East St. Louis rapper Fresco Kane is on the cusp
Fresco Kane is better known to St. Louis hip-hop fans by his previous moniker, "Gena."

Situated on the cobblestone Main Street of old St. Charles is a nondescript building. It's one of many in the area with an address on the door but little else to indicate its purpose. If you had to guess, you might assume it is a law office or something — no one would think at a glance that the building actually houses a high-class, state-of-the-art recording complex. Inside, Fresco Kane, born Greg Lawary in Centreville, Illinois, is fiddling with the knobs and buttons on a mixing board. At 26 years old, the rapper just may be St. Louis' next big thing.

Worry not, you readers who fail to recognize that name — it's not his first. For the last five years, Lawary has operated under the moniker "Genesis the Lyricist," better known as "Gena," generating buzz with singles "Dope Boy Fresh" and "I Dip in the Club." His performances around town include opening spots for heavy-hitters like T.I., Rick Ross and Yo Gotti.

In February, the up-and-comer decided a name change was in order and landed on Fresco Kane. "Fresco" is Spanish for "fresh," and "Kane" is a reference to the lead character in the iconic 1993 movie Menace II Society. Hold your tongue and say it aloud and you may hear the words "Fresh Cocaine," adding a street-hustle edge to the otherwise innocuous moniker. Lawary was also careful to ensure that his would be the only result returned in a Web search of the name, having had issues with the less obscure "Gena."

He is quick to roll his eyes at the supposed drug implications. "I just like the way it sounds," Lawary explains. "And it had nothing to do with the signing. I changed it a month before the deal."

The deal Kane refers to is one he signed early this year with Jermaine Dupri's So So Def record label. Dupri is well known for his work with artists such as Mariah Carey, TLC, Jay-Z, Destiny's Child and Janet Jackson. The super-producer has also shown a lot of love for St. Louis in the past, having worked with locals Nelly, Murphy Lee, J-Kwon and Chingy. Lawary readily acknowledges that the Dupri-produced kiddie group Kriss Kross is what first made him want to take up rapping.

Growing up in Centreville, Lawary displayed quite a musical gift, making a multi-instrumentalist out of himself at an early age. "From fourth grade to eleventh I was in the school band," he says. "I played clarinet, saxophone, drums — I played drums in the church. And I taught myself how to play piano." The young Lawary picked up rapping in eighth grade, producing his own music with only a Casio keyboard, a three-string guitar and a karaoke machine. In an early brush with moniker-making, his original name was "Number One Assassin." "Terrible," he says, laughing and shaking his head. "Just terrible."

All of that early practice appears to be paying off. The talented artist still produces the majority of his own beats — 90 percent, by his own account — adding to his overall value in the hip-hop world. During our interview in the studio in St. Charles, he played a stack of unreleased tracks that bounce around stylistically between radio fare, club bangers, slow jams and classic hip-hop. He's also quick to emphasize his talents as a singer, adding that he focuses on "songs for the ladies" as much as anything else. At his best, Lawary channels the vibe of Wiz Khalifa or Curren$y, employing a focused lyrical flow over airy, atmospheric production. It's a comparison he greets with enthusiasm: "Now if I can just get my people to see me that way."

Kane's recent career boom started in late February, when he and Abe Givens of Starpower Management went to Atlanta to meet with Dupri at the mogul's SouthSide Studios. They were there initially to discuss the then-upcoming mixtape featuring Fresco Kane and Murphy Lee entitled The Best of Both Sides — a reference to the two artists' geographical relationship with the Mississippi River. (The tape was released on Labor Day and is now available at www.stlmixtapes.com.) The group was listening to Kane's solo work when a track entitled "They Do" caught Dupri's attention. Dupri recognized a sample used in the track, a keyboard line from the 1977 Paul Davis song "I Go Crazy." "I didn't know what the fuck it was," Lawary admits. "But he liked it." Dupri started asking questions about the track, and the ambitious young rapper happily started answering them. Upon his return to St. Louis, Lawary kept in contact and struck up a rapport with Dupri, direct messaging daily on Twitter. Two weeks later Dupri offered to make it formal, and Fresco Kane became the newest signee on So So Def.

At present, Lawary is sitting on a sizable heap of unreleased material — the prolific upstart has continued steadily producing music since the signing. He's been finding studio time wherever he can, between trips to Atlanta and the St. Charles studio and his own East St. Louis studio, which he calls the "Black House."

May saw the release of the Jermaine Dupri-produced single "Hump Wit It," a track featuring a slowed-down sample from 2 Live Crew's "Hoochie Mama," as well as a verse from hip-hop legend Busta Rhymes. The track is fun, a celebratory party banger heralding "hoes" of all shape and sizes. In this case a little misogyny is understandable, given the legendary explicitness of the source material. The music video is forthcoming, and as buzz for the single grows, So So Def will start releasing more and more of Lawary's songs. Immediately following our meeting, Kane was slated to fly to Atlanta once again to work on songs for his debut album with the new deal and moniker. "J.D. is a real different cat, man," Lawary says. "Working with him has taught me a lot about patience."

Luckily, Fresco/Gena/Number One Assassin/Lawary is no stranger to the long game. While the name may be a new one, the artist behind it has been grinding away in the St. Louis hip-hop scene for years — his "Dope Boy Fresh" singled peaked in 2006. Kane cites the Pageant and Pop's as two of his favorite spots in town. "Those are two places I would definitely want to come home and play," he says. He doesn't want his signing to cloud the perception his fans have of him or to overwhelm the hard, feet-to-the-pavement work he's put in for the last half decade. "I got signed off of talent," Kane says. "I don't want people to fuck with me just because I got a deal. I want to earn that shit."

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