Making Traks

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

After high school Lee ventured west to study music business at the University of Denver but dropped out after two years. He enrolled briefly at Webster University but quit again, opting to directly pursue his musical interests. He started his own production company, scored music for some MTV shows and played with the local group Reggae at Will, then later with funk cover band Dr. Zhivegas.

Daugherty says he spent two years at Hazelwood Central in north county; a check with the school indicates that he was there only one semester, in the fall of 1992. He says he transferred to Gateway High in the city. The school was unable to provide information about his attendance.

In any case, friends say he spent much of his time in school rhyming and tapping beats on his desk. A few years later he joined a rap group called Out of Order that included close friend Jay Hanna.

The Trak Starz see STL — seventeen-year-old 
Whitney Cook, nineteen-year-old Darra Cunningham 
and eighteen-year-old Aris Poole — as the first 
breakout girl crunk group.
Jennifer Silverberg
The Trak Starz see STL — seventeen-year-old Whitney Cook, nineteen-year-old Darra Cunningham and eighteen-year-old Aris Poole — as the first breakout girl crunk group.

"Everybody else was either working or doing something they wasn't supposed to be doing," Hanna remembers. "We made music in Sham's parents' back room, using his dad's four-track recorder."

Under the influence of Big Daddy Kane, NWA and the Boogiemonsters, the group made tapes of their music and tried to market themselves. "It seemed like it was a lot harder than the stuff we do now -- a lot more street," Hanna says. Seeking production help, Daugherty met Lee in 2000, through a mutual acquaintance.

Lee agreed to do some production work for Out of Order. Era of Triplossis, the group's 2001 debut, was fairly successful. "World's fastest rapper" and current Top 40 darling Twista showed up on their "Work Som'n Twurk Som'n" single, which cracked the Top 25 on Billboard's rap chart. But by then Daugherty and Lee had formed a bond. They decided to focus on producing and put Out of Order on hiatus. Their work with local crunk group Da Hol' 9 put them on the map. Then came Chingy.

Neither can remember the specific occasion when they met Chingy, insisting they simply "grew up together" -- a testament to the tight-knit nature of the St. Louis rap community in the '90s. At any rate, they came together professionally around March 2001, after the management company T-Love approached them about working with Chingy's group 3 Strikes.

T-Love didn't follow through, and 3 Strikes disbanded. But the Starz stuck with Chingy, and the three set to finding the Jackpot in Lee's $600-a-month lowrise studio/ apartment at Delmar and I-170. It was a cramped affair, especially after Chingy and Daugherty moved in.

"Chingy was on a futon, I was sleeping on the floor underneath the equipment in the studio and Zo was sleeping on his twin bed," recalls Daugherty, who says their waking hours were difficult as well: "The guy who stayed on top of us used to make us cut the music down -- he'd bang on the floor."

The trio worked late night after late night on the album, Lee bringing home the bacon from his gigs with Dr. Zhivegas. While he toured to places such as Springfield and Kansas City, Daugherty and Chingy kept the records spinning.

"We cut over 40 songs in two months," Daugherty remembers. That batch of material included nearly everything that ended up on the album's final version. Chingy had written "Right Thurr" years earlier, but he and Daugherty came up with the hook for "Holidae In" together.

"That's life imitating art," Lee says. "We used to have hotel parties just like the one in the song. Since we lived in the apartment, we would go chill at hotels. Courtyard Marriott was our favorite, because they had whirlpools in the room."

They shopped the album around, finding an enthusiastic ear in Chaka Zulu, an executive at Ludacris' fledgling label, Disturbing tha Peace. DTP signed on, and before long Chingy's grandmother's house and the North Broadway nightclub The Spot were serving as background for the "Right Thurr" video. The single dropped in the summer of 2003 and immediately took over in clubs and on radio.

Starz publisher Kevin Hall blames the outbreak of the Chingy epidemic on one thing: St. Louis slang.

"New artists have to come out with a gimmick first, just to get people to pay attention to them," says Hall "'Right Thurr' was a gimmick. The slang, the drawl on the Southern accent -- it was a gimmicky record."

Though Nelly had introduced the St. Louis vernacular to the mainstream, Chingy based the entire single on it, drawing out the urr in a way that made the nation go Lou-ny. "Right Thurr" went to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, followed by a No. 3 showing for "Holidae In" and another No. 2 for "One Call Away." Jackpot is certified double platinum.

"Chingy showed the world that Nelly wasn't a fluke," Lee says. "He officially broke down the door for St. Louis. Despite Nelly, the doors weren't quite open. Now labels are more excited [about St. Louis], more convinced they can win with someone like J-Kwon. It's a great day for St. Louis producers."

For the current state of St. Louis exposure, Lee also credits Basement Beats, who have worked with Nelly, and the Trackboyz, producers of J-Kwon's nouveau hit "Tipsy."

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