The Next Big Thing

A middle-aged couple with a million dollars and a big dream: To make St. Louis a pop-music hub

Microphone in hand, aspiring rapper Lil Roge stands in front of the aquarium in the downtown loft that belongs to 7Fourteen Productions. The aquarium is the size of a coffee table. In this regard, if Lil Roge were a halibut, he'd be a keeper, but barely.

The newest addition to 7Fourteen's talent roster is all of seven years old.

The 50 or so in attendance — most of them local hip-hop DJs, MCs, singers, radio personalities and industry pros — have come to celebrate the 44th birthday of 7Fourteen co-founder Todd Butterfield. But for the moment all attention is focused on the pint-size gangsta who's clutching the mic like a lollipop and bouncing his cornrowed head in time to the beat of his new song, "Roll Wit Me," as Butterfield captures the moment with his digital minicam.

Karrie and Todd Butterfield, representing the way north side (Quincy, Illinois).
Jennifer Silverberg
Karrie and Todd Butterfield, representing the way north side (Quincy, Illinois).
Next big thing Carla Carter, fresh from a session with legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Jennifer Silverberg
Next big thing Carla Carter, fresh from a session with legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

So small but I'm riding in a big car

Roll with Lil Roge and I'll tell you I'm a big star

Bigger than the sun

Roll with Lil Roge and you know you're having fun.

Were it not for the ghetto-casual shorts, camouflage Air Force Ones and cockeyed gray Yankees cap, Todd Butterfield would be the picture of a middle-aged investment advisor from Quincy, Illinois — which he is. But two years ago he and his wife, Karrie, bought a second home in St. Louis and sank "somewhere around a million dollars" into their fledgling music venture. Now he's a part-time money man and full-time rap mogul.

"This kid is something else," Todd says. "He can rap, he can dance — he's a natural. We're thinking movies for Roge. First music, then try and place him in movies. This kid's going to be famous."

"And he's a sweetheart, too," adds Karrie Butterfield, 7Fourteen's president, dancing to their prodigy's beat in a white lace dress that screams anything but Frontenac. Until 2004 she was on the board of the Miss Illinois program, that state's stepping stone to Miss America. But after eleven years in the beauty-pageant business, Karrie traded the boondocks for urban flair. These days she cruises the country roads of rural Illinois in a yellow Corvette.

Thirteen years into their marriage, the couple "saw an opportunity to make a lot of money and have a good time doing it," Todd explains.

Karrie says she made the move because she saw a bunch of talented kids without the means to follow their dreams. "Everybody deserves a chance," says the erstwhile pageant expert.

The Butterfields bought twin condos on the top floor of a loft on Locust Street — they ask that the location not be published, so as to avoid an incursion of "wannabes" — and converted a bedroom into a sound studio. They hired an ultra-connected Los Angeles music publisher as a consultant and, under his guidance, signed rappers and singers, and formed a publishing company and a record company. Not even two years in, they've consummated one major-label deal and are negotiating two others.

"Everybody's trying to be in my pocket. I've got rappers who aren't even signed trying to get in my pocket," marvels Butterfield, and it's hard to tell if the birthday boy is complaining or bragging.

Carla Carter is riding down La Brea Avenue in a silver Chevy HHR, listening to a ten-second instrumental loop from what is destined to become a poppy dance track. More Madonna than Ciara, the sort of beat you might hear at a gay disco, it's not Carter's favorite kind of music, but the producers are hitmakers and they're grooving on it, so she's giving it a shot.

She has been trying to turn this snippet into a song for the past 24 hours. All day yesterday she was in the studio, and most of last night was spent writing in her bed at the Highland Gardens Hotel, a storied Art Deco joint in West Hollywood.

"At first I didn't like it there," Carter says of the ragged accommodations formerly known as the Hollywood Landmark Hotel, where the lobby carpet is worn with pathways and the air reeks of cigarette smoke from 1965. "But then I found out that it's the place where Janis Joplin died, and Jimi Hendrix stayed there. The Rat Pack used to play cards out front."

If it was good enough for Janis and Jimi, Frank and Deano, Carter figured it was good enough for her.

Though her golden face and carved cheekbones offset by oversize aviator sunglasses make her look Mary J. Blige famous, Carter acts Mary Tyler Moore nice. But the past few months have been a wild ride for the 23-year-old songwriter from north St. Louis: meetings with American Idol hitmaker Randy Jackson, who wants two of her songs; songwriting sessions with the Midi Mafia, producers of 50 Cent's "21 Questions," which yielded a slow burn of a ballad called "Fool for Some Love"; studio time with legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, her songwriting idols.

Carter is 7Fourteen's first (and so far only) songwriter. And she represents a key component of the template LA legend Alan Melina designed for the St. Louis start-up.

Reminiscent of the chameleon-like hero of Woody Allen's Zelig, Melina found his way into the picture for many a watershed moment during the late-twentieth-century evolution of pop and rock music, from the British invasion to the glam-rock explosion to New Wave, hip hop and beyond.

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