Though the clueless masses may think St. Louis hip-hop equals Nelly and the St. Lunatics, a lot of exciting stuff is percolating underground. According to master turntablist/Q95.5 personality Charlie Chan (voted Best Hip-Hop DJ by RFT readers in the Slammies poll), at least 60 local record labels have sprouted over the last year. The club scene is thriving, despite the shockingly small number of venues that book hip-hop with any regularity. You can often catch promising live acts at the Galaxy and Spotlight, and two area bars have weekly hip-hop nights: On Friday nights, from 10 p.m.-midnight, DJ Fly D-ex, DJ Solo and DJ Crucial broadcast The Science live from Blueberry Hill's Duck Room on KDHX (88.1 FM). The Science features emcees, DJs, breakdancers and graffiti artists (we suspect that the entertainment value of the latter two groups is lost on the radio audience), and the place is almost always packed.
On Monday nights, from about 9:30 until the bar shuts down, serious heads can be found at the Hi-Pointe open mic. Chan and the amazing DJ K-9 spin and scratch until about midnight, whereupon they open the stage to a motley assortment of aspiring rappers. At this point, the evening's entertainment morphs into something like a cross between It's Showtime at the Apollo and The Gong Show. When an enthusiastic performer overstays his welcome, an emcee makes a subtle hand gesture indicating that the wack-rapper had better wrap it up, and quick. If said wack-rapper ignores the emcee, the DJ takes over and begins to scratch so furiously that the poor misunderstood genius has no choice but to slink offstage. In the rare event that the scratching isn't enough to dampen the wack-rapper's spirits, the soundman can always cut off juice to the mic. When this happens, the rapper is expressly asked not to get back in line to try again, but the thick-skinned sometimes give it a shot. On a recent visit, one of the hosts explained the three-pronged gong system thusly: "It don't mean your shit ain't hot. It just ain't hot tonight." All styles of rap are represented -- freestyle and rehearsed, naughty and nice, inspired and insipid. The crowd is surprisingly attentive and usually quite gentle with the delicate egos onstage. We had an absolute blast -- which is not always the case at open mics, as anyone who's ever sat through a tedious strum-and-emote session at a coffeehouse can attest.
In other news, the hip-hop community now has its own counterpart to Rooster Lollipop and Undertow: an artists' collective. Founded by the ubiquitous Charlie Chan, the Commission comprises eight local groups who've been active in the city over the years. According to Chan, "Everybody does their own thing; we're just under one umbrella, hoping that if we get together, we can get something out of it -- like, it comes time for some publicity: I'm gonna go, 'Hey, let me call my girl at the Riverfront Times!' because they don't have that avenue. We formed this because a lot of people have trouble getting studio time booked, couldn't find nobody to do music. I'm, like, 'I'm doing music for all these groups; I know several other producers; we all just need to be together.'"
Members of the Commission are well represented on a brand-new Chan-produced compilation called Lyrics 2 Go. Fourteen of the area's best underground rappers on 17 tracks, for just under 10 bucks -- can you say bargain? If nothing else, it's an excellent introduction to a scene that's largely ignored by the local media. Even the weaker tracks sound fantastic, thanks to Chan's turntable magic, his ability to surprise and enchant with unexpected cuts from his eclectic record collection: One track lifts the freaky sitar riff from "Paint It Black" (watch it, guys; for a band that made a career of ripping off impoverished black people, the Stones are sue-happy -- just look what happened to the Verve!); another co-opts a synth bridge from the Police. For us, the highlight is "I'm a Keeper" by the Gatekeepaz, which solders a hard '70s-funk riff to an insanely catchy vocal hook ("Wouldn't you like to be a keeper, too?" sung to the Oscar Mayer wiener jingle). Another standout is "Remorse," by Nimflow, a wrenching account of a murder that delves into the psyche of the shooter without glorifying the act itself: Imagine a hip-hop reading of Camus' The Stranger. We're sure we'll have new favorites with repeated listenings, though; a lot of talent is crammed onto this disk.
Other notable local releases include a single, "Headbanger's Ball/Seasons" from Altered St8s of Consciousness, a riveting trio composed of rappers Lyfestile and Amené and DJ Fly D-ex. Featuring scratching by Brooklyn's Mocha Sunflower, the tracks were expertly produced by another Brooklynite, Cave Precise, who is originally from St. Louis. It was released on Sondoo, a Brooklyn label, but it's available all over town, thanks to a distribution deal with Landspeed Records. The lyrics are surprising and often very clever: It's not every rapper who rhymes "estrogen" with "special man" and "specimen." On a recent visit to the Hi-Pointe, a regular patron pointed out Amené and said, with obvious awe: "He's such a great rapper, he makes me want to get out my dictionary!" Bits N Pieces released the excellent (if unimaginatively titled) full-length CD Hip-Hop in February. Later this month, they'll release a 12-inch remix of the stellar, hard-hitting "Warriors"; they plan to put out a new full-length in December. Bits N Pieces play out live more often than most local hip-hop acts; check them out at the Galaxy, the Pageant or Blueberry Hill sometime. Next week: Hammer time at Greater Pentecostal Church of Christ.