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Royal Treatment

A local folk staple and a hip-hop collective remain unexpected bedfellows

That '70s Show's Kitty Forman is TV's coolest mom, consistently turning a blind eye toward her son and his homies' ganj-addled behavior in the family basement. Though the show jumped the shark long before Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher left to become the next Ted Dansons, Kitty remains a trailblazer in the wanting-her-kid's-friends-to-like-her school of parenting.

But Kitty Forman's an absolute fascist ogre compared to Judy Stein, a mother of three twentysomethings who teaches special education at Carr Lane Visual and Performing Arts Middle School. Along with her husband, Eric Stein, a Ranken Technical College physics and mathematics professor, Judy regularly lends the family facilities in an upscale University City neighborhood to her youngest son, Ben, and his hip-hop brethren, Royal Illete. In fact, the nine members of the group can often be found at the Steins' place imbibing, cavorting and, oh yeah, crafting some seriously compelling music.

The family's home studio is found in the den and composed of little more than a tricked-out PC, a mic and a few pieces of foam on the wall. In between recording sessions, the guys sprawl out into the backyard and all over the house, which is filled with the typical trappings of middle-class parents who grew up in the '60s: unpretentious furniture, the Encyclopedia Britannica and lots and lots of old LPs. In fact, Ben — yes, his name is Ben Stein — dips into this collection for the Royal Illete's tracks. He sampled the far-flung sounds of the Japanese koto on Royal Illete's 2003 debut, Taking Under the Overground, as well as the jazz flute on their sophomore effort, King's English. (The latter we liked so much we called it the second-best local hip-hop album of 2004.)

Royal Illete:  "Hey Mom, we  got any Sunny D?"
Jennifer Silverberg
Royal Illete: "Hey Mom, we got any Sunny D?"

"Hip-hop is so diverse that it's getting to the point to where you can use folk or jazz," says Ben, a pale 22-year-old who grew up in this house. "It makes the songs more original."

The first thing one notices about the bespectacled Stein parents is their height difference: Eric's about a foot taller than Judy. The second detail is the pair's gregarious dispositions — and the fact that they get along fabulously with Ben's buds. But not only are the Stein parents enablers (in the best sense of the word); they possess music cred themselves. Judy hosts a Sunday morning show on KDHX-FM featuring folk music from Appalachia and the British Isles. And together, she and her husband help run Maplewood's Focal Point Arts Center, a concert club and performance space that brings in nationally known folk acts on a regular basis.

"We have a pretty broad definition of 'folk,'" says Judy, listing Norman Blake, Tim and Molly O'Brien, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore as performers who have passed through. "Roots music may be a better term — or even non-mainstream — than folk. We get great blues and Cajun, all the way up to Russian bluegrass bands and aboriginal didgeridoo players. Anything we can catch, really."

The Stein hip-hop/folk fusion was on display on a recent Friday night at the homestead. By seven o' clock the multi-racial, mostly twentysomething members of the collective had assembled: Stein, who goes by the producer name Seven; Noodles, Nyquill, Dekoyy Star and Orbix, the group's emcees; Prophet, the engineer; DJ LB; and singer Vision, the group's lone female member. (E-Funk, the group's other producer, is a student at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and couldn't make it.)

In the middle of the mob is Judy Stein, chatting up the group members before heading out for tonight's performance at the Focal Point, which was founded in 1975 as a coffeeshop in Webster Groves. The Steins took over running the not-for-profit center in 1984 with a $3,000 grant from the Missouri Arts Council. The Focal Point changed locations numerous times before settling in its current location (2720 Sutton Boulevard, next door to the Maya Café) in 2000. Since then, the Steins have expanded the offerings in the acoustically superior hall to include a weekly acoustic jam session, tango lessons, African drumming and Cajun dance. (Judy does the booking, Eric works the soundboard, and three other volunteers help run the place as well.)

By the time Judy arrives at the club, Eric is already behind the board and the show is about ready to start. A touring duo from Minneapolis called Curtis and Loretta are performing, the latter on the Celtic harp and the former alternating between mandolin and acoustic guitar. With about fifteen folks on hand, mostly ranging from sexagenarians to septuagenarians, the joint is only at about one-quarter capacity, but everyone's receptive to the historical folk standards. Even Ben has come along, although he ducks out about a half-hour into the show, shortly after Loretta finishes a piece she wrote about the Holocaust.

That's cool with Judy.

"They don't really have an extensive interest in what I do outwardly," she says of her sons. "But they do inwardly because they've been hearing these tunes in the back of their heads all their lives. Ben was crawling around under the table when he was three or four years old and we were singing folk songs in the kitchen."

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