One person at this year's S.L.U.M. Fest was trying very hard to appear not to care. As an animated beat battle progressed in Atomic Cowboy's side room, it became obvious the likely winner was a teenager nobody had heard of. To his mom in north county, he's Adrian White. Chingy and the other rappers he has produced for know him as AceDeuce.
While the other competitors danced to their own music or at the very least nodded halfheartedly, White and his equally stone-faced friend folded their arms over their sweatshirts, one a vintage Chicago Bulls pullover and the other fronting MSU. They glared at the audience for the majority of the battle, though White was unable to fight back an occasional grin.
That level of blatant confidence goes a long way toward getting noticed in a city as musically rich as St. Louis, especially while you're still in high school. Still, it's a hard gimmick to get. When it was over, not everyone at S.L.U.M. Fest knew what to make of the young rapper, and their confusion about his persona led to a second-place finish.
"I let the music talk for itself," White says with a shrug. "It's not my job to do the talking."
After the beat battle, he exited the stage to enter a mob of people hoping to collect his phone number. Among those who already had it, besides Chingy, are Rockwell Knuckles and Louie V., who have also worked with White. He will be a senior at McCluer North High School, where he earns B's, C's and the occasional A for homework that comes second to the music he creates in his basement bedroom. In his short career, White has signed to and dropped local label 714 Entertainment, become involved with the young rap collective N.O.D.I.C.E. (New Original Dudes In Charge of Everything) and sold a couple dozen tracks. Right now, surrounded by angel figurines and a Yorkie named Tyson in his parents' north county living room, he is answering his cell phone. He does this a lot.
"Yeah, we're working on it this week," White mumbles into his phone. The room smells like apple potpourri and sounds like small dogs. "It's pretty sick. You'll like it. The beat is heavy."
By his own admission, he wasn't always that confident. This is one of many calls that will interrupt his conversation on any given afternoon. White's interest in developing his refined, technically diverse and often ear-crushing production style started when he saw Hustle & Flow in a local theater after its 2005 release. He was eleven. White has spent his birthday and Christmas money in the intervening six years on the meager but smartly selected set of instruments he stores in his bedroom, a collection of production tools that began with a cheap 25-key keyboard. He recently bought the ProTools suite. The money he earns for beats, anywhere from $50 to $500, goes toward additional equipment.
White creates heavy tracks, driven by starchy rhythm and computerized brass and synth. They rarely relent – it takes a big vocalist to keep up. Although most of his beats lend themselves to rap, his goal is to break out of the genre, to try to bridge between styles in a way he thinks is lacking locally. Because of this focus, his recent projects have softened and offer lighter instrumentation than specifically rap-focused tracks.
"He understands music from all angles," says N.O.D.I.C.E. rapper Aramis Jakkar Jones (Big Aye). "We're all young, but with him you can't tell. In some ways, the young age is a statement. I don't think anybody has ever heard of a seventeen-year-old producer like him before."
White's youth could easily have hindered him. To this day, White can't get into many events that would help him network, and it would be understandable if he were brushed aside as an inexperienced kid. But AceDeuce is different: Few people have six years of production experience at age seventeen. The group's youth plays a hefty role in the work ethic and general gumption of N.O.D.I.C.E.'s producers and five core members: Big Aye, B-Nice, Kay Bee, Nw-Nw and Rizzo. White and Jones met at a hotel party when they were in seventh grade, which says more than their identical summations of each other: "He was just a real cool dude."
In general, the guys are significantly more well-spoken in their music than they are in casual conversation. To hear White tell it, the point is to make the beats and let the music speak for itself. Although the group's members, who are frequently found in White's basement and rarely without at least one other member of the group, describe each other as humble, they possess a youthful overconfidence that propels both their music and their DIY aesthetic. It takes guts to watch Hustle & Flow, think, "I can do that," and then have one of your tracks appear on Rockwell Knuckles' Choose Your Own Adventure mixtape. It takes even more guts to do it with no money, no name and no driver's license.
"Seventh or eighth grade was when I started actually getting good," White says. "I always took it seriously, but before that it was hard for me to make anything really happen. Sometimes it still is."
Today, White and the other six involved with N.O.D.I.C.E. operate with a largely present-tense plan for success with a focus on the Internet. They've found an audience through websites like STLmixtapes.com, where their second mix tape together, the optimistically titled Basements to Billboards, has garnered moderate but enthusiastic attention.
"I'm more musically intellectual than other people," White says confidently, though he is making shy and spotty eye contact. "I'm versatile. I know how to make better mixes with more music knowledge in general."
For now, White's biggest achievements are in the St. Louis music scene. But he ultimately hopes to make a name for himself outside of a city where he says there is "no publicity" and a focus on "mainstream materialism rap." "There's not a well-known producer in St. Louis like in Atlanta or New York," White says. "We have talent: It just doesn't get any shine."
Although his goals for the future include the Grammy most of his influences also want or have, White shows little concern for any sort of five-year plan. His future, he says, includes another year of homework, a two-year degree in sound engineering, a potential four-year degree and, after all that, "making it." But that's getting a little ahead of things. Right now the room is too dark, and his mom insists he turn on another light before he shuffles down the stairs to his basement where the assorted members of N.O.D.I.C.E. are waiting for his help on a track. And maybe some video games.
"How can you see in here?" she says. He reaches across an end table and over an angel statue for the lamp. "This is bad for your eyes. Turn on a light, Adrian.
"Are you and your friends hungry?"