Two living exhibits from that history are stepping out of the shadows to make some new noise, along with a bunch of younger friends they found along the way. Yo Chi (a.k.a. Slangsman) and Mic Checka were original members of the highly influential M.O.D.U. Crew, one of the two major poles of the mid-'90s scene along with sometime rivals the Midwest Avengers. They're back with a loose collection of MCs and singers under the banner of Hotstyle Music Group, mostly produced by Yo. And they mean to harvest the crop that M.O.D.U. sowed but never reaped.
Their old rep helped them put together a remarkable collection of talent for Hotstyle, from warhorse battle MCs like Lex Luchi to creamy-voiced soul singers like Aaron Jehan. "As far as the roots of hip-hop in St. Louis, it's M.O.D.U. Crew -- everyone can agree on that," says King-O, an MC who became a sort of Hotstyle business manager.
Most of this sprawling family is on display on the Hotstyle Takeover compilation, a double-CD carnival of mixtape beats, freestyle raps and all-original compositions. All 50-plus tracks ooze a rugged street authenticity, even if a couple could use a remix to bring up the beats.
"We're revolutionaries," says Yo Chi, who wears dreadlocks half as long as he is and has been in several reggae bands, including Irie Massive, Natty and Niyah. "People who have influenced us are people like Bob Marley, Che Guevara, even U2.
"A lot of suburban cats just do scientific hip-hop," Yo continues, "while you got a lot of inner-city rappers who are just all about the drugs and violence, and that's fine. We do a little of both. But we're revolutionaries. There are kids out there just getting out of jail. We're rapping for them. We're trying to get a message out to the kids, and to those older cats who just live a simple existence."
"We really want to bring it back to the streets," says Checka, whose deadpan quiet-storm stare, lanky frame and shoulder-length dreads recall Peter Tosh in a Milwaukee Bucks jacket. "Since Nelly and Chingy and all them came out, everybody in St. Louis is looking for pop success. We're just a bunch of street kids trying to do unadulterated hip-hop."
Jehan sympathizes with that aim. An easygoing 30-year-old giant who's been singing "since I've been talking," he longs for the sincerity and soul of classic R&B. "My dad was in a band back in Indiana," he says. "My mom would be at work and he'd get off work and take me to band practice. I'd hear Stevie Wonder, James Brown, everything.
"I want to get away from what R&B is now," says Jehan. "It's not socially conscious; it's not about love anymore. It's about, basically, fucking."
Actually, Jehan's songs work on both levels: as a velvet-thunder soundtrack to get freaky to or as something a heartsick fool would play on a big boom box outside his lady-love's window to win her heart. His voice is astonishing, strong and deep but as sweet and creamy as anything on the Starbucks menu board.
Yo Chi, who's not above the occasional raw-sex rap himself, has ambitions for his supple-voiced, mild-mannered protégé. "Aaron is somebody we think we can do really well with," he says. "He's pretty pop, and he can really sing."
"I want my music to speak for people who can't speak for themselves," Jehan says. "That guy who can't tell his woman, 'When I look at you I see everything I need/The joy that I feel when you smile at me' -- I want that guy to pick up my music and give it to her."
A rougher kind of honesty comes out in the urban-reality rhymes of Lex Luchi, Lord Kahdafi, Big Sheed and Ill Pop. Checka says the Hotstyle motto is "OTR: Only True Rhymes," and these East Coast-influenced MCs try to follow that rule. The success of hip-pop "has hurt St. Louis in so many ways," Khadafy says. "It's a false perception. Everybody in St. Louis is not a pretty boy."
"It took me a while to get this pretty," Luchi adds, tongue deep in cheek.
"We ain't pop, put it like that," Kahdafi adds. "A lot of rappers here, they're just talking bullshit. The rappers out here in St. Louis are basically the epitome of commercialism, and they're killing the underground."
"It'll be OK," Luchi assures. "That is why Lex has come -- to save us all from those monotonous characters who call themselves MCs. It is my God-given mission to redeem St. Louis, and that is what I will do."
In its heyday, M.O.D.U. ("Masters of Dialect Universal" or "Mastering Our Destiny United") opened for the likes of Biggie Smalls, Craig Mack, Common and Ghostface Killah. "Back in the day, St. Louis had Midwest Avengers representing that suburban scene," Yo Chi says, "while M.O.D.U. was more inner-city. But not as many cats were into it then -- it wasn't, like, a fad yet."
M.O.D.U.'s rep with local hip-hop heads was solid, and for years the collective seemed poised to blast off to the blingiverse. But M.O.D.U. could never quite close the deal, which still seems to rankle Checka and Yo years later.
"We influenced a lot of artists, but don't get credit for it," says Yo Chi.
"I partially blame them, but I partially blame us for not being more professional," Yo elaborates. "But that's all different now. We've got great songs we'll put up against anybody. With M.O.D.U., we were ahead of our time, and now everybody's caught up."
While the ashes of M.O.D.U. smoldered, Yo and Checka wandered in and out of town, sometimes seeking their fortunes in more happening scenes, sometimes coming home to be among family. And they both stayed on a steady diet of dancehall reggae. "A lot of our guys have been to Jamaica and have always been into the music and the lifestyle," says Yo Chi. "We're really influenced by that Jamaican lifestyle and attitude."
The Top Writta mix CD was released under Yo Chi's Slangsman moniker but also features rhymes from other members of the Hotstyle crew, including several high points from Checka. These contributions reflect Hotstyle's Jamaicophilia with reggae samples on cuts like "T.O.S.T.L. (Top of St. Louis)" and "Banga Brothers," not to mention the insert photo of Yo on the island itself. But other ingredients go into the guitar-heavy "Black Rock & Roll" and the vintage horn-driven soul loop of "Everything," with its powerful Jehan vocal and a chorus copped from Bob Marley.
Unfortunately, "Everything" is followed by 41 seconds of hyperactive female orgasmic moaning over a sparse beat, titled "Beat Freak." Even worse is "What You Want," which takes a smooth rhythm cut and some agile rhyming from Yo and Checka and wastes it on an ugly, juvenile sex-romp, topped off by a closing comment about "paraplegics, or retards, or some shit." Che Guevara wouldn't be impressed.
But this kitchen-sink approach to quality control gives the Hotstyle mixes their sonic vitality. Reality is a big unwieldy mess, and Yo Chi isn't afraid to throw anything on digital "wax" if it reflects reality as he knows it. Any problems you may have are yours alone.
After their frustrating experience with M.O.D.U. and their years in the wilderness ("a lot of guys think we're washed up"), Yo and Checka are swaggering again, ready for all comers. On a recent Friday night, they're standing on Delmar in front of Blueberry Hill when a fellow MC in a Terminator X-style black military cap walks up. The three exchange hand-slaps and talk soon turns to the Science hip-hop night just heating up inside the basement. "We'll be in there later on," Checka promises. "I'm gonna be burning up mic cables tonight. Tell 'em if they got a mic plugged up, they better not let me in. They better stop Mic Checka at the door."