRÜZER, a crew of Columbia music veterans that straddles various heavy metal and punk styles with its swiftly lumbering grooves, has been part of the community for more than 20 years.
“There was no way a metal band could play a weekend show,” Spurlock says of when he started playing. “It was all, ‘You get either Tuesday or Thursday night. You gotta sell tickets if you wanna play.’ And slowly, we went past that. We got tired of playing clubs that weren’t helping us out and we started doing our own shows. Not just me, but several other bands in town would book these vets halls and do-it-yourself kind of deals. Eventually they started taking notice.”
These days, heavy shows happen frequently on weekends at several rooms around town. But drawing a consistently large crowd for styles that often come tethered to extreme volume and screaming singers remains a tall order in this not-so-large town.
“The vocals are the main deterrent,” offers John Vail, guitarist for Vorov, a chaotically veering hardcore band with a beastially yowling frontman. “But if you can get those people that are kind of musician-minded, that are mainly like an indie rock fan or a pop music fan, to kind of say, ‘Hey, come over and see to this amazing band. Don’t get distracted by the vocals and just really appreciate the musicianship, the raw power of the musicianship.’ And I feel like we’re to that area again.”
“Almost like going to see classical music, but it’s just in a rock vein,” he adds. “Seeing people at the top of their musical chops.”
As with hip-hop, Vail argues that attracting more impressive mid-level groups touring through town is a big part of building this excitement. He sees an uptick here of late, particularly praising the efforts of local booking concern Empire Media, which recently put on the all-day Perception of Energy Fest at New Brookland. It was big for him and others coming into the scene in the early 2000s, he says, to see the touring acts coming through that long-standing West Columbia rock dive.
“We had a lot of bigger heavy bands that were up and coming coming through town then,” Vail recalls. “We got exposed to like Dillinger Escape Plan playing a show at a 200-cap room. Or Zao. Or Norma Jean playing once a month in a 200-cap room. Now, we have that maybe every other month.”
Both Vail and Spurlock emphasize the importance of remaining flexible. Columbia’s too small to just play with acts that sound like yours, they reason. Though its performances are extreme, Vorov does its best to play with heavy acts from various subgenres. GRÜZER, blessed with an even more adaptable sound, is willing to play with just about anybody.
“We’ve done mixed-genre shows, and it’s a cool vibe,” Spurlock offers. “We’ve had rappers on our shows before. We’ve had folk-rock bands. And all kinds of weird stuff. Just kind of throwing it all together because Columbia’s not huge. It’s not a big city. We’ve had bands that have had a lot of success from here, but it’s not like anybody in this town has really [consistently] drawn more than 300 or 400 people. Especially on the heavier side.”
What: Free Times Music Crawl
When: Friday, Sept. 20. First acts start at 8:30 p.m.; doors open at each venue 30 minutes before the room’s first performance.
Price: $15 ($10 advance)
The Columbia Brew Bus will provide a complimentary shuttle between venues, dropping off every 15 minutes at Hunter-Gatherer, Art Bar, The Aristocrat, the Nickelodeon Theatre, and Tapp’s Arts Center from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Whether paying in advance or on the night of the event, check in at any venue for a wristband to access all performances.