"That's my problem," Knuckles says later. "I don't want to play that punk-ass game. I just want to make my music, put my music out and perform my music."

Other talented rappers have shared Knuckles' dilemma and coped with the reality of their situations.

"You have to first define your own success," says rapper Big Pooh of the popular underground North Carolina hip-hop duo Little Brother. "You can't let TV or what other people deem success determine what success is to you. I live comfortable, have my own town home, cars, can take a trip somewhere if I want. I'm comfortable. I'm not flying [Gulfstream] G-IVs around the globe or pulling up in Maybachs on 24s, but I'm still successful."

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

When the Seattle underground hip-hop duo Blue Scholars couldn't find any takers for their debut album, they created their own label, Mass Line Records, and released it themselves. DJ Sabzi, the group's beat maker and producer, says a by-any-means-necessary mentality is essential.

"We know what we want to do and we're going to do it. If somebody helps along the way, great, but they didn't so here we are," says Sabzi. "The plans I have don't depend on anybody doing anything for me. I'll do it anyway. If an opportunity opens up along the way, like a record deal or a beat battle, sure I'll go for it. But I'm not going to be sitting around in my garage mailing out demo tapes waiting for somebody to do something for me."

Nite Owl, who narrowly defeated Knuckles in this past weekend's Koch semifinal round, agrees.

A seasoned performer and businessman, Nite Owl is a perfect foil to Rockwell Knuckles. After graduating from Ladue's Horton Watkins High School and Central Missouri State University (since renamed the University of Central Missouri), he moved to Atlanta and later to Augusta, Georgia, where he worked as a radio DJ. He's had record deals and has toured extensively throughout the region. He employs a live backing band, a DJ, a street team, a personal assistant and a stylist. On stage after his victory, he hyped a show later in the evening at the Old Rock House, as well as the upcoming release of his new album.

"It's cool they're giving away $1,000 and a single, but none of that amounts to the amount of promotion I'm going to get for my new album out of this," Nite Owl says. "I had a plan, a strategy to win and then promote my new album. I played college football, and athletics are not that different from music. It takes a team and a game plan to be successful."

For the time being, anyway, Knuckles is confident his talent will see him through.

"Everybody has their own tricks of the trade and common sense about how it should work," he says. "And not everybody's music is built for this method of getting the shit poppin' or that method of getting shit poppin'. I've got people that I can rely on, like, when it's time, but I'm pretty much just doing me right now. People look down on me and say I'm foolish, I'm not playing the game, but the bottom line is you can't rap as good as me."

Correction published 2/28/08: In the original version of this story, we incorrectly transcribed a comment from DJ Trackstar. Trackstar said Pangea's album was “head and shoulders above any project from St. Louis,” not “anybody from St. Louis.” The above version reflects this correction.
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