Twelve men stand onstage at the Hi-Pointe, bouncing to the beat, sipping drinks, eyeing the two microphones being passed around. One DJ, Chilly C, stands behind them, working the turntables -- pumping out instrumental rhythms, blending cuts and scratching the grooves. For a live music show, not much is happening -- no onstage jumping or posturing, no sweat-beaded foreheads, no kneeling and testifying. The MCs stand instead of dance, quietly conversing and concentrating intensely on the music. In the audience and onstage, street clothes are the norm -- no swank, sparkly getups or Prince-esque outrageousness. The low-key vibe is occasionally interrupted by one or two break-dancers spinning on their backs and shoulders, doing the robot or some funky variation; when this erupts, the crowd pushes close and encircles the dancers.
One guy seems to be the master of ceremonies. His name's Finsta, and he's from the hip-hop group Ruckus Crew. Every couple of minutes, he leads a chant: "Tell a friend to tell a friend to tell a friend to come on in/To Hi-Pointe Cafe Hi-Pointe Cafe Hi-Pointe Cafe every Mon-day." He's nominally in charge, nodding to the next MC in line, cutting off a rapper when he's overstayed his welcome, occasionally chiming in and rhyming the chorus. But he lies low when things are flowing smoothly.
The beat is nearly concrete at the Hi-Pointe; it roars through the space, buzzing the windows and vibrating the heart. In fact, these days in St. Louis, hip-hop, in all its various incarnations, seems to be everywhere.
In fact, it is everywhere -- and not just here. A few weeks ago the bean-counting company that registers and reports national record sales, SoundScan, released a tally of 1998 record sales, and one set of numbers swaggered and boomed above all others: The sales of hip-hop (or rap; the two terms tend to be used interchangeably, though "hip-hop" refers also to the culture surrounding the music) releases last year jumped 32 percent -- from 1997's total of 61 million to last year's 81 million -- the largest jump in sales for a genre since SoundScan began recording the information in the early '90s. Hip-hop has spread everywhere: Metal bands now incorporate raps, and both European electronica bands and American car commercials have swiped the hip-hop beat.
Even if you're not feeling it locally -- you don't see many local hip-hop acts in the clubs listings, or hear the newest St. Louis jams on the radio, or read about the music in the newspaper -- it's living there among you, right around the corner, down the block, in your apartment building, where a stealth community of hip-hop-heads operates in near anonymity. In clubs, basement studios, backroom freestyle-rhyme sessions and corner bedrooms, dozens of souls of all colors and philosophies are plowing the field for St. Louis hip-hop, sowing seeds, with enough heavy hitters, idealistic minds and poetic MCs -- you know, the people who do the actual rapping -- to suggest the beginnings of a thriving local scene. Dozens of studios have popped up, both because of cheaper, more efficient technology and a critical mass of clients interested in putting to wax (or, these days, to CD) the rhyme skills and beats. Record labels -- among them WrecShop, Ghetto, Funk Note, Bulletproof, D2 -- although still remaining local operations, are working to push their boundaries, and new imprints are being born. And, most important, MCs are lining up, converging into three- and four-member crews, while DJs spin behind them, providing a canvas for them to cover.
Local hip-hop is bubbling despite the dearth of outlets for its music. The major media -- radio and TV stations, newspapers -- don't support the efforts, and the clubs are wary of devoting more than a token evening every week. It's tempting to play the race card, but the problem isn't that cut-and-dried: The reason behind the lack of outside interest may be more a function of age than of race, with hip-hop's youth appeal confusing the middle-aged baby boomers who control the media. But despite the near-universal disregard for the local offerings of the hip-hop community, most of the pieces are in place for hip-hop to break in the area.
Of course, St. Louis hip-hop has been, on and off, on the verge of breaking out for the past decade, but with a few obvious exceptions the community continues to wait for something to happen. The problem? Lacking the business acumen and organization to take St. Louis hip-hop to the next level, the constant flow of new talent, fresh inspiration and energy enters the business side with no sense of direction, and without it the scene smolders without catching fire.
I've had the uptown ahhs and the East Side ooze
I've felt Midtown stress from all the downtown blues
From a story in a diary to the front-page news
It's all levels of life when you're paying your dues
Ignorance I refuse poetry I use
To put my thoughts on the paper
For your eyes to peruse
Like inspirational tunes from cell blocks and cesspools
To Ivy League college campuses and run-down schools
-- from "The 'E,'" performed by In Limbo (St. Louis)
Rap originated in New York City in the late '70s, the result of a collision of cultures and a few mastermind DJs who took their experiences with Jamaican sound systems and put them on the streets of the Bronx. They'd set up massive stereo systems in parks or on streets and pump out the music, almost immediately starting a party. "A synergy between disco mixing, dub sounds, and toasting," writes Nelson George in his recent history of the genre, Hip Hop America, "would ultimately provide the techniques and sensibilities that allowed the birth of 'hip-hop.'" Add to the left hand that is the DJ the right hand of the MC (for master of ceremonies), whose original job was to verbally pump up the partiers, and the basic blueprint for rap was born.
This blueprint has remained strong since its inception and acts as the spine that holds an entire culture together. Alongside the DJs and MCs, graffiti artists and break-dancers ("the fours pillars of hip-hop," says Finsta of the Ruckus Crew) added visual stimulation for creative minds not interested in making music or writing rhymes, and those interested in the DJing and rapping have a wide spectrum of styles from which to draw.
In 1999, several strains of the music fight for supremacy on the charts, each appealing to different audiences. First you've got your Southern rap, with the bass-heavy swing and satellite high-hat and snare patterns to provide some texture. Chances are, if a car drives by and rattles your windows, the music being played is by the king of the Southern style -- specifically, New Orleans -- Master P. (He's the most mentioned individual in hip-hop these days, mainly because his New Orleans-based label, No Limit, has set the nation on fire with his sound while remaining completely independent of the major label system.) Or perhaps you're hearing one of two of the Southern style's ancestors. Miami bass is the darkest, rawest form of the music -- nearly all bass and rhythmically simplistic; if you're hearing bass music, there's a good chance you're hearing DJ Magic Mike. West Coast gangsta rap has stretched away from its late-'80s/early-'90s LA roots and gone nationwide. At its core, though, is the music of N.W.A. (an acronym for Niggaz wit' Attitude), one of the most influential crews (white-bread glossary: a crew is like a band, not like a gang) in the history of hip-hop. They defined the rough, streetwise sound of LA with their landmark Straight Outta Compton (containing the notorious anthem aimed at LA's finest, "Fuck tha Police"). The music and rhymes were hard, raw invectives aimed at illustrating the reality of the criminal-minded. The result set the tone for the next 10 years and continues to make its presence known.
New York City, though, continues to be ground zero -- the be-all and end-all -- for the hip-hop heads and DJs. For the collector, the record geek, the "sophisticated shopper," nothing tops NYC. Since the rise of hip-hop, New York has been the critics' darling. From the music's inception, this has been the case: Among those who have emerged from the competitive and innovative New York scene are Boogie Down Productions, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian and Wu-Tang Clan.
Of these distinct sounds and subgenres, the breakout of gangsta sounds in the early '90s served to introduce hip-hop to suburbia. The music's dark illustrations caused the mainstream media to panic and cluelessly portray the gangsta style as the sound of rap in general, in the process igniting a firestorm of conservative criticism. The rise of gangsta rap was a landmark event in the history of hip-hop, serving notice that the music was not a passing fad but a whole new youth movement that appealed equally to white suburban kids and inner-city blacks. And its unfamiliarity was indeed threatening to many.
In this sense, the rise of hip-hop mirrored another youth movement that sounded warning bells in the suburbs and polarized generations: rock & roll. "It's sort of the bastard child of a lot of the music forms that exist right now," says Darren Owens, a.k.a. DJ Add Verb Superb of the group In Limbo. "It's treated much the same way that a lot of, say, suburban households (in the '50s) responded to an Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry or Little Richard. There was too much hip-shaking for that era. In hip-hop, we're not trying to take from you -- we're incorporating to make a new genre of music."
This "incorporating" has been criticized both as outright theft and as the sign of a dearth of creativity, both of which stem from the music's use of sampling and melodic quotes. But it's important to look at the big picture: The history of music is the history of artistic license, "borrowing" ideas and outright theft. There are no new melodies; they're all used up. Of course, you can spin melodies and ideas in new directions, because every creative mind is different, and how one uses the music given will obviously shape the resulting sounds. The best way for an outsider to come to at least appreciate the nuances of hip-hop is to look at it alongside another American music, folk. Folk music -- be it the country blues of Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt, the blue-collar folk of Woody Guthrie or the revival music of early Bob Dylan -- made no bones about stealing melodies, lyrical lines and entire songs. But it wasn't considered stealing; it was an understood component of the music. Two completely different songs, once stripped of their lyrics, reveal themselves to be identical. It happened all the time -- it was part of the fun, a dialogue that linked one song with another penned 20 years earlier.
If you compare the coopting of sounds, melodies and samples in hip-hop with the philosophy that such exalted heroes as Dylan, Guthrie and Johnson used, many criticisms of the music collapse under the weight of one simple word: tradition. Mos Def and Taleb Kweli's "Definition" is centered around a musical quote from one Boogie Down Productions song, "South Bronx," and a lyrical melody based on another of their mid-'80s cuts, "Stop the Violence." The result is more than the merging of two different BDP cuts; it's a whole new vibe that refers to the lyrics of the originals but spins the song in an entirely fresh direction. It's both honoring hip-hop's heritage while moving it forward.
As a musical art form, hip-hop lacks respect from the more "musicianly" disciplines. The line of thinking is that, first, hip-hop is easy to make because all you need are samplers, turntables and a voice; you don't need to learn an instrument to be a rap artist. In fact, although that may be true on one level -- it's possible to take swaths of sound from prerecorded sources, paste them together and bang out a beat to create a song -- the art of the form has transformed turntables into musical instruments, sermonizing and singing into complex raps that are simultaneously rhythmic and linguistic.
The DJ uses two turntables and a mixer in the same way a drummer uses drums or a guitarist uses the guitar -- he or she plays them. By perfecting the craft of mixing -- blending and merging the sounds emanating from the turntables by switching a fader back and forth -- a DJ can develop a style in the same way any musician develops one. Sound simple? Check DJ Charlie Chan, who's been honing his craft for more than 15 years, as he explains the basics of DJing:
"I got marks (on the records), so if there's a certain place I want, the marks are up. Then as I play with it and I find other spots, I notice that the marks might be right here -- they might be at 3 o'clock, 6 o'clock. And you can actually feel it. So when I pull it back, the beats -- I can feel it, it'll be like dut-dut-dut-dut-dut. And then you start to feel like errerrrerrr -- you know those are words. And then I guess from hours of practice you learn it. Like, if the record skips, I know where it skips to. And then I also put marks where I can drop the needle down right on the part I want. I had that cued for 'Trix are for kids' when I dropped it, but I knew that in four spins the 'bad meaning bad' part was coming up. Since I've mastered dropping the needle right down on it, spin it four times and I know that it's right on that spot. These are some of the tricks that DJs use so we don't actually have to wear headphones."
From its earliest days, MCs have preached a message. Whether they're political or celebratory, furious or lighthearted, the words and rhymes of rap have evolved into an art form. The best rappers are able to combine the poetics, playfulness and profundity of language with an underlying rhythmic force, and the combination creates a momentum that rolls through the heads and hearts of listeners. For those who bemoan the fact that students don't memorize poetry and recite it to others anymore, next time you see a kid with a booming system rolling down your street, watch him as he moves his lips, reciting by heart the hundreds of lines of lyrics and shouting out key phrases.
MC Add Verb Superb of In Limbo describes the difference between two approaches to rapping: freestyling on the mike -- stepping up to rhyme on the spot, a sort of verbal improvisation -- and rhyming the words you've written with a pen, some paper and a sense of precise purpose. "They're both extremely important but not mutually exclusive," he says. "Sometimes you get ideas for writing when freestyling, and sometimes the concepts that you build off in your writing develop into freestyling when you get onstage. And 'freestyle,' term-wise, means a couple of things. There are two basic camps, and there are shades of gray between. One is where you've got so many rhymes written that you can interconnect them at will. And a lot of people do that. A lot of people, honestly, sit there, feel the beat and drop, and it comes right off the top of the head, or what would be called 'top of the head.' And a lot of people -- they're amazing. When I was into it, I was trying to do a lot of it myself. There are people like L.O.G.I.C, Intellect Emcee (of the Midwest Avengers, this year's Slammy Award winner for Best Hip-Hop Artist and one of the most active crews in the St. Louis scene), a lot of guys from the Ruckus Crew and the (Track) Vandals -- just beautiful freestyle artists. And they're just delivering, out of the blue, raw power. And it's beautiful. It's like jazz improv."
This East/West mess is a shame to me
How some drama killed Pac
And revenge killed Biggie
But we still got to strive
Rap from 9 to 5
'Bout to do it like the Fugees
'Cuz I'm staying alive
-- from "Do Me a Favor," performed by Doom (St. Louis), from the Funk Note collection Stuck in Da' Middle, Volume I
Rap music is not pop music. It can be, though, when it chooses to be. It can be Puff Daddy or Vanilla Ice wrapping a recognizable hook -- the Police's "Every Breath You Take," Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir," Queen's "Under Pressure" -- around the art of rhyming. Those tunes are crossovers, obviously designed to touch a nerve with a white population by providing an easy handle to grasp, then slamming a booty-pumping beat to it that pushes the buttons of both urban and suburban listeners.
In fact, rap in general is surprisingly easy to grasp; it's not hard to distinguish one artist from another by their styles, just as in any other genre, once you dive in. Styles evolve quickly and then, once they make an impression, morph into new sounds. Tom Ray, co-owner of Vintage Vinyl -- which has served as hip-hop's headquarters in St. Louis since the music's birth -- used to say to skeptics that rap is like a newspaper, and once the hot seller is stale on the shelf, a new, updated edition is released. Nowadays, of course, three or four different newspapers come out every week, each with a different editorial stance, and depending on your point of view and your stylistic predilections, you decide which one you're most challenged by.
"Hip-hop is historical music," echoes longtime hip-hop follower and Vintage Vinyl employee Barry Currie. "If you listen to hip-hop in '98 -- if you find the conscious rappers -- you can almost get a bead on what conscious black America is doing. If you find the gangsta rappers, you can get a bead on what the gangstas were thinking in, say, '95. It's historical. They quote stuff that happens around them every day -- not 10 years ago, not 10 years from now -- what's happening right now in my world or in this world, and it records our history through song. People don't see that. It's the only music out there that you do that with. You don't do it with soul; you don't do it with jazz. The sound in jazz can give you an idea; hip-hop can tell you what year it is."
So what's to like about hip-hop? It's just beats and samples. Some jams are faster than others. Some rappers cuss more than others. Some guys are clowns; some are urgent and serious. Some are mean. Some are nice. Other than those superficial differences, all this music sounds the same.
Well, Poindexter, you gotta dive in with both feet. You can't hear the music if the only time it's in your face is when you stumble past MTV moving from the Spice Channel to ESPN. It's tough to hear differences when the music cruises past you in a Jeep Cherokee, turns a corner and vanishes. When you dive in, a whole world reveals itself. First, you must listen to it loud, because between the beats and under the pounding are nooks and crannies, texture and, most important, a context. Hip-hop is a conversation -- a conversation between MC and DJ, between MC and listener, between MC and MC. Verbal sparring matches are the norm; inter-rhyme references to other artists and cuts are everywhere, as well as references to the music's history.
If you approach rap with pop-music ears, you're going to get frustrated. Where are the hooks? Where's the chorus? The melody? All three are there, all three are used and manipulated, but in different ways. Every rap song has a hook, and often both vocal and musical hooks anchor the cut in your brain. It may be a simple piano loop repeated over and over; it may be a freaky kung-fu mantra repeated at regular intervals; it may be a combination. Regardless, it takes as much craft and creativity to construct a tight hip-hop cut as it does to make catchy music in any other genre.
And if you ignore the intricacies of the beat, you're missing half the point. Beats are more than simply the butt butter that gets you moving. Beats can be melodies; beats can be hooks; beats can be choruses. Beats can be beats. Beats are often all the above at the same time. Beats are the uncut funk that keeps everything in its place, but they can also be the springboard that sets a rapper free from the constraints of rhythm. Mos Def of Black Star describes in the liner notes to the group's self-titled CD one particular beat: "That beat! Shawn had played it to me a while back. He was going through some old DATs and this came on. It was actually an old intro to another beat and I bugged out when I heard it, like, 'That's bananas!'"
And that's just the music. On top is the MC, who's working his own rhythm, filling in the gaps that the beats allow with off beats and double-time rhythm. The MC constructs a complex counterpoint sound -- some do it better than others -- that flows along with the beat while adding both a linguistic and a rhythmic punch. "The basic form of a rhyme is to rhyme every sentence at the end," says Finsta of the Ruckus Crew. "So you'd be like, 'Saying a rhyme/all the time/what I design/no one can find.' But anybody can do that part. So what you do is, in between the rhymes you add another rhyme. Instead of rhyming at the end of each sentence, you rhyme at the end of a sentence, in the middle of the sentence, the middle of the sentence again, and then at the end of the sentence -- like, 'My life creation anticipating altercation/complete annihilation of your whole federation.' One big thing about rhyming is the importance of using metaphors. To me a metaphor will explain something better than telling a person straight out. It gives you a picture in your mind; that's one of the main things you do when you rhyme -- metaphors and similes. If you can master the art of similes and metaphors, you'll be a great MC for life."
The genius of the genre, one that was unanticipated when it was sprouting legs, was the inherent freedom at its core that sprang from its relative minimalism. Compared with rock music, which has four standard components -- bass, guitar, drum and voice -- hip-hop has only two: beat and voice. The rest is free for manipulating, and nearly anything goes. The Wu-Tang Clan will stick with the core components and then simply add an ominous, creaky violin that traces the MC's words. Busta Rhymes' most recent single uses a sample from Bernard Herrmann's score to Psycho, which not only provides an ominous vibe to the tune but adds the extra layer of context -- the movie itself. It's thick with potential, much more than if Busta simply said, "I'm a psycho."
As the music trickled across the country in the early and mid-'80s, landing in each city with the boom of "Rapper's Delight," "The Message" and "Planet Rock," a culture was slowly born. Early on, clubs in St. Louis started springing up to support the music and capitalize on its burgeoning popularity. "There were several clubs," says Ron Butts, who as a DJ and producer goes by the name G Wiz. "At least several places you could go. The No. 1 spot was the Animal House. That was the king of them all. National acts, local acts opening. It was the haven." Animal House, located at Chambers Road and Highway 367 in North County, regularly packed in more than 500 people for their weekly hip-hop nights in the mid-'80s.
"To me I think that was one of the best times in rap in St. Louis," says Charlie Chan -- who's still active on the scene with his crew, 24 Scientists -- of the mid- and late '80s, "just because they used to have the city-vs.-county show. Best talent from the city, best talent from the county. We meet at Jennings, sing, rap, dance, whatever, do tricks. That was when everybody was really doing it. Everybody used to DJ. I remember going to the record store and having to fight to get records; you might have to run to every record store in the city to get one song because everybody was DJing."
Around this time, one of the first rap labels appeared on the scene, Ron Butts' Wiz-A-Tron Records, which released a string of singles and a full-length. In retrospect, Butts' experience illustrated the difficulty of maintaining a hip-hop record label in St. Louis, where you're a couple thousand miles from both coasts, where the major music industry players reside.
"There were no labels in St. Louis," says Butts when asked why he started Wiz-A-Tron in 1988. "I think maybe there was one or two. So, in order to try to get St. Louis noticed, people would have to start bringing out labels, bring out artists for notoriety purposes. If you got a label and the label can do the work for you, you have a better opportunity. Individually, you're not getting up into a record company; you can't just walk up in there unless you know somebody real good. If you got finished product, they're more likely to listen to it, rather than just a pile of demo tapes."
Since then, there have been a few consistent labels releasing the music, but there's never been a viable label able to transcend the St. Louis area and move onto the national frontier.
Locally, as many obstacles prevent area artists and labels from succeeding as open doors exist to pass through. If you examine the basic recipe for the typical band -- be it rock, reggae, rap or blues -- and compare that with the opportunities available to the hip-hop community, the problems quickly reveal themselves. You record. You distribute the record to regional and local stores. You work to get it on the radio. Once on radio, you perform around town in clubs to capitalize on the radio play. Then you work with interested labels to get a national deal. The order in which these events take place may vary, but each step is essential in turning your basement creation into something bigger.
Business-wise, the major hurdle is finding individuals who understand the music, distribution system, marketing and business; without these four cornerstones of knowledge, an artist or label is doomed to remain a small-scale, locally based operation. Charlie Chan, remembering his favorite time in St. Louis hip-hop, the late '80s, agrees: "We didn't do enough. We weren't putting out product. Nobody was putting out records. A few people that came along were trying to get rich quick. And they didn't have knowledge of how to do a record, or how to go to stations. We didn't have the knowledge of the business. We were having so much fun at it that we really weren't tripping about getting paid. It was more like, 'I did this show; I rocked it.' If somebody saw me, cool. If they didn't, no big deal, I still love it, I'm going to be here tomorrow. That was the attitude that we had, so we didn't care. What hit us was when rappers that we felt weren't as good, like Vanilla Ice or MC Hammer, would come along and go platinum. Then we started getting mad."
In 1999, there are signs of life: The music being made on the local labels -- Funk Note, WrecShop, Bulletproof and Ghetto -- sounds as professional as any national act, and each of these labels seems to understand the obstacles that must be overcome. St. Louis is slowly being infused with a knowledge of the music industry, whether it's from those familiar with the reality of the major labels and how they operate or from those who eschew the major-label system completely, who have no desire to coopt their ideals and prefer operating on an independent level. But the city is a long way away from autonomy.
"St. Louis isn't like Chicago or LA," says Mack Dennis of Ghetto Records, whose most recent release is the collection Family Tiez, "where you can go downtown and you see Capitol Records and you see the Jive offices and you can talk to somebody's cousin's cousin's cousin -- he may work in the mail room or something, but still he talks to these people every day and he's getting game and bringing that game out onto the street. We don't have that, so we're just like bats in a dark room all trying to find the door. We know we all want to get out, but everybody has their way of trying to find the door."
Damien Thornhill moved here from Los Angeles, where he worked for two heavy hitters in the hip-hop business, Def Jam and Jive. His upstart production company, Harvest Entertainment, is dedicating itself to finding area talent and pushing it nationwide. So far he's been working with two prominent crews in St. Louis, the Ruckus Crew and the Track Vandals, who together make up the Marawda Camp. According to Thornhill, it's only a matter of time before the area explodes: "Who wanted to miss the next Master P? Who wanted to miss the next No Limit Records? You got the Cash Money brothers from Louisiana -- about 150 miles from there is where Master P is -- and they were able to get a $30 million distribution deal through Relativity." Thornhill's approach is to enter the major-label system through the front door, with a ready-made product and a batch of talent, all designed to set the area on fire.
That's one way to make an impact. Another, more organic method is one in the works, planned by, among others, MC Add Verb Superb, DJ B-Money and producer Hype Dawg (who is the original St. Louis industry player, having produced records for two local artists who signed to major labels in the early '90s, Sylk Smoov and JCD & the Dawg Pound). Their approach, according to B-Money, is to work within the independent system, a movement that's gathering momentum nationwide. "Everything I buy and that I like to listen to is usually put out by the artists themselves. In every genre it's been that way -- that was always the next progressive step, the artists that tried to put out their own product. It's a lot more real to hear somebody that seems like they're on your level. I'm not taking anything away from major artists like DMX and Jay Z, but I don't have a fleet of Lexus trucks that I go out and drive around in. I can't relate, you know."
Their venture, I Think Records, is in the process of recording and releasing its first records. "What we're saying is that we don't want to be like the next Master P," says B-Money. "We don't want to make millions of dollars. What we want to do is be efficient enough for ourselves to get ourselves an opportunity to have enjoyment doing what we love doing."
Regardless, without a buzz or some concrete numbers, artists and labels are at the mercy of the whims of number-crunchers and speculators within the business. "One thing I learned from Chuck D (of Public Enemy)," says Ron Butts. "He said the only way you're going to make it in this business is with power. You cannot walk through a record label's door alone. You got to have a troop with you. Because that brings force. And I'm not necessarily saying that you go into some corporate office with a bunch of people -- they don't have to be there necessarily, but back home where you live -- that supports you. You got to have some power. That's what they're looking for. It's corporate. It's the only thing they look at. And not addresses."
There has never been a hip-hop club in St. Louis, although on any given week at least two or three rock clubs host token hip-hop nights. And this has been the case since the rise of hip-hop; because of lack of finances, lack of respect or lack of vision, 20 years into the music's history, hip-hop fans have to search and compromise to get their music into the clubs.
In the early '90s, the Westbank, on Laclede's Landing, hosted a successful night of music that is mentioned as one of the highlights of the scene's history. The DJs -- Chilly C and DJ K-9 -- spun the music, occasionally held freestyle sessions and provided an atmosphere that was racially diverse and relaxed. Says Chris Neuenkirk, a 15-year veteran of the community who spins at the Hi-Pointe on Monday nights, "From 11:30 to 1:30, we'd put 400 people in there, and when the club let out, it was like Sunday at Forest Park -- people were just hanging out in the alley and hooting and hollering, and no one was shooting or anything. We never had any gunfire, never had any problems."
It's obviously frustrating for the musicians as they struggle with club owners who are not intimately familiar with the music and have bought into the media's depiction of the musical form as a powder keg, ready to explode into violence at any moment. Says DJ B-Money, "When they had that situation in the early '90s, when they were having problems with insurance and violence was popping off at a lot of shows, that can kill your hip-hop night in a minute now. And most club owners don't want to touch it with a 10-foot pole."
Because of this, one essential part of the performing in a live setting, is almost nonexistent. "The successful rock bands," says B.J. Martin of Bulletproof Records, perhaps the most successful, longest running rap label in town, "the Urge and Gravity Kills, they can play different nightclubs and get a following. And there's not that many outlets for us in St. Louis. We get most of our shows at Utopia or J's on the Landing and pray that nothing bad happens so that we can come back."
Unfortunately, incidents have occurred at performances and parties that shed a poor light on the music; there is an element within the hip-hop community that is prone to violence. Cicero's on Delmar hosted a successful weekly hip-hop night beginning in 1997 but was forced to end it. Things went extremely well for a while, but each week the crowds got bigger and rival groups started airing their beefs within the confines of the club. Police were called a few times, the DJs started catering to the crowd -- which is what DJs are supposed to do -- and a general bad vibe took over the night. Cicero's was forced to cancel its best night because of the recklessness of one element in the crowd.
These sorts of problems are inevitable when so few venues cater to a single, broad-based genre. Imagine if the rock community had one token evening at one club dedicated to playing the music: bikers, punks, heavy-metal-heads and indie rockers cohabiting in the same space every week. To blame violence on hip-hop in toto is like blaming Alanis Morissette's followers for the violence committed by skinhead punks.
It's nearly impossible to make an impact on the general hip-hop consumer in St. Louis without radio play on the sole commercial station in St. Louis that plays the music, Majic 105 (104.9 FM). Without Majic, you have to search the record stores, tune in to the few hip-hop shows on KDHX (88.1 FM) or simply stumble across a song.
"We got a radio station that says, 'Where Hip-hop Lives,' says Mack Dennis. "Where's it living at? It ain't living here -- they're killing it. Anytime that they play your music on the air a couple times and you get a heated response, all of a sudden they just stop. (The station) knows it's hot, but they'll sit on it because you don't have financial ties with them."
"Radio today is corporate America," echoes Ron Butts. "Record companies today are corporate America. They're both riding the same train. You have to talk on their terms. If you can make them money, they can make you some. People say, 'You have to spend money to get your record played.' You have to buy them this and that. That's against the law. It's not against the law to go in there and buy 15 commercials at $350 apiece and come back and say, 'Can you play my record?'"
Majic says such a quid pro quo arrangement doesn't exist, despite the widespread belief in the hip-hop community. "That's not true," says Majic's music director, Eric Mychaels, to the charge that the only way to gain airplay as a local artist is to purchase advertising time. "In fact, the two (artists) that we are playing, neither one of them have bought any advertising in the form of a time buy. None of them have done that. So, no, that's not true at all. Never once have we required anyone to spend any money to get a record played. That's illegal, and we all know that.
"I think part of it that (local hip-hoppers) don't understand is a lot of times they're not ready. What they do is they come to us with poor quality and poor production. They just have something that they're listening to on their own somewhere, and then all their friends are telling them how great it is, and then they want us to play it on the radio every day. And it's just not that way. Now, we've had two really good ones that have broke through. The St. Lunatics is one, and we're on their second single that we're playing for them. And then Da Gatekeepaz, which has a pretty good song, too." Mychaels says that even when Majic does play a cut, often the artists don't have copies in the store to sell, so any momentum gained by airplay is lost for lack of follow-through.
B.J. Martin's Bulletproof Records was started in 1993 and had trouble getting on Majic because their music was considered too gangsta-oriented. Martin, who says their collection Ghetto Insanity has sold between 15,000 and 20,000 copies in St. Louis alone, says the problem runs deeper: "One thing we don't have that every other city that people make it from has: The radio and the DJs are young and they support (their city). There's a few over there that support St. Louis, but the higher structure at Majic is an older clientele. Older people are running the station, but the majority of the listeners are young. So there's a gap. It's all about the ratings, I know, but you have to support St. Louis. The people in St. Louis, the young kids in St. Louis, want to hear St. Louis artists."
Mychaels says that Majic is working on making space for more local artists to be aired on the station and hopes to have something in place this year.
Knowledge of self is like life after death
With that you never worry about your last breath
Death comes that's how I'm living
It's the next stage
The flesh goes underground
The book of life flip a page
Yo they asking me how old
We live in the same age
I show the rage of a million niggaz locked inside a cage
At exactly which point do you start to realize
That life without knowledge is death in disguise?
-- from "K.O.S. (Determination)," by Mos Def and Talib Kweli (NYC)
It's easy to blame radio stations for lack of exposure, but to rely on some mysterious, all-powerful entity for success is a recipe for failure, and when it comes down to it, the problems St. Louis hip-hop faces have less to do with a lack of support from radio than with a lack of large-scale vision uniting studios, artists, labels, managers and marketers under an umbrella of cooperation and mutual goals. There's no hub, no Music Row. Yes, financing is a constant struggle, but the community has always managed to scrape up enough money for record pressing and studio equipment. These building blocks, along with dozens of artists on a par with many of the acts on the charts, are enough to mount a cohesive front. If you release a product that catches fire, radio will have no choice but to pick it up; their job in 1999 is not to break artists -- that era in radio is, sadly, long gone. Commercial radio's job is to make money for shareholders; they'll play local music only if it serves their financial interests.
The major problem, then, comes not from external forces -- radio stations, record labels -- unwilling to give artists what they think they deserve. James Howell publishes the Midwest Hip-hop Kronicles, a tip sheet based on the East Side that highlights acts from all over the area; he says the major problem comes from a lack of unity: "Lately there's been a very intensive buildup of incredible technology among these individual camps, and they're replicating a lot of work and a lot of equipment and resources. First, this isn't the best use of the resources, and then they're not being networked. So we got a lot of people that are reinventing the wheel all over the St. Louis metro area, and the wheel has no orientation, no hub, no spokes."
Of course, in a discussion of lack of cohesion within the community, it's again helpful to view the problems alongside the rock community; no one's complaining that the South County metal bands won't sit down and plot a plan with the Creepy Crawl punks or the musicians who perform at the Way Out Club. To do so would be ridiculous, because aside from a love of the 4/4 beat the groups have little idealistic common ground. To suggest that hip-hop musicians need to form some sort of alliance with others whose tastes may differ drastically from their own is to ignore the simple fact that hip-hop comes in many shades in 1999, and no summit will resolve differences of tastes and goals.
That said, the studios and record-pressing plants don't care how much bass a hip-hop artist prefers, whether he preaches a message of positivity or prefers rhyming snapshots from the street. All the money spent within the community on ADAT machines and expensive software, all the elbow grease expended on constructing studios, organizing hip-hop nights and servicing and soliciting radio stations is energy that's wasted if too many people are duplicating the process without results.
"There are people doing the same thing and see each other," says Add Verb Superb, "but that connecting point, the feeling that 'OK, I'm not your rival, we're in this thing together' -- that does not exist. And that's the main problem. It's just really divisional. Really segregated and separate. And the things that we've always tried to push in In Limbo is that we're too small to be having all this infighting. I mean, there's nothing close to any Tupac/Biggie bullshit going on (a reference to the 1997 murders of two of hip-hop's most talented and incendiary rappers, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls), but what it is, is, you have people who tend not to be too receptive to other people's style (or) people who are doing the exact same thing but they get into small beefs. I would call them drama, because it's stuff that doesn't mean anything. Nobody here is signed; nobody here has done anything outside of this area. If they have, it's been small-time -- not to insult them, but there hasn't been anything to even blow up in the area itself. All this nonsense that people are putting each other and other's groups through -- it's killing us."
The next Monday at the Hi-Pointe is a bit slower, more subdued. Charlie Chan, DJ Solo and Chilly C alternate on the turntables while a few members of the Track Vandals and the Ruckus Crew sit onstage, occasionally rapping along with the music, shouting out to crowd members, plugging upcoming events around town. Members of Fat Trash and the Midwest Avengers, two of the biggest names in St. Louis these days, mingle in the crowd. The place is about half-full, and everybody looks a bit tired. Every now and then, a few break-dancers spin and move near the front, compelling the crowd to surround them and shout out support.
Finsta shouts for Charlie Chan, who's out in the crowd, chatting. Charlie nods and slowly makes his way to the stage. Once there, he flips through his record crate, pulls out a few selections and pops one of them on. The music, which has been running without much DJ gymnastics for the past half-hour, is immediately interrupted by the rhythmic scratching of Charlie Chan, who keeps the beat with his fingers, twirling and spinning the records while the blur of fizzed beats battles with his scratching. He's now got copies of the same record on two turntables, both running in the same place, and he's creating an echo that he sustains with his magic fingers by scratching the records backward a spin, keeping the same vocal sample in suspension. Chan's defying gravity, juggling the sample while, incredibly, keeping track of the beat in his head. The crowd moves closer, and people start clapping. Finsta, who's been watching him close-up, moves from being an MC to acting as a color commentator; as Charlie starts getting fancy, Finsta calls the plays: "360!" "Behind the back!" "Under the leg!" "With his nose!" Charlie is on it, the musician in full focus, up in the astral plane on autopilot as his fingers, arms and body work the turntable and inspire the crowd.