By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Jake Rossen
By Lindsay Toler
By Kelsey McClure
By Lindsay Toler
In the here-and-now, though, St. Louis matters. In case you missed it, this very week marks a landmark moment in St. Louis music history. No fewer than four songs (featuring three different St. Louis artists) hold spots in the Top 40 of Billboard magazine's national singles chart. This has never happened before. Not when Chuck Berry was chasing sweet little sixteens, nor when Ike was beating Tina, have this many St. Louis-based artists cracked the charts simultaneously.
This historic moment has gone unnoticed by the St. Louis media, to say nothing of the RCGA and the mayor's office. No ticker-tapes down Washington Avenue. No front-page photo of Mayor Slay handing a golden key to the St. Louis Three. Nothing. Except, of course, 23 million units sold worldwide (the majority, of course, by Nelly). If you're listening to hip-hop radio anywhere in America right now, you can't escape Chingy's tandem smashes "Right Thurr" and "Holidae In"; or "Shake Ya Tailfeather," courtesy of Nelly, Murphy Lee and P. Diddy. All are entrenched in the Top 10. And now Murphy Lee's debut single, "Wat Da Hook Gon Be," is at Number 31 with a bullet. Give it a few weeks and a fifth song, Nelly's new single, "Iz U," will be up there, as well.
Nelly, Chingy and Murphy Lee all got their first radio play in the twentieth-largest market in America, on the Beat and on relative upstart Q-95.5, which debuted in 2000. The two stations square off against one another 24/7 in an attempt to lure the same demographic: hip-hop and R&B listeners aged 18 to 34. Amid a music-radio landscape in which four companies control the top fifteen stations in the area, consolidation and niches are the rule, and battles like this one are rare. But night after night, request by request, Big Sexy Kooool DJ Kaos and J-Nicks duke it out, teeter-tottering back and forth in the ratings, with big money at stake for corporate parents Clear Channel Communications (the Beat) and Radio One (Q-95.5), and -- for the time being, anyway -- big exposure for the city's blossoming hip-hop scene.
You can tell just by looking at J-Nicks that he could beat you in a sprint. He's got two notches shaved out of his left eyebrow, and he wears a diamond-shaped earring on the same side. If you squint from across the Q-95.5 studio to where he sits perched on a stool Monday through Thursday from 6 to 10 p.m., he could maybe be a skinny Todd Bridges. That scrawny, scrappy look carries over onto the radio. When he's talking -- make that screaming-- on the air, funny phrases spin out like a dragster down a quarter-mile track; you half expect a parachute to fly out of the back of a sentence. "This is your Jickety-J-Nicks, yo-day! I want you to see me everywhere! You're gonna see my face on the side of a bus! It's gonna be on billboards, in magazines. I'm gonna put my smile in your bathroom above the tub!"
He played soccer player at U. City High before he got expelled. "I used to do stuff," he says evasively. "I made my teacher cry. I have a thing where if you talk to me like I'm stupid, I'm going to talk like you're stupid -- and I'm going to win. I'm not really loud, but my personality -- I can really, like, be an ass. She started talking to me like I was stupid, and I talked back to her stupid, not necessarily disrespecting her. She might have been like, 'Well, go sit in the corner.' 'Well, I don't want to go sit in the corner.' And after a while it gets frustrating.
"People say I'm blessed," Nicks says quietly. "I think entertainment is my life. It's something I was meant to do, because I don't think I think like anybody else.
"Hold on," he says, and pulls on his headphones again.
"Yeeeaaah, Q-95.5, blazin' nine in a row hip-hop and R&B! This is your boy Jickety-J-Nicks taking requests right now! Where you at? A big shout-out to all my black folks, my white folks, my Mexican folks, my Chinese folks, and hopefully all you fit right in there in the middle of all that! Q-95.5, yo-day!"
"He's got the young face, you know?" says program director Craig Blac. "The teens cling to him. The little girls, they love him to death. They follow him. They breathe off his words. It's a lot of power when you open that mic and start talking. Anybody has a lot of power in that situation, but when you deal with the young minds, it's even stronger, you feel me? They're looking for someone to roll with, looking for that guy. And once they have someone, and they see that he's young like them, they equate to him. And they listen. Radio is a powerful thing."
Because that power is what sells ads and CDs, it's kept shrewdly harnessed. The days of free-form radio, when a jock could waltz in with his box of records and wing it, are long gone. The top 40 songs in regular rotation on both local hip-hop stations have been thoroughly analyzed; audiences are polled regularly to reveal which songs are getting tired. During the period between October 19 and October 25, the two local hip-hop stations spun Chingy's "Holidae In" 174 times. Chingy's "Right Thurr," released in June, recently passed the 200,000-spin mark nationally.