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Onstage at Atomic Cowboy, two rappers trade verses and strut, clad in sunglasses, sneakers and tuxedos with powder-blue vests. It's the club's second annual Hip-Hopper's Holiday event, and Family Affair, twin brothers from north St. Louis, are taking their turn in an ensemble performance by the local music collective known as the Force. One half of the duo, an emcee who goes by the name QB tha Classic, got married earlier in the afternoon, and most of the artists now sharing the stage with him — a DJ and a half-dozen other emcees — attended the ceremony and are still dressed to the nines. Several audience members are decked out in tuxes and formalwear as well, giving the concert the feel of a hip-hop-fueled wedding reception.
In the front row stands Black Spade, a tall, heavyset 34-year-old sporting a button-down shirt and baseball cap and toting a backpack filled with music equipment. When he starts dancing and swinging his right arm in signature hip-hop fashion, as if he's dribbling an invisible basketball high above his head, everyone takes a step back.
When Family Affair's song ends, Spade cups his hands to his mouth and shouts a request for another — titled "Michael Jordan Mode" and written by his half-brother Tef Poe. There's a brief pause as the sweat-drenched rappers huddle around the turntables. Then the song's first keyboard riff pulsates from the speakers, and Spade responds with unbridled joy. His persona is typically defined by a detached cool, but now, lost in the moment, he involuntarily bounces up and down, feeding off the high-energy rhythm and igniting a riotous dance party.
Spade, a.k.a. Veto Money, is one of the unofficial leaders and a cofounder of the Force, a loosely affiliated group of St. Louis rappers, producers, singers, photographers, artists and promoters. He's also the cadre's biggest cheerleader.
"The Force is not — was not — meant to be a musical group," Spade explained earlier in the evening before taking the stage for his solo performance. "It's there for anybody and everybody. It's not a musical thing, there just happens to be musical artists in it.
"It's a support group," he elaborated. "It's a group of friends helping another friend do something. A lot of times there ain't a whole lot we can do — we're starving artists — but any way we can participate, we're going to do it."
Spade's enthusiasm and selflessness are remarkable for a variety of reasons — not least because he is widely regarded as the most gifted artist of the bunch. The multitalented musician rhymes, produces and sings, all with aplomb. His crew reverentially compares his role in the local scene to the likes of Dr. Dre or RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan.
His music feels both timeless and futuristic. As a producer, working under the alter ego Stoney Rock, he crafts beats that blend knob-twisting synthesizer blips and keyboard riffs with samples of vintage soul, funk and R&B. He also incorporates recordings from VHS tapes, including a healthy dose of '70s blaxploitation flicks. The result is something like a hybrid of J Dilla, Q-Tip and trip-hop acts like Gorillaz — a time-melting mix of organic and synthetic sounds. He released a new mixtape in July, Build and Destroy, that includes some of his most innovative work to date.
But unlike the vast majority of rappers, Spade is reluctant to talk about himself. Humble almost to a fault, he constantly steers the conversation back to the Force — "a movement and mentality" — and what he hopes his friends and collaborators can accomplish.
My biggest fear," he says, "is if there was cats in St. Louis that the world never knew about in my lifetime. I would hate to see people from the Force not get out. I'd hate to see it get passed up. It can't just stay in St. Louis."
Aside from the cursory training he received in church choir, Spade is self-taught. He learned to play keyboards and the MPC — an electronic instrument (the name is an acronym for Music Production Center) that functions as a drum machine and allows users to sample and manipulate a variety of sounds through practice and experimentation.
"He's always known how to produce," says long-time friend and collaborator Nato Caliph. "He's a genius, a prodigy. You see him pick up a new piece of equipment or something, and he starts messing with it, and next thing you know he masters it."
Rather than enroll in a music program after graduating from Normandy Senior High School, Spade opted to study fashion design, first at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley and later at Patricia Stevens College (now Stevens Institute of Business & Arts) in downtown St. Louis. Both endeavors were short lived.
"I had no focus," Spade says. "As soon as I got my first vinyl out and got my first taste, I was gone."
In 1996 Spade met fellow hip-hop fanatic and wannabe record mogul Keith Richardson (a.k.a. Mustafa "Da Scientist"). Along with his partner Wes, known by the nickname "Seldom Seen," Mustafa recruited a nineteen-year-old Spade — who had developed a reputation as a budding rapper and producer — to be part of a crew called Soul Tyde.