Karim takes a seat at Meshuggah Coffee House and pops the top off a bottle of Nantucket Nectars juice. The oversize, soft-spoken local MC has a lot to discuss. He's particularly focused on a couple of collaborations: his new "crew," 87 Billion, and his "group," Meta4 Experience. It comes as a surprise that he's got so much time to put into these groups, considering that, last time we checked, he was repping local collective Soul Tyde.
"Not anymore," Karim says. "The people who were in my original Soul Tyde family, some of us still make music together. But Soul Tyde's not our name no more."
Missing notables include group co-founders Mustafa "Da Scientist" and Wes (who also goes by "Seldom Seen"). Karim refers to them as the chief executive officer and the chief operating officer, respectively, of the original group. But his bitter tone implies that he considers Mustafa and Wes leaders of the Kenneth Lay variety. "They didn't do nothing for me I couldn't do for myself," he says.
Which isn't to imply that Soul Tyde hasn't had its moments, Karim is quick to add. He's right about that. In the summer of 2003, in fact, the collective was poised to blow up on the regional scene. One member, Black Spade, had a song getting airplay on the now-defunct Q95.5. Another, Coultrain, was named the Riverfront Times' best R&B artist of 2003. St. Louis Post-Dispatch music critic Kevin Johnson deemed the group worthy of a feature story, which quoted Mustafa's boast on the cover of the group's debut album: "Soul Tyde music can no longer be ignored."
Though frequently lumped into the "neo-soul" genre, Soul Tyde smelled at times of hip-hop, jazz and funk. It featured a full roster of singers, MCs and DJs who made their magic in a plush rented loft on Washington Avenue that served as a studio space. "We had the city buzzing," recalls member Teflahn Poetix. "We had one of the largest hip-hop buzzes since the Lunatics."
Nowadays, having been smashed into a handful of side projects, Soul Tyde appears about as likely to re-form with all its original members as the Ramones. Group members who were once tight with each other now talk trash; stacks of Soul Tyde's album, Hip-Hop & Soulful....ish, sit unsold in a closet somewhere, going out of style.
While conversations with collective members don't point conclusively toward a single explanation for the group's collapse, most of them agree on a couple of things. First, the giant posse (hovering around fourteen members) was too unwieldy to remain cohesive. And second, the group was badly managed, with some members claiming that their record contract stymied their careers.
Teflahn Poetix places the blame for the group's demise squarely on Mustafa and Wes.
"They just didn't come through on their half of the bargain, which was to be a functional label," says the 21-year-old rapper. "They didn't have a good understanding of exactly what Soul Tyde was, and they didn't know how to operate according to industry standards."
Then again, it was hard for a lot of people to get a handle on exactly what Soul Tyde was. Karim and Kash are more traditional hip-hop MCs, Steve West is a soul-crooner, and DJ Needles is known for fusing everything from old-school hip-hop to reggae beats. Somehow the artists managed to cram their disparate talents onto their sprawling two-CD debut, which is packaged in what looks like a DVD case and contains over 40 tracks.
The album sold only about 400 copies, which seems like a particularly low number, considering all of its publicity. But record sales, Wes insists, were not the point of Hip-Hop & Soulful....ish.
"We had a lot of artists who were trying to come up at the same time," he says. "We made the compilation to use it as a tool to show the potential that each of these artists have."
Adds Mustafa: "If it made money, that would be good. But it wasn't meant to make money."
Before the album was released, Mustafa and Wes, both 31, had a contract drawn up. The idea was to make formal the business aspect of the collective, which was founded in 1998. Some members balked; others were too young for their consent to be lawful. But Mustafa and Wes insist that they offered the group a fair deal. "It was broken down, plain English," maintains Mustafa.
"It was basically the worst contract they could ever sign in their life," counters Black Spade, who says he didn't sign it because a lawyer told him it was crap. "You were only out of the contract when they wanted you out of the contract."
Black Spade says the contract impeded the success of his side project, Soul Rebels, which also includes Coultrain and Kash -- two guys who signed the contract. The story goes like this: Soul Rebels slipped a copy of their album to the road manager of nationally successful R&B artist Cody ChesnuTT. The road manager liked it so much that he invited the group to make an album. All systems were go. "We was getting the people ready, they were getting people ready in New York," Black Spade recalls.
The brakes were put on the project, however, when Soul Tyde's founders reminded Soul Rebels of their contractual obligation to the collective. Black Spade was pissed. "I could never do business with them again. I've been down with them since '96, but that's the outcome of it right now."
But Wes maintains that the contract was entirely reasonable.
"The deal that we had for each artist was just for one solo CD from each one," he says, adding that after the one album each artist would be free to pursue other deals. "It wasn't like no ten albums!"
But Teflahn says it was personal. "Some of us were actually good without Soul Tyde; that's when things started getting hectic and chaotic. 'Cause, like, you could function without them, and if you didn't need them, they felt threatened."
In any case, everyone agrees that Soul Tyde as it was previously known is finished. The lease has expired on the downtown studio space. Teflahn and Kash are focusing on their side project, Honors English, a group chosen as the Riverfront Times' best hip-hop act of 2004.
As for Mustafa and Wes, they did a show at Blueberry Hill together a few months ago. But Mustafa moved to Atlanta last October in search of greener pastures. "I wanted to get some farmland and stuff," he explains.
Despite his distance, however, Mustafa holds out hope that his group will resurface with a different face. "Soul Tyde is like an NFL team; the name 'Rams' exists no matter who's on the team. The idea of what we stand for still goes on. We still got some of the artists from the original group, but we had to clean the fat. We had to clean house."
Finishing up his juice, the 20-year-old Karim explains that he's just as happy to be gone. In fact, he says that he's one of the lucky ones; even though he signed the contract, he was too young at the time for his signature to be legal. That leaves him completely free to seek success with his side projects. He's particularly excited about Meta4 Experience, which also features former Tyder B-Hollywood.
"We're gonna be opening up for Devin the Dude at the Hard Rock Café on the thirteenth of March, and we're going to Memphis next month to open up for Murphy Lee," he says. "I've got real high expectations."