Meet the Beat

Hip-hop's here. Deal with it. Check the local MCs and DJs moving up from the underground.

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)

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