Fist City: Rockwell Knuckles aims to punch through St. Louis hip-hop's glass ceiling

Editor's note: To download mp3 files of Rockwell Knuckles posted at the RFT music blog, A to Z, click here. To see a slideshow that accompanies this story, click here.

Countless DVDs are piled high in stacks in the living room of Rockwell Knuckles' north St. Louis apartment. Everything from A Clockwork Orange to Pretty in Pink is strewn around the TV set.

Across the room, clad in a crimson bathrobe, jeans and a T-shirt, Knuckles is seated cross-legged on his couch. The combination of his black horn-rimmed glasses and the way the robe drapes over his legs is vaguely monkish. If he grew an Afro and a goatee, he could pass for a young Spike Lee.

Knuckles put his neighborhood front and center when he named his debut solo album Northside Phenomenon.
Jennifer Silverberg
Knuckles put his neighborhood front and center when he named his debut solo album Northside Phenomenon.
Rockwell Knuckles
Rockwell Knuckles

To him, even the most trivial films contain life lessons. At the moment he's citing one of his favorites, The Breakfast Club.

"Every movie is a riddle, man," Knuckles says animatedly. "Take The Breakfast Club. It's a movie all about people sitting in one room — which is amazing in itself — and everybody's already got an assumption about what the other person's about. They go in and go at it and go at it, and then right at the end they all get blowed and realize, 'Damn. We all the same motherfuckin' person.'"

An aspiring rapper, Rockwell applies the same acerbic wit and insight to his music, often dropping allusions to his favorite films into his verses. In one song, battling internal demons becomes, "One thing's for certain, one day everybody must face their own personal Tyler Durden."

True. At age 25 Knuckles is living his own version of Fight Club: He loves music but hates the music business. He self-released his first solo album, Northside Phenomenon, in November of last year but has done little to promote it. He says he's fed up with the rampant materialism of the rap record industry and the insular St. Louis hip-hop scene.

"[People] act fake and all chummy and shit with somebody they never hang out with, never planned on hanging out with, until they found out that that person could do something for them," Knuckles says, betraying a speaking voice several octaves higher than the booming one with which he sings. "I think that's cowardly and pathetic. But that's how it is. That's 'the business.' I don't wanna kiss nobody's ass. If I'm talented and you know I'm talented, then what's the point of me doing all that?"

He's not alone in his principles. Knuckles is part of a new wave of St. Louis-bred independent hip-hop producers and emcees, most of whom cut their teeth performing at the now-defunct Hi-Pointe Café. Their music is defined by innovative beats and clever wordplay — a stark contrast to the "ringtone rap" that pervades the city's clubs and radio airwaves. Knuckles' album is a unique blend of heavy hip-hop bass lines, rock guitar and jazz horns — imagine equal parts Lupe Fiasco, Notorious B.I.G. and the Beatles.

A handful of local artists have found recognition and critical acclaim by moving away from St. Louis. The majority are, like Knuckles, left struggling to find the formula for success in their hometown.

Sunlight pours through the plate-glass windows of the Loft, a nightclub on Olive Street in midtown. The club is half full of hip-hop emcees, DJs, managers, and promoters all mingling. They're on hand for a semifinal round of Koch Madness, a contest sponsored by local rap radio station Hot 104.1 (WHHL-FM).

A marketing promotion, the contest is essentially a St. Louis hip-hop version of American Idol. Each rapper is allotted three minutes to perform any original song of his choosing. A panel of three judges grades them on appearance, stage presence and song quality and decides who advances to the next round. The winner, to be crowned March 2, gets a single released on Koch Records and $1,000. More than 200 wannabe rappers turned out for the first two rounds. This day, eight will compete for one spot in the final four.

Knuckles, a semifinalist himself, is slated to perform in a later semifinal event, but he's on hand tonight to survey his competition. At the moment he doesn't look disgusted with the requisite networking/hustling that goes on at such events. Friends and associates pass by, exchanging greetings and handshakes. They talk shop.

One, the CEO of a local music marketing agency and an old friend, is surprised to learn that Knuckles released a disc in November. "Man, you have to promote that more," he admonishes.

Rockwell explains sheepishly that the man can download the record on the Internet, and adds, "I don't have the funds right now [to market it]."

"All it takes is a phone call," comes the reply.

Knuckles says he entered the competition on a whim, after hearing about it from a friend. He likes the fact that Koch is a respected independent label, and he could use the cash. And, of course, it's a chance to get his music heard — even if it means playing the game on someone else's terms.

"I don't want to be the dumbass that's just sitting there doing nothing," he says. "People are like, 'Oh man, if you do this and this it'll work,' and I'm not doing anything, because of my principles. It's not me not believing in my principles, because I do. It's just a lot of people who stand on pride end up with nothing.

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