Last month Spaide R.I.P.P.E.R. paid a visit to his old haunts in north St. Louis, and this time he did it with style.
Getting out of his silver Nissan Pathfinder Armada, the 26-year-old rapper couldn't help but notice that not much has changed at the intersection of Wabada Avenue and Goodfellow Boulevard, not far from the old General Motors plant where 15,000 workers once made their living. The rusted iron gates still linger, as do the crumbling, graffiti-stained storefronts, containing gang announcements and directions to the nearest crack-cocaine hook-up.
For Spaide, the memories are fresh some of them good, some of them bad. Back in the days when he was a little runt named Joseph Hawthorne, he tooled around the hood with his older brother, Pap, who taught him the latest slang and the cool way to tie his shoestrings. Then there was that golden afternoon when he recited Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech from memory at Carr Lane Visual and Performing Arts Middle School. That'll bring a smile.
But Spaide's been wobbled by some heavy weather, too. When he was a toddler, his father walked out on the family. And then, eight years ago, Pap was hauled away to jail on a murder rap. "It showed me that all the running in the streets is only going to take me so far," Spaide says softly. "It made me see there ain't really any hope for a nigger other than making these songs. So I had to get serious about that."
On a sunny February afternoon, though, Spaide is feeling up as he breezes through the "west side," as the locals call it. His manager, BoOo, is at his side as they pass Goodfellows Fashions, an Afro-centric clothing store where Spaide's hit song, "Always," is playing,
A young fan standing near the corner liquor store notices Spaide and yells out, "Gotta pocket full of money? Always!" He proceeds to give Spaide a hug and says, "That's my shit, man. I swear, it's so hood."
Looking sharp in his dark brown Schott jacket, which conceals the tattoo of a .45-caliber gun on his bicep, Spaide swaggers past a cop detaining a few neighborhood kids and arrives on the concrete porch of his boyhood friend Trauma, who today acts as Spaide's hype man and tends to the rapper's long dreadlocks.
The porch served as the backdrop for the "Always" video, which featured scores of local residents who grew up with Spaide on these harsh streets. up with Spaide on these harsh streets.
"Everybody is rooting for me. It's like I'm the first person in my family going to college," says Spaide, fully aware of the irony he never actually attended college. "They're living through me."
You best believe, I'm in the party like always
Gotta cup full of that Bacardi like always
And I came to get retarded like always
Hollerin' at the shorty with the weave and the cornbraids
R.I.P.P.E.R., Spaide says matter-of-factly, stands for "Rhyming In Perfection, Punishing Every Rapper." But, with a wink, Spaide's partner Bozo says it stands for "Runnin' In Pussy, Pumpin' Every Rat."
The name "Spaide," the rapper says, is a reference to his dark pigmentation. "I'm the blackest motherfucker in my family," he explains, in a voice that's grown deep and growly from years of smoking menthols. "They thought my mom cheated on my dad."
While Spaide has yet to break out nationally, his music is spun in nightclubs all around town. He's a household name in African-American neighborhoods, from Forest Park Southeast to the Ville. His posters adorn abandoned buildings, advertising "Always," which is now getting heavy play on St. Louis' two hip-hop stations.
Spaide is optimistic about signing a contract with a major label in the near future, and he hopes that with the right promotion and a little luck he'll achieve the fame, riches and longevity of rap idols like the Wu-Tang Clan.
New York- and California-based rappers once dominated the charts, but these days the radio is filled with emcees from Midwestern and Southern burgs like Houston, Memphis and St. Louis. As a result, label interest in local emcees is peaking. Rappers Potzee, P-Dub, Ruka Puff and Penelope each signed major deals in the past year or so. (Penelope's is reportedly worth $800,000.)
Spaide is talking with a handful of record companies, each of them hoping he'll be the next Nelly, Chingy or J-Kwon. They're impressed with his talent, charisma and extensive grassroots marketing campaign.
Two years ago, Spaide, BoOo and long-time friend Bozo founded Hassle Life LLC, the independent imprint that released "Always." Since then BoOo (his real name the unique capitalization is his "trademark") has sent out hundreds of copies of the song to record companies and radio stations around the nation, while Spaide's street team called the "Hassle Girls" distribute free DVDs, posters, stickers and hand towels around town.
A revolving cast of ten comely young women who sport crisp Spaide shirts tied above their belly buttons, the Hassle Girls also dance onstage at Spaide's concerts, some of which are held in high school gyms and children's homes. Spaide and BoOo handpick the women from Spaide's shows.
"When we see a group of girls really enjoying the music, we ask them if they want to participate, and nine times out of ten they say, 'Hell yeah,'" says BoOo, adding that the women receive movie passes and free T-shirts but no money for their services. Sometimes they even bring their daughters.
Spaide's biggest break so far came last fall when The Beat (100.3 FM) added "Always" to its playlist. The song has been picked up by Hot 104.1 FM, a station in Baton Rouge, and numerous satellite and Internet music services.
At once an ode to his friends from the west side and a paean to the booze-babes-and-clubs lifestyle, "Always" features Spaide's gritty vocalizations and a police-siren wail over a pop-crunk beat composed by Nashville producer Tranchilla. Like Spaide's other songs, it's a creative take on traditional hip-hop subject matter.
"Instead of saying, 'I stabbed that guy in the face,' he might say, 'I left his eyeball dangling,'" observes DJ Trackstar, a local producer who has worked with dozens of St. Louis rappers. "That might not be poetic to some, but he brings a fairly unique take on the tried-and-true rap themes."
With his dreadlocks whipping back and forth to the beat, Spaide has a commanding concert presence, whether he's entertaining the politically conscious audience at Blueberry Hill's Friday-night hip-hop show, The Science, or the booty-shaking crowd at Plush or the Spot.
"He's got the formula," says rapper Potzee, a close friend of Spaide's. "He's from the street; he speaks street. He looks like he's gutter."
Confirms Spaide: "I'm always going to be hanging with drug dealers and addicts and criminals, because that's the environment I'm from. But just because I'm riding in a car with a guy who robs banks doesn't mean I'm a bank robber just like you riding with a lawyer doesn't mean you're a lawyer."
Shorty cute like always
In the high-heeled boots like always
I wanna get to know you like always
So I can put it on you like always
As a junior-high-playground rapper, Spaide aped the smooth flow of LL Cool J. In high school he played in the band and the drum line, mastering the tongue-twisting styles of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony in his free time.
"He wrote a rap for our answering machine, and everybody in the family had a part," recalls his mother, JoAnn Bonds. "It was humorous. I just remember getting business calls, and then there was this musical message."
Spaide's reputation preceded him at Sumner High School so much so, in fact, that sophomore Montell Russell, an aspiring rapper himself, challenged him to a rap battle.
"The whole lunchroom was crowded around our tables," remembers Russell, now a well-known local rapper called Nimmy Hendrix. (Until recently he went by Nimmy Russell.)
"We went at it, going for the throat, like, 'You're weak, I don't care what you're doing, I'm sending shots through you, through your Isuzu.' He was fast, and he had these little-bitty Kid 'N Play braids. I was like, who is this?"
School security demanded the boys move to an outdoor courtyard, and the crowd followed, pounding out a beat on the school's walls. Spaide and Russell kept battling until the bell rang, finally agreeing to a draw.
"Then we gave each other a hug," Spaide remembers.
Their friendship persevered through Pap's murder trial. Accused of fatally shooting a man on the west side, Spaide's brother pled guilty and received a fifteen-year sentence at Eastern Missouri Correctional Center. (His brother didn't know his victim, Spaide says.)
Fearing repercussions from the murder victim's friends, Spaide and Russell moved to Memphis and stayed with Spaide's dad, a cell-phone salesman. His father had abandoned the family when Spaide was little, but the young man decided to give his dad another chance.
It also helped that his father claimed to have a connection at a record label a claim that never materialized, leaving Spaide and Russell to spend their days practicing their flows, working odd jobs and pulling audacious pranks.
Russell remembers the night he called his girlfriend's cute acquaintance, a big fan of rapper DMX, and impersonated the East Coast emcee, who was in town that week for a concert.
"Baby, this is what I want you to do for me," he told her. "I want you to fuck my man Spaide. He's my homeboy. If you do that for me, you'll always be able to talk to me."
The trick worked. The woman and her friend came over to the house the next day, and Spaide and Russell took turns giving them the business in their shared bedroom. The women never did get to meet DMX.
Returning from Memphis, Spaide and Russell briefly lived in another house on the same Wabada block where Spaide grew up, sharing the space with various friends, cousins and girlfriends.
Shortly afterward, Spaide met BoOo at a downtown barber and slipped him a CD that convinced BoOo to take him on.
"His voice, his punch lines, his delivery they were catchy," recalls BoOo. "I was like, 'Damn! I ain't never heard anybody spit like this before.' I was working with another artist at the time, but Spaide was more diverse. He had songs for girls, for all ages."
When an electrical fire burned Spaide's house down five years ago, he left the west side for good. Now, he and BoOo live in a south-city bachelor pad near the intersection of South Broadway and I-55, a red-brick building owned by BoOo's mother.
Littered with long-overdue gas bills, plastic cups from Jack in the Box, and Ebony Eyez promotional posters, the kitchen is Hassle Life headquarters, with Spaide sleeping in the apartment's one bedroom and BoOo in the basement next to Debo, the house pit bull.
"It's just gonna get greater later," predicts BoOo.
Yeah, I hold it down like always
Fancy cars like we livin' in the old days
Dirty, I know you're mad like always
Cause I ain't doin' bad like always
Rap pioneer KRS-One, journalist Davey D and writer Adisa Banjoko discussed the intersection of hip-hop music and commercial culture at a Stanford University conference earlier this month. In a sudden fit of rage, KRS-One veered off topic and began threatening Banjoko, who had previously mocked the emcee's bombastic lyrics.
"What I wanna do is jump across the table and beat your fuckin' ass," KRS-One said. "You're an enemy to our culture."
Last November's "History of St. Louis Hip-Hop" conference didn't devolve into threats. But participants at the University of Missouri-St. Louis event angrily disparaged what they believed to be an enemy to hip-hop: corporate radio.
Panelist DJ Trackstar says the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which enabled companies like San Antonio-based Clear Channel to purchase more stations in individual markets, has led to less local music on the radio.
"The Clear Channels of the world make it nearly impossible [for musicians] to get through to the mainstream, without going through the gatekeepers at the major labels," he says.
In St. Louis, Clear Channel owns six stations, including The Beat. St. Louis' other hip-hop station, Hot 104.1, is owned by another conglomerate, Radio One. Neither have many local artists in rotation, Trackstar says, other than nationally popular artists like Nelly, Chingy and J-Kwon.
But the stations do play Spaide R.I.P.P.E.R. Peaking at around 40 local plays per week last month, "Always" wasn't spun as much as, say, D4L's "Laffy Taffy," but it was played enough for regular listeners to get tired of it. ("Always" was No. 1 on Billboard's rap sales singles chart in January, although that's misleading, since few performers release singles anymore.)
Spaide will soon see a royalty check from the song's 500 or so nationwide spins, albeit for a small amount.
"If you have a multi-format national success say Madonna, Michael Jackson, Britney you could collect $100,000 a quarter," explains Robin Ahrold, spokesman for Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), which also collects revenue for songwriters. "If it's really popular on the local scene, you might make a couple hundred dollars."
Nonetheless, rap consultant Wendy Day says achieving radio airplay without doling out payola illegal payments made to radio programmers in exchange for airplay is virtually unheard of these days. She doesn't name names but says payola is exceedingly common, despite a federal law against it and a recent spat of prosecutions by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Six months ago Clear Channel fired two programming executives accused of accepting "pay for play."
Spaide didn't use payola. Instead, he charmed The Beat's programming director, Dwight Stone, by introducing himself at Plush and then visiting the station's offices at Hampton Avenue and Highway 40.
"We fell in love with him, because he would always offer to help you with something if you needed it," says Stone. "I think a lot of people need to remember that, when you're a local artist trying to get on, it's very important that people like you. The billboards and the press and the bling-bling are all good, but nowadays people want to know, 'Can I talk to you? Can I touch you?'"
Ordinarily rappers want their songs on the radio so they can sell albums. But Spaide doesn't have an album other than a few self-distributed mixtapes and says he likely won't release one until he signs a major deal.
Instead, his goal for "Always" was to attract the attention of representatives from the "big four" record labels: Sony BMG, EMI, Warner and Universal. These representatives regularly scour radio-playlist data, seeking out unsigned artists who are getting spins in their hometowns.
St. Louis emcee Kenny Knox, who is also seeking a deal with a major label, says a representative from Universal Records recently asked him about Spaide. "She said they heard he's been getting a lot of spins," Knox says.
I keep a mean mug like always
Hassle Life we thugs like always
Yep I said 'sup' like always
People know that we the next stuff like always
"I think it's easier to win the lottery than to pull yourself up from nothing and get a good [record] deal," says Wendy Day, the hip-hop impresario who discovered Eminem after the Detroit rapper slipped her a demo tape nine years ago.
Since 1992 the Memphis-based Day has run Rap Coalition, a nonprofit group that gives legal counsel to rappers who believe they have signed unfair contracts. Day says a common problem for artists is taking a large advance, which functions more like a loan and is later recouped by the label.
The distinguished pantheon of rappers who were misled by their labels, she says, includes TLC and local platinum-seller Chingy.
"He was signed to Track Starz, DTP (Disturbing Tha Peace) and Capitol, so the money was being stepped on three times before it got to him, so that's a lot of cuts," she says. "After two and a half years he realized that 'Shit, [I'm] not making any money.'"
Montell Russell wishes he'd been more skeptical when he signed his own album deal with the local hip-hop quartet The All Stars. Despite his part in a hit song, "So Serious," Russell says he has yet to see a nickel.
"You have to look at the deal from every angle," elaborates Potzee, who is signed to Asylum, a division of Warner. "You could not get publishing, or not get creative control. People don't realize. You worked so long and so hard to get there, once you get there, you've got to [fight]."
Currently shopping Spaide's music is Reynold Martin, a New York City-based artist and repertoire consultant with ties to all four majors.
Martin, who has worked with groups like SWV and C+C Music Factory in the past, loved Spaide's promo CD, which he received from a mutual acquaintance.
"Spaide could be signed already, but we don't want just any deal," says Martin, adding that he's also negotiating to turn Spaide's songs into cell-phone ringtones. "It's a matter of him deciding which record company can best market and distribute his product."
And so it was with great caution that BoOo and Bozo took a recent meeting with Warner in Los Angeles. Warner representatives, who paid for the St. Louisans' hotel but not their plane tickets, wanted to put a remix of "Always" on the forthcoming album from an LA artist named Black Chill. BoOo says the deal fell through because he decided Black Chill wasn't famous enough.
Rap-A-Lot Records, a large independent label, is courting Spaide as well. The imprint's marquee artist, Scarface, put "Always" on his new album, My Homies 2. BoOo says Hassle Life's lawyer, Maurice Foxworth, is discussing details of a potential contract with Rap-A-Lot's lawyer.
"We don't want to jump the gun," says BoOo. "We don't wanna sign with Rap-A-Lot and then have Sony or Warner call with a better deal."
You know how I do like always
Put it down for the Lou like always
And I'm'a disregard what y'all say
Until I'm on top like always
The next stop on Spaide's west-side sojourn is the swank pad inhabited by rapper/producer Vice. The thickly carpeted crib features gold and platinum records on the walls, in recognition of Vice's contribution to Chingy's hit "One Call Away." (He wrote the chorus.)
Downstairs, Spaide is munching on fried food procured from the Chinaman, a favorite chop-suey joint down the block, and listening to a radio commercial he recorded the previous evening in Vice's state-of-the-art recording studio. The commercial will soon air on The Beat. Over the "Always" beat, Spaide shills for the north-county apparel store Work Wear for Less. For his trouble, the store paid Spaide in Dickies slacks and shirts.
The afternoon's final stop is a particularly downtrodden stretch of Semple Avenue, where litter swirls and decaying houses make one wonder if Hurricane Katrina took an unreported turn northward.
Spaide exits the car and lights up a Newport. He's soon joined on the curb by an old peer, a known Blood who has taken a break from drinking beers in an idling Chevy Cavalier, all blue save for the white door on the driver's side.
Men have been looting bricks from the block's crumbling houses, he tells Spaide. "The city should tear it down already."
Then, after wishing Spaide luck and giving him a hug, he returns to his car to drink away the afternoon.
"If Spaide becomes a millionaire, these guys think they got a possibility of working with him, to get out of the hood," says BoOo. "These aren't just fans, they're family. And they're stuck here we're not."
The sky has clouded over and Spaide and BoOo take refuge in the Pathfinder. A few minutes later they pilot out of the neighborhood to their new home, hoping, someday, they'll be able to take some of the west-side folks with them.
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