When I stepped on stage at King Dusko in Charleston in 2012 to perform with my rock band, I didn’t know that McKenzie Eddy, founder of the small bar and performance space, was from Hilton Head Island. And I knew nothing of her past life running a record label in New York City.
Later, a mutual friend told me that Eddy grew up in the Lowcountry, flew to New York City by the seat of her pants, and ended up as assistant to hip-hop mogul Damon Dash. This was before she founded her record label. Curious to find out how it all happened, I had to seek her out.
When I called in mid-September, Eddy had long since traded the City of Dreams for the Holy City. She spoke to me via Skype from her Beaufain Street office in downtown Charleston. As she graced me with her yoga-trained gaze, she caught me up to speed on this second renaissance in her life, having left her past life behind.
“It’s an interesting time to live in this crazy, dark place that the whole world is being told is the best city in the world while it’s sinking,” she told me.
She was referring to recent flooding during Hurricane Irma and how, in Charleston, flooding always hits poorer, mostly black neighborhoods harder. But Eddy has dug into the South for the long haul, where she now tackles the tense local politics of gentrification while admittedly being part of this new wave. Eddy sings in a hip-hop band and teaches yoga at a studio in the trendy Neck district, once a dusty no-man’s-land filled with strip clubs. The neighborhood is now home to a business incubator, software company and craft breweries.
In her past life in New York City, Eddy worked for Damon Dash, hip-hop mogul and founder of Roc-a-Fella records. She slept on a couch, interned for the first few months, and then earned a permanent position as his immediate assistant.
“I found a place in Brooklyn, living in this third floor walkup on Fourth and Bergen off Atlantic Avenue,” she said. “I was there doing it.”
Meanwhile, she started diving into the indie scene, a younger generation of underground music-makers who produced low-budget records and blurred genres. And when she opened Dash’s eyes to the movement, it turned out to define the next five years in her budding career.
In 2009, Eddy turned Dash onto The Black Keys, a rock band established in the indie scene but not yet mainstream. She suggested a collaboration between the band and rappers, fusing two worlds in a record they planned to call “Blakroc.” But after one rapper missed his flight from Greece, the band was left high and dry at the studio. McKenzie decided to call legendary rapper Mos Def.
“We had run into him a few days earlier in TriBeCa,” she said. “He knew who the Keys were and showed up within an hour.”
Later that year, Dash opened a creative space in a four-story TriBeCa warehouse complete with a recording studio. DD172, as they called the fertile environment, found hungry newcomers working alongside established rappers and producers.
“It was magical. Erykah Badu was around and Mos Def would be asleep in the office in a karate gi,” she said. “We called the place ‘24 Hour Karate School.’”
Eddy was put in charge of the music label, which they called Bluroc, where she produced many collaborative albums featuring various rappers, including Mos Def, Curren$y and RZA. All this collaboration led to a 60-city tour with the rapper Murs in 2011, playing to ever bigger crowds the closer they got to the West Coast. The tour hit its peak at the iconic Fillmore Theatre in San Francisco. It was during this fruitful period that Eddy also produced her own music through the label, tapping into the talent around her and filming music videos she released online. In one of her songs she sings, “Oh I’m just stapled here but just be clear, it’s only Mercury.” Whether she knew it at the time, the astrological lyrics forecast the future.
“When I got back to New York from that exhausting tour,” Eddy said, “I was like ‘I don’t want this to be my home anymore.’ I needed space from Damon’s strong personality and wanted a deeper connection with my community. My suitcase was full. And then I moved down South and threw it off a bridge.”
Eddy re-discovered the Holy City when Ayoka Lucas, founder of Charleston Fashion Week, asked her to perform in 2012. On her visit, she noticed the creative energy that was creeping north up King Street. Things were changing fast, for better or for worse, and she wanted to have an impact. With investment from her family, she started King Dusko, a small bar, art gallery, and outdoor stage.
“My vision was to have a space where everyone is welcome. I didn’t realize that was a radical notion for downtown Charleston,” she said. Everything, from the window displays (think deranged mannequins) to the hip-hop pumping from the speakers, was out of left field for the once-sleepy Southern town. She would feature local musicians and artists who were just getting their start, without much concern for profit or commercial appeal.
“It was a special time where the stars aligned and I met so many creative, amazing people. It was an amazing way to be reintroduced to the city,” she said.
But Upper King Street was gentrifying fast and after a three-year run, her landlords wouldn’t renew her lease.
Unfortunately, it took a tragedy to define her next chapter. On June 17, 2015, a 21-year old white supremacist strode into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest black churches in the U.S., killing nine congregants and bringing Charleston to its knees. Two months later, Eddy rallied with others in the community to organize a memorial concert called High Harmony.
“The idea was to get people that are into gospel and into hip-hop and into rock all in the same room,” she said.
The diverse band she formed to play there eventually became the Very Hypnotic Soul Band, featuring not only her fiancé-to-be but also a political black rapper named Benjamin Starr. The band went on to release its first album the next year and facilitated a panel discussion called “Southern Discomfort” on inclusiveness in the music scene.
It’s clear that a lot has changed for Eddy since moving back home to the South four years ago. As an antidote to the stress of political activism, she teaches five yoga classes a week, sharing her lifelong practice with others. She’s started a creative agency with her fiancé, Elliott Smith, called McK&E to consolidate the skills they’ve honed over the years. Tapping into their pool of talented friends, they offer graphic design, live music, event planning and promotion. This fall, she’ll release her first solo album in over five years. And early next year, she will marry the “recovering lawyer,” she jokes, who now creates huge murals, stays active in city politics, and plays in their band.
Life seems to be coming full circle for Eddy, whose New York days have left an unmistakable mark in her work ethic, social activism, and love for hip-hop. Soon, she’ll move into her first home with not only her future husband but also the rapper in their band. Come January, he’ll officiate the wedding.
“Sometimes, I’m like, woah, couldn’t have called that one,” she said. “It’s pretty dope. I’m right where I want to be.”
PHOTO BY SEAN MONEY & ELIZABETH FAY
Note: At 18, I left the island and never looked back. I struck out to New York City where I write and play jazz. Now I’m coming full circle, catching up each month with a Lowcountry native who also set sail for new horizons. We ask ourselves what it meant to grow up on a resort island and how far we’ve come. To nominate someone special, email firstname.lastname@example.org.