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The quality of the music, says DJ Trackstar, is spectacular.
"It's an incredible collection of songs. It's head and shoulders above any project from St. Louis that I've heard," raves Trackstar, who says he's tried to convince Knuckles to release the Pangea material. "Apparently there's sound issues they say they need to fix, but I say fuck that. Don't touch it. Don't do anything. Just put it on an album and put it out." [Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.] (Knuckles says it's a question of red tape: He doesn't have permission to use all of the beats and samples featured on some of the songs.)
Back in his living room, it takes some coaxing to persuade Knuckles to dig up a copy of his old album. As the music begins to thump over the speakers, he stares at the floor, arms crossed. Finally, his head starts to bob to the beat and he begins to mouth the words to his own lyrics.
"They're awesome songs," he says later. "But I can make better songs now. That's evolution in progress. Continents, dude — they do what they going to do."
Rapper and producer Van "Vandalyzm" Coleman, a St. Louis native, says that in order to make the connections necessary to be successful with his debut album, Megatron Majorz, he had to move to Atlanta.
"There's no chance of doing it here," explains Vandalyzm, who has since returned to his hometown. "It's a great place to get your iron sharpened, but at the end of day you have to go out of town to make it happen. I hate to say it, but because everybody is so small-minded, things as simple as finding a good publicist or manager — you have to go where cats are making moves and making a name for themselves."
Others have taken the same route. Like Knuckles and Vandalzym, St. Louis rapper and producer Black Spade honed his craft at the Hi-Pointe, developing a sound that's a unique fusion of jazz, soul and hip-hop. He moved to Brooklyn and promptly signed a deal with Om Records. Critics have warmly received his forthcoming release, To Serve with Love.
The phenomenon isn't confined to the starving artists of the underground, either. Popular mainstream St. Louis rapper Chingy recently defected to Atlanta, citing a need for a fresh start.
Finsta, the Hi-Pointe mastermind, speculates that the problem is that many people in the industry in St. Louis are clueless when it comes to operating outside their hometown.
"A lot of artists don't know the avenues to take," explains Finsta, who hosts the local music hour on Hot 104.1. "And they're pretty much the blind leading the blind when they find a manager that doesn't know anything outside of St. Louis, a manager has no inkling of the industry beyond the realm of St. Louis."
Others point to the fact that, in addition to the demise of the Hi-Pointe and Blueberry Hill's underground night, the Science, several clubs that used to book underground hip-hop (most notably former downtown hot spot the Galaxy) have closed, leaving a void in venues that cater to the genre.
Kenautis Smith, a Chicago native who produced Knuckles' Northside Phenomenon, says he lived in St. Louis for several years and saw a drastic difference between its clubs and the vibrant underground community of the Windy City, which has produced two of the most successful underground artists working today, Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco.
"St. Louis might have five or six hip-hop clubs, and two or three may cater to quote-unquote backpackers," says Smith, referring to the disparaging term used to describe underground artists who peddle their CDs on the street. "That means you see the same 75 to 100 people on any given night. They have to find a new way to promote the music scene."
The frustrating problem, Vandalyzm explains, is that few artists have the resources to go on tour, let alone move to a new city.
"We have to outsource," he says, "And when we outsource, that's how we get our success. But we got cats who ain't got the money to do that. So the music is falling on deaf ears. Eventually they get tired of it and quit."
"That's all it takes, is the initiative to get up and go," argues Gotta Be Karim. "Black Spade taught me that. We all broke, but once you get past the fact you don't have money, you just got to get up and go."
Knuckles says he's staying put for the time being.
"Honestly, I'm not sure where I'd go," he says. "There's no Shangri-La at this present moment."
Eventually Rockwell ran out of money and returned home from California, leaving his friend Wafeek behind. He'd been back, living at his mom's house for less than three months, when his life changed dramatically and unpredictably.
On the evening of July 5, 2004, lightning struck the roof of his bedroom, causing it to catch fire. Virtually all of his possessions were burned. There was little damage to the rest of the house.
"I'm sitting there with nothing," Knuckles recalls. "There's some pretty sweet symbolism right there. The good Lord is like, 'Start fresh, chief.' After that I started working on solo stuff.