By Hans Morgenstern
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"I was probably drunk and really high, 'cause I was doing a lot of drinking and smoking of pot back then," remembers Minneapolis heartthrob Slug. "That was one of the first times I ever collaborated with somebody I didn't know, and it definitely left a good impression on me. Because of how polite he was, it made me more open-minded to meeting new people. Prior to that, man, I didn't trust anybody."
While psyched about the compliment, Crucial disputes one key fact.
"Nobody was drunk at the time," he says. "It was in the morning, the day after the show. We picked them up and met at my parents' house, where I was living at the time. We had doughnuts and orange juice."
Perhaps because he doesn't imbibe or smoke, the 30-year-old Crucial real name Robert Fulstone has a long memory. Today, on a thawing late-March afternoon in his Skinker-DeBaliviere house, he's setting the record straight on his first album, Test Presses and Dub Plates. Eight years in the making, Test Presses showcases a slew of underground rap heroes: Slug, gangsta-rap pioneer MC Eiht, Chicago freestyle king Juice, and collaborators-turned-enemies MF Grimm and MF Doom all contribute songs. Gang Starr's DJ Premier voices the intro.
Other featured artists on the album Hi-Fidel, Serengeti, Nato Caliph, Committee and Altered St8s form the starting lineup for F5 Records, the label Crucial founded in 1997, three years after getting his start as a DJ at Ladue High School.
Back in those days, Crucial was blasting Compton's Most Wanted from his Jeep Cherokee while driving to school, dreaming of working with Eiht, the group's standout emcee. Fast forward to 2004. Eiht's been booked at the Science, the stubbornly anachronistic Blueberry Hill party where Crucial and his wife, DJ Agile One, spin tributes to rap's pioneers and traditionalists.
Crucial immediately sends Eiht's people some tracks and a collaboration plea. For weeks, no response. "I was really nervous, like, 'Is he going to call me? Does he not like my records?'" the producer remembers. "Finally I got the call."
But on the day they were to record together, the LA camp's plane was late, making them tardy for their booked studio time. So Crucial brazenly suggested Eiht lay down the track in his DeMun apartment. After being assured that the producer's equipment was up to snuff, Eiht came by and nailed "Life I Chose" in one take in Crucial's closet recording booth.
"We went to his little studio, and he was tellin' me how he releases white-label twelve-inches, that just blew me like, 'Damn, most brothers don't do that anymore,'" Eiht said in a recent interview with AllHipHop.com. "I come from that era. It was authentic to me. I just wanted to write a song looking at all his vinyl and his respect for DJing and all that, and made me wanna take it back. That's the life I chose."
Today Crucial is just about as well-known as any other St. Louis hip-hop DJ. In addition to spinning at the Science, he appears regularly at the Drunken Fish, the Delmar Lounge, Sekisui Pacific Rim and the Upstairs Lounge, supplementing his income by laying and cutting drywall. Sporting a patchy red beard and long hair, he speaks in quiet, halting tones a contrast to the urgent, sharp beats on his records, which are usually couched in soul and classic-rock samples from the late '60s and '70s.
He procured the records that inform Test Presses largely from the collection of DJ Clockwork, who sells rare records out of his house in Olivette on an invitation-only basis. But Crucial insists that he's not a snob when it comes to vinyl DJ Premier taught him as much.
"If it sounds cool, that's all that matters," he says, pulling a Premier album from his wall of LPs and putting it onto a turntable. "This [sample] is taken from Marvin Gaye's In Our Lifetime. You see this record everywhere for, like, a dollar. You think it's so common, but it's just so dope."
Premier, another of Crucial's boyhood heroes, used the producer's equipment when he played the Science last year. "He was yelling the whole time," Crucial remembers. "'Before there was hip-hop there was this.' And then he'd put on the Clash. He just kept saying, 'You gotta work hard in hip-hop.'"
The yelling may have been inspirational, but it prohibited Premier from doing a promised extended intro for "Life I Chose." He was so hoarse after the show that he only managed to mumble the few sentences that now open Test Presses.
Initially resigned to holding it down as a party DJ, Crucial first tinkered with a four-track at the urging of friend and producer Kenautis Smith while studying radio and television at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. A result of that experimentation: the music from Luniz's "I Got 5 on It" combined with Redman and Method Man's lyrics from "How High," a mix that popularized Crucial's name on campus.
Carbondale was where he met Serengeti and Hi-Fidel, for whom he would produce Dirty Flamingo and Traveling Between St. Louis and Chicago, respectively. The latter spawned the single "Tenth Wonderful," which sold out two press-runs of 1,000 copies, becoming one of F5's biggest-selling releases.
A remix of the song is on Test Presses, whose title refers to the initial, label-less productions of a record, designed to give the artist a chance to evaluate the audio. (A dub plate, meanwhile, is an acetate prototype of an LP.)
The album itself is a reflection on Crucial's technical sojourn through the hip-hop landscape. Its final song, "Immaculate Anticipation," was originally recorded with Hi-Fidel, who ended up unsatisfied with his performance. Filling in for him was Katt Davis who, along with his brother Jia, was half of seminal local duo Bits N Pieces. Crucial recorded Katt Davis' rhymes about six months before he was killed by a St. Louis police officer, shortly after allegedly attempting to steal a car.
The devastating tragedy was seemingly compounded later by a technical problem. Shortly after Katt Davis' death, the final version of "Immaculate Anticipation" was ruined by a file error on Crucial's hard drive. For Test Presses, he was forced to use a rough version, recorded earlier. But, like many of Crucial's songs, it sparkles even without polish.
"The audio may not be where it should be, but the quality of the lyrics and music is definitely high," he says. "No matter how bad something sounds, if it's good, it's good."