By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
From the street, Vintage Vinyl's shop in the Delmar Loop looks like your classic friendly neighborhood record store (albeit one housed in a former movie theater). A promotional display for the new album from Nelly, St. Louis' hometown rap hero, fills the front window, and in a nod to the recent vice-presidential debate hoopla, the marquee proclaims, "Other stores Palin comparison."
Inside, beyond the rows of neatly arrayed CDs and LPs, a hand-scrawled "Employees Only" sign on one side of a set of double doors leads to a narrow, dimly illuminated corridor lined with cardboard boxes filled with records. Still more records are piled precariously on desks. At the end of the hallway is a cell-like, brick-walled room.
A month ago it was impossible to set foot inside. Beginning in 1990, when the store moved from its previous location three blocks east, the room gradually accumulated box upon box of unsellable records and trash bags full of promotional materials. Longtime Vintage Vinyl employee (and frequent Riverfront Times contributor) James Weber was recently assigned the chore of cleaning up the place.
"Nobody had been in here for years. It took four months of excavation to even be able to walk in," recounts Weber, standing in the center of the now-tidy space. "It was a dumping ground for shit we didn't know what to do with."
Digging through the disorder, Weber struck gold.
The buried treasure: several dozen pressings of two records with roots that stretch deep into the history of St. Louis hip-hop. The discs, tucked in plain white sleeves and still sealed in cellophane, are twelve-inch singles. One, which dates back to 1987, is "The Power of Soul," performed by Dangerous D and DJ Charlie Chan. The other, released a year later, is Early D's "Culture Shock."
Like the vast majority of St. Louisans, Weber had never heard the songs. Still, he immediately recognized the significance of his discovery, not least of all because one of his bosses, Vintage Vinyl co-owner Tom "Papa" Ray, is listed as executive producer on the bright yellow labels of both platters.
"Tom has always told us stories about the records," Weber says. "When you work here, you just kind of learn things like that by osmosis."
To Ray and the others who made them, the artifacts are worth much more than the $6.99 price tag that was slapped on them when they were placed on the store's shelves for the first time in nearly twenty years. They tell the story of a handful of people who came together at the right place and time to write a new chapter in St. Louis' musical history.
Hip-hop historians generally agree that the music and movement originated in the housing projects of the Bronx in the early 1970s. It was there that a young Jamaican immigrant named Clive Campbell who'd dubbed himself DJ Kool Herc began using his turntables to manipulate the drum and bass portions (known as "breaks") of the day's popular soul and funk songs, playing them in a continuous loop. When performing at neighborhood block parties, Herc enlisted a friend to be his "master of ceremonies" and shout phrases like "Ya rock and ya don't stop!" — à la the "toasting" by MCs in his native country. Thus rapping was born.
Other DJs copied and expanded on the style. Eventually another New Yorker, who went by the name Grandmaster Flash, took the mixing of breaks to a new level by rhythmically scratching the vinyl against the needle on the tone arm and incorporating elements such as drum machines. A gang leader turned peace activist, Afrika Bambaataa, diversified the sound by using breaks from disparate styles — everything from African and Caribbean music to the songs of the German band Kraftwerk. But mainstream audiences were slow to catch on to the new genre, and as the '70s waned, knowledge of hip-hop's existence remained limited to a few thousand music-obsessed individuals living in the New York area.
One of those people was Tom Ray.
In 1976 Ray was a Webster College (since renamed Webster University) dropout living in New York and working three jobs in the music industry: He managed a jazz club in SoHo, worked at a wholesale music distributor in Spanish Harlem and clerked at a record store that served midtown Manhattan.
He can still recall the exact moment he first heard hip-hop.
"I was catching the A train one evening in 1978. Even back then boom-box culture was big, and as I was waiting for the train I started listening to what this kid had on his box," Ray imparts in the faint Southern drawl left over from his Georgia childhood. "When I heard it, I said, 'Oh wow, that's cute. He took a drum break and looped it. I've done that before.'"
Ray's approach to music has always been eccentric. He possesses a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of blues, soul and funk to go with his Kangol hat, sunglasses and pointy white goatee. He has traveled to Jamaica to hear obscure reggae and dub artists perform, and on his forearm he sports a self-portrait tattoo, depicting him playing the harmonica with the words "Cry Tuff" etched below. Ask Ray how's he's doing on any given day and he'll reply, "Musically."
[Editor's Note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]
"As a kid I was so entranced by the drum-and-bass break on James Brown's 'Cold Sweat' that I would get down on my knees in front of my parents' stereo with my head by the speaker," Ray says. "I'd reach into the cabinet, and I knew where to exactly move the needle back to the beginning of the break. And I'd do it again and again. So hip-hop always made sense to me. It was a logical summation of all the rhythm that American pop music had come up with at the time."
By the end of the decade, Ray and Lew Prince, a friend from college who was using his bachelor's degree in philosophy to manage a chain of record stores in Colorado, hatched a plan to open a record store together in St. Louis. They set up the first Vintage Vinyl location in a stall in Soulard Market in the fall of 1979.
"To put it bluntly, we wanted to open up a store for the intelligent black listener," Ray says today. "Music certainly has no color, but culture does. And what made St. Louis one of the foundation cities of American music is the heritage of its black musical tradition."
By the summer of 1979, hip-hop had moved out of Manhattan and into the adjacent suburbs. Sylvia Robinson, a pop star turned music mogul living in New Jersey, became convinced she could make a hit record using the new sound. Along with her husband Joe, she founded Sugar Hill Records, rounded up a trio of aspiring MCs and produced the song "Rapper's Delight." (Sylvia Robinson had been a successful recording artist for years, dating back to her 1957 hit "Love Is Strange," performed as a duet with Mickey Baker.)
With one of the first rap songs ever recorded in her hands, all Robinson had to do was find a radio DJ willing to give it a spin. The task proved tougher than anticipated. The biggest obstacle was that, at nearly fifteen minutes, the track was five times as long as anything else being played on the radio. Many disc jockeys were opposed on principle — they hated the new style and the fact that the backing music was lifted from a popular disco song at the time ("Good Times," by Chic).
Robinson's salvation took the form of Jim Gates, a 32-year-old disc jockey and manager at WESL, an AM radio station in East St. Louis that boasted a minuscule 800 watts of signal power.
"Sylvia called and told me they had this new thing where they didn't sing, they 'rapped,'" recalls Gates, now 61 and still living in East St. Louis. "I didn't know what that was about."
Gates had a long-standing relationship with Joe Robinson, dating back to his days as a radio DJ in Detroit during Motown's heyday. Trouble was, he hated the song when the Robinsons played it for him over the phone. "To me it was blasphemy to take somebody else's hit record and make it your own tune," Gates says now.
But when the Robinsons mailed him a copy of the Sugarhill Gang's tune, he gave it another listen and reconsidered.
"I called back and said, 'This is going to be the biggest thing ever or the biggest flop,'" Gates recounts.
It was no flop.
When Gates put needle to wax on "Rapper's Delight" and the legendary opening verse — "Hip-hop, a hibbit to the hibbit to the hip hip-hop" — blared across the St. Louis airwaves for the first time, it had a profound impact. Not only did the album eventually sell 14 million copies worldwide, it spawned an entire generation of young St. Louis musicians.
A large man with a close-cropped salt-and-pepper Afro and a pencil-thin gray mustache, Gates remembers being stunned by the immediate and frenzied listener response the song inspired.
"The phone lines were jammed for hours," he says. "People were calling and saying, 'Where can I get it? Play it over again so I can tape it!' I made one DJ play it twice an hour for three hours — the whole fifteen minutes."
Riverfront Times was unable to locate Sylvia Robinson to comment for this story, and her husband, Joe, died in 2000. But Gates is acknowledged in The Sugar Hill Records Story, a 66-page booklet published in 1999 along with a CD box set to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of "Rapper's Delight," and the Robinsons have credited him in several published accounts as the man who "broke" the song.
"After I convinced him to play the record just once, [listeners] ended up jamming the phone lines," Joe Robinson told Billboard in 1996. "That night, a local distributor phoned in with an order for 30,000 records. It was so bizarre that the next day I called retailers in the market who confirmed that the record was that much in demand."
Vintage Vinyl co-owner Lew Prince experienced the cultural fallout in a different form. In 1979 Prince was teaching part-time at an elementary school in north St. Louis. One of his classes included students who were having trouble learning to read.
"They were all reciting this thing: 'Hotel, motel, Holiday Inn.' It was 'Rapper's Delight,' they could do it front to back," Prince recalls. "I went and got the lyrics mimeographed, and once the kids recognized what it was, they could recite it from memory. It gave them confidence. I taught more kids to read with that song than with anything else I ever did as a teacher."
Tucked among the thousands of albums that comprise Ronald Butts' jaw-dropping record collection is a spoken-word piece that some argue is the first rap verse ever performed. It is a series of rhymes recited by Cassius Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali) leading up to his fight against Sonny Liston in 1964, concluding with the famous line, "I am the greatest!"
Seated in front of the meticulously organized stacks of vinyl in his home in University City, Butts is a dead ringer for an aging Samuel L. Jackson. He wears thick, horn-rimmed glasses and has a stubbly bald head, piercing eyes and a deep, charismatic laugh.
When he first heard the Sugarhill Gang on the radio in 1979, Butts was nineteen years old and working as a DJ at Skate King and Saints, two popular St. Louis roller rinks. Skating was all the rage, and "Rapper's Delight," with its high-octane disco rhythms and lengthy run time, made for the perfect soundtrack.
"I started digging, looking for music like that. I used to get my records down at Skip's. It was a distributor's shop, and he was letting me go through records, the stuff that he'd get and put in a stack over in the corner," Butts says. "I'd find stuff like Harlem World Crew, Funky Four Plus One, stuff like that. This album by Grandmaster Flash, Fusion Beats — I'd find stuff like that, 'cause they had cool names."
Eventually Butts adopted an alter ego of his own. Inspired by a member of Grandmaster Flash's group the Furious Five, he chose Grand Wizard, eventually shortening it to G. Wiz. With his visible role behind the turntables at local rinks, Wiz quickly gained a reputation as a key player in St. Louis' hip-hop scene.
"Ron Butts was exactly the right person at the right time in St. Louis," says Tom Ray. "He was out there in a very crucial way in the early stages, dealing with teen culture in the skating rinks."
Luqman, a DJ, graffiti artist and break dancer who would go on to form the group Da Gatekeepaz and to cohost the famed hip-hop night at the Hi-Pointe Café (now defunct), recalls how rap slowly took root in the city's black community. The music was ubiquitous in the low-rise housing projects of Clinton-Peabody where he grew up, just south of downtown and west of Soulard.
"I would say a hip-hop community began to establish itself around here around 1982," Luqman says. "We had an outdoor skating rink at the projects, and we'd play early hip-hop records like 'Planet Rock,' 'Christmas Rappin' and 'The Message,' because they were more up-tempo than anything else at the time."
"Early 1982 is where it really started," agrees Wiz. "Then probably around '84, '85, is when it started to come up out the ground."
In the early 1980s, popular hip-hop acts included Kurtis Blow (then managed by an up-and-coming promoter named Russell Simmons) and groups from Sugar Hill Records like the Sequence and the talented lyricist Melle Mel.
In St. Louis, Jim Gates' WESL (which had migrated to the FM dial, where it was rechristened Z100) was still the only radio station in the area blending rap into the regular R&B rotation. The station's most popular programming was a segment that allowed dozens of would-be St. Louis rappers to call in and perform their rhymes live for the radio audience. A DJ named Dr. Jockenstein hosted the show, known as Roll Call.
After participating in a canned call-and-response introduction (which included asking callers to give a shout out to their favorite high school teacher), a kid could freestyle rap over an instrumental version of the funk song "Genius of Love" by the Tom Tom Club.
Even though it has been more than twenty years since DJ Charlie Chan listened to Roll Call, he can still recite his rap and the entire chant required to get on the air.
"What's your name?" Chan says, imitating Jockenstein's comically deep radio voice. "Charlie, and I look so fine. What's your sign? Taurus. Gimme that number-one school! We call it U. City Senior High. The favorite teacher with the golden rule? I said me myself don't like it.
"Without a doubt, just shout it out, your favorite radio station. Last night, the night before, 24 suckas came knockin' at my door. I got up, I let 'em in, I hit 'em in the head with a rolling pin. We roll to the left, back to the right. Oh boy, what a night. My favorite radio station is Z100."
Gates, the man who hired Jockenstein in 1979, says DJs on black radio stations had been rhyming over intros to songs since the early 1970s. One of his DJs, the Original Godfather, even performed entire rap sets for audiences while live on the air.
"The Original Godfather was the first DJ to rap, period," seconds G. Wiz. "He was doing both: He would mix, he would get on the mic and rock a crowd. He was live from the club and he'd be killing it."
It was Roll Call, however, that took disc-jockey rhyming to a new level. Interacting with the audience and playing to rivalries between local high schools allowed the show to skyrocket in popularity. The result was a vibrant outlet for the city's aspiring rappers to practice their craft and attempt to one-up each other.
"You had guys who could rap!" marvels Chan. "They'd just start rhyming and you be, like, 'Wow! Who they? They goin'!' That had to be the most popular radio show in St. Louis history. Everybody wanted to go on."
Rodderick "Dr. Jockenstein" King died in 2007 from a stroke at age 55.
"At the time he was doing all that, Jock was almost old enough to be our grandfather," says Luqman. "But he understood his legacy would be these young people saying this 'bippity-boppity' stuff."
By 1986 it was clear that hip-hop was much more than the fad its early detractors had declared it would be. Run-DMC was partnering with Aerosmith to produce "Walk This Way," a seventeen-year-old LL Cool J had just released his first album, and the Beastie Boys were, yes, fighting for their right to party.
In St. Louis, three radio stations were playing hip-hop, as Majic 108 and KATZ (now 100.3 FM the Beat) joined Z100. The Animal House, a popular all-ages venue, hosted hip-hop shows headlined by national acts. A handful of local rap groups, including Frozen Explosion and Bit Bizarre, had recorded and released material. Virtually every record store stocked hip-hop on its shelves.
It was in that context that a seventeen-year-old DJ who called himself Charlie Chan (given name: Charles Beason) and Dangerous D (David Roberts), his fifteen-year-old cohort from the University City school system, stepped into Vintage Vinyl one day in 1987 and expressed their desire to make a record.
"David walks in and more or less announces that he would consider allowing us to release his album if we were smart enough," Tom Ray recalls. "In walks this fifteen-year-old hip-hop Napoleon. Kind of like: 'Here I am, hesitate at your own risk.'"
As fate would have it, Ray and Prince had recently ventured into the recording side of the music business by bankrolling an album by St. Louis blues legend Tommy Bankhead. It also didn't hurt that Roberts wanted to make a song called "The Power of Soul," a hip-hop tribute to Ray's boyhood idol, James Brown. They agreed to finance the record.
Chan and Dangerous D went to work in a makeshift recording studio in an apartment on Washington Avenue. G. Wiz, whom the pair knew from the skating rink, sat in on the production.
"Chan was a phenom. When he started out, all he did was live, breathe and eat turntables," recalls Chris "DJ Chilly C" Neuenkirk, a friend of the duo who was also present during the sessions. "And at that time [Dangerous D] was going through this metamorphosis from James Brown to Prince to hip-hop. He had a vision, he knew exactly what he wanted to do; he just didn't know how to capture it on a piece of plastic. That's where that union came to fruition."
In retrospect, the two songs the high schoolers recorded were ahead of their time — and a dramatic departure from what was transpiring nationally in the genre.
"Power of Soul" is awash in a languid, reverb-drenched guitar (played in the studio by a Vintage Vinyl clerk at a time when live instrumentation on a hip-hop album was virtually unheard of) and climaxes with a funky alto-saxophone solo. Samples of James Brown's trademark shouts of "Uhh! Good God!" are cut up by Chan on the turntables and punctuate playful lines from Dangerous D, like, "Wave your hands left and right and cold shake your butt/Everybody get stupid, lose control/And just go with the flow of the power of soul."
The B-side, "He's My DJ," showcases Charlie Chan's prowess as a turntablist. D asks his DJ to "make the record sizzle like you're cookin' some bacon," and Chan obliges with nearly twenty seconds of sputtering vinyl scratches. The song employs a martial-arts motif, complete with samples of the Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon and references to "the Shaolin temple" that predate the Wu-Tang Clan, pioneers of that aesthetic, by nearly five years. They even utter the phrase "Ice, ice baby" — years before it became the chorus of the infamous Vanilla Ice hit.
When the album was released in 1988 on Nasty Cuts Records (a creation of Chan and Dangerous D), it received no radio play and went unnoticed by all but the city's most hardcore hip-hop heads. And although Ray and Prince could afford to press a few thousand vinyl copies, paying to ship the record to distributors in other cities was out of the question.
Chan couldn't have cared less.
"It's like if somebody told you you'd get paid to put your pants on. You'd be, like, 'C'mon,' 'cause you already do it every day," he says now. "I did hip-hop every day. I DJed every day, I produced tracks every day. We loved it so much. I wanted to get paid but didn't know the route to go — and didn't really care, either. We were just having fun."
Undeterred by the financial failure of "Power of Soul" in 1988, Ray and Prince agreed to fund a record label to be created and managed by G. Wiz, called Wiz-A-Tron Records.
Wiz says he was surprised by Ray's offer but jumped at the chance.
"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.
David "Dangerous D" Roberts died in a trucking accident in 1993 while serving in the U.S. Army.
When Ron "G. Wiz" Butts isn't working as a carpenter, he is finishing up a documentary he filmed, directed, edited and produced titled Rink, about St. Louis roller-skating culture in the 1970s. He also cohosts an old-school hip-hop show called The Remedy, which airs at midnight Saturdays on KDHX.
All of them lament the turn that hip-hop took with gangsta rap and the current state of the genre.
"Hip-hop is going to burn itself out," says Chan. "There's too many people trying to do it, and a lot of those people are unskilled. There's too many one-hit wonders, and the powers that be keep promoting that bullshit."
Still, all were pleased to hear that James Weber had rediscovered a boxful of their old records in a pile of junk in the back room of Vintage Vinyl. It provided an opportunity for reflection.
"You wanna have something when you get older where you can look back and say, 'What did I do with my life?'" Wiz sums up. "At the time I did what I did for me, but now I look at it in a whole new light, and I know it wasn't a waste of time."
Adds Ray: "It's nice when circumstances bring something like that around again and make you say, 'Oh yeah, we were on the right track there.'"Corrections published 10/24/08: As originally published, this story misidentified Tom Ray's tattoo. Additionally, a caption erroneously stated by which radio station DJ Charlie Chan is employed. The above version reflects the corrected text.