By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
"I didn't look at it like, 'Wow, who is this cat? What is he going to do? Who does he know? A rap label?'" he says today. "No, if you from the east coast and you been hearing this, you come back here and meet someone who is doing it, why not take the chance? You got the connections, you got your own record store. So little to lose, so much to gain."
Gangsta rap exploded in popularity in 1988. To hip-hop scholars like Nelson George, a former writer for The Source and author of The Death of Rhythm & Blues, artists like N.W.A. were a reflection of the numerous problems plaguing American cities at the time, particularly the crack epidemic, increasing gang violence and the incarceration of vast numbers of young black males under strict drug-sentencing policies.
The significant artistic breakthrough that year came from New York's Public Enemy and their album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. With socially conscious, in-your-face lyrics and explosive, sample-heavy productions, the group was a revelation.
"When I first heard Public Enemy, I latched on to them like they was gold," Wiz recalls. "I related to everything they was saying. I wanted to do a dance song that was powerful just like theirs. 'Culture Shock' happened to be that song."
Recorded in Wiz's bare-bones home studio, "Shock" opens with an excerpt from a speech by civil-rights leader A. Philip Randolph that includes the line, "Let the nation and the world know the meaning of our numbers. We are not a pressure group. We are not an organization or a group of organizations. We are not a mob." The chorus references a movement started by iconoclastic rapper KRS-One, imploring listeners to "Stop the violence" before concluding, "We didn't start the violence, so we can't stop it."
"That was when Nancy Reagan was walking around telling everyone to 'Just say no,'" notes Wiz. "And we were like, 'It's impossible to "just say no." You got to give me more information than that.'"
A local disc jockey on Majic 108 named Captain G liked the song and put it in rotation. Wiz and Early D garnered national publicity, including an appearance in the June 1988 issue of The Source, then in its second year of existence.
Wiz went on to produce four albums in the next three years under the Wiz-A-Tron banner. His work included "On the Roll," another collaboration with David Roberts (who by then had changed his name to D-Rebel); and an album by Double Def, a pair of female rappers who were St. Louis' answer to Salt-N-Pepa.
"Wiz was the first person I saw with an established group of artists," says DJ Cool Odie, who worked with Sylk Smoov, the first St. Louis hip-hop artist to sign a major-label record deal, in 1991. "They had videos, they had vinyl — we thinkin' Wiz the next Russell Simmons. He had a roster and they were putting out music. Our perception was, 'I'm good, but they on another level.'"
"That was really powerful at the time, because they actually put records out. People took note of that," adds D-Ex, another DJ working at the time. "It showed people that, Whoa, we can do it. If no one is willing to sign you, you can put out your own stuff. You can get in the club, or on the radio or in The Source. It made it an equal playing field."
None of the artists on the Wiz-A-Tron roster was ever picked up by a major label, and Wiz was never able quit his day job as a union carpenter. Still, he has no regrets. It takes some prodding to get the humble and soft-spoken producer to discuss his legacy, but when he does, it's with pride.
"I'm not sure how many people was before me doing rap, but I know that after, there was many more," he says. "Did it influence people to duplicate or copy that style? No. It influenced people to say: 'If they can do it, I can do it.'"
Nearly all of the characters in this story remain in St. Louis today, and most continue to contribute to hip-hop in some form.
Vintage Vinyl is still owned by Tom "Papa" Ray and Lew Prince. The pair is working on reissuing a collection of material by local blues and soul icon Oliver Sain. Ray also hosts a weekly radio show on KDHX (88.1 FM) called Soul Selector. Prince reviews opera for RFT.
Jim Gates quit his job as manager at WESL in 1986 when a corporation bought out the station. (These days the station broadcasts a gospel format.) He hosts a show on Saturdays from 3 to 8 p.m. on R&B station Foxy 95.5. His son, James "DJ Needles" Gates, hosts the program that follows, from 8 p.m. to midnight.
DJ Charlie Chan joined the Marines after graduating from high school in 1989. He returned to the city and honed his skills as a club, house-party and battle DJ and in 1996 charmed his way into opening for Run-DMC on tour. When Jam Master Jay, the group's DJ, died in 2002, Chan was hired to replace him. He has since toured extensively with Darryl "DMC" McDaniels. Chan currently spins at clubs throughout St. Louis and hosts a radio show, Throwback at Noon, on Hot 104.1.