In November, the music-and-tech-focused Moogfest brought its traveling Dial-Tones event to N.C. State's Hunt Library. Attendees toyed with Moog Werkstatt synthesizers and attended workshops about audio production, coding, and circuitry. After all the brainy stuff was over, everyone was invited to a free after-party and performance featuring several notable Triangle electronic beat musicians, each of them integrating the Werkstatt into their signature sounds.
One of those producers, Rodney Finch—better known as Oak City Slums—spent the entirety of 2016 on a rapid musical tear, organically rising to local acclaim without big-name co-signs, label backing, or even high numbers of SoundCloud plays. The Welcome EP, an unexpected, untamed bass-music masterpiece released earlier this year, set the stage for Finch to blow up CAM Raleigh with his rude, rousing bass lines during a festival-stealing set at Hopscotch in September.
"Hopscotch wasn't a surprise to me," Finch recalls. "It was a surprise to everyone else. In the back room, I told everyone that I was about to go out there and crush it. I didn't care if there were ten or three thousand people in there. I saw it coming."
It was the critical moment in Finch's ascent. With one set, he became the chief conductor of the Triangle's shifting beat-driven movement. Before Finch, Raleigh's now-defunct Discovery dance party series had been maximized to extinction, while both the Durham and Chapel Hill hip-hop scenes had puttered into uncertain states. But as these scenes petered out, Finch was picking up steam, transforming from a hip-hop beat-battle champion into a bass-music messiah. Sonically, he was already ahead of some of the waves that newer collectives, like the Durham-based experimental beat crew Raund Haus, were introducing to the area's music scene. In the months before and after his Hopscotch debut, Finch was integral in bringing a similar taste for beats to Raleigh, increasing his number of appearances there and booking his own shows with his own lineup of artists.
"It's a responsibility that I chose to take and was necessary in Raleigh, because everyone is kind of hands-off with everything," he says. "Nobody was willing to say, 'Hey, I'll take the responsibility to make sure that this thing keeps rolling.' My whole career as a producer and DJ has been about saying, 'Well, nobody else is doing it so I'll do it.' It's uncomfortable but I don't really mind it."
What he did mind, however, was a sharp critique from one of his musical peers about whom he was booking. On Facebook in October, Durham's DJ PlayPlay accused Finch of not including women in his shows' lineups, including the Dial-Tones event. (The entire thread has since been deleted.) Finch responded with a series of vehement rebuttals, taking offense to PlayPlay "slamming me, a black man, the only black promoter in the area doing what I'm doing."
"You're trying to promote women's rights, but you're slamming a black man who is trying to do something positive not only for women but for black boys and people with different sexual identities?" he asks.
Finch says that, shortly after the argument, the two settled their differences in a private conversation. But he still felt insulted, comparing the situation to a pillow fight—when feathers start flying everywhere, as comments in social media forums do, it's impossible to gather up each one. Finch says he often pays women more than their male counterparts and puts them in headlining slots, as he did with JIL at Neptunes in August. But he downplays the notion that sexism and underrepresentation are significant factors that hinder women's careers.
"It's not because they're women, it's because you're too busy talking about women's rights instead of going into the studio and doing what you need to be doing," he says. "Step your game up."
Finch's perspective is problematic, given the many other barriers of entry that women face in the music industry. But his view may have been shaped by what he witnessed firsthand from another one of this year's best, breakout stars: Raleigh's party-girl rapper, fashionista, and Youthful Records label head Zenaida "ZenSoFly" Reyes.