By Lindsay Toler
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But he's higher on the Starz. "Basement Beats produced Nelly's hits, but they didn't sign him. They were assigned tohim. Not to brag, but our first time at bat we broke a national artist. And some people try for years."
The Starz' success in this regard was a precursor for the Trackboyz' success with J-Kwon, who had run away from home at thirteen and moved in with them in advance of making his recently released album, Hood Hop.
Lee says locals have attempted to play up rumors of a beef between the the Starz and Trackboyz (particularly over the similarity of their names), but he's quick to quash the gossip. "We all have different sounds, and it does nothing but help all of us out that so many of us are succeeding," he says. "People try to play up rumors of beefs in St. Louis. But believe me, if you get five young millionaires in a room together, I'm happy."
"They're the best producers right now," Chingy has said of the Starz. "They're steaming hot and they've got a different sound. It's an edgy, rough, street-calligraphy sound."
You'll know you've arrived at the Trak Starz' Lafayette Square studios if you see a pair of H2s in the parking lot. (Lee's is black, Daugherty's pewter metallic.) The $1,500-a-month space, which boasts well-groomed red brick and a quiet atmosphere, does double duty as a crash pad for Lee while his Lake St. Louis dream house is under construction.
The Starz seem most comfortable when they're in the studio, where they can work incommunicado. Before going in, Daugherty records an outgoing message on his cell phone warning that he'll be hard to reach. But in reality, the pair is nearly always hard to reach. Their phones ring constantly -- so much that Daugherty often will only take a call when its announced by a preprogrammed ring alerting him that it's someone he doesn't want to miss.
On this late-winter day, Sony executive Selim Bouab is visiting from New York to oversee the Starz' work on a single for the rapper Baby D. Bouab will stay here, he says, "until they give me a hit record."
"Which will be 45 minutes, tops," Lee deadpans. "Mixed, everything. Ready to roll."
Surrounded by keyboards, computers and drum machines, Lee and Daugherty are engaged in the least cerebral, most challenging and most important element of what they do: finding the hook. Daugherty, whose arms are lined with tattoos including a picture of Jesus and a tribute to his faith in Arabic script, is hammering out the slight variations on a drum machine, and Lee is commenting on the aesthetic quality of a few bars from a sample of the Three's Company theme that plays over and over and over. Other than that, their specific roles in the process seem fairly undefined.
"He pays the ho's, and hesmacks 'em," Bouab quips, pointing first at Lee and then at Daugherty.
But really, says Lee, "It's pretty much like a gumbo stew. I have more of a musician's background -- I play guitar, keyboards, drums and bass -- and Sham's more from a hip-hop background."
"One day he may drum-program, one day I might do that," adds Daugherty. "He might play the keyboards, I might play the keyboards. We just swap roles, we can choose on that day."
The Trak Starz aim to form their own record label and stock its roster with St. Louis acts. One group they're working with is STL -- pronounced "S-T-L" -- an angel-faced trio with MTV in their eyes. Unlike the Starz' service-for-hire arrangement with established acts, STL is their pet project, the New Kids on the Block to their Maurice Starr. Having been assembled by Lee's sister Lisa Lee and a vocal producer, seventeen-year-old Whitney Cook, eighteen-year-old Aris Poole and nineteen-year-old Darra Cunningham have never performed live together, much less shot a video. But they've already got their images worked out.
"I want people to see me as cool -- sporty but sexy at the same time," Cunningham says.
"I want people to say, 'They can sing, and dance.' But also: 'They're hot,'" says Cook.
The Starz have them pegged as the world's first successful female crunk group, the next in a long line of assembled pop successes that dates back farther than the Partridge Family. "All the labels are interested," Lisa Lee asserts.
On the other side of the pop-music spectrum -- and from the other side of the world -- comes reggae/dancehall singer Kanjia Kroma, who immigrated to the United States from Sierra Leone in 1997. He moved with his family to Ames, Iowa, where his dad took a job as a professor. Six months later he met former Out of Order manager Demetrius Bledsoe. Now Kanjia is in St. Louis, Bledsoe is his manager, and the Trak Starz have high hopes. They've spent a good deal of time styling his roots-based dancehall sounds into something Top-40 palatable. Bledsoe says Twista will appear on one of his singles. Echoing Lisa Lee's STL claim, he says the major labels are hot for Kroma.