By Allison Babka
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You have never sat down for an interview until you've tape-recorded a conversation with a rapper who is a radio DJ in his spare time. Rappers have a way with words, as do on-air DJs. When you combine the two, as is the case with the St. Louis/Atlanta rapper Nite Owl (on the air on Q95.5), you've got a man who doesn't need to stop for breath, a conversationalist who can hop from topic to topic with nary a pause. It isn't the type of continuous talk that's droning and boring. It's the chatter of a man who has mastered breath control and thinking on his feet, bouncing from one idea to the next like a man with a video-game character for a mind.
The skill serves him well, as is apparent on his new full-length, Chemistry.
At twenty tracks and seventy minutes, the LP is too damn L (and there's an EP of other songs he couldn't fit on the album). But it showcases Nite Owl's fluid flow, a smooth, professional string of words that resembles Murphy Lee's raps with more of a love of the old-school battle rappers. The music's got a more organic feeling to it than most St. Louis rappers as well: Nite Owl plays with Level Ground, a local band that also plays with Isis Jones, the Q95.5 DJ and R&B chanteuse who lends vocals to Chemistry. With love songs, odes to the joys of hip-hop and even a song defending black slang ("Eboniks:2004"), Nite Owl has all the bases covered.
"I've got everything I need to shop [the album] to people," he says. "This is the album, I'm not working on anything new. If people don't feel this one, I don't know what else is gonna do it."
Nite Owl has plenty of St. Louis connections but decided to pull up stakes and head to the Crunkville that is Atlanta. He claims he was in search of a "change of scenery, looking for a manager, trying to get more exposure, trying to start over doing what I did up here down there."
But -- and let's be honest, folks -- Atlanta is also even more of a hip-hop mecca than the Lou. Sure, we've got Nelly, Chingy and the rest of the gang, but Atlanta is the capitol of the Dirty South, and they've got the King of Crunk, Lil Jon, to prove it. As much as we may love the Trak Starz and Trackboyz, neither have made it to the vaunted level of getting mocked by Dave Chappelle. Today, even in the Lou, Lil Jon has the dance floor as his fiefdom.
But it isn't the big names that brought Owl to the land of sweet tea. It's the little people.
"When you perform here in St. Louis," he says, "you perform for a lot of your peers -- lot of artists there, people you network with all the time. So you're basically just performing for your core colleagues. Whereas in Atlanta, people just come out to shows that aren't artists, aren't rappers, aren't producers. They just like to see music. It creates a different vibe. It's like, you say to rappers, 'Put your hands up!' and other rappers are, like --" he half-heartedly puts his hands midway in the air -- "but people who just come to shows to hear music are like, 'Yeeah!' Just screaming. Don't get that much around here. People think: Oh, that's a black club, that's a white club. They don't go out."
Atlanta, on the other hand, has "people who just enjoy music. We could be reading names out of the phone book, and if it looks good and sounds good, people out there are going to feel it."
Not that the big names don't count for anything. In a town as celebrity-heavy as Atlanta, how could they not?
"[Atlanta and St. Louis are] equal, venue-wise and artist-wise. In Atlanta, anybody could be in the crowd. Not that that can't happen in St. Louis, but I've been to shows in Atlanta and people like OutKast, movers and shakers, are just kicking it, at a place that's like Blueberry Hill."
So sure, Atlanta has OutKast and rabid fans. Not to mention a much larger number of Chick-fil-As, the greatest fast-food chain on the planet, and an urban sprawl that makes St. Louis County seem like a well-managed subdivision. And sweet tea. Did I mention sweet tea? Damn, sweet tea is good.
But Nite Owl hasn't given up on the home of Provel pizza just yet. His first live album is Live at Cicero's, and he debuted his live band opening for K-Ci & JoJo at the Spot. With his Atlanta teaching job on summer break, Nite Owl knew he had to come back here to launch his new album (and get back on the air: "In the summer, I don't have a job in Atlanta. I've got three here.")
"I'm not living here now, but I had to do the CD release here. This is where I got started, and I want to see if I still had the support here. I just want people to hear the music. I wish we could give the CDs away. I'm just breaking even with this."