No scene, just a dream – Shelem seeks hip-hop glory on his own: NPR
A West Virginia hip-hop author takes the DIY approach, out of necessity.
When Issac Shelem Fadiga, known simply as Shelem, was a freshman in high school, he and his brother John downloaded a trial version of FL Studio. The rhythm-making app was gaining popularity at the time after Soulja Boy used it to make his number one hit “Crank That (Soulja Boy)”.
“We were like ‘Dude, we can be superstars for free,’” Shelem said.
John bought a cheap USB microphone for $ 15 at an auction and plugged it into the broken laptop their dad gave them. Shelem started rapping on the beats they did in the show. Soon he was handing out mixtapes from his locker at Woodrow Wilson High School in Beckley, W.Va. He also uploaded the songs to SoundCloud, though none of them took off. Looking back, he understands why: the music was the work of a child who was still learning his craft, without advice from older musicians or feedback from his peers.
“There were people around rapping, but I never found them. I watched,” Shelem says. “It was all just my brother and I finding out.”
Fame hadn’t yet arrived by the time Shelem graduated from high school, so he applied to Marshall University in Huntington, Virginia. He was never a very serious student but chose engineering as a specialty because that’s what his brothers had done. He didn’t think it would matter.
“I was sure I was going to give up in the middle anyway,” he says.
The move to Huntington, which has a much more robust music scene than Beckley, has proven to be beneficial. He won top prize in a school talent show, his first public performance – that’s how he connected with The Heavy Hitters, a funk band made up of Marshall music majors. They started taking Shelem on a gig, letting him get up and perform a few songs during the sets. This led to modest solo concerts in the city, although he never developed enough followers to drop out of school.
“I messed around and graduated,” he laughs.
He graduated in May 2018 and got a job as a water and sewer system designer for a consulting firm in Charleston, Virginia, the state capital and a music town in fully-fledged (this is the headquarters of West Virginia Public Broadcasting Mountain stage). A few months later, Shelem released his first album, The escapades. He produced the majority of the album himself, recording most of it in his dorm room in Marshall and a few tracks in his graduation apartment.
He spent 2019 continuing to work on his craft, creating better rhythms and polishing his lyrics, in preparation for his next release: Well yes ! the mixtape. He planned an elaborate night out, complete with carnival-style stalls and games, and hoped the new music would give him the opportunity to start touring outside of Charleston and Huntington.
“In 2020, I was like, ‘This is my year. Everything is going to be fine,’” Shelem said.
Things obviously did not go as planned. Shelem released his mixtape in April 2020, but had to give up most of his other plans. He decided, however, to make the most of his COVID-19 lockdown – he had several unreleased songs on his hard drive from Well yes ! sessions and decided to release them, one by one, every week for three months. A computer programmer friend created a bingo-style random game, so fans could follow the releases. The first people to “bingo” won hats, stickers and t-shirts. Shelem gained new fans.
Now he’s using the promotional tips he learned from this project and applying them to a new single. He originally wrote “Suga Wata” (released July 20) for the game of bingo. But he loved the song so much that he wanted it to stand on its own. Shelem created a giant spreadsheet to track his promotional campaign: he sends copies of the song to over 100 radio stations; redesigning its social media accounts to match the aesthetic of the single; play the Charleston “Live on the Levee” concert series; launch a Pac-Man inspired game on his website, designed by the same friend who built the bingo game; and working on a pop-up shop with a local bakery to capitalize on the sucrose-rich images of the countryside.
Lilly Dyer / Courtesy the artist
Why put all that promotional muscle behind a single? The 25-year-old rapper sees the record as an artistic turning point for him: the production is fluid, it has a solid hook and the lyrics show a writer who continues to progress in his art.
“It’s all I do well, very well done,” he said. “I believe in it so much. And it will work.”
His brother John, who now produces records under the name Freeze Pop, says he’s proud of how Shelem has grown as a musician since the days of broken laptops and $ 15 microphones.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “He is truly self-sufficient. The most self-sufficient artist to come out of our basement.”