Battle of the Beats

A culture war is rocking within St. Louis’ underground hip-hop scene.

"If you were turned off by the increase of the oft-times thuggish crowd and the obligatory b.s. that comes with it, I welcome you back to experience the original theme of the evening...a relaxed, soulful night of networking, socializing and gettin' your respective groove on."

Nearly a month later on Friday, June 1, just as Needles' set was ending at 1:30 a.m., off-duty police officers responded to a gunman firing shots into a crowd gathered in a parking lot adjacent to 609. When the shooter pointed his weapon at police, they opened fire, wounding him in the ankle.

"There's no middle ground," Needles says. "It goes from everything is fine and dandy to a freakin' shooting."

Intergrity co-host Lamar "Finsta" Williams says there's plenty of room in St. Louis for underground rap music.
Jennifer Silverberg
Intergrity co-host Lamar "Finsta" Williams says there's plenty of room in St. Louis for underground rap music.
Onyx lost its operating license following a March 3 shooting in its parking lot.
Jennifer Silverberg
Onyx lost its operating license following a March 3 shooting in its parking lot.

Despite the fact that the gunman hadn't even been to 609 that night, the club was on the receiving end of bad publicity. Says DJ Trackstar, "If something happens, you don't blame soul or funk for what happened. But hip-hop gets blamed."

The violent reputation of some St. Louis hip-hop clubs did not develop overnight. In the last year alone, there have been ten shootings and two stabbings, resulting in a total of five deaths at hip-hop nightspots. Clubs in East St. Louis accounted for two of the fatal shootings and one stabbing.

Late last month, three seventeen-year-old boys were standing in front of Club Amp in downtown St. Louis when they were shot and wounded. Minutes earlier, a sixteen-year-old girl standing in the parking lot behind the club was shot and wounded in the leg. Police believe the shootings are related.

In April, St. Louis Excise Commissioner Robert Kraiberg suspended the liquor licenses of clubs Plush and Dreams, citing the establishments for "disorderly place and improper acts," including a shooting outside of Plush in November, and the indictments of the owners of Dreams for bank and credit-card fraud.

Kraiberg says certain musical formats lend themselves to trouble. "The most extreme example I can give you, is if you play Lawrence Welk, you're not going to have blue-haired old ladies beating each other over the head with walkers," he says. "It just seems that gangster rap will attract, well, gangsters."

As Integrity comes to a close for the night, across the river in East St. Louis, Club Onyx is just starting to pop. Traffic on Collinsville Avenue stretches nearly to the freeway, each ride bumping bass. The line to get in the door is endless and is slowed by security guards patting down each entrant for weapons. The DJ drops the Southern rap club anthem, "Wipe Me Down," by Lil' Boosie. When the deep drawling bass and sputtering hi-hat cymbal hit, the crowd, which can draw 2,000 on a busy night, makes the dance floor shiver.

The difference between Onyx and Integrity is vast. The former is a wild party that will go until six in the morning, its dance floor packed with a jostling, grinding crowd. The only thing holding it in check is an eighteen-man security team hired from an East St. Louis company called The Goon Squad.

On the early morning of August 21, even Onyx's high-powered security proved inadequate, when a bouncer was shot and wounded after asking a couple to leave the club's parking lot. That incident, coupled with a still-unsolved fatal shooting (also in the parking lot) on March 3 and a stabbing in January, caused East St. Louis officials to revoke Onyx's operating license. An investigation to determine whether the club will be allowed to reopen is pending.

Onyx's owner, Terrence, who asked that his full name not be used because he "likes to keep a low profile," says that St. Louis' hip-hop clubs changed with the music of the mid-90's, when artists like Master P and Lil' Jon popularized the genres of crunk and Southern rap.

Today, crunk is often referred to as "snap," and is defined by simple, chant-able lyrics backed by a slow, rumbling bass and a rapid hi-hat that speeds up the beat. "That's music that makes you want to do something to somebody," says Terrence.

It's also music that has little appeal for most underground hip-hop listeners.

"Lil' Boosie, 'Wipe Me Down,' I don't play stuff like that," says DJ Needles. "If all you like is that radio nonsense, I can't help you."

The genre of underground, also known as conscious or alternative hip-hop, is difficult to pin down. The lyrics usually touch self-consciously on politics, race and the shortcomings of mainstream hip-hop. The beats intentionally bend genres by sampling everything from funk and soul to techno and rock. Ultimately, as the name implies, underground is defined more by where it's heard than what it sounds like. With a few exceptions, if it's played on the radio, MTV or BET, it's not underground.

Underground is also a loaded term, and Trackstar doesn't want it applied to Integrity, explaining that it carries a stigma of a suburban, white fan base that alienates many mainstream hip-hop fans. Instead he prefers to call it "lyrical hip-hop," and Integrity co-host Derrick "Tech Supreme" Kilgore reluctantly refers to it as "under-the-radar hip-hop."

Even such open-ended terms prove inadequate because several popular artists, such as Lil' Wayne and Kanye West, have crossover appeal between the two audiences, and this gets to the root of Trackstar's problems at the Halo Bar. His eclectic playlist drew both the underground community and fans of Southern rap, the latter bringing with them the violent stigma associated with clubs like Onyx. It was a crowd Halo's management and regulars weren't comfortable with.

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