Meet the Beat

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

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."

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