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By Dennis Brown
Johnny Mathis' version of "Three Times a Lady" plays at Muzak level in the entryway of a recording studio somewhere north of Los Angeles. Where Hollywood becomes the Valley, in a building where mid-tempo R&B stars including Usher and Brandy have laid down tracks, the only indication that two of hip-hop's hottest producers are at work might be in the parking lot, where a massive Toyota Sequoia V8 is crammed into a spot that begs for "Compact Only."
But inside, around the corner and down the hall, pull away a thick wooden door, then another. Somewhere between 80 decibels and intolerable, a would-be pop-crunk anthem pounds:
We came to get it poppin'
We came to get it crackin'
And rollin' Cadillacin'
Alonzo "Zo" Lee Jr. and Shamar "Sham" Daugherty's 80 G's worth of matching diamond-encrusted, star-shape necklaces bounce, ever so slightly, in time to the heavy bass. The duo, collectively known as the Trak Starz, look out over a million and a half bucks' worth of equipment, pondering which of a hundred thousand little knobs need to be twisted. NASA engineers come to mind -- except NASA engineers probably have less at stake than Lee and Daugherty. NASA engineers merely have to find water on Mars using a mechanical gizmo. These guys have to find hooks using mechanical pop stars.
Blackground, the division of Universal Records responsible for hits from Aaliyah and Missy Elliott, is betting $450 an hour they can. That's about how much it costs to staff and run this room, to say nothing of the Starz' production fee.
"Can I hear it with the 808?" Lee asks, tugging the blue Von Dutch cap that covers his braided dreadlocks.
"I think it's hot," says Daugherty, who sports a Joe Morgan Cincinnati Reds jersey and a red mesh trucker hat with "Trak Starz" emblazoned on the front. "I think the bass still needs to be in that one part, though."
An engineer turns a dial. Done.
The song, "Poppin' in the Place," by Kentucky pop-crunk artist Native, will likely be on the radio in a month or so. But unlike many hip-hop producers, the Starz aren't using a sample of someone else's song to construct the beat; instead they're grafting on a progression they crafted themselves in the studio, labor that will keep them at work till 2 a.m. on this late-February night.
"You guys wanna eat?" asks Daugherty, scanning a takeout menu from Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles.
After they finish the night's work, the Starz will cruise their rented Sequoia back to Le Meridien, their well-north-of-$200-per-night hotel in Beverly Hills, have some drinks and snacks from the mini-bar, and watch cable. All on Blackground's tab. Tomorrow they've got a meeting scheduled with Jimmy Iovine -- the Interscope Records president renowned for his work with Patti Smith, Tom Petty and U2 (and infamous for his work with Death Row Records) -- with whom they'll negotiate what they say is a six-figure deal to produce Eminem, Eve and 50 Cent.
This, in addition to work they've already got scheduled for rival industry giant Sony.
Vincent Herbert, an industry veteran here representing Blackground, forgoes the chicken and waffles but attempts to explain why, when it comes to the Starz, so many labels are lining up to pony up.
"They're the next Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis," he says, referring to the celebrated Minneapolis production team. "They're visionary guys, not just making beats. They develop artists, and people just don't do that anymore. That's what they did with Chingy."
The St. Louis hip-hop scene was sparked at the turn of the millennium by Nelly and the St. Lunatics. Four years later, it's on fire. Last week, no less a cultural authority than The New Yorker weighed in. "The atmosphere in St. Louis is now a little like that of Nashville in the nineteen-thirties, with the Grand Ole Opry, or of Detroit in the sixties, with Motown Records," the New Yorker's Jake Halpern writes in a feature about Mark "Tarboy" Williams and Joe "Capo" Kent, a pair of local producers known as the Trackboyz, who discovered local wunderkind J-Kwon and produced his current No. 3 single "Tipsy."
Although they're not yet household names along the lines of the Neptunes, Timbaland and Dr. Dre, just about anyone who listens to FM radio is familiar with the hits the Starz produced for Chingy: the lovingly exploitive-of-the-St.-Louis-accent "Right Thurr" ("I like the way you do that right thurr/Swing your hips when you're walkin', let down your hurr"); "Holidae In," featuring Snoop Dogg and Ludacris; and "One Call Away," whose video features grown-up Cosby kid Keshia Knight Pulliam and the Trak Starz themselves. The Starz also remixed Britney Spears' and Madonna's "Me Against the Music" and Ludacris' "Splash Waterfalls," the latter of which got nearly as much play as the original. But all that pales next to what they've got in the pipeline: songs starring Beyoncé, Lil' Kim, Toni Braxton, Gwen Stefani and Faith Evans; the scores to the soundtracks of Soul Plane and the Shaftsequel; and their own reality TV show.
The Trak Starz are already rich, and soon they'll be famous. But look beneath the bling, and Lee and Daugherty seem to be less about getting paid and more about battening down a local-music infrastructure that has the hip-hop world by the throat.
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