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It's Integrity night at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room and DJ Trackstar stands nearly hidden onstage behind his turntables. His gray-and-black Cardinals hat is pulled so low over his face that the flat brim reveals only a pair of wire-framed glasses and a stubbly beard. Leaning in close to his laptop's screen, he settles on a track, "The People," by Common. After cuing up the song, he slouches back to survey the scene he's created. The rapper's rapid-fire lyrics begin to rumble throughout the basement. At the door, an emcee with thick, waist-length dreads hands out fliers for his next show and hawks CDs with home-printed cover art. Dressed in polo shirts and Air Force Ones, the night's hosts, Finsta and Tech Supreme, shake hands with a producer who is submitting an entry for the upcoming competition known as Battle of the Beats.
Integrity, Trackstar's musical creation at Blueberry Hill on Saturdays, has entered its eighth week, and attendance routinely cracks triple digits. The Battle of the Beats, open-mic and live performances have also combined to create a new and vibrant outlet for St. Louis' burgeoning underground scene. Critical to the long-term success of Integrity is maintaining its relaxed atmosphere. Explains Trackstar: "We wanted to reflect something different than your average club experience and give people an idea of what we're about through the name 'Integrity.'"
Fans of underground hip-hop pride themselves on advancing the art and culture of the music, a stark contrast to many of the city's large urban nightclubs where the crowd is just out to party. The divide between the two approaches has sparked a culture war as events like Integrity fight to maintain a more tranquil identity in a scene dominated by rowdy hip-hop dance clubs. One DJ describes the struggle as "the looming threat of ghettofication."
"It's about us adhering to a set of standards of quality and art," says the 26-year-old Trackstar, who clerks at a downtown law firm by day under his real name, Gabe Moskoff.
For the past three and a half years, Trackstar, who teaches a hip-hop outreach class to kids at the Center for Recording Arts, had performed Friday-night gigs at the Halo Bar, a format he refers to as "hip-hop lounge." He'd feature underground artists such as Lupe Fiasco and Pharoahe Monch, alongside mainstream Southern rappers like T.I. and Lil' Wayne.
Early this year, Friday nights at the Halo began to attract an element altogether unlike its tight-knit group of underground hip-hop devotees. Drawn by the Southern rap Trackstar played, the crowd and mood of the night began to resemble a large, clamorous, hip-hop dance club. The change caused several guests to say they felt unsafe, prompting management to demand a change in format.
"I had people come up to me and say, 'It's getting kind of tense in here, a little uncomfortable,' so I started toning down the Southern aspects of the music," Trackstar says. The problem, he adds, was compounded by the closing of the some of the city's larger nightclubs, and the fact that there is no cover charge at Halo, making it an easy stop on a night of club-hopping.
"But I didn't do it fast enough. People were feeling uncomfortable," he recalls. "What it was put to me is [that] people who weren't members of the hip-hop community weren't feeling welcome because of the crowd that was there requesting T-Pain and Lil' Boosie every week."
In early June, Trackstar says the Halo Bar's manager approached him and made it clear that he either needed to change the music or find another place to play. To save his job, Trackstar relented and started mixing soul, rock and jazz in with his usual playlist. Attendance plummeted.
"It seemed like we were approaching a point where control was an issue," explains Pat Hagin, who books entertainment at the Halo Bar, Blueberry Hill and The Pageant. "We didn't want to lose control of the venue."
The Halo Bar, where Trackstar still DJs on Fridays, is not the first venue where different factions of St. Louis hip-hop have collided. Situated in the University City Loop, between the Halo Bar and Blueberry Hill, is 609 Restaurant and U Lounge, where James "DJ Needles" Gates describes similar circumstances. Needles hosts a Thursday evening set that he founded in 2003 called JazzyPhatNappy, a mix of hip-hop, funk, soul and other genres. A lounge atmosphere early in the night, he says, gradually transformed into a packed dance floor as last call neared. Eventually, Needles remembers, "people who dress like thugs" began attending. Several fights broke out and women started to complain about harassment. In response, in early May the club decided to enforce a 25-year-old age minimum for men and instituted a dress code that banned clothing like tank tops, do-rags and "tall," or oversize, white T-shirts.
In conjunction with the new policies, Needles, hoping to reassure his 609 regulars, dispatched an e-mail to patrons that read: "The threat of ghettofication is always looming. Unfortunately, 609 wasn't immune to this infestation of ignorance...while the music hardly wavered, the energy was that of a club promoted by local radio. To the females who felt less than safe and/or respected, I personally apologize. This growing number of thugs attending my event didn't bother me at first. I figured, my people is my people regardless of dress, grillz [sic] or doo rags [sic].