Dawg Eat Dawg

Q-95.5 and the Beat duke it out -- and the St. Louis hip-hop scene flourishes

"St. Louis has a really strong local base," says Koa Koa Thai, the Chicago-based Midwest regional promotions manager for Universal-owned Def Jam, the world's leading purveyor of hip-hop. "There are over 250 record labels there. It's crazy. But you have those that are genuine about it, and you have those that really don't know the game, so they're not that educated, and they're assuming that just because they give you a CD they're going to hear it on the air."

Even amid all the heavy Top 40 formatting, the two local hip-hop stations do manage to allow more free-form programming than their brethren in other commercial formats. Mix shows, scheduled three or four times daily, provide DJs the opportunity to dabble with new, unproven tracks or drop in a touch of classic hip-hop. Kaos hosts a nightly segment called "St. Louis Heat," in which he spins a local track and asks his listeners to respond whether the song is "hot" or "not."

And on Tuesday nights at 8, J-Nicks and producer She Nyce present "St. Louis Love," a segment in which the two interview St. Louis artists and play their songs. On this October night, local rapper Lil Mont and his posse at Prezidential Records are here to witness the radio debut of Mont's new single, "Big Thangs." Handshakes and hugs are traded, but when Nicks opens the mic, all goes silent. Then the music starts. All heads nod to the beat in unison, and a tiny smile crawls onto Mont's face as he hears his song float out into the city. He closes his eyes, whispering along to the rhymes he wrote. His song is on the radio.

Once you've heard Tony J. guide your rush hour on Q-95.5, all other traffic updates pale
Jennifer Silverberg
Once you've heard Tony J. guide your rush hour on Q-95.5, all other traffic updates pale

This by no means guarantees a hit, but it is, at least, the proverbial foot in the door. "With the record business, there's a new business model, and they're looking for records that already have legs before they give you a deal," says Mark Williams, owner of the local Ragdoll Records label. Williams cracked Billboard's hip-hop Top 40 last year with Paybak's "Things U Do," and this year with "Trust Nobody." He promises that the artist's new single, "Got Mine," will be released by a major label and "will be in the Top 10, guaranteed."

Before generating airplay, a potential hip-hop hit nearly always gets its start, in the immortal words of 50 Cent, in da club.

"In order for you to win, you have to tackle the streets and have the streets behind you," says DJ Kaos, who plays whatever he pleases every Saturday night at the Monastery in East St. Louis. "Because if I go to the clubs, and I hear my guy playing something at Club Casino, and then I go over to Club Rio, then to the Palace, then to the Royal Palace, and the DJ's playing this new record from some local guy, I'm like, 'What's that? Who's that?' Especially if I see the crowd into it. That means that this DJ has been playing the record in the clubs and the club is on it, and I'll take it one step further and play it on the radio." (Kaos' weekly gig at the Monastery was the subject of "Crunk and Disorderly," a January 22 Riverfront Times cover story.)

The best way to get into regular rotation on the stations, all agree, is to work the mix shows -- extended daily music shows that are the closest things to free-form radio on the dial. Mixers work the old-school way, with turntables and twelve-inches, spinning the hits and mixing in new cuts. Mixers have much more leeway to push something new or obscure, and they can launch a hit. If you can get Q-95.5's C-Note, Charlie Chan or DJ Snow or the Beat's DJ AJ, DJ Cue or DJ Cutty to take a chance, a song's on its way. If it gets response, the program director will take note. The Allstars, a local crew that's hitting right now with "So Serious," did it this way, as did Ragdoll's Paybak.

"You gotta work the mixers, the programmers, you gotta work everybody," says Ragdoll's Williams. "And a lot of these guys are out in the streets every day seeing what record is working, and evaluating. You have to go from a mix-show list to a programming list. Phone calls, stopping by, making sure when they're in the clubs they realize your record is playing, your record is working. No programmer's going to take a chance on something just to take a chance. Everybody wants to be the first to say, 'Hey, I was the first one playing the new Chingy record and now this Chingy record is number-one in America.' Everybody wants to say they were the first person playing the record when nobody else played it."

Chingy, actually, was an exception to the rule. Contrary to popular assumption, St. Louis' newest number one didn't land his deal with Atlanta rapper Ludacris's Disturbing tha Peace label based on local radio exposure. "It didn't happen the way that most records hit, which come in from the street level and we start spinning it and the next thing you know one or two stations are playing it. This was already a done deal," says the Beat's Chuck Atkins. Chingy, Atkins explains, impressed DTP label heads when he opened for Nelly during a national tour. "I've never seen it happen that way before," Atkins says. "It breaks that old rule that, 'Oh, you gotta play it here first.'"

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