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A Hip-Hop Artist In West Virginia Takes The DIY Approach To Get His Breakthrough

25-year-old hip-hop artist Shelem released his latest single "Suga Wata" on July 20.
25-year-old hip-hop artist Shelem released his latest single "Suga Wata" on July 20.

When Isaac Shelem Fadiga, simply known as Shelem, was a freshman in high school, he and his brother John downloaded a trial version of FL Studio. The beat-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 become superstars for free,' " Shelem says.

John picked up a cheap USB microphone for $15 at an auction and plugged it into the broken laptop their dad had given them. Shelem started rapping over the beats they made in the program. Soon, he was giving away mixtapes from his locker at Woodrow Wilson High School in Beckley, W.Va. He uploaded the songs to SoundCloud, too, though none of them took off. Looking back, he understands why: The music was the work of a kid still learning his craft, with no guidance from older musicians or feedback from peers.

"There were people around who were rapping, but I never found them. I looked," Shelem says. "Everything was just me and my brother figuring it out."

Fame hadn't arrived by the time Shelem completed high school, so he applied to Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. He was never a very serious student but picked engineering as his major because that's what his brothers had done. He didn't think it would matter.

"I was certain I was going to drop out in the middle anyway," he says.

The move to Huntington, which has a much more robust music scene than Beckley, proved beneficial. He won first prize at 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 along to gigs, letting him get up and perform a few songs during sets. That led to some modest solo gigs around town, though he never developed enough of a following to drop out of school.

"I screwed around and graduated," he says, laughing.

He finished school in May 2018 and got a job designing water and sewer systems for a consulting firm in Charleston, W.Va. — the state's capital city and a music town in its own right (it's home to West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Mountain Stage). A few months later, Shelem put out his first album, The Jaunts. He produced the majority of the album himself, recording most of it in his dorm room at Marshall and a few tracks in his post-graduation apartment.

He spent 2019 continuing to work on his craft, making better beats and refining his lyrics, in preparation for his next release: UhhYup! the Mixtape. He planned an elaborate release party, with carnival-style booths and games, and hoped the new music would give him opportunities to start touring outside Charleston and Huntington.

"In 2020, I thought, 'This is my year. Everything is going to go great,' " Shelem says.

Things, obviously, did not go as planned. Shelem released his mixtape in April 2020, but had to scrap most of his other plans. He decided to make the most of his COVID-19 lockdown, though — he had several unreleased songs on his hard drive from the UhhYup! sessions and decided to release them, one by one, each week for three months. A computer programmer friend created a randomized bingo-style game, so fans could keep track of the releases. The first people to "bingo" won hats, stickers and t-shirts. Shelem won some new fans.

Now he's taking the promotional tricks he learned from that project and applying them to a new single. He originally wrote "Suga Wata" (out July 20) for the bingo game. But he liked the song so much he wanted it to stand on its own. Shelem created a giant spreadsheet to keep track of his promotional campaign: he's mailing copies of the song to over 100 radio stations; overhauling his social media accounts to match the single's aesthetic; playing Charleston's "Live on the Levee" concert series; launching 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 campaign's sucrose-rich imagery.

Why put all this promotional muscle behind a single? The 25-year-old rapper sees the record as an artistic watershed for him: The production is slick, it has a solid hook and the lyrics show a writer who's continuing to advance in his art.

"It's everything I do well, done very well," he said. "I believe in it so much. And it's going to 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 busted laptops and $15 microphones.

"It's beautiful," he said. "He's really self sufficient. The most self-sufficient artist that came out of our basement."

Copyright 2021 West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Corrected: August 1, 2021 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous version of this story misspelled the artist's first name. It's Isaac, not Issac.
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