IT’S closing time. The bars empty out. You walk to your car or call a cab and see everyone else in this city who came out tonight, and you notice just how diverse Savannah is.
The downtown music scene is all mixed up. All kinds of people. All kinds of music. The guitar-toting, rap-spitting Steven Baumgardner, aka Basik Lee, found this not just “interesting.” It was “welcoming.”
The versatile musician came to Savannah from New Jersey to study computer art at SCAD. When he came, he had a very specific type of musical interest: hip-hop, the kind of hip-hop that he knew back home. He quickly discovered that Southern hip-hop has a rhyme and a rhythm all its own. He also discovered other types of music.
Rock, blues and jazz musicians embraced him. It was, as I just described it, what we’d call a typical weekend late night around downtown Savannah’s music venues.
“It affected not only my music but my attitude about everything,” he says of Savannah’s inclusiveness. “I’ll admit, I had a pretty jaded attitude like ‘Oh, I’m just about hip-hop.’
“And then I got down here and fell in love with all types of music and culture. And it’s been a beautiful thing. It’s still an ongoing thing for me.”
For most of the past ten years, Baumgardner was a core member of the Savannah hip-hop group and record label Dope Sandwich. They opened for some big acts and partied hard.
Along with Kedrick Mack (Dope KNife), Max Lipson (Miggs Son Daddy) and others in Dope Sandwich, Basik Lee (Baumgardner) lifted hip-hop to a new level here.
“I’m looking forward to see where it goes,” he says of the music and business partnership that started in SCAD dorms. “But I just decided, it’s time to do something different.”
These days, Baumgardner is working on a pair of albums and continues to emcee at local clubs, wherever people want “something different” in hip-hop entertainment.
“It’s an open mic,” he says of his “hip-hop nights” at places like The Jinx. “But it’s really not like most open mics. I try to challenge the emcees to challenge themselves.”
It’s this sense of adventure that I celebrate in all areas of life, whether it’s in art or in business. Know your strengths, but challenge yourself be open to new ideas.
So whether he’s spitting out raps or plotting notes for soulful singer-songwriter guitar-and-voice songs of 1970’s vintage, Baumgardner is just enjoying the act of creation.
“I’ve had a lot of people who wanted me to do like, ‘Oh, you really should just rap and play guitar,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to box myself in.’” he says. “I’m having fun.”
The two different styles—rap and solo guitar—are quite different, of course. And just like me, he often finds it hard to say what he wants with the constraints of “word count.”
“I write a rap and it’s three pages long,” Baumgardner says. “I write a song and it’s half a page... The vocals, the sound of the guitar, the music, all of it has to be one piece of art.”
He writes about family matters, falling in and out of love, spreading joy with a smile and taking action right now. I totally could hear these songs on the radio. That voice!
He’s working right now on two new albums, one with his band, Ambrose, a jazzy, soulful and rock-inflected extravaganza of influences, and one, a new hip-hop effort.
They just have to be recorded. After that, he might come back to solo singer-songwriter stuff. Whatever your preference, Basik Lee fits right into this crazy Savannah mix.