South Carolina Hip-Hop on the National Stage

by Preach Jacobs

The producer known as WillPower has only been in town for a couple of hours, but it’s already apparent that it’s going to be a long night. William Washington (also known as WillPower or Supahot Beats) has been working feverishly for this day: A hometown showcase of his most frequent collaborator, singer Nikkiya (full name Nikkiya Brooks), at the New Brookland Tavern. The show is of the upmost importance to Washington, who hopes to demonstrate how far they both have come.

“It’s important for this show to be successful, because this city is responsible for our existence,” he says emphatically. “We really want to show our people at home the progress that we’re making and that we’re making things happen.”

The “things” to which Washington is referring are the numerous placements his musical backdrops, and Brooks’ voice, have made in the past year. Working with Yelawolf – the newly signed rap phenom on Eminem’s Shady Records – Washington produced the bulk of a major label debut, Radioactive, that sold over 41,000 units in its first week, landing it at number 27 on the Billboard 200 charts. The two also appeared on a variety of other artists’ releases, ranging from Tech N9ne to Wiz Khalifa. They also found time to complete the Brooks-written Speakher, a blazing mixtape which frequently features MC Lyte and Yelawolf as well.

Both Washington and Brooks are quick to point out that this success didn’t happen overnight.

In person Nikkiya Brooks is a stunning and alluring woman, appearing as major label-ready as an artist can get. Whatever the hell the “it” factor is, she has it and then some. However, the story she tells conveys a very different experience.

The two collaborators moved to Atlanta in 2006 “to get their feet wet,” according to Brooks. Washington was pitching an hour-long television show to local stations that would focus on local, independent music of all genres and which Brooks was to host. The show ran for just six weeks on UPN before both sponsors and investors walked away.

Left without job prospects, the artists ended up “both sleeping on a concrete floor in a loft office in downtown Atlanta,” Brooks confesses. “We were there from October 2006 until March 2007.”

The living situation was obviously not ideal. “In the mornings we had to be out of the offices before anyone renting another office in the building showed up,” Brooks recalls.  “The friend’s office we were staying in didn’t want us to be seen brushing our teeth or showering, so if we didn’t do it before that morning, we were out of luck.”

Instead of seeing this rough period in her life as negative, Brooks hopes the story can provide hope for other artists. “I just really want people to hear our story and get inspired, because it inspires me,” she says. When asked what gave her faith to stick with Washington and her creative dreams during this period, Brooks explains it simply: “It’s in his name. Will-power. I saw the God in him. I didn’t trust him per se, I trusted the God I saw in him.”

Over that time the duo developed a life-bond more like siblings than co-workers, although they eventually parted ways, with Brooks coming back to Columbia to go back to school (earning a BA in Political Science and eventually a Masters in Community Counseling) and Washington taking a break from music production to focus on video directing and editing.

So why the sudden, startlingly successful return to music?

Washington straightforwardly replies with a single word: “Yela.”

The story of Yelawolf and Washington begins with a chance encounter: “The first time I met Yelawolf was in New Jersey at Sugar Hill records. I was in the lobby and saw this white dude in there by himself. He asked me what I do; I told him, ‘I make beats.’ I asked him what he does, and he said, ‘I rap.’ Then he asked ‘wanna make a record?’” Washington recollects with a slight grin.

Yelawolf (nee Michael Wayne Atha), an Alabama native in a genre of music that tends to thrive only in the big cities, instantly clicked with the Columbia-based beatsmith. When asked about Alabama and South Carolina’s similarities in being overlooked as a hip-hop center, forcing artists into the big cities, the similarities didn’t escape him.

“You gotta leave small towns in order to be heard, but the small town can never leave you. The object to it all is to be honest. This is where I’m from. This is who I am. My story is my own,” Yelawolf responds via e-mail.

The two artists’ collaboration became far more than just another project – their chance meeting ultimately led to the modern-day independent classic Trunk Music (eventually Trunk Music 0-60, the mixtape which would bring the rapper to the attention of Eminem.)

In addition, Washington’s production on songs like “Pop the Trunk” became an instant banger, with everyone from The Roots to Travis Barker doing live renditions of the song. It was this song in particular that Eminem first heard.

Going from being an indie artist to the roster of a label run by one of the most famous artists in the world, Yela now sees both sides of the music business fence.


“I have a platform to now do music on an international level. I get to work with my inspirations and to utilize the prestige of the name Shady and Interscope to get shit done,” Yelawolf says happily, while still wary of the less savory parts of the corporate machine. He knows that “labels don’t think about what matters personally to the artist. The problem is, what matters personally to me makes the music what it is.…I like it my way or not at all.”

Yelawolf not only got Washington back into the music game, he was also “the glue that brought [Washington and Brooks] back together,” Washington says. The rapper requested Washington ask Nikkiya to sing a chorus on one of the songs they were working on and, since then, “it’s been no problems ever since.”

The night of the New Brookland Tavern showcase, both Washington and Brooks stop by local radio station Hot 103.9 to promote the show. Sitting in the cramped radio studio as disc jockey H-Dub talks to them about their latest projects, the two seem poised for the future. If there was any stress apparent prior to the interview, it fades away in their sense of accomplishment once on the air. Getting national acclaim is good, but hometown love is always great, too.

The station plays several tracks off the Yelawolf album, including the Washington-produced “Throw It Up” that features Gangsta Boo and Eminem. Shortly after, Brooks hears her single “Cheater” blasting through the speakers of the studio. Not much is said during the songs, but the look on her face is ecstatic.
Back at the New Brookland Tavern, the club is packed with local legends, music know-it-alls and, most importantly, family and friends of Will and Nikkiya. On the bill are Symphony Crack Orchestra and Rittz (a part of Yelawolf’s Slumerican imprint), who play well-received sets before Nikkiya hits the stage.

Transforming from the jeans and coat she had on earlier to a magazine cover-ready star in all-black boots and stockings, Nikkiya has the crowd under control. She performs songs from Speakher (which has been downloaded over 40,000 times) as the audience sings along with her, as if the tunes were in heavy rotation at the local station.

The success of Washington and Brook’s hometown makes it easy to conclude that Columbia has nothing to prove to the national music market. The duo serves as more-than-able music ambassadors for a town that may not fit the hyper-urban paradigm of the hip-hop/rap genre, but produces remarkable talent nonetheless. With acts like WillPower and Nikkiya, South Carolina’s scene is nothing but healthy – seems like everybody else just needs to catch up. Don’t worry, they’ll get there.

Comments are closed.