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Tucked away in a small public park off North Warson Road in Olivette, Saints Roller Skating Center is an institution. For a quarter-century, it's been attracting legions of mostly African-American skating aficionados from all over the St. Louis area. Constructed in the mid-'70s, when rollermania reached its apex, it's a sprawling, barnlike one-story time capsule. With its lurid orange-and-yellow circus-theme décor, it could easily serve as a set for That '70s Show.
Within these charmingly anachronistic walls, future pop stars are groomed for world domination, and multimillion-dollar deals are struck.
In addition to housing the area's premier roller-skating rink (there's not much competition, alas), Saints serves as the official headquarters of D2 Entertainment, a recording studio and music-publishing company helmed by 31-year-old identical twins David and Darren Stith. Amid the general din of skaters, the tinny screech of the video-arcade games, the brothers field calls from label executives, corporate honchos and expensive lawyers.
While gaggles of little kids glide around the rink and stagger over to the concession stand for sodas and hotdogs, the Stith brothers are pacing around with their cell phones, making deals, scouting out talent, schmoozing with suits on both coasts. When Avery Lipman -- president of Republic Records, a subsidiary of Universal -- calls to discuss a six-figure marketing campaign for D2 artist Pretty Willie, the person who answers the phone might be the kid who rents out skates or the lady who handles the time cards and collects money at the door.
"Record labels are in town looking for the next Nelly," Dick Ford solemnly intones in a 9 p.m. news segment titled "Hip-Hop in the Lou." "And they aren't disappointed with what they're finding."
The Fox News feature surveys hot talent on the St. Louis rap scene: There's 12-year-old Meesha, a cute, cornrowed girl who's just signed with Tony Davis of T-Luv, Nelly and the St. Lunatics' management company. There's Twan, whose single "Real Life" recently went into rotation on the local hip-hop stations, and Abyss, veterans of the circuit who reportedly just inked a deal with Atlantic. There's Pretty Willie, whose debut CD, Enter the Life of Suella, is about to be released by the biggest label in the world, Universal Records.
Ford and his mainstream-media ilk would have you believe the major labels are hovering over our city as we speak, ready to swoop down and pluck the next lucky superstar from our midst. It doesn't work that way, but the star-is-born paradigm makes for better news bites than the complicated, unsexy truth. The fact is, stars are made, not born, and mostly it's not the big-city executives who are making them. Out of the limelight, away from the TV cameras and the newspaper reporters, is a whole other tier of businessmen, unsung hustlers who scout out the talent, determine its potential on commercial radio, hammer out a business plan and wrap it all up into a tidy package for the consideration of the suits.
Hustlers such as David and Darren Stith.
Unlike many of the artists they represent, the Stith twins don't go for the bling-bling. No flashy platinum-and-diamond pendants, no Rolexes, no designer-label tracksuits for these guys: They favor dark jeans, cotton sweatshirts, baseball caps. David wears small, rimless eyeglasses; Darren wears a plain gold wedding ring. They're businessmen; they don't have time to front.
In photos, they're near-doubles, the same small, regular features set in unlined round faces. In person, they're easy to distinguish: David seems more intense, assertive; Darren is more laid-back. David, the elder by seven minutes, started the business and convinced his twin, who was in his second year of college, to drop out and join him.
"David tied Darren's shoes until they were about 5 years old," recalls their mother, Almeda, with a chuckle. She's proud of her boys -- the youngest of seven children -- but it still irks her that David didn't go to college. In fact, he didn't graduate from University City High School with his twin. Though David got his GED later, his father, Lloyd, who died three years ago, couldn't accept his decision to leave high school and go to work for his older brother André, who owns Saints.
"His father gave him many spankings," Almeda sighs. "But we have to accept that all our kids don't function the same way," she says. "College is not for everybody. But as far as David goes, I think he's done really well with the education he has. He'll be a good businessman someday."
Chuck Atkins thinks the twins are good businessmen now. The operations manager at 100.3 The Beat, Atkins has been an important figure in D2's business plan from the beginning. Before the twins bring an artist to a label, before they invest in expensive professional mastering, they play the best songs for Atkins and get his professional input.
At first, Atkins recalls, the twins seemed shocked that he even agreed to meet with them. "I thought that was kind of flattering," he says, laughing. "Most producers and artists, they want to come late in the afternoon. They say, 'I really want you to hear my stuff,' and I say, 'How about 8 -- I get started early,' and they'll say, "We'll be there!" And I'm like, right. But David and Darren were right there, waiting in the lobby by 8 a.m."