"That's a lot to grasp: Lightning strikes your house," he adds. "It puts a lot of things in perspective. It makes you want to get your shit together and handle your business. Your mind can really wander after something like that happens. Plus I had to buy a new copy of The Last Dragon, a new Breakfast Club, a new Clockwork Orange, a new Goodfellas. All the important ones."

He cycled through several jobs — driving a dry-cleaning delivery truck, working as a clerk in a law office, canvassing for the 2004 election — all the while writing songs on his own for the first time in his brief career. He produced a 29-track mixtape called The New Standard and released it in late 2005. He performed constantly, scoring opening gigs for the likes of the GZA, RJD2 and Brother Ali. In early 2007 he began writing songs for what would eventually become Northside Phenomenon.

The album, released on Amazon.com and iTunes in November, is a testament to Knuckles' coming of age.

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

"It's more his voice, his vision, where he's coming from now," says Grand, Knuckles' friend and former Pangea cohort. "He channels all that through his music. Whether that be a good feeling or a bad feeling, pain or happiness, that's all channeled through his music."

No song is more indicative of his newfound songwriting maturity than "Hello Morning," a straightforward but charming love song about breaking up and getting back together backed by jazz trumpet, keyboard and a simple drum-and-bass rhythm. Complete with a Stevie Wonder-esque chorus, it's a drastic departure from run-of-the-rap braggadocio.

With its prevalent guitar-heavy beats, the album is also indicative of the artist's diverse musical taste. Knuckles drops references about everything from Outkast, People Under the Stairs and UGK to John Lennon and Prince. He is almost certainly the first person to ever rap, "Roll up on the block...bumpin' 'Hey Jude.'"

Patrick Marshall, a music critic at the tastemaking hip-hop Web site The Smoking Section, writes of the album, "Rocky's storytelling skills and command of language make [his] struggles more pertinent and the pictures more vivid."

But Marshall, a Washington University graduate who keeps up with St. Louis hip-hop, is virtually the only critic to have taken note of the album. Knuckles has performed only once since its release (in November at Integrity at Blueberry Hill).

"The fact that I was able to write about it on a national level was just kind of falling into his lap," Marshall says by phone from Chicago. "If he got it into the hands of the right person, they could be saying, 'This is somebody we could take a chance on.' He needs to be doing that. Whether he can do that from St. Louis it's hard to say. It sucks, you know, it's kind of where art and salesmanship coincide. Being popular in hip-hop today is a strange phenomenon. Just because you're popular doesn't mean you're talented."

Knuckles explains that some things, such as his inability to supply physical copies to record stores, stem from the simple fact that he doesn't have much money. He supports himself and his girlfriend by working the graveyard shift as a security guard at a grocery store. But he admits that he's reluctant to jump back into the music-industry grind after the failure of Pangea.

"I could have a lot more help than I have at the moment, but things like that make me nervous," he says. "I really don't want anybody involved in my music that doesn't have my best interests at heart."

Several songs on the album reflect this anxiety. "Worried for the future/Knew they'd tempt me with an offer I couldn't refuse/Then they'd send me to a place where nobody could hear me at all/'Cept the people listenin' on the other side of the wall," Knuckles raps on the title track.

Other times, his humility keeps him from pursuing opportunities. His friend Vandalyzm, with whom he has collaborated, is involved with the influential underground hip-hop collective the Justus League, but Knuckles says he won't pursue an in with the nationally recognized crew.

"It's great I know someone who is a part of that, but I don't want to sniff up under that. People respect you less," he says.

Meanwhile, he says with a straight face that he wants to be the next Notorious B.I.G. or Tupac. The paradox borders on absurd, and Rockwell knows it.

"If I sit around waiting to work with good, honest people I'm going to be waiting a long time," he says. "My grandkids be like, 'Granddad, that CD out yet?' 'Nope, still waiting for those good, honest people.'"

At the Loft, the last performer in the semifinal of the Koch Madness competition has just exited to half-hearted applause. Boogie D, Hot 104.1's operations manager, a massive man clad in a Washington Redskins jersey, makes his way to the stage. Before announcing who will advance to the next round, he launches into a canned speech about the music industry.

"The one thing record labels look for is making money. You are a commodity. You are a product," he says. "The music business is sales. It's a job, just like a car salesman."

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