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MCs scatter as I let myself in, unannounced, to Julian Venegas' U. City recording studio, which also functions as his apartment. After a few seconds of confusion, Venegas himself emerges from the kitchen and apologizes for the fog. "We were smoking some Swisher Sweets before you came over."
I've interrupted the flow of slightly paranoid up-and-coming rapper Kevin Cole (a.k.a. Kash), who belongs to the local Soul Tyde collective and a duo that calls itself Honors English. After introductions Kash, in cornrows and a white Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, climbs back into the vocal booth (which doubles as a closet) and explains why he's here: "I never skip, this ain't hopscotch/But believe that every rhyme I drop is topnotch."
While Kash freestyles, Venegas, a hefty, half-Hispanic 24-year-old in a Bob Marley shirt, fiddles with his vocal compressor. Not a rapper himself, Venegas is the Jimmy Jam of the bunch, the man behind the mixer. The only difference is that Jam would never have to adjust sound levels entirely by ear, a technique that is the musical-production equivalent of computer programming on an Apple IIe.
"If I get the levels right, I'm happy with the sound I get," Venegas explains. "If not, well, we do it over."
This is production central for Venegas' STL Underdog CDs, his altruistic project that aims to unearth the St. Louis hip-hop underground. The project features largely unknown MCs such as Kash, Teflon Poetix and Huggie Brown, as well as more established local talents such as Jia Davis and Coultrain. Most of the tracks are recorded right here in his apartment.
Venegas is selling the CDs at local shows and on consignment at Vintage Vinyl -- not to mention giving plenty away -- and he estimates that 750 to 1,000 of the discs are out there.
"I know for a fact that people are bootlegging them, too, because I've had a few people say, 'I saw your stuff in Kansas City,' and I haven't sent shit to Kansas City. And I don't care. That's fine with me, as long as it's getting out there."
The project has provided no small amount of exposure for artists such as Kash, who couldn't otherwise afford the countless hours of studio time and personal engineering attention that Venegas provides.
"We got a concert in Indiana out of it," Kash says, referring to an Indiana State University student who got hold of one of the Underdog CDs and ended up bringing Kash and some of his Soul Tyde cohorts down to Terre Haute for a paid show.
"Julian was the first to do a CD like this," says Teflon Poetix, the bald-headed, gap-toothed other half of Honors English. "And then they started popping up all over the place, without a doubt inspired by what Julian did." He smiles. "And we're on all of them."
Everything started with Venegas' $1,000 tax return last year. "I bought a mixer and a CD burner, the supplies to make the covers and a bunch of blank CDs," he recalls. "By the following Tuesday, I had my first mix CD done and started selling it."
That CD didn't feature any original music, but with the money Venegas made, he invested in equipment that would allow him to start recording. Eventually he worked up to a used MPC 2000, a MIDI production center used by the best in the business. "I don't even want to tell you how much I bought it for," he brags. "It was so cheap." Venegas now has a good mic, synthesizers, a synthesizer sampler and almost everything else to do a bang-up, elbow-grease job.
But there aren't any profits.
"It's a chance for [the artists] to get in the studio," he says of the project, in which no money changes hands. "They look at it as experience and as exposure."
Originally from a small town near Chelan, Washington ("It's straight-up apple country; my dad was working on my mom's parents' apple farm when they met"), Venegas came to St. Louis in 2001 after dropping out of Tacoma's University of Puget Sound and following a girlfriend. While working at Streetside Records on Delmar, he fell in love with what he saw as a vital underground hip-hop scene.
"If you want to do anything in hip-hop, you're probably as well off here right now as anywhere else," he says, adding that there's much more activity here than on the Seattle scene. "If you can do it here, you can probably move on to a national stage."
That said, Venegas has no aspirations for the big time. The simple black-and-white design of his CDs is intentionally understated. "I kind of want it to be a secret. I don't do pictures on the album covers, though I could. I want people to go out and see these guys."
The project takes up a lot of his time -- perhaps 40 to 50 hours for each STL Underdog CD, of which there are four. But Venegas relishes the work, which he does when he's not working for Hats-N-Stuff on Delmar or perching twenty feet up for local hip-hop artist Jonathan Toth from Hoth's roofing company.
Right now, a blue afghan across the windows hides the light as Teflon Poetix takes his turn in the vocal booth, where foam pieces staple-gunned to the wall dampen the sound. A cord from the mic goes out the door and around the corner into Venegas' dining room, where a giant cardboard cutout of Nas and an Ice-T gold record, Power, look down as he tries to manage the sound.
"I take you back to slavery/So don't play with me," raps Teflon over Mobb Deep beats from a Barbershop 2 CD sampler. "I might pull a mic out and audit your bravery."
Kash, in the dining room, claps in appreciation at the wit.
"It's hard to transcribe this," I complain.
"Imagine how hard it is to say it," Kash counters.
Today's session is full of shout-outs to J. Guevara, Venegas' production alter ego. When it's over, Venegas apologizes for the clichéd Che reference but says the comparison is fitting.
"He came somewhere that wasn't his home, saw something he liked and devoted himself to helping that cause succeed. Then when that was done he went somewhere else and did something different.
"This isn't my home, and these aren't even necessarily my dreams, but it's basically the truest thing I've ever come in contact with," Venegas continues. "The core group of guys I work with -- it's something beyond entertainment. It's pure expression, really, and I want to do my best to help them get the accolades they deserve."