From 1999 to 2004, DJ Needles made nine dollars an hour hosting shows on the area's mainstream hip-hop stations, the Beat (100.3 FM) and Q95.5. When the latter shut down, he was out of an on-air gig until October 2006, when he started co-hosting a show called The Remedy with DJ G Wiz on KDHX (88.1 FM). Now, he's happy to work for free. "I love exposing audiences to stuff they have never heard," says the DJ, whose show is an oasis of classic and independent-minded hip-hop that airs between 8 and 10 p.m. on Monday nights. "KDHX was where I wanted to be all along. Their signal is great."
With any encouragement, the 30-year-old Needles whose real name is James Gates will philosophize at length about the current state of hip-hop. Two styles particularly bother him: what he calls "complaint rap" predictable tirades against songs focusing on bitches, bling and blunts and the mainstream music that inspires complaint rap. "Music has such power to shape a community and a generation, that to keep it all the same, with no social relevance, is a crime," he says. "You keep feeding kids this garbage and expect them to lead productive lives?"
Gates is one of the most hard-working and well-known DJs in town; Riverfront Times readers picked him as the city's best hip-hop DJ in 2005. Yet a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article last year detailed that he clears less than $20,000 per year. "People think what we [DJs] do is really lucrative," says Gates. "But around here, a lot of club owners and promoters don't look at us as any more than hired help and will only pay us a certain amount."
Still, he can afford a comfortable Dogtown apartment without having to hold down a day job, which is more than many artists can claim. In addition to regular gigs at 609 and the Contemporary Art Museum, Gates also produces, and he has sold beats to national artists such as Wise Intelligent (of Poor Righteous Teachers) and Shortie No Mass, who was featured on De La Soul's 1995 album, Buhloone Mindstate. His beats have even found their way into the hands of former NBA basketball player Jahidi White, Gates' schoolmate at Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School, who now works with Cuzzo Productions.
Gates' soulful, subtle tracks are reminiscent of the type of records he spins as a DJ. But, as with everything he does, he's taking the long road when it comes to his production career. "I'm not really looking to hit quick," he says. "I'm just working up in the ranks."
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