Local rappers ink major-label contracts, only to be left wondering: Deal or no deal?

And some St. Louis hip-hop artists take their future into their own hands.

Do it again.

This must be the twentieth pass rapper Akio Gray has taken through his new song's tortuous third verse, a tongue-tripping slide through women and the workaday week. Reading the lyrics from his two-way's illuminated screen in the darkness of Phat Buddha's recording studio, Gray has been stumbling over retake after retake for nearly an hour, trying to nail the verse with the force he imagined when he first punched the lines to "Old School" into the Sidekick.

So far no luck.

The era of the independent hustler: Ruka Puff isn't just looking for a deal -- he's looking for the right deal.
Jennifer Silverberg
The era of the independent hustler: Ruka Puff isn't just looking for a deal -- he's looking for the right deal.
Ebony Eyez hit big with her single "In Ya Face." Now that she's left Capitol Records, she's looking for a new deal.
Jennifer Silverberg
Ebony Eyez hit big with her single "In Ya Face." Now that she's left Capitol Records, she's looking for a new deal.

"Let me hear it again," Gray tells the hulking producer seated behind an incline of levers, buttons and knobs. With a few keystrokes, Chris Robinson — baldheaded, Buddha-serene and sporting a Redd Foxx T-shirt that bears the late St. Louis comedian's signature Sanford and Son line: "You Big Dummy!" — calmly cues up the verse.

"Damn," Gray says as he listens to the loop. "Let's do it again."

By now Gray, better known by his stage name, Potzee, has the verse memorized. As the loop cycles through for the umpteenth time, he shuts the studio door, holsters his two-way and launches into the song's thicket of vowels with fresh resolve. His bobbing head, a cascade of shoulder-length micro-dreads framed by a pair of lightly tinted sunglasses, punctuates the beat. His hands jab instinctively, reinforcing his growing fluency with the lyrics, which blast through the darkened studio's five-foot speakers, polished at last:

The paparazzi's there to keep it stupid
Getting paid, they can't do it the way I do it
Tuesday to Sunday I take Monday off,
Cause I'm buck-naked with you broad, gonna get mine off.

"Old School" has a catchy horn section that counterweights Potzee's boastfest about his skill with the ladies. But despite the nice beat and the long hours spent hammering down the delivery, the song will most likely be shelved — along with most of the more than 100 songs the rapper says he has recorded since inking a deal with Asylum Records back in 2004.

In the nebulous world of up-and-coming St. Louis rappers, Potzee is one of the city's brightest lights. Affable, good-looking and charismatic, he has already tasted success with "Dat Girl," an infectious single that hit big enough locally to earn him a video shoot with Asylum. Working with St. Lunatic Murphy Lee, he has cofounded the record label U.C. Me Entertainment. He performs regularly in clubs and schools. He spends many of his nights going over songs and recording in the studio. In other words, he's grinding.

"I feel blessed for real," says Potzee, who's wearing an oversize T-shirt that features a wind-blown honey in a rhinestone bikini, her flesh formed of overlapping $100 bills. "St. Louis is still an untapped market. We've got a lot of people who are kind of incubating right now. So we're like the next Texas, and everybody wants to make sure they put their stuff out there at the right time."

Incubating is right: Three years after signing with Asylum, Potzee's debut album, Hongry, has yet to materialize. Slated for release in July 2006, it was first pushed back to late summer, then postponed again in August.

Potzee says he's not discouraged by the delays and hopes to release the album sometime this spring. But he is only one of many St. Louis hip-hop acts that have been signed to a record label for a year or more and have yet to release an album.

Raw Resse, Clyph, Penelope Jones, Ali and Gipp, Potzee, Da Banggaz314, Baby Huey — the list of signed St. Louis hip-hop artists goes on. But for all the recording industry's apparent interest in St. Louis artists, Jibbs and Chingy are the only acts that managed to release a hip-hop album in 2006.

"A lot of the major labels get panicked. They see all this stuff coming out of St. Louis. They don't want to be last ones, and so they rush into signing someone. But it's like the proverbial dog on the street corner chasing cars. What will that dog do if it ever catches one?" says Emmett McAuliffe, a local entertainment lawyer who has represented artists Baby Huey and Da Hol' 9. "There are a lot of look-see deals out there — and that doesn't amount to much more than a one-way option, which could mean absolutely nothing."

Former Capitol artist Ebony Williams is more blunt.

"Artists are like: 'I got a deal!' That don't mean shit — nothing," says Williams, who sampled fame two years ago under her stage name, Ebony Eyez. "Artists think that once they get the deal they can fall back and let the label do the work. But getting signed means just that: You're signed. It doesn't mean you're going to get a video, or radio spins. It just means you're signed. Some of these artists think it's going to happen for them like it happened for Nelly — but the music business has changed."

Jibbs feat. Jibbs, the quasi-eponymous first album by sixteen-year-old St. Louisan Javon Campbell, a.k.a. Jibbs, brought with it the hope that the young rapper would prove to the world at large that this city's hip-hop catalog goes deeper than Nelly and Chingy.

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