St. Louis has become a hotbed for hip-hop in the past couple of years, producing several chart-topping acts and garnering all sorts of national notoriety. It seems perfectly logical that Cristal dreams and Escalade wishes would dance in the heads of aspiring MCs in the Lou. Open mic nights are filled with rappers hoping to become the next Nelly, though most veer closer to becoming the next guy to get booed offstage. Into this fracas steps Killergram Records, just one of the multitudes of developing labels chasing the brass ring of bling bling.
What makes Killergram and its flagship group, the Flo Fanatics, remarkable is the unique synthesis that brought them to life. Brothers Patrick, Codey and Matthew Taylor and half brother Charles Billups (later known by noms du rap Lyricol P, Ray Loc, Mysterious and Myzery) went into a neighborhood studio looking to record some tracks. Even though hip-hop was not their specialty, the producers recognized talent when they heard it and agreed to work with the brothers. The brothers became the Flo Fanatics, and new gangster-rap label Killergram Records set up shop at the Penny Studio, run by producer Chris Deckard and engineer Jason Rook.
This is unusual because Deckard and Rook are quite possibly the whitest white men on the planet.
Rook is a member of rock combo Wormwood Scrubs, the backing band for singer/songwriter Larissa Dalle. A carefree, talkative person, Rook will engage in conversation with anybody, even at the most inappropriate moments. He rides around town on his rebuilt 125cc Vespa scooter, proudly proclaiming how he "bored it out to 133cc," and takes any and all mocking or criticism with good-natured aplomb.
More of the mad-scientist type, Deckard is one of the few people in St. Louis who truly follows his own vision -- even if it is, at times, incredibly eccentric. He is the kind of person who shows up to social events wearing chain mail, leather and feathers, pink fuzzy hats and other outré items. He builds custom electronics and can get lost in sound for hours, trying to get something to feel just right. The more erudite of the two, Deckard measures his words carefully.
To say these two don't have a degree in Thuganomics, Pimpology or Playanometry would be an understatement.
Known for producing mostly fringe rock, experimental noise and general weirdness out of their hand-constructed Penny Studio, the pair are unlikely rap moguls. Imagine Sean "P. Diddy" Combs collaborating with Japanese noise punks the Boredoms, or Dr. Dre deciding to quit messing with those fools Eminem and 50 Cent and then recording country tunes with his homies Alabama, and you'll get a picture of the level of mismatch involved in the Killergram genetic makeup.
The Flo Fanatics were born on the south side of St. Louis and live right around the corner from the Lemp-based Penny Studio. They range in age from seventeen to twenty, and those who know them describe them as hard-working and industrious. They describe themselves on record as "two Bloods, a thug, and a Crip." Possessing hyper-kinetic energy and a desire to make it big, the Fanatics put in as much time as the studio has available to work on new tracks. Though they rap about riches and cars, they have the presence of hungry kids, fronting to have something they plan to get eventually. Standing on the corner selling their CDs, borrowing bicycles from friends to track down absent group members and always stopping to flirt with the neighborhood girls, they are fully immersed in the streets they represent. Of their improbable production team, Myzery only offers an enigmatic "They're cool."
So if the talent is from the streets, but the production team is more Superchunk than super-crunk, how do the collaborators manage to come together in the studio?
"I don't listen to a lot of rap," says Deckard. "I don't really know what I'm doing."
To watch the mechanics of this unlikely setup illustrates this point. The Fanatics will bring in a beat, or sometimes even the idea of a beat, and bang it out on whatever's available for Deckard, who then applies his 'more is more,' sonically dense production philosophy to the idea. The rappers will offer editing suggestions, and they then collectively pare down the whole thing into something that sounds like a saleable product. Through all of this, it seems that these two groups of people come from such different backgrounds that they speak different languages. But music is their means of communication, providing a bridge to understanding each other.
Though the music treads the fine line between hip-hop and overblown electro, the lyrics are strictly criminal. The end result is music that doesn't compromise anyone's style or desires. The Flo Fanatics' new EP, Hot as a Lamp (an expanded version of their original single), features the club track "Friday Night," a song with all the excitement of a drunken stumble through a house party, as well as "Thug Love," which spotlights the softer side of the group. Through it all, though, the production team still retains its own voice.
"We haven't changed who we are," says Rook. "It's not like you come in the studio and suddenly Chris is wearing a throwback jersey and some new Jordans."
The duo doesn't believe that they need to assimilate to produce hip-hop. In fact, they see their outsider status as an advantage.
"We approach rap like we do rock," Deckard says.
"We have a rawness and aggression that most rap producers don't have," agrees Rook. "Most rap producers make everything sound so clean and sterile. We've spent hours recording the clinking of glass to get the right ambient noise for a club track."
"I don't impose on the artists," replies Deckard. "I don't feel a social responsibility as a producer. It would be incredibly hypocritical of me to comment on a culture that I'm not a part of. I'm not black, so there's no way for me to pass judgment on any part of black culture. There's just no way I can understand it from not being a part of it. To me, rap is all about conspicuous consumption. That's why I like working on rap better than rock, because there's no pretense, no subtext and no apologies."
Rook has another take on it. "People listening to heavy metal aren't going to sacrifice a goat or do something stupid just because they listen to a song about it. If someone has that inside them, it's there whatever music they're listening to. It's the same with rap.
"It also serves another function besides escapism: communication. I've had kids freestyle rap at the studio for hours, all taking turns; sometimes it's competitive, sometimes it's more conversational," says Deckard.
With vinyl pressed and Hot as a Lamp out on the street, the Flo Fanatics are going back into the studio with Deckard to put together a full LP. After all, people in the clubs and DJ booths don't care about the color of someone's skin; they care about the music. And music is something that the Flo Fanatics and Killergram Records can agree on.