Making Traks

Sham Daugherty and Alonzo Lee Jr., the Trak Starz, aim to make St. Louis the center of the hip-hop universe

Welcome to the St. Louis Hip-Hop Renaissance, Part 2: World Domination.

"What da hook gon be?" Murphy Lee famously asked in his 2003 single of the same name. To say that's the million-dollar question in pop music wouldn't exactly be true -- a good hook is worth much more than that.

Can do: Daugherty shows off the Starz' bad-ass vocal 
Jennifer Silverberg
Can do: Daugherty shows off the Starz' bad-ass vocal booth.
Reggae/dancehall singer Kanjia emigrated from Sierra 
Leone to Ames, Iowa. The nightmare of living in Iowa 
now over, he's here and working with the Trak Starz.
Jennifer Silverberg
Reggae/dancehall singer Kanjia emigrated from Sierra Leone to Ames, Iowa. The nightmare of living in Iowa now over, he's here and working with the Trak Starz.

Along with the beat, the hook -- a chorus designed to drill itself into your head and refuse to leave until your consumerist obligation has been satisfied -- is the heart of pop music. Think of the most popular songs of the past three decades -- say, "Billie Jean," "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "In da Club." You probably know all three hooks by heart and have conveniently overlooked their less-memorable aspects (think: "A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido, yay"). The inventors of those hooks are more famous than the inventors of the Internet, penicillin and the Thighmaster combined.

Movies have directors; songs have producers. In today's pop music, producers dominate the creative process. Even as the music industry is hammered by declining profits, filesharing and layoffs, top producers are getting heftier contracts and greater creative control. Whereas once upon a time Lennon and McCartney may have locked themselves in a room and not come out until they had a hit, nowadays their record label would probably just hire the Neptunes, the Virginia Beach-based duo that's as famous as the stars they work for. They made Justin Timberlake hip, they made Britney a slave for us, and now they command hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce a single song.

Cost-cutting execs want producers who can find talent as well as make music. When the Trak Starz brought Capitol Records Chingy's already finished debut album, Jackpot, Capitol bought it outright. They didn't spend a dime in development.

When the Starz hooked up with Chingy, both were unknown. Now, says Allie-Ryan Butler, coordinator of business and legal affairs for Atlantic Records, "Their success is directly coordinated to Chingy's success. Artists are saying, 'If the Trak Starz can do that for Chingy, then they can do that for me.'"

So profound are record labels' desires for proven hitmakers that they'll tolerate something from the Trak Starz they would never tolerate from, say, Britney Spears: infidelity.

"We're free agents -- we can work for whoever we want," says Lee. "The industry as a whole isn't making as much money as they used to, so they're running towards people who are actually selling records in this climate now. Sham and I happen to be an entity who are succeeding very well."

That's $30,000 to $70,000 per track to be precise, according to Lee. (Kevin Hall, the Starz' publisher, backs up that assertion.) Of course, it depends. "With somebody who's destined to sell millions of records -- say, Nelly (we're talking to his management right now) -- we wouldn't charge as much for tracks because we can make all our money back on publishing," Lee asserts. "You see most of your money after the fact when it's a multiplatinum seller."

In other words, it's a blinged-if-you-do, blinged-if-you-don't situation.

Hall says it's the Starz' talent for non-sampled, organic beats that has the industry clamoring for more.

"The Trak Starz are unique in that they make the hip-hop a little more musical. What stood out for me with 'Holidae In' was that the track could have easily had a sample but they chose to use a violin. 'One Call Away' could have easily been a sample. They chose to use a guitar player.

"I think they're on the same level as the Neptunes," Hall goes on, speculating that in a year's time they could be as overexposed as Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams. "They're totally ahead of the trends."

Daugherty and Lee claim "Hollywood ages" of 24 and 28, respectively. Lee's high school, however, says he graduated in 1990 -- likely putting him closer to 31 or 32. Daugherty's high school can't say when he finished up, but the fact that he clues you in that he's fudging probably adds a year or more. They're both just as reticent about discussing their kids -- Lee fathered a son with a woman he's not married to, and Daugherty has two daughters by two different moms, neither of whom is his wife -- other than to say they maintain good relationships with them.

While the girthy Daugherty sports gold-plated front teeth, Lee is smaller and more understated. As understated, anyhow, as someone who sports tens of thousands of dollars' worth of jewelry can be. He grew up "upper-middle class" in University City, attending St. Louis Country Day, where he played electric bass in a band called Room 2 with some friends. The group, which performed at school functions, mixed elements of jazz, funk and rock, heavily influenced by Prince, Led Zeppelin and jazz-fusion drummer Billy Cobham.

"Al was very focused on recording and experimenting," recalls David Kodner, who played drums in the band and now owns art galleries in Clayton and Ladue. "We would basically stay up all night, all weekend -- writing songs, writing tunes and laying down tracks. Al was constantly working on new tunes, different compositions, different layers of sound and melody lines and chorus lines."

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