Hip-hop jack-of-all-trades Black Spade is the force behind local rap collective the Force 

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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.

Mustafa says it was Spade's work ethic that sparked his interest. "Besides him having lyrics, it was the drive," the rapper says. "He was in a group, and they really had the look, they had the sound. And it was the drive they had: He really wanted to be in it and do the music game. It really caught me."

Mustafa and Wes rented a vast loft in a warehouse on Olive Street downtown, stocked it with musical and recording equipment and christened the space the Uprising Records Studio, in honor of the label they'd created in tandem with Soul Tyde. The pair enlisted more than a dozen other singers, and from 1997 to 2003 the loft was transformed into a vibrant (if grimy) nexus for creative minds to congregate and experiment with sounds and styles.

"That place had cockroaches the size of a cell-phone battery," Spade recalls. "And there was no shower — we weren't supposed to be living there — so it was birdbath central. But we didn't care. We'd just stay up 24 hours a day, making music."

"We really influenced each other," adds Coultrain, a former Soul Tyde singer now living in Los Angeles. "We listened to everything — jazz, soul, hip-hop, folk, and rock from Yes to Radiohead to the Beatles to Led Zeppelin. That was part of our whole way of growing. We always wanted to fuse sounds to build our own sound."

Eventually, though, the artists began to clash with the would-be record executives. The group had attained substantial buzz in the St. Louis music scene, particularly Spade, who had a song called "2 Step" that was getting frequent spins on local radio. But to him it seemed as though his overseers' egos had inflated with the hype.

"They wanted to be CEOs and backers and stay out of the limelight — initially. But it got so much bigger than them," Spade says. "They were on that Suge Knight shit, only they didn't know what they was doing."

Money — or a lack thereof — also became an issue.

"They weren't paying Veto anything, and he was basically the mastermind of the whole Soul Tyde sound," says Chris Burch, a former member now working as a visual artist in San Francisco. "He would really dictate how things were laid down, how the music went down. He had the vision. You gotta pay somebody what they worth, especially when that's what they doing. That wasn't happening, and he got disillusioned to the situation and moved on."

Spade parted ways with the crew in 2003, the same year Wes and Mustafa released Hip-Hop & Soulful...ish, a sprawling double-disc compilation of Soul Tyde recordings, the only full-length recording the group would ever produce.

The former Soul Tyde managers blame the split on their inexperience in the music business and "outside voices [that] pulled the artists apart."

"You started to see people not showing up for meetings or coming in with new people and trying to take what we were doing in a different direction," Wes says. "It's not that we couldn't make good music together, it's just everybody was trying to move in different directions. And when you get divided like that, your house can't stand."

"It was a lot of maturity that everybody — including ourselves — had to learn," adds Mustafa, who now makes his home in Atlanta. "It was emotional, and there was a lot of tension. But as the years go by, we got a better understanding about it. I don't regret anything. The whole reason things are how they are now is because of what we started. We did start something — that crew was something very powerful."

In 2004 Spade applied to the Red Bull Music Academy, an intensive music workshop that takes place in a different city each year. Spade was accepted and spent two weeks in Seattle in 2005 learning about the music industry and producing an album with fourteen fellow attendees.

"Anyone can apply — sometimes it's just a musician or a DJ or a singer — but I was like, 'Man, this kid does everything,'" recalls Red Bull's Wes "Solo" Allmond. "And I knew that Veto is social and that he'd make new contacts. He actually ended up being featured on four of the tracks from his session."

In 2007 Spade signed a deal with Om Records, an independent San Francisco operation known for its roster of hip-hop/jazz fusion artists including Mark Farina. Om has a small hip-hop division headlined by Los Angeles underground legends People Under the Stairs — and was looking to expand.

"The hype was just crazy around this guy," says Jonathan McDonald, head of Om's hip-hop branch. "And then just talking with him and kicking it with him — he's different than most artists I've ever met. He has a different vibe about him, and you can hear it in his music. He makes what he lives and lives what he makes."

Spade inked a contract good for one album and a $20,000 advance. The record he crafted, To Serve With Love, was released in March 2008. The songs shift flawlessly from down-tempo, jazz-influenced rhythms like those on the title track to rollicking, ultra-catchy pop jams like "Actioneer." It is a shining example of Spade's ability to construct music that feels lived-in — complete with vinyl pops and hisses — but sounds brand-new.

"He made the entire album in analog," McDonald marvels. "He didn't even have a computer. He'd make a beat and then have to go to his friend's house to finish it. Dude didn't even have a cell phone for a long time. It was hard to get a hold of him."

After forking over half of his advance to his manager, Spade decided to move from St. Louis to New York. He spent a year and a half living in Queens — an experience his friends say had a profound effect on him.

"There's a lot of energy in New York, a get-up-and-go kind of energy," says Coultrain. "It's something that grabbed hold of him. I don't know if it changed him, necessarily, but it expanded his repertoire a bit."

Spade also spent a few months in Los Angeles, but in early 2008, with his funds dwindling, he returned to his hometown.

"St. Louis has this way of changing right before your eyes," he says. "When I came back from New York, there were so many cats on the scene I didn't know — it was time to start something new."


Spade says the Force was formed in the wake of the 2008 Riverfront Times Music Showcase. A handful of hip-hop artists had been scheduled to perform at Blueberry Hill in the Delmar Loop. Hours before the first act was to take the stage, a sewer line ruptured and flooded the labyrinthine bar's Elvis Room. Spade arranged at the last minute to move the hip-hop portion of the event a few blocks down Delmar to the restaurant and nightclub 609.

The near-disaster came on the heels of a quiet controversy over scheduling at the event: Several rappers felt they deserved to be on the main stage alongside the rock & roll acts. Spade believed the exclusion of hip-hop had to do with race.

"Politics in St. Louis has music being segregated into white music and black music," he says. "I'm trying to break down walls. The Force is trying to break down walls. Instead of having it chopped up into one or two factions, have it go one after the other: Put white bands with the black dudes and just call it music."

"That was a catalyst," Tech Supreme, a producer and graphic designer, says of the showcase snafu. "It was like a realization. We felt like we were getting played."

Emily Kohler, marketing director for Riverfront Times, says race had nothing to do with the scheduling decisions. She points out that all types of music — not just hip-hop — are often grouped by genre on separate stages.

"The main stage should have all different types of music, and we've had hip-hop on the main stage before," Kohler says. "But, especially at nighttime, we try to book all the acts from a particular genre at one venue. That way, if you want to see jazz, here you go. If you want rockabilly, here you go. It makes it easier for the event attendees to see the type of music they want to see if we categorize it like that."

Regardless, the following year several artists in the fledgling Force boycotted the showcase. Led by Spade they set up their equipment on the sidewalk in front of Vintage Vinyl and staged an impromptu half-hour concert between sets on the main stage a few hundred feet away.

Vintage Vinyl owner Tom "Papa" Ray says he gave the nod to the performances outside his shop primarily out of respect and admiration for Spade.

"I feel his music is of a quality that I can recommend it to anybody on the planet interested in contemporary hip-hop," Ray says. "He's a 21st-century jazz vocalist — something between Donny Hathaway and King Pleasure — with his rhythmic liquidity. His greatest handicap is his music just has too much IQ for contemporary rap."

Later that summer Spade was invited to be the opening act for a Live on the Levee concert headlined by Lupe Fiasco. Spade was no stranger to music festivals — he'd already done gigs at CMJ in New York and the Sónar festival in Barcelona — and he felt slighted by the $50 payment the Live on the Levee organizers offered. Nevertheless, he realized that the audience was going to be substantial. So he invited his Force cohorts to share the stage with him.

"I was like, 'I'ma let all my homies flood it and do two songs each,'" Spade recounts. "I don't care if you came to see me — we'll do another show next week!"

"The real turning point was the Lupe show," says Nato Caliph. "He was helping everyone. He was thinking about us instead of himself. That was just a surreal night."

If anything defines Spade to his peers on the local hop-hop scene, it's his by-the-bootstraps initiative and his generosity.

"It's a lead-by-example thing, rather than doing decision-making or organizing or directing," says DJ Trackstar, a long-time St. Louis hip-hop fixture who now lives in LA. "It's more of a big-brother-everyone-looks-up-to type of thing. He's definitely got everyone's respect to the fullest."

"He's honest, he doesn't bullshit, and he doesn't use you," says Rockwell Knuckles, a Force-affiliated emcee whose most recent record, Choose Your Own Adventure, features several of Spade's Stoney Rock productions. "He's there to help. He stands up for shit he believes in. He walks in peace, but he ain't no bitch neither. Honestly, I feel privileged to make music with him."

Spade and fellow Force members say they learned from the frictions of the Soul Tyde experience. The group's laid-back, come-as-you-are character is a conscious contrast to the all-business mentality that led to Soul Tyde's fracture.

"There's no paperwork," says Finsta, Force cofounder and host of STL Home Jamz on HOT 104.1 FM. "It's good, clean, wholesome friends that know each other and worked together and decided to form a unit where everybody can push for a common goal. As it is now, it's free flowing. It's not a bad thing, but most people don't want to be tied down with somebody looking over their shoulders and telling them what they need to get done."


By far the biggest influence on Spade's sound is his father. Frank Jackson was just eighteen years old when his girlfriend gave birth to his second son. Now 55 and working as an in-home care provider in north St. Louis, Jackson describes how he decided to name the boy Veto. (Spade claims his birth name is Veto Corleone Money; his mother, Sharon, coyly introduces herself as "Ms. Money.")

"I was really caught up on The Godfather," Jackson says, recalling the scene where a young Vito Corleone arrives on Ellis Island. "Before I even finished the movie, I said, 'This little dude, he going to grow up to be something powerful.' Then I researched the name and found out that a veto, the president overturning an act of Congress, was also something powerful. It just fit."

Jackson and Spade's mother separated when the boy was eight. Sharon, a factory worker, raised him with help from her mother, but young Veto spent a significant amount of time at his "old dude's" place, where, from an early age, he was exposed to a broad range of music. Spade fondly recalls watching his dad "play chess, smoke weed and listen to some good music."

To this day Jackson remains an audiophile and chess fanatic. He's given to proclamations along the lines of, "The greatest band in the world is Earth Wind & Fire, but if I had to go white guys, I'd go with the Beatles — I studied the Beatles a lot." His cluttered house is packed with chessboards whose pieces range in size from miniature to more than eight inches tall. He says the game started out as "a macho thing among the guys" and evolved into his favorite pastime.

"I lived at Streetside Records," Jackson says. "I'm crazy about music. Veto took that and he ran with it. I listen to his music, and I hear George Duke, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. It's amazing how he put that whole package together. I see him thinking outside the box — he could make anything work."

Spade was three in 1979 when the Sugar Hill Gang released "Rapper's Delight," the song that introduced hip-hop to the masses.

"I had to sneak to listen to hip-hop on the radio," he says. "If you wasn't my auntie, you couldn't touch that thing. But my uncle's friend was in the army, and he would bring hip-hop mixtapes back. Stuff like Kurtis Blow and 'A Fly Girl' [by the Boogie Boys]. We'd play [the cassette] until it broke and you had to put Scotch tape on it." [Editor's Note: Corrections ran concerning the previous two paragraphs; please see end of article.]

Spade's earliest forays into hip-hop consisted of sessions for young freestyle rappers on his block in Pine Lawn. With lax supervision from his parents, he also spent a lot of time on the streets flirting with trouble.

"It's kind of a little-known fact about me," he says now. "When I was young and I didn't give a shit, I was wild. I would hang out on Jennings Station Road and just chill. Cops would just come up and rough you up. There was this one, he would come up and slap you if you didn't know your Social Security number."

One of Spade's defining facial features, along with a thin goatee, is a gold tooth that glimmers when he smiles and causes him to cover his mouth when he laughs. He says he got the functional bling during eighth grade after the "the worst ass-beating" of his life knocked out an incisor. He tells of gang violence in the late '80s and of seeing two of his friends get shot outside the Skate King roller rink in Pine Lawn.

"A lot of people from our 'hood got caught up in gangs and drugs," says Tef Poe, Spade's 26-year-old half-brother on their father's side. "We were entrenched in that, but [Veto] had an identity outside of that — a cultural identity. He was into stuff on TV that other kids weren't. He was skateboarding long before it was a trend. He was a hipster before kids were hipsters, I guess."

Spade (the second of six siblings) says he and Tef were separated for long stretches of their youth, explaining: "My old dude was a dope dealer, and his mom was into church."

"I got in the game because I wanted to make money to take care of my family," Jackson, now a devoutly religious man, says of his cocaine-peddling days. "I would surely say it's the dumbest thing I've ever done, by far. I think it showed [Veto] the realness of life, how real it could be. It also showed him, 'Don't go there.' I never bragged to him about it."

Jackson was eventually arrested and sentenced to probation. (The conviction was his first offense.) Perhaps the biggest silver lining was that young Spade inherited his father's entire record collection.

"I gave him the whole caboodle," Jackson says. "Times got tight. I had to put food on the table — I couldn't study music like I used to — and of all my sons, he was the one who was always interested in music. So I passed it on."

The haul, which included more than a thousand albums — by artists ranging from Sinatra to Beethoven to Rick James — was to serve as the foundation of Spade's sound.

"Certain music can be played that's sad, happy — everything at the same time," Spade says. "You can play it at a barbecue or just chillin' out. I always wanted to make music like that. I try to make music that takes me back to my old dude's crib. That's the feeling I want people to have when they listen to my music."


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.

Mustafa says it was Spade's work ethic that sparked his interest. "Besides him having lyrics, it was the drive," the rapper says. "He was in a group, and they really had the look, they had the sound. And it was the drive they had: He really wanted to be in it and do the music game. It really caught me."

Mustafa and Wes rented a vast loft in a warehouse on Olive Street downtown, stocked it with musical and recording equipment and christened the space the Uprising Records Studio, in honor of the label they'd created in tandem with Soul Tyde. The pair enlisted more than a dozen other singers, and from 1997 to 2003 the loft was transformed into a vibrant (if grimy) nexus for creative minds to congregate and experiment with sounds and styles.

"That place had cockroaches the size of a cell-phone battery," Spade recalls. "And there was no shower — we weren't supposed to be living there — so it was birdbath central. But we didn't care. We'd just stay up 24 hours a day, making music."

"We really influenced each other," adds Coultrain, a former Soul Tyde singer now living in Los Angeles. "We listened to everything — jazz, soul, hip-hop, folk, and rock from Yes to Radiohead to the Beatles to Led Zeppelin. That was part of our whole way of growing. We always wanted to fuse sounds to build our own sound."

Eventually, though, the artists began to clash with the would-be record executives. The group had attained substantial buzz in the St. Louis music scene, particularly Spade, who had a song called "2 Step" that was getting frequent spins on local radio. But to him it seemed as though his overseers' egos had inflated with the hype.

"They wanted to be CEOs and backers and stay out of the limelight — initially. But it got so much bigger than them," Spade says. "They were on that Suge Knight shit, only they didn't know what they was doing."

Money — or a lack thereof — also became an issue.

"They weren't paying Veto anything, and he was basically the mastermind of the whole Soul Tyde sound," says Chris Burch, a former member now working as a visual artist in San Francisco. "He would really dictate how things were laid down, how the music went down. He had the vision. You gotta pay somebody what they worth, especially when that's what they doing. That wasn't happening, and he got disillusioned to the situation and moved on."

Spade parted ways with the crew in 2003, the same year Wes and Mustafa released Hip-Hop & Soulful...ish, a sprawling double-disc compilation of Soul Tyde recordings, the only full-length recording the group would ever produce.

The former Soul Tyde managers blame the split on their inexperience in the music business and "outside voices [that] pulled the artists apart."

"You started to see people not showing up for meetings or coming in with new people and trying to take what we were doing in a different direction," Wes says. "It's not that we couldn't make good music together, it's just everybody was trying to move in different directions. And when you get divided like that, your house can't stand."

"It was a lot of maturity that everybody — including ourselves — had to learn," adds Mustafa, who now makes his home in Atlanta. "It was emotional, and there was a lot of tension. But as the years go by, we got a better understanding about it. I don't regret anything. The whole reason things are how they are now is because of what we started. We did start something — that crew was something very powerful."

In 2004 Spade applied to the Red Bull Music Academy, an intensive music workshop that takes place in a different city each year. Spade was accepted and spent two weeks in Seattle in 2005 learning about the music industry and producing an album with fourteen fellow attendees.

"Anyone can apply — sometimes it's just a musician or a DJ or a singer — but I was like, 'Man, this kid does everything,'" recalls Red Bull's Wes "Solo" Allmond. "And I knew that Veto is social and that he'd make new contacts. He actually ended up being featured on four of the tracks from his session."

In 2007 Spade signed a deal with Om Records, an independent San Francisco operation known for its roster of hip-hop/jazz fusion artists including Mark Farina. Om has a small hip-hop division headlined by Los Angeles underground legends People Under the Stairs — and was looking to expand.

"The hype was just crazy around this guy," says Jonathan McDonald, head of Om's hip-hop branch. "And then just talking with him and kicking it with him — he's different than most artists I've ever met. He has a different vibe about him, and you can hear it in his music. He makes what he lives and lives what he makes."

Spade inked a contract good for one album and a $20,000 advance. The record he crafted, To Serve With Love, was released in March 2008. The songs shift flawlessly from down-tempo, jazz-influenced rhythms like those on the title track to rollicking, ultra-catchy pop jams like "Actioneer." It is a shining example of Spade's ability to construct music that feels lived-in — complete with vinyl pops and hisses — but sounds brand-new.

"He made the entire album in analog," McDonald marvels. "He didn't even have a computer. He'd make a beat and then have to go to his friend's house to finish it. Dude didn't even have a cell phone for a long time. It was hard to get a hold of him."

After forking over half of his advance to his manager, Spade decided to move from St. Louis to New York. He spent a year and a half living in Queens — an experience his friends say had a profound effect on him.

"There's a lot of energy in New York, a get-up-and-go kind of energy," says Coultrain. "It's something that grabbed hold of him. I don't know if it changed him, necessarily, but it expanded his repertoire a bit."

Spade also spent a few months in Los Angeles, but in early 2008, with his funds dwindling, he returned to his hometown.

"St. Louis has this way of changing right before your eyes," he says. "When I came back from New York, there were so many cats on the scene I didn't know — it was time to start something new."


Spade says the Force was formed in the wake of the 2008 Riverfront Times Music Showcase. A handful of hip-hop artists had been scheduled to perform at Blueberry Hill in the Delmar Loop. Hours before the first act was to take the stage, a sewer line ruptured and flooded the labyrinthine bar's Elvis Room. Spade arranged at the last minute to move the hip-hop portion of the event a few blocks down Delmar to the restaurant and nightclub 609.

The near-disaster came on the heels of a quiet controversy over scheduling at the event: Several rappers felt they deserved to be on the main stage alongside the rock & roll acts. Spade believed the exclusion of hip-hop had to do with race.

"Politics in St. Louis has music being segregated into white music and black music," he says. "I'm trying to break down walls. The Force is trying to break down walls. Instead of having it chopped up into one or two factions, have it go one after the other: Put white bands with the black dudes and just call it music."

"That was a catalyst," Tech Supreme, a producer and graphic designer, says of the showcase snafu. "It was like a realization. We felt like we were getting played."

Emily Kohler, marketing director for Riverfront Times, says race had nothing to do with the scheduling decisions. She points out that all types of music — not just hip-hop — are often grouped by genre on separate stages.

"The main stage should have all different types of music, and we've had hip-hop on the main stage before," Kohler says. "But, especially at nighttime, we try to book all the acts from a particular genre at one venue. That way, if you want to see jazz, here you go. If you want rockabilly, here you go. It makes it easier for the event attendees to see the type of music they want to see if we categorize it like that."

Regardless, the following year several artists in the fledgling Force boycotted the showcase. Led by Spade they set up their equipment on the sidewalk in front of Vintage Vinyl and staged an impromptu half-hour concert between sets on the main stage a few hundred feet away.

Vintage Vinyl owner Tom "Papa" Ray says he gave the nod to the performances outside his shop primarily out of respect and admiration for Spade.

"I feel his music is of a quality that I can recommend it to anybody on the planet interested in contemporary hip-hop," Ray says. "He's a 21st-century jazz vocalist — something between Donny Hathaway and King Pleasure — with his rhythmic liquidity. His greatest handicap is his music just has too much IQ for contemporary rap."

Later that summer Spade was invited to be the opening act for a Live on the Levee concert headlined by Lupe Fiasco. Spade was no stranger to music festivals — he'd already done gigs at CMJ in New York and the Sónar festival in Barcelona — and he felt slighted by the $50 payment the Live on the Levee organizers offered. Nevertheless, he realized that the audience was going to be substantial. So he invited his Force cohorts to share the stage with him.

"I was like, 'I'ma let all my homies flood it and do two songs each,'" Spade recounts. "I don't care if you came to see me — we'll do another show next week!"

"The real turning point was the Lupe show," says Nato Caliph. "He was helping everyone. He was thinking about us instead of himself. That was just a surreal night."

If anything defines Spade to his peers on the local hop-hop scene, it's his by-the-bootstraps initiative and his generosity.

"It's a lead-by-example thing, rather than doing decision-making or organizing or directing," says DJ Trackstar, a long-time St. Louis hip-hop fixture who now lives in LA. "It's more of a big-brother-everyone-looks-up-to type of thing. He's definitely got everyone's respect to the fullest."

"He's honest, he doesn't bullshit, and he doesn't use you," says Rockwell Knuckles, a Force-affiliated emcee whose most recent record, Choose Your Own Adventure, features several of Spade's Stoney Rock productions. "He's there to help. He stands up for shit he believes in. He walks in peace, but he ain't no bitch neither. Honestly, I feel privileged to make music with him."

Spade and fellow Force members say they learned from the frictions of the Soul Tyde experience. The group's laid-back, come-as-you-are character is a conscious contrast to the all-business mentality that led to Soul Tyde's fracture.

"There's no paperwork," says Finsta, Force cofounder and host of STL Home Jamz on HOT 104.1 FM. "It's good, clean, wholesome friends that know each other and worked together and decided to form a unit where everybody can push for a common goal. As it is now, it's free flowing. It's not a bad thing, but most people don't want to be tied down with somebody looking over their shoulders and telling them what they need to get done."


By far the biggest influence on Spade's sound is his father. Frank Jackson was just eighteen years old when his girlfriend gave birth to his second son. Now 55 and working as an in-home care provider in north St. Louis, Jackson describes how he decided to name the boy Veto. (Spade claims his birth name is Veto Corleone Money; his mother, Sharon, coyly introduces herself as "Ms. Money.")

"I was really caught up on The Godfather," Jackson says, recalling the scene where a young Vito Corleone arrives on Ellis Island. "Before I even finished the movie, I said, 'This little dude, he going to grow up to be something powerful.' Then I researched the name and found out that a veto, the president overturning an act of Congress, was also something powerful. It just fit."

Jackson and Spade's mother separated when the boy was eight. Sharon, a factory worker, raised him with help from her mother, but young Veto spent a significant amount of time at his "old dude's" place, where, from an early age, he was exposed to a broad range of music. Spade fondly recalls watching his dad "play chess, smoke weed and listen to some good music."

To this day Jackson remains an audiophile and chess fanatic. He's given to proclamations along the lines of, "The greatest band in the world is Earth Wind & Fire, but if I had to go white guys, I'd go with the Beatles — I studied the Beatles a lot." His cluttered house is packed with chessboards whose pieces range in size from miniature to more than eight inches tall. He says the game started out as "a macho thing among the guys" and evolved into his favorite pastime.

"I lived at Streetside Records," Jackson says. "I'm crazy about music. Veto took that and he ran with it. I listen to his music, and I hear George Duke, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. It's amazing how he put that whole package together. I see him thinking outside the box — he could make anything work."

Spade was three in 1979 when the Sugar Hill Gang released "Rapper's Delight," the song that introduced hip-hop to the masses.

Spade says mainstream commercial success is no longer his goal. He raps about friends who've been "brainwashed by Clear Channel" and rhymes, "I'll be damned if I make a coon rap song/My shit motivates niggas — no sing-alongs/But it also brainwashes you back/Till the good even up with the wack." [Editor's Note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]

"I want to get the equipment to do pirate radio," he says. "Get a Winnebago or something and take over the radio. Just drive around, play real good shit — backpacker, instrumental, Afro-punk. People don't take music as a revolution. You got to liberate yourself."

According to Om Records' Jonathan McDonald, To Serve With Love was a modest success, particularly on the West Coast. But faced with declining revenues industrywide, the label downsized its hip-hop division, and Spade's contract was not renewed. Spade released Build and Destroy through the popular hip-hop and culture blog the Smoking Section (http://smokingsection.uproxx.com) and made the record available for free download. The site's creator, who goes by the Web handle John Gotty, says he jumped at the chance to sponsor Spade as he'd already done with other Force members.

"He can keep a story going real strong throughout a verse," Gotty says of Spade's strength as a lyricist. "It's almost like reading a thriller or a mystery novel: It's so intense you want to keep listening, and you get to end of the song, you're like, 'Whew!' And you have to take a second to process before he goes to the next track."

Adds Trackstar, who coproduces the project: "He provides a very well-rounded, human and personable kind of view. There's vulnerability, insecurity, anger, frustration, joy — I don't know if he plans it that way, but what comes out is a very human product. If you listen to the whole project and observe everything, you get a good idea of who he is as a person and his mindset and what he's about."

Like To Serve With Love, the new mixtape is astonishing in its diversity. The songs shift seamlessly back and forth between Spade's charismatically off-key singing and straightforward rapping. The opening track incorporates a spoken-word piece by Force member Corey Black; another revolves around a sample of the Beatles' "If I Fell."

"Most of us, we just rhyme," says Gotta Be Karim, a former Soul Tyde member who now reps the Force in Atlanta. "When I go to record, I have to express an idea to a producer or an engineer and hope that they get it close. Veto, he has an image in his mind, and when he goes to the studio to create it that's exactly what he does: He makes it straight from his imagination."

Beyond his solo material, Spade is in the process of recording an album with a side project called Hawthorne Headhunters, a group that includes Coultrain and another St. Louis expat named I, Ced. With the help of DJ Needles and graphic designer Alex Petrowsky, Spade recently debuted a performance-art project titled The Day We Landed, which pairs funk-infused beats with a corresponding series of still and video images projected across the stage.

While Spade's indifference toward commercial success keeps him free to pursue his own unique projects, it also keeps him working a day job at a warehouse in north St. Louis and living at his mom's house in Moline Acres. His ultimate goals are to return to New York, where he has a steady girlfriend waiting for him, to continue building with the Force and to sustain his drive to create in the face of constant frustration with the state of modern music.

"I try not to be bitter," Spade says. "But there be days I get up and think about quitting and getting on with my life, going back to school. But at the same time, I can make something and love it all over again."

Correction published 9/16/10: In the original version of this story, we stated that the rapper grew up in Jennings; Spade was raised in Pine Lawn. We also bungled the lyrics from his song “Breakthrough”: “I'll be damned if I made a cool rap song.” The correct words are: “I'll be damned if I made a coon rap song.” Finally, we quoted Spade as saying that his uncle was in the army. He later clarified that it was his uncle's friend, not his uncle, who served in the military.

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