By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
The year 2010 is finally upon us. Instead of the hover cars and jet packs we'd hoped for, however, all we've gotten so far is that damned iPad. Technological shortcomings aside, a new movement has emerged from the banks of the Mississippi — one which is ready to elevate and expand hip-hop culture within St. Louis and push it in all directions across the map.
The clique is known as the Force. Cofounders Finsta and Tech Supreme describe the organization as "a collective of forward-thinking innovators" that aims to change the local scene by "being as creative as possible and staying true to their art." Affiliates of the Force include many of the area's top emcees, singers, producers and DJs, as well as promoters and bloggers. Tech and Finsta unofficially started the organization in the fall of 2008, but this not their first rodeo by any means.
Finsta recalls cutting his teeth at the now-infamous Hi-Pointe Mondays. "Myself, the group called Fat Trash, DJ Expo and DJ K-Nine were there every Monday night, which was the least-popular night for hip-hop," he recalls. "But later on it grew — it popped and really changed people's perspective as to rap and what was going on in the city. That's when Q95.5 came in and put us on the radio, because they felt like it was something positive they could put on the air and have an impact on the city — and it did."
You could say that the Force rose from the Hi-Pointe's ashes, because several other members got their start at the now-defunct venue. "There's a picture on Tef [Poe's] Facebook page from a showcase we did back then with pretty much everybody that's in the Force now," Finsta says. "You'll see Rockwell Knuckles, the whole Pangea crew, Tef [Poe], Gotta Be [Karim], Vandalyzm — that's kind of how the whole thing started."
Tech Supreme, a New Jersey native, connected with the scene when he moved to University City as a teenager. "I met Young Thunder [of Honors English] in high school, and we formed a rap group," he says. "As I started producing more and more, I hooked up with Soul Tyde, started using their equipment, and I branched out from there. I was doing beats for Young Thunder, Tef Poe and Family Affair really early on, before anybody knew us musically."
Eventually Tech crossed paths with Finsta at Hi-Pointe, and in 2007 the duo hooked up with Trackstar the DJ to host Integrity at Blueberry Hill. The short-lived weekly event offered an outlet to local rappers and producers, featuring beat-battles judged by the crowd and an open-mic cipher at the end of the night. Their venture into hosting successfully increased their exposure (and helped Tech Supreme and Trackstar the DJ earn RFT Best Of awards the following year).
The Force is currently gearing its resources toward endeavors like last January's Haitian relief concert at the Atomic Cowboy (which raised around $1,000) and its two-and-a-half-hour set at SXSW last weekend. Besides the aforementioned artists, the roster rotation also includes veterans such as Nato Caliph and Black Spade and up-and-comers such as Blake Symphony and Teresajenee.
The group also focuses on promoting projects from its artists. Finsta is currently the host of the Sunday night radio show Home Jamz on WHHL (104.1 FM), where he spotlights local talent. Trackstar the DJ is a contributor to the popular website the Smoking Section, which endorses unsigned artists. Factor that in with a built-in network of DJs, artists and promoters, and it becomes clear that membership has its privileges.
The Force does not, however, operate as a label. This means that they don't (necessarily) handle production, manufacturing or distribution of the artists' projects. That being said, is quality control a concern? "If someone comes with a subpar project, the first thing I would do is tell them it's subpar," Tech remarks, holding back a smile. "If they choose not to address it, ultimately, it's their career. Now if it's a project that my name is associated with, I would prefer to wash my hands of it."
Finsta nods in agreement. "People know when they ask for my opinion, I don't hold no punches." Adds Tech: "I think that can make the difference between a good or a bad record. That's what a lot of people are missing, someone next to them to say, "Honestly — it's not that fire.'"
Last year, Force associates Corey Black and Rockwell Knuckles released the songs "Finger In My Nose" and "Government Name," respectively. Knuckles also released his next album, Choose Your Own Adventure, on March 15; it follows the format of the book series of the same name. The concept sounds unique and, when paired with Rocky's clever wordplay and hyper-expressive vocals, it's definitely one to look out for. Also available for free download is Tef Poe's latest effort, Money Never Sleeps, which finds him delivering his signature brand of crowd-grabbing punch lines. (Tech Supreme heads up production on Sleeps, which also includes tracks by Black Spade, Trifeckta, Rome and Nodzilla, a.k.a. DJ Needles.) No longer with Justus League, Vandalyzm released his mixtape, Vandalyzm Is Not the Father, earlier this year in anticipation of a new album on his new label, Soulspazm.