Locals: Columbus hip-hop’s journey from basements to boutiques

By Paul Meara
From the November 28, 2013 edition

Historically, Columbus hip-hop has resided in the storied Grooveshack, the caves of Bernie’s or annual events like the Ohio Hip-Hop Expo. Local shows and open mics at these venues were some of the only consistent ways MCs and DJs could show their stuff.

While Bernie’s is still open, and the Expo continues annually, the more relevant hubs for the city’s new hip-hop artists have changed. Streetwear boutiques like Sole Classics and Milk Bar have become more central to cultivating the scene.

Most of this change is a reflection of national trends. The basement is still relevant in the scene, but it represents a different era. Branding is now paramount to an artist’s success, and like any brand, appearance is key. If your brand is marketable, your bookings will grow and merchandise sales will increase. The internet is still a distribution center, but with a saturated market, most artists aren’t selling their music.

“The younger cats, selling records is not something they do; 99 percent of their music is given away free. They have gravitated toward the fashion spots,” veteran Columbus rapper/producer Blueprint said during a recent interview. “So to them, spots like Sole Classics hold the same significance that a Magnolia’s did to us on the retail side.”

King Vada is one artist at the center of this transition. Formerly known as L.e for the Uncool, Vada was present at some of Columbus hip-hop’s building-block moments. He’s also at the forefront of the city’s newer wave of talent, and, along with Fly Union, was one of the first to perform at fashion boutiques.

Vada recalls the transition taking root when Dionte Johnson bought Sole Classics. The meshing of hip-hop and fashion boutiques was a trend he saw happening in cities like Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit and Los Angeles, and he wanted to replicate it after seeing L.A.’s U-N-I.

“We saw them with the old-school look and we were like, ‘Man that’s crazy,’” Vada said.

The basement and boutique approaches both attempt to navigate the wavy waters of an internet-based industry, but only time will tell how viable each is long-term.

“Is the T-shirt the new CD? If so, it can easily be monetized and they’re sitting on something that’s a great thing,” Blueprint said. “I think it’s a different reality for them and I think they all are trying to make that transition to artists who can sell. I’m curious to see how it plays out.”

Photo by Ryan Young