It was a week before Christmas 2013 when cops showed up at the door of a building on North Lindbergh in Florissant in hot pursuit of a fleeing man. Not knowing what was going on, Matt Sawicki showed the officers inside his audio-recording business, Suburban Pro Studio, and helped them track down the suspect.
"I was real cooperative," he says. "They took me down to the station, I gave a statement and everything. They made me walk home. It had snowed."
When he got back to the studio, however, he found an unwelcome surprise: The police had pulled the occupancy permit on the building, claiming twenty or so various small violations they noticed while arresting the fugitive.
"It was all really ridiculous stuff," Sawicki says. "How the walls were finished. They'd knocked over a trash can while they were arresting the dude, and they said there was trash on the floor. A whole bunch of stuff like that. I felt like I got the message."
The situation was a crisis for Sawicki and his partner Carter McKee. Friends since their days at Belleville West High School, they'd spent nine years since 2006 working pretty much around the clock to grow Suburban Pro from pure idea to functional studio to one of the best, busiest and most well-respected hip-hop studios in the St. Louis region.
They'd had to battle the city to get the place open in the first place.
"We had to change the zoning laws in Florissant to accept a recording studio," says Sawicki. "If you went up and looked at code for recording studios — if there's anything, it's what me and Carter wrote."
The two began looking for a new rental space and quickly realized that, within city limits, buying is often cheaper than renting. They scoured listings and finally settled on a modest two-flat on South Jefferson that had been on the market for a decade — probably because it shares a fence with the MotoMart at the corner of Jefferson, Chippewa and Broadway, where outdoor speakers play 24 hours a day and a parade of loudly colorful characters swagger, skid and rumble through the parking lot.
It may have made a terrible house, but the new building is an ideal home for a recording studio. The ground floor, favored by McKee, is unimposing but outfitted with classic studio comforts like a large mixing board, a black leather couch and dimmed lights; the upstairs is "a bit grimier," according to Sawicki, who prefers to work there. Gearwise, "both studios have the same basic everything," Sawicki confirms.
Meanwhile, the basement contains a T-shirt press run by Tok bassist Matt Basler, who also serves as the studio's office manager. The basement is also home to "Peter's little world," as Sawicki calls it, which consists of shelves full of fascinating miniature sets for animated shows like "Skate Socks" and "Your Local Town," produced by Peter Seay, aka Calc2. The audio for the shows gets produced at a podcast-ready table upstairs. Sawicki gestures at the sets. "This is the secret weapon we're all hoping we get rich from," he says with a laugh.
Like the MotoMart next door, Suburban Pro is a crossroads of sorts for urban St. Louis. A steady stream of hip-hop artists, R&B singers, West Africans, Palestinians, producers, musicians, freelance engineers and assorted entourage are in and out at all hours. And with south city's newest studio comes a dedicated base of musicians including Tef Poe, Huey, Black Spade, Mathias James and the Pirates, along with hundreds of other hard-working players and aspiring artists.
The only element missing, most of the time, is rock bands. As notorious as Suburban Pro is within the hip-hop scene, it's virtually invisible to the rock scene. Which is crazy, seeing as there's plenty of demand for recording and both McKee and Sawicki have the gear and the knowledge that rock musicians are looking for. They do work with a few bands, but mostly those with members they know from their Belleville days.
Sawicki and McKee are both tall guys with friendly faces. Sawicki's big beard can't hide his big smile, and McKee is resolutely mellow. They came up in classic audio-guy fashion: Both were guitarists who bonded over matching Tascam eight-tracks and started recording in basements. They went in on an ADAT machine together, then attended Southwestern Illinois College for audio engineering, and from there started interning at Jupiter Studios in St. Louis. They began as rock-oriented musicians, idolizing record producers like Flood and Mark Trombino, but their experience at Jupiter opened them up to the technology, intricacies and business hustle of hip-hop. They fully absorbed it.
Both were engineering at Jupiter in 2005 when Sawicki racked up an unexpected hit credit working on Huey's breakout single "Pop, Lock & Drop It," which went double platinum. Sawicki's rep soared, even if he didn't quite know why. "I don't remember it at all," he admits. "The original session I couldn't even tell you what I had to do with it, other than it maybe came in as a song and I arranged it or we re-recorded, or something like that. And then it became a big song. And Huey recorded all his songs with me after we recorded that."
This was a big break, and Sawicki took it. "That took off, and people came around because of that. We'd talk to people, we'd go to video shoots, and people would wanna talk to us," he says. "I mean really it helped everything. It was the big thing."
A true hustler, he converted that notoriety into something he could use: He got busy setting up a studio in Florissant, while McKee stayed on at Jupiter until they were ready, working on client relationships and building their contacts.
But once they were going, they put in endless hours behind the console. Eventually, a scene began to center on Suburban Pro, and the two hustled around the clock for nearly a decade, building their reps and upgrading gear. Now, "people come to Carter because of what Carter sounds like," says Sawicki, and the same is true for him.
McKee is the one who works with immigrant musicians such as Sa'Lyone, who combines West African rhythms with a hip-hop aesthetic. He often finds himself playing guitar and bass on those records, learning as he goes.
"It's all so rhythmically different than what I'm used to that he'll just look at me and give me all these visual cues," McKee says. At the same time, he also specializes in "ladies pop and R&B," says Sawicki admiringly.
"You just kill that shit! You have this silky top-end sound, this polished sound. I mean, I can't do it. Carter's clients wanna fuck with me and I'm like, 'I don't do what Carter does!'"
"The products that we put out don't sound anything like each other," says McKee. "We're not always copying each other or trading notes. It's never really been like that."
"When we worked in Florissant we only had one room that we both worked in," Sawicki explains, "so for him to be working, I'm not working, and for me to be working he's not working."
Sawicki's own specialty is hip-hop. "'90s golden-era hip-hop is really my thing," he says. "And conscious stuff I get a lot of. But at the same time, I've been really pushing the envelope with Tef."
Tef Poe is leading the way right now in defining St. Louis hip-hop, keeping the international spotlights trained on his forceful delivery and eloquent social activism.
"I work with Tef, and I feel like he keeps me super relevant right now," says Sawicki. "And he says my name on pretty much every release that he's ever done! It's awesome. I feel like the records are symbiotic. I don't think he needs me to make great records, but I think when we make records together that they excel to another level. And I think that's what I'm getting known for."
By the time they got shut down in Florissant, the two engineers had racked up tens of thousands of songs as they honed their respective strengths.
"I'm going to sound real cheeseball, but I feel like I sell emotion," says Sawicki. "That's what I'm starting to realize about my place in the industry: When you listen to a Tef Poe record, the way you might feel because of that record is something that I made you feel about that. You're conjuring those things. That's what making records really has become for me. Once we moved here I was actually able to stop paper chasing, because we own the building and we can just make art and the rent overhead is not demanding me to just work work work. It's more like, yo, here's why I like to make records, and here's who I do records for."
They're not just making them; they're preserving them. After a blunder in 2009, Sawicki got obsessed with storage. "I deleted a record that I thought I had backed up," he says. "And, ahh — I didn't. I deleted it, and we were finished. It really... That was the thing that made me go, 'I'm never gonna lose a record again.'"
Suburban Pro started buying hard drives in bulk and backing up every session, every album, every time. This is surprisingly rare for contemporary studios, who often expect musicians to arrive with hard drives so the studio isn't responsible for the files. By contrast, "we keep really hard records of this stuff," Sawicki says. "When you come here and record it's on the record drive, that backs up every night at 6 a.m. to the backup drive that's in the computer, and then that drive backs up to our main system down in the basement that has — everything. Forever."
Sawicki's mistake ultimately resulted in an extremely detailed library of all 40,000 or so songs the studio has produced since then.
"I think that's what's going to be really cool about this studio at some point," says Sawicki. "If somebody ever wants to find out what St. Louis hip-hop was like from 2009 to whatever, we're gonna have the most in-depth way for you to go through it. Like if you wanna archaeologist that shit, you could really do it. It's super, super backed up."