Like most teenagers, Jordan Bowyer is spending his remaining summer vacation getting ready for school. He's working out in hopes of getting a spot on the Hilton Head Island High School football team. He's got a job, too. But he's not waiting tables or bagging groceries. He's rapping.
A rapper living on Hilton Head seems like a contradiction. Hip-hop was born in the streets, an art form incubated in the stories of inner-city life. Hilton Head is not "street." No one is confusing island life with thug life.
But local hip-hop artists recently have been trying to put the Lowcountry on the map. Rappers like Jordan, who goes by JBoi, are bringing attention to the area either by finding success elsewhere or by attempting to start a local rap scene.
In the rap world that once largely focused on New York and Los Angeles, the South has gotten its own credibility from big-name performers, including the Atlanta-based group Outkast and New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne. But the fame the so-called "Dirty South" received has largely escaped South Carolina.
Beaufort or Hilton Head won't the next Mecca for Southern hip-hop. But a few rappers are trying to carve out a place for something like Jay-Z amid all the Jimmy Buffett. Whether they still live here or are striving to get out, they believe the Lowcountry has a home for hip-hop.
SMALL TOWN, BIG IDEAS
Tyler Brown's dedication to the Lowcountry is on his body. "843" is tattooed on his arm. "Mr. 278" is tattooed on his knuckles. It's also the title of one of his songs ("Meet me at that Exit 8/Come hit that 278" is the chorus).
"No matter where I'll go, I'll always rep South Carolina," he said.
Brown, 25, returned to his hometown of Hilton Head after earning a degree in business management from Benedict College in Columbia. Along with partner and longtime friend Patrick Jenkins, he started Savvy Way Endeavors. Brown called himself LoudPack Kuntry or LPK. They've recorded dozens of songs with the help of Digital Dreams Recording Studio run by islander DJ Luciano Bove. They've recorded videos showcasing Hilton Head, filming in local places including the south-end Kurama Japanese steakhouse. Savvy Way has even spread out into a clothing line, T-shirt printing and CD duplication business.
Brown is working on establishing weekly open-mic concerts on the north end of the island, using the docks at the former site of the Daufuskie Island embarkation point on the north end. He plans to redub it Port Hilton Head, envisioning a spot where hip-hop fans can watch up-and-coming acts every Thursday.
"It all depends on the quality of the music and the promotion," he said. "I know it will take time. But I know it can only be nothing if I stop."
For the concerts to work, they need to draw crowds, but crowds that don't bring the negative aspects of hip-hop. Fairly or unfairly, rap comes with the stereotype of violence.
Brown knows that open-mics won't last long if trouble starts. "This can be a success if everyone conducts themselves in an orderly manner," he said. "We're trying to do something new."
Just about every type of music has a niche on Hilton Head -- except hip-hop. Tyrone Simmons, who goes by the name Young Caliber, points out that over the past several years, hip-hop and R&B have driven the Top 40 charts, but few bars locally even spin rap records on a regular basis.
"People need to demand it," said Simmons' manager Christian Stolfe.
Born in Harlem, N.Y., Simmons grew up in the Ridgeland and Bluffton area, graduating from Hilton Head Island High School. He formed a group called M Dash about six years ago and found modest success with some radio play. But the group disbanded and Simmons went out on his own. He recently performed along the East Coast and released a mixed tape called "The Bounce Back." But, perhaps, his biggest break has been the lawsuit against hip-hop superstar 50 Cent. He filed a copyright infringement suit claiming he owns the rights to the beat that the New York rapper used for the song, "I Get Money." He claims he bought the rights from a producer who then sold it to 50 Cent.
The lawsuit has attracted mentions online, with Simmons' name popping up on Perez Hilton's blog and other websites. Incidentally, he's possibly become the most well-known rapper in the area, at least for the time being. The name recognition comes with a downside, however. The lawsuit can possibly turn off fans or industry insiders who might claim he's doing it just for the money or fame. Simmons, 26, said the lawsuit is about protecting his catalog more than anything else.
"We have no real beef," he said about 50 Cent. "We're not going to fight in the street. It's a business matter. If you don't have your business straight, you lose."
If it's considered a break, it marks a development in the career of a rapper who's already spent years toiling in the industry. Even if it doesn't lead to something bigger, he wants to be an example to aspiring rappers that they don't have to come from a big city to make it in the business.
"I want to be more than just a Bluffton or Hilton Head rapper," he said. "But this is my home. I may travel, but one day I'd love to come home to a house in Wexford (Plantation) or something like that."
It's a challenge just getting recognition living in an area known as a family friendly destination.
Jordan Bowyer, for instance, grew up around the business. His mother, Kali, works as a publicist, representing clients such as Gucci Mane. Jordan, 17, used to go to work with his mother and run into Snoop Dogg or Rick Ross. He met up with Miami-based producer T Berry, who was impressed with his rhymes, and signed him to a deal. They're working on recording an album and recently cast for a video at Skull Creek Boathouse on Hilton Head.
At his mom's insistence, he's finishing high school before fully focusing on a music career. He knows that for every rapper that makes it, thousands burn out. But he sees an opportunity that needs to be taken.
"You might as well take a chance while you got one," he said.
Antonio Andre Simmons (no relation to Tyrone Simmons), who grew up in Beaufort and Walterboro, has been writing lyrics since he was about 12 years old. He started putting demos on his MySpace page a short while later. Within three years, he had 20,000 followers. That's when Aqulis Bell took notice. Bell contacted Simmons, saying he was interested in signing him to his label, Time 2 Shine Entertainment out of Jacksonville, Fla. Bell drove up to take Simmons back to Jacksonville to record his first single, "Ringtone."
"It was a blessing. I was shocked (when Bell got in touch)," said Simmons, 21, who goes by Yung Dre Dre.
Bell took a chance on Simmons in the wake of other Internet-fueled success stories, such as rapper Soulja Boy who found a following on YouTube and MySpace before getting a major label deal.
"We're in a revolutionary time," Bell said. "The Internet is a very powerful tool."
A YouTube video or a Facebook page can give a small-town rapper international exposure. The true dividing line between success and failure lies in something other than geography, Simmons said. He grew up around other amateur rappers. Most of them faded away.
"I used to see them do their own thing," he said. "But I stayed in my own lane. A lot of them weren't dedicated. For me, music was everything. I'd wake up and think of music. It's my heart and soul.
"I stuck to it because I loved it. I couldn't leave it."