Vanessa Peña Published

In W.Va., Hip Hop Has Gone From Marginalized To Mainstream

A man with dreads sits in a chair with his arms across his stomach. Behind him are computer monitors. He is in his home music studio.
Eric Jordan in his home studio in Morgantown, West Virginia.
Vanessa Peña/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This story originally aired in the June 16, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

I’m in Eric Jordan’s home studio in Morgantown, West Virginia. He’s walking me through his process of making a beat. 

“As you can see, that’s the signal there, and I’m capturing it,” Jordan says to me over the music.  

The song “All My Love In Vain” by Sonny Boy Williamson II plays on Jordan’s turntable. The turntable is connected to his computer, and it captures the audio from the record. The signal is moving up and down in squiggly lines that identify sound waves.

“I’m just sort of listening for something that captures my liking,” Jordan says. He allows the music to play for a beat longer. “Alright, let’s mess with that.” 

Jordan takes a snippet of the song. He creates a drumbeat and layers it underneath the music. The sound of electronic drums begins to play as Jordan feels out the sound. 

“Alright, I got my drums. I feel comfortable enough to play around with these chops,” Jordan says as he puts his drumbeat to loop. 

A man with dreads plays music on a small keyboard in his home music studio.
Eric Jordan works at his desk, creating a beat using a song by Sonny Boy Williamson II as a base.

Photo Credit: Vanessa Peña/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In 2023, communities all around the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of hip hop. Here in West Virginia, hip hop has gone from a marginalized art form, to a mainstream powerhouse.

Jordan is a familiar face in the West Virginia hip hop scene, where he’s known by his stage name Monstalung. Hip hop has been a big part of Jordan’s life from a young age, in part because of the influence of his father, Norman Jordan. Norman Jordan was a distinguished poet and artist.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Norman Jordan was at the forefront of the Black Arts Movement in West Virginia and Ohio. He was part of this nationwide effort to foster pride in Black history, arts and culture.

The Black Arts Movement inspired a diverse body of poetry, theater and visual arts, and in 1973, a new musical genre: hip hop. This was the backdrop of Jordan’s childhood. As a kid, he and his siblings often performed alongside their father. These performances included dance, music and Norman Jordan’s poetry. 

“He didn’t waste time with me. I was his bongo player when I was nine,” Jordan says as he reflects on his experience performing with his father. “I mean, we performed at Berkeley College, Howard University and different things like that. I was in all his productions. Me and my siblings and my mother were, you know, we were a family unit.” 

A photo of a drum. The drum is tall and meant for hand use. The drum is green and yellow and features a star in the center.
The drum Eric would use when performing with his father, Norman Jordan.

Photo Credit: Vanessa Peña/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Inspired by his father’s passion for poetry and performing arts, Jordan started breakdancing in high school. He got gigs at mall fashion shows and local restaurants. Jordan says he and his peers were pushing boundaries. 

“At that time, people were doing hip hop, it wasn’t trendy yet. This is the early ‘80s so we stuck out like sore thumbs. You can see us coming a mile away,” Jordan says. 

After college, Jordan fully immersed himself in the world of hip hop — DJing, MCing and making beats — from Maryland to New York. In 1999, he returned home to West Virginia, where he started a record label with his brother. Their mission was to make hip hop music for, by, and about West Virginians. 

“We made a conscious effort to make music that dealt with self-esteem and state pride. We just felt like that was something that wasn’t here,” Jordan says. 

Jordan formed a hip hop group called the 304 Reconz under his label. They performed all around West Virginia, collaborating with artists in Huntington, Charleston and Morgantown. But it wasn’t easy getting started.

“It was rocky at the beginning, because there was really no hip hop scene here at all, so we had to create one,” Jordan says. 

By the early 2000s, hip hop had gained traction in big cities like New York, Atlanta and Chicago. But in West Virginia, it hadn’t built momentum yet. The 304 Reconz had to get creative.

“When we first started doing shows, we did raves, we did biker bars,” Jordan says.

The 304 Reconz were performing a genre of music rooted in Black culture to majority white audiences. And not everyone knew how to react.

“You know, a couple of times I thought we had to fight ourselves out of these places, but ended up winning over the crowd and winning over the differences in culture,” Jordan says. 

Through their efforts, Jordan and his peers laid the groundwork for a new generation of hip hop artists in the state.

One artist who is at the forefront of this new generation is Isaac Fadiga, commonly known by his stage name Shelem. Shelem is 27 and lives in Charleston. When he first started making hip hop music in 2007, the 304 Reconz were already well established. And with the internet, he could learn from successful hip hop artists all around the world.

An adult man with short, black hair smiles for the camera. Behind him is a large computer monitor, two speakers and other gadgets for making music. He is in his home studio.
Shelem at his home studio in Charleston, West Virginia, demonstrating his work flow and organization.

Photo Credit: Vanessa Peña/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“Right around the time I started writing my own stuff was when Soulja Boy was big, so that was an inspiration in itself, because he was so young and he was doing everything on his own,” Shelem says. “He was producing his own songs, and he was using the same software that I was, so it was like a clear vision of what it could be if you did it right.” 

As a student at Marshall University, Shelem started performing in public.

“I did the talent show. That was my first time performing. And then that same week, there was an open mic,” Shelem says. “And then from there I met this band called The Heavy Hitters and they ended up inviting me to play as part of their set at pretty much every venue that they played at in the area.” 

In just a few decades, hip hop artists in West Virginia have gone from “sticking out like sore thumbs” to being accepted and even celebrated by the mainstream. Last year, Jordan and Shelem spoke at Marshall University on a panel about hip hop’s 50th anniversary. And now, Shelem is the face and voice of the West Virginia restaurant Tudor’s Biscuit World in a commercial that launched last year

“I got a call from their marketing manager who said, ‘Hey, we have this idea we want to do, we want to do a rap about the breakfast wraps and we thought you’d be good to do that,’” Shelem says. “It was exciting to have been chosen for something like that.” 

After getting the deal with Tudor’s to make the jingle, Shelem called Jordan to tell him the news. Jordan remembers Shelem thanking him for paving the way for hip hop artists in the state. 

“New people like Shelem,” Jordan says, “I think he’s the future of our state when it comes to hip hop.”

In January, Shelem released his third album titled Hope This Helps. Later this year, Jordan will release a memoir titled Child of the Poet, Son of the Dreamer along with an accompanying album, An Appalachian Hip Hop Story


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.