While independent artists were able to gain a critical toehold in cities like New York, Minneapolis and the San Francisco Bay area, crunk, the movement that started with Master P, continues to rule in St. Louis to this day, with contemporary artists such as T-Pain and Soulja Boy dominating local radio and clubs.

Though it would enjoy brief reincarnations at other locations throughout the city, the last true Hi-Pointe Monday was held in September 2006, not long after new owners took over the venue. And by all accounts the local underground scene has never quite recovered. There have been several attempts to recapture the magic, the most notable being the short-lived Integrity, a hip-hop networking and showcase night at Blueberry Hill hosted by Finsta, producer Tech Supreme and DJ Trackstar, but almost all have failed.

"We always cling to how it used to be," says DJ Needles, co-host of Fat Laces, a local hip-hop show that airs Sunday nights on KDHX (88.1 FM). "It used to be better around here as far as actual events showcasing raw hip-hop. We don't really have that anymore."

Rapper/producer Vandalyzm says that to be successful he had to take his show on the road: "At the end of the day you have to go out of town to make it happen."
Rapper/producer Vandalyzm says that to be successful he had to take his show on the road: "At the end of the day you have to go out of town to make it happen."

Currently only a handful of underground hip-hop nights exist; the most prominent take place in the vicinity of Soulard: Needles' Café Soul every third Friday of the month at the Lucas School House, and Trackstar's Monday gig at the Old Rock House.

Trackstar speculates that the shortage of quality underground nights has rendered networking nearly impossible. Sadly, he says, most people don't seem to care.

"The only thing I can come up with is, the way everything is going with the Internet and MySpace, everyone thinks they're their own self-contained unit," Trackstar says. "Everyone thinks they can do all their self-promotion and networking on MySpace.

"People think they don't need events because they can check out other people's work and network and get feedback through MySpace, so why spend five dollars to go out?"

By the time Knuckles graduated high school in June 2000, he had joined a promising group of seven St. Louis rappers who called themselves Pangea. He enrolled in fall classes at Harris-Stowe State University but soon dropped out to pursue his music career. Pangea quickly became the Next Big Thing on the local scene.

"You can't talk about St. Louis hip-hop without talking about 'em," says DJ Needles. "They was the little cats that just further solidified that this area's got some real independent thinkers and profound writers in hip-hop."

The group's future, however, mirrored the fate of the supercontinent from which it took its name: Relationships deteriorated as members of the act drifted apart.

"It just got ugly, to where it come to the point that somebody was going to get their ass beat or shot," says DJ Charlie Chan, who had signed on to produce the band.

Knuckles says there are no hard feelings between him and his former bandmates, and calls his time with Pangea a learning experience.

"They're good people, man — musically cold, personally awesome," he says. "It's just everybody likes to work in music at their pace, and I got to keep movin' and groovin'."

Eventually the cast was whittled down to just Knuckles and two close friends, a rapper named Wafeek and Brian "Grand" Trotter, who pulled double duty as emcee and band manager. Soon after Wafeek moved to Tucson in 2003 to try his hand at the West Coast music scene, Knuckles followed. After a few months, the pair decided to move to LA to record a project with a production team called the Art Thugs. They wrote the entire album on the nine-hour drive across the desert.

"It was awesome," Knuckles recalls. "We were just driving and writing — the seat of your pants, a few bucks in your pocket, a couple hundred dollars next to nothing, working on what you got. It's like, 'OK, this is going to work. Yes, it is. There's no choice.'"

Wafeek says in those days Knuckles was willing to play the rap game.

"When we were younger, he was always involved and communicating with people, being public, being around people, being sociable. We made so many contacts in Tucson just because of Rocky talking," Wafeek remembers. "He used to be a politician. He would kill himself trying to keep the peace with people and keep relationships. He'd bend over backward to be nice to folks. I think maybe that's part of why he closed off now — you can only do that for so long."

Responds Knuckles: "When I'm first getting in the scene, I'm naive. I still believe in the magic land of a record deal. You know those golden gates open up, you got that clothes sponsorship, you're on tour or you're just sitting in a studio just writing music, working on shit. You're just making money and you don't owe anybody money and everything is great. That shit doesn't exist and it never has."

The songs that emerged from the LA session have names like "Watching for the Pigs" and "Baby Killer," the latter a meditation on abortion. The beats are complex, consisting of one funk-fueled, unpredictable bass line after another. Knuckles and Wafeek engage in a game of lyrical one-upmanship throughout the verse/verse/verse song structure. The nearest comparison would be Bay-area hip-hop group Hieroglyphics.

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