Airmaxx and Fran$hize are Carrying the Torch for South Carolina Rap

Miguelito meets up with Airmaxx and Fran$hize to examine their collaborative project, No More Mr. Nice Guy.
By    March 21, 2018

Miguelito wrote this while wearing a Gamecocks jersey.

South Carolina rap is nonexistent to outsiders and hard to discover for those in state. Growing up in a rural county near the South Carolina-Georgia border, much of the “local” music I heard trickled down from the Peach State. While there’s no legitimate complaint for a teen listening diet of Gucci Mane and Pastor Troy, there wasn’t an effective way to access music made around me. Sometimes it would take regional talent fleeing up Interstate 20 to opportunity in Atlanta’s established scene for locals to notice.

It wasn’t until the post-”Magnolia” craze that I learned about Pi’erre Bourne, though he was developing in Columbia, S.C. the same time I attended college there. But for every Pi’erre Bourne, Childish Major, and Nick Grant—who all saw considerable stock boosts from moving—there are dozens of highly gifted rappers and producers who chose to stay.

Nonetheless, the last decade of inhouse S.C. rap history is marred with setback and tragedy. After Lil Ru’s “The Nasty Song” exploded in the early days of YouTube virality, he seemed ready to have a national audience. Instead, label shuffles kept him sidelined and drained of the resources and infrastructure necessary to capitalize on a hit record. By early 2010, Boss G, the “King of South Cak,” gained momentum across the Southeast by tapping into the niche of Shawty Lo and Yung L.A via his whispering delivery. His buzz ended shortly after in 2012, when he was sentenced to seventeen years in federal prison for drug distribution and possession of a firearm.

Only two years later, Speaker Knockerz, who garnered attention producing for Gucci Mane and and crafting his own hits (“Lonely”), was found dead in his garage at only 19. This is the same bleak environment that spawned Fran$hize and Airmaxx, two rappers from Columbia, South Carolina trying to rewrite the narrative of their home state.

I meet them both at Seaboard Studios, not far from downtown Columbia. Fran$hize shows up first after I’ve been waiting for a few minutes. From the jump he’s friendly and conversational, apologizing for the slight delay and informing me Airmaxx is probably fifteen minutes away. “That nigga’s always late,” he comments before we head indoors.

As we get acquainted, I notice the difference between his mic presence and personal interactions. Based on tracks like “Kountry Boi” he seems assertive in conversation. That energy is set aside here, replaced by thoughtful, drawn-out responses in his Cackalacky accent. It makes his frequent use of ‘muhfucka’ quite endearing. Airmaxx would later note his partner’s mutability, telling me it’s like he’s “possessed” once they press ‘record.’

Inside Fran$hize introduces me to the studio manager, Chris, who recorded much of their No More Mr. Nice Guy tape from last fall. On the tour he show me quirks of the studio that have parallels with its surrounding geography. Columbia, S.C. was built in the state’s middle, at the fall line between the northern Piedmont region and the southern Coastal Plains. A couple miles from the studio, the Broad and Saluda Rivers flow northwest to southeast and meet to form the Congaree, which was vital for transporting goods to the lowcountry in the 19th century. Chris wanted to mirror the rivers to “channel whatever creative power they might have,” so there are two doors at the northwest end and one on the southeast side connected by a narrow hallway that runs the length of the building.

Less than a mile away is a hydroelectric plant built in 1896 that still uses the rivers to power homes in the area. Chris tells me that’s “kinda what he wants to do here for music,” though to less materialist ends. He also believes there’s an undeniable feeling to analog equipment and collects pieces from old studios. Next to his mixing console sits a 24-track tape deck that recorded Outkast, Goodie Mob, and Three Six Mafia in the early days of Patchwerk Studios. He’s careful not to fetishize the historical pieces though, saying the acoustics of a room are more important for quality sound than blessed equipment. “This equipment wouldn’t help shit if Airmaxx and Fran$hize didn’t already have talent,” he says before showing me back to the main lobby.

The duo of 25-year olds record under the name “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” and released their first collaborative project, No More Mr. Nice Guy: The Payback (NMMNG), last fall. It’s a promising introduction, mixing joint tracks and solo displays as it meanders through the subgenres of Dirty South rap. The Pi’erre Bourne-produced “Victory” hinges on a sample flip in the style of vintage wood-grain UGK. South Florida’s lo-fi, bass-warped textures creep into the Airmaxx’s solo “Gold Mouf,” and “Kountry Boi” finds Fran$hize, the more frenetic of the two, digging into the beat like he’s vying for a No Limit placement.

The dominant trap sounds of post-808 Mafia Atlanta are naturally here and used for their most noble purpose, an archetypal strip club anthem called “Homer Simpson.” Its cadence is balanced enough to fit anywhere in a DJ set and the glossy chords give Airmaxx space to lay out conditions for “fucking his side bitch.” The balance is fluid and effortless: Fran$hize supplies headbusting moments and Airmaxx offers relaxed swagger in the tradition of true southern players ball attendees.  

Airmaxx carries that magnetic energy when he finally arrives. He walks in flanked by an entourage of fellow S.C. rappers and producers, hooded in a gray pullover emblazoned with a blunt and ‘got gars?,’ a frequently asked question at parties in the Metro area and the logo for his clothing line of the same name. During our talk his stone-faced responses are replaced by laughter and flashes from the gold on his teeth, living up to the reputation of his “Gold Mouf” track. It’s also in line with their 2018 motto, “All gold erthang.”

In conversation the two rappers mesh like they do on the record. Each can hold his own, but they see the benefit of combining different appeals. The two met at Richland Northeast high school and remained friends once Fran$hize transferred to another school. “I started rapping around fourteen or fifteen,” Fran$hize says.“Shit, I remember recording on a fuckin’ Rock Band mic into Cool Edit Pro 2.0. I ain’t have no name for myself then. I just kinda started being influenced by niggas like Wayne. Da Drought 3 had just come out, so I was emulating Wayne a lot at first.”

Airmaxx agrees that Tunechi was probably the most impactful rapper in his teenage years and lists other classics from the Southern holy ledger like Aquemini, T.I.’s Trap Muzik, and Mystic Stylez by Three Six Mafia. They also make sure to credit South Carolina rappers before them, particularly Lil Ru. “I feel like Ru was a pioneer in getting S.C. rappers through the door at a major label,” says Fran$hize. “Me and Airmaxx could get this shit poppin’ and showcase the different styles Carolina has to offer.” Airmaxx chimes in with an addendum about Speaker Knockerz too, noting how viscerally his rise affected those living in Columbia at the time. “I worked at the mall back then,” he says, “He would always come in there and you’d think 2 Chainz was walking through. Kids flocking to him, asking to take pictures. It felt like a win for the city. His death still hurts people around here.”

When talking about past South Carolina influences, they’re respectful and realistic. They want to carry the imprint of local legends like Boss G, but see ways to change the landscape. “When Boss G and them were starting to pop, alotta venues wouldn’t let us in because we were rappers,” Fran$hize admits. “But the infrastructure is opening up in our favor. We’re building relationships with promoters, studio owners, people who can help us get this S.C. movement shit solidified here and present it to the world.” This touches on a problem that runs deeper than just the rap scene in South Carolina.

South Carolina’s environment does little to facilitate expression in marginalized communities. The state’s history of race relations is poor—to put it mildly—and there’s no way of measuring how deeply this affects the population. Until just three years ago, many black students had to walk across the state house grounds in the shadow of a Confederate flag to attend classes at the University of South Carolina. Further north, Clemson University has been a college football title-contender for much of the last half decade, largely on the strength of black athletes like DeShaun Watson and Kelly Bryant. This is quite antithetical to the university’s original mission.

In 1888, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, a white supremacist governor, U.S. Senator, and paramilitary organizer, was made a lifetime university trustee with the expressed intent to “keep future governments from admitting African Americans.” Even when communities have a voice like the Gullah Geechee, a rich coastal subculture that’s fought to preserve the African traditions of early slaves, they’re stifled. Despite legitimate claims to land awarded after the Civil War, legal loopholes and predatory developers have caused much of it to be sold and transformed into golf courses, the ritual combat ground of gentrifiers. The same lingering insidiousness today causes rappers to get turned away from venues in Columbia’s Five Points bar district just for wearing a clean shirt that would please Dem Franchize Boyz.

Airmaxx and Fran$hize are pushing back against this historical weight, booking more shows in populated areas of the city and using their relationship with local music staples like Chris at Seaboard. Fran$hize addresses his state’s dark past directly on NMMNG’s opening track “ChinaTown” proclaiming, “Catch me in the street screamin’ out ‘Black Power’/ Fuck the white man this world is ours.” Given the history they were raised in, this sets the album’s defiant tone and throughout the eight songs (excluding interludes) they apply this to all scenarios.

“Dey It Go” and “Snakes N Da Grass” subvert the malicious intent of fakes in your circle and on “Kountry Boi” Fran$hize lists past South Carolina rappers while saying he refuses to end up like them. For No More Mr. Nice Guy, their motivation is more about survival than glamour. “When I’m at my day job,” Fran$hize tells me while looking down, “I’m like ‘Fuck I don’t wanna do this shit.’ I hate it, but I know I gotta do it right now. I don’t even gotta be seen like that. Just lock me in the studio, take me to the gas station a couple times a day, put a shower in that bitch, I’ll be good.”

“Everybody trying to define the sound of South Carolina music right,” Airmaxx adds, “It’s hunger. People are trying to feed themselves with this shit.”