"I'm not putting all my hopes and dreams in a crapshoot," he adds. "That's a horse race. I'm going to do my songs. Maybe they dig 'em, maybe they don't. Maybe they like me, maybe they won't."

Registration for the contest opened in front of the Loft at 6 a.m. on a frigid January morning.

Knuckles was fifth in line.

Knuckles performing in the semifinals of Hot 104.1's Koch Madness competition at the Loft, where he finished a close second to Nite Owl.
Knuckles performing in the semifinals of Hot 104.1's Koch Madness competition at the Loft, where he finished a close second to Nite Owl.
Like Knuckles, emcee Gotta Be Karim honed his highbrow hip-hop craft at the Hi-Pointe Café.
Like Knuckles, emcee Gotta Be Karim honed his highbrow hip-hop craft at the Hi-Pointe Café.

Maurice White, a senior national director with Koch who attended the first round of the competition, says many artists he encounters have no clue what they should be doing to earn record deals.

"Poor management, poor business plan, unrealistic expectations," White reels off. "I guess that last one is what makes them artists, but a lot of them have expectations that are way over the top. There are certain business strategies, but they got be in the streets, grinding, trying to create a buzz."

"They don't do what's necessary and they go by the wayside," agrees Hot 104.1 DJ Charlie Chan. "They just give up. I get guys who are less talented in my face all the time, and eventually they get a record."

As the album title suggests, Rockwell Knuckles (given name: Corey Barnett) is a north-side native. He grew up in rough neighborhoods, splitting time between his mother's house just north of Calvary Cemetery and his grandparents' home a few blocks south of Fairground Park.

When Knuckles was nine, his father walked out on the family. His mother made ends meet by working in a quality-control laboratory at Purina. She earned enough to put him through private schools. He went to high school at Cardinal Ritter College Prep.

"I didn't grow up starving or destitute or anything," Knuckles says. "I ate good meals every day, I was a chubby baby. I come from hard-working people."

Leon Henderson recalls that while a student at Cardinal Ritter Knuckles displayed flashes of the shrewd social commentary that now infuses his music.

"His papers always reflected a lot of critical thinking," says Henderson, who is now the school's president. "Corey was always willing to engage in conversation and engage in critical reflection about what was going on around him in the community and the world."

The way Knuckles tells it, Cardinal Ritter also provided the inspiration for his stage name: "I was standin' at a bus stop at the corner of Thekla and Thrush wearing my Cardinal Ritter uniform. This bully started hassling me about it, so I punched the guy in the mouth. My hand was all bloody and it hurt like hell. One of my friends was like, 'Hey man, you got rocky knuckles.' So I went by Rocky Knuckles for a while, but then a lot of rappers in St. Louis started having names that end in y. So I thought: What do I do? I rock. I rock well: Rockwell Knuckles."

His first rap, which he performed at a church function, was called "Our World" and encouraged recycling. He was nine. The words were written by his mother. "'It's our world, it's one of a kind,'" he recites from memory. "'If we going to change it, we got to change our mind.'"

While in high school, Knuckles began attending and reading at poetry slams. At one event he met Gotta Be Karim, a St. Louis emcee who appears on Knuckles' album on the track "Leave Us Alone."

"He read his [hip-hop] rhymes, but he gave it the swagger of poetry," Karim recalls.

Eventually Knuckles began sneaking into the Monday night hip-hop program at the Hi-Pointe, honing his battle-rap skills and reinforcing his desire to pursue a career.

"I started rapping when I started going to the Hi-Pointe. It was very quintessential to my music," Knuckles says. "I was seventeen, eighteen, watching all these grown men rap. I see 'em in the street and they're Alex and John and Jimmy Bob. I come there and they're MC Smackabitch and DJ Punchafucker. Everybody was like superheroes in the night."

Rockwell Knuckles is hardly the first St. Louis emcee to credit the Hi-Pointe with launching his rap career. Fixtures on today's St. Louis underground scene who say they were regulars at Hi-Pointe Mondays include Gotta Be Karim, DJ Trackstar, DJ Needles, Black Spade, Nite Owl, Vandalyzm and dozens more.

"That was where the best of the best of our city could congregate and make sickening music," says Vandalyzm. "It wasn't about money, it was just hip-hop."

Mondays were the brainchild of Lamar "Finsta" Williams, who explains that it began as an alternative to the mainstream, club-oriented rap that was becoming popular at the time: Even as St. Louis was beginning to embrace crunk, with its simplistic hooks and slow but catchy (and danceable) hi-hat and keyboard beats, the Hi-Pointe was promoting a style of hip-hop modeled after New York artists such as the Wu-Tang Clan and Gang Starr, emphasizing inventive lyrics and beats.

"We were still focusing on being wordy with the lyrics while everybody else was being stupid," says Finsta. "Everybody like, 'Where did these guys come from?' People would be like, 'Are you from New York or something?'"

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