Battle of the Beats

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

"It's like when you're talking about rock," Hagin says. "Are you more likely to have problems at a Slayer show than you are a Wilco show? You bet. You can lump both artists into the 'rock' category, but they're completely different audiences."

Such stereotypes do not sit well with Integrity's Tech Supreme, who says he's a fan of all styles of hip-hop. "To say that type of crowd likes to fight is horrible, it's a generalization," he says. "Anytime you form an opinion based on an outside perspective, you're being prejudiced and ignorant. When you do that you're finding a scapegoat for a bigger problem."

Wes Allmond has experienced both worlds — mainstream and underground. As general manager of Ch'rewd Marketing, a Chicago-based hip-hop promotions firm, he makes the rounds to mega-clubs like Onyx and talks up the latest releases from major record labels. He was also a DJ at Blueberry Hill's previous underground hip-hop night, The Science, before that event ended last year.

DJ Trackstar hopes to create a calmer and gentler atmosphere at local hip-hop clubs.
Jennifer Silverberg
DJ Trackstar hopes to create a calmer and gentler atmosphere at local hip-hop clubs.
DJ Needles: "The threat of ghettofication is always looming."
Jennifer Silverberg
DJ Needles: "The threat of ghettofication is always looming."

"Hip-hop kids call 'em thugs and the white T-shirt dudes don't give a fuck," Allmond says, describing the tenuous relationship between the two audiences. "They really don't know underground."

Both factions of St. Louis hip-hop insist there's a widespread bias against their music and culture. Trackstar says many people form opinions about the music and its listeners based on the lyrics. The common themes of mainstream hip-hop, or "the big four," as he calls it, are money, drugs, women and violence. "People hear hip-hop," adds Trackstar, "and when they're not involved in hip-hop, the first thing they think is the mainstream perception of it — the guns, the drugs, the money, the misogyny. That's scary to people."

The 609 Lounge's owner Bernie Lee believes that negative reputation is why DJ Needles' JazzyPhatNappy night was blamed for the shooting that occurred next door to his club. "Because it's a lot of black people, it's how St. Louis projects things," Lee says.

Whatever the case, the perception has made it more difficult to establish small, underground hip-hop nights. Lamar "Finsta" Williams, Integrity's other co-host, ran an underground hip-hop night at the Hi-Pointe Café for nearly ten years (an environment so friendly, he describes it as an urban version of Cheers), until the place changed hands and the new owners sent him packing. A frustrating search for a new venue ensued.

"We'd been to a few places and they turned us down — always because of the type of music we play," Finsta recalls. "People don't think that there's room for underground rap music. If it's not what's being played on radio or if it's not crunk, they say, 'Well, we're not going to make any money off it.'"

Even when new hip-hop nights are established, clubs often resort to dress codes and age minimums in hopes of deterring what they feel is the wrong crowd. After recently starting his own underground hip-hop night on Wednesdays at Queen of Sheba in University City, Scott "Lyfestile" Woods says the issue of a dress code came up with the club's owner.

"There are a lot of places where they only want a certain kind of people to show up. They want the black dude that's dressed up like Usher to get up in the joint because they're comfortable with that. They assume he's not going to cause trouble," says Lyfestile, who decided against the dress restriction.

St. Louis Police Capt. Jerry Leyshock, who commands the city's fourth district, an area that includes two large hip-hop nightclubs, says he's noticed a recent decline in police calls, thanks in part to dress codes. "They have specialists opening up clubs who realize there are going to be problems if the police are called constantly," he says. "They try to have standards for their clientele."

Trackstar and Hagin say they once considered banning tall white T-shirts at Integrity but then against it. But, says Hagin, "That's not really what we want it to be about. If you get to that point [of a dress code], you have to seriously consider why you're doing it at all."

When dress codes, age minimums and other measures fail to achieve the desired atmosphere, club owners try and change the music format. For some, though, that smacks of flat-out racism.

"St. Louis is really a hood city. We don't want to look at it that way or feel that way, but it is. The hood element is going to go anywhere they please," says DJ Charlie Chan, who spins at hip-hop nights at the Delmar Lounge and The Loft, and hosts a show on hip-hop station Hot 104.1.

"If you're playing music that they like, if you got a spot that's poppin' — black, white, Mexican, it doesn't matter — they're going to show up. And it seems like once the black people show up, they want to change the music."

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