Meet the Beat

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

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."

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