Music » Music Stories

Freestylin' in the USA

Big Will gets his chance to shine on BET, while a local record label quietly shutters its doors


St. Louis has quite the presence on TV hip-hop mecca BET lately — especially now that ex-100.3-FM The Beat DJ J-Nicks began hosting the daily Rap City: The Basement show (see last week's entry in this space).

But local talent is invading another show on the cable channel later this week: Da SLU Cru member Big Will, a.k.a. William Lewis, is the first local rapper to win an appearance on the "Freestyle Friday" segment on BET's daily countdown show 106 & Park. He'll tape his appearance Thursday, December 1, to air the next day at 5 p.m., and if he beats his competition he'll appear on the show weekly until he's defeated.

The story of how the 23-year-old from north St. Louis made it to the Big Apple is the stuff of made-for- TV movies. This past summer Will was working at Schnucks and was homeless (staying at a friend's house after a stint sleeping in his car). He woke up one morning in August and decided that he might as well just go for it — and a few weeks later, thanks to the monetary kindness of friends, he caught a flight to New York.

BET originally wasn't in Will's plan for the city; he was just going to stand outside record-label HQs, handing out CDs of his own demo to anyone who'd take them. But he found himself in line at 7 a.m. for the chance to audition for "Freestyle Friday," then battled (and beat) a fellow aspiring TV contestant.

Still, as with most showbiz tryouts, Will got the ol' "Don't call us, we'll call you" treatment. When BET did ring him up in mid-September, it took him by surprise.

"I thought someone was playing a joke on me because it had been so long," he says. "When I hung up the phone, I didn't quite believe it, and I looked at the number and called back just to make sure it was real."

Will's tasted fame before, at least on the local level. Da SLU Cru has been around for four years and has opened up for rappers such as Twista; Will himself was a finalist in the battle-rap competition that opened the St. Louis date of the 2003 Jay-Z and 50 Cent "Roc the Mic" tour.

Inspired to rap by the kiddie act Kris Kross when he was in fifth grade, he says he's never looked back.

"When I went to middle school, I didn't even want to focus on my work," he recounts. "I wanted to focus on writing and stuff. I used to write lyrics in class, and I would leave my rap book, forget it. [Teachers] would see the things I wrote in there; I basically would get in trouble for that. No kid that age should think about stuff like that."

Will stresses that his rhymes now "represent people who get up in the morning and go to work. A lot of people who have come out of St. Louis in the rap scene have been about partying. Nobody has represented the streets. Nobody has represented the common person. I have my party songs, but I also have my serious songs, I have music that makes people laugh, I have music that makes people cry. I represent the common man on the broad scale."

Quietly and with little fanfare, local label Pro-Vel Records ceased operations earlier this year.

"For all practical purposes, it's dead," says founder Nancy Catalina. "I would never say never. If something hit me that I felt really excited about, I would definitely put out another album. It's not exactly dead; it's cryogenically frozen. Maybe one day it'll thaw, it'll freeze and live again."

Formed in fall 2002 by what Catalina calls "a fluke," Pro-Vel strung together a series of releases from local bands including Thee Lordly Serpents, the Phonocaptors and the Electric, as well as a well-received compilation called It Came from Uranus.

The label's most recent release was the Boogie Woogie Rumble EP by Chicago garage-punks the Safes in July 2004. Rumble received flattering reviews and even a mention in Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke's column. But as Catalina's and label partner Kirk Filley's personal and professional lives changed and their priorities shifted — and they didn't find any bands whose albums they passionately wanted to release — her enthusiasm waned.

"I was naive to a few things about it," Catalina says. "The amount of time that goes into it. If you really want to be somewhat serious about it and have an ambition to reach national radio and media and international distribution, it's a full-time job and then some. I was a little naive about the financial part of it, too. I had no idea how much money it would take."

The Phonocaptors too are no longer together. Bassist Keith Voegele is now playing with the Bottle Rockets, while guitarist Jason Hutto is working on Red Eyed Driver's upcoming album, writing songs on his own ("Silly little pop stuff," he calls it) and collaborating with Son Volt tech Jimmy Griffin on yet another musical project.

"It's rock but [it's] also got a lot of pop elements to it," Hutto says. "He's a technically proficient guy, a basher. Some of it's kind of opulent, some of it's straight-ahead. We're still shaping it."

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