The Next Big Thing

A middle-aged couple with a million dollars and a big dream: To make St. Louis a pop-music hub

Aug 9, 2006 at 4:00 am
Microphone in hand, aspiring rapper Lil Roge stands in front of the aquarium in the downtown loft that belongs to 7Fourteen Productions. The aquarium is the size of a coffee table. In this regard, if Lil Roge were a halibut, he'd be a keeper, but barely.

The newest addition to 7Fourteen's talent roster is all of seven years old.

The 50 or so in attendance — most of them local hip-hop DJs, MCs, singers, radio personalities and industry pros — have come to celebrate the 44th birthday of 7Fourteen co-founder Todd Butterfield. But for the moment all attention is focused on the pint-size gangsta who's clutching the mic like a lollipop and bouncing his cornrowed head in time to the beat of his new song, "Roll Wit Me," as Butterfield captures the moment with his digital minicam.

So small but I'm riding in a big car

Roll with Lil Roge and I'll tell you I'm a big star

Bigger than the sun

Roll with Lil Roge and you know you're having fun.

Were it not for the ghetto-casual shorts, camouflage Air Force Ones and cockeyed gray Yankees cap, Todd Butterfield would be the picture of a middle-aged investment advisor from Quincy, Illinois — which he is. But two years ago he and his wife, Karrie, bought a second home in St. Louis and sank "somewhere around a million dollars" into their fledgling music venture. Now he's a part-time money man and full-time rap mogul.

"This kid is something else," Todd says. "He can rap, he can dance — he's a natural. We're thinking movies for Roge. First music, then try and place him in movies. This kid's going to be famous."

"And he's a sweetheart, too," adds Karrie Butterfield, 7Fourteen's president, dancing to their prodigy's beat in a white lace dress that screams anything but Frontenac. Until 2004 she was on the board of the Miss Illinois program, that state's stepping stone to Miss America. But after eleven years in the beauty-pageant business, Karrie traded the boondocks for urban flair. These days she cruises the country roads of rural Illinois in a yellow Corvette.

Thirteen years into their marriage, the couple "saw an opportunity to make a lot of money and have a good time doing it," Todd explains.

Karrie says she made the move because she saw a bunch of talented kids without the means to follow their dreams. "Everybody deserves a chance," says the erstwhile pageant expert.

The Butterfields bought twin condos on the top floor of a loft on Locust Street — they ask that the location not be published, so as to avoid an incursion of "wannabes" — and converted a bedroom into a sound studio. They hired an ultra-connected Los Angeles music publisher as a consultant and, under his guidance, signed rappers and singers, and formed a publishing company and a record company. Not even two years in, they've consummated one major-label deal and are negotiating two others.

"Everybody's trying to be in my pocket. I've got rappers who aren't even signed trying to get in my pocket," marvels Butterfield, and it's hard to tell if the birthday boy is complaining or bragging.

Carla Carter is riding down La Brea Avenue in a silver Chevy HHR, listening to a ten-second instrumental loop from what is destined to become a poppy dance track. More Madonna than Ciara, the sort of beat you might hear at a gay disco, it's not Carter's favorite kind of music, but the producers are hitmakers and they're grooving on it, so she's giving it a shot.

She has been trying to turn this snippet into a song for the past 24 hours. All day yesterday she was in the studio, and most of last night was spent writing in her bed at the Highland Gardens Hotel, a storied Art Deco joint in West Hollywood.

"At first I didn't like it there," Carter says of the ragged accommodations formerly known as the Hollywood Landmark Hotel, where the lobby carpet is worn with pathways and the air reeks of cigarette smoke from 1965. "But then I found out that it's the place where Janis Joplin died, and Jimi Hendrix stayed there. The Rat Pack used to play cards out front."

If it was good enough for Janis and Jimi, Frank and Deano, Carter figured it was good enough for her.

Though her golden face and carved cheekbones offset by oversize aviator sunglasses make her look Mary J. Blige famous, Carter acts Mary Tyler Moore nice. But the past few months have been a wild ride for the 23-year-old songwriter from north St. Louis: meetings with American Idol hitmaker Randy Jackson, who wants two of her songs; songwriting sessions with the Midi Mafia, producers of 50 Cent's "21 Questions," which yielded a slow burn of a ballad called "Fool for Some Love"; studio time with legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, her songwriting idols.

Carter is 7Fourteen's first (and so far only) songwriter. And she represents a key component of the template LA legend Alan Melina designed for the St. Louis start-up.

Reminiscent of the chameleon-like hero of Woody Allen's Zelig, Melina found his way into the picture for many a watershed moment during the late-twentieth-century evolution of pop and rock music, from the British invasion to the glam-rock explosion to New Wave, hip hop and beyond.

But it was luck that brought the Butterfields into Melina's orbit. From her days on the pageant circuit, Karrie was acquainted with a pop arranger named Jeremy Lubbock, who'd won a Grammy for arranging Chicago's soft-rock classic, "Hard Habit to Break." When Karrie told Lubbock of her vision for a music company to capitalize on the St. Louis sound, she recalls, "He said, 'You need to meet Alan Melina.'"

And when Karrie Butterfield flew out to the coast and played some demos cut by St. Louis singers and rappers, Melina was hooked. "I've always felt that a lot of talent in the Midwest really just needed opportunity and thought this could be a great one for St. Louis," says Melina, who signed on as a consultant through New Heights Entertainment, which he co-owns.

Neither party will provide details of the partnership, though Todd Butterfield says his company is "not paying [Melina] a large amount." In addition to a monthly fee, New Heights will receive a percentage of the sales of any song Melina can pair with an artist.

Melina says he wants to help shape 7Fourteen into a one-stop song-building entity. "I like to think of it as the Brill Building meets Motown meets LaFace," says Melina, who also likes to compare the creative process of songwriting to the manufacture of automobiles: "Where you have all the components, where you can build a car in-house if you need to, where the sum of the whole is greater than its parts.

"MCs, producers, songwriters, lyricists — those are the component parts of making records," he explains. "David [Bowie] needed a producer. Sade writes incredible lyrics, but she has help with the music. It's a miracle when you meet a Marvin Gaye, who can do everything."

The Butterfields were flush with singing and rapping talent but lacked a solid songwriter when Melina flew to St. Louis last summer. He arranged a sit-down with entertainment lawyer R. Emmett McAuliffe, who sold him on one of his clients: Carla Carter.

Although she was only 22 at the time, Carter had already written tracks with members of Philadelphia hip-hop collective the Roots and platinum track-maker Scott Storch, who produced 50 Cent's massive hit "Candy Shop."

McAuliffe remembers the meeting well. "I said, 'I'm going to be perfectly honest with you: She is my client, and I'm going to tell you that she is the best. You can believe it or not. But she is the best.'"

Carter signed on last summer. Under the arrangement, she's required to write a certain number of songs, and 7Fourteen (through New Heights) is expected to sell them. Copyrights — and profits — are to be split between Carter and 7Fourteen.

As part of the agreement, Melina and Laurent Besencon, his New York-based partner in New Heights, pair Carter with top producers and songwriters. "We want her to become a name in those circles so that we can really get her on the map," explains Carter's manager, Chris Hansen of St. Louis-based Hazel Music Syndicate. "And that's what's been happening."

Melina envisions a time when Carter is writing hard-edged ballads for Beyoncé, dance-floor stompers for Ciara, bitter break-up songs for Fantasia. But now, as her driver heads down Sunset Boulevard, she's still trying to crack the code of that eight-bar rhythm. The beat was created by Soulshock and Karlin, a production team responsible for hits by, among many others, Tupac, JoJo, Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton. Melina's got a lot staked on this session, as does Carter, who sees it as an opportunity to prove to investors — and to herself — that she's the real deal.

Her cell phone rings: a sample of Napoleon Dynamite saying, "You guys are retarded." On the other end is fellow songwriter Kevin Randolph, calling on the road from Atlanta, where he's playing keyboards on tour for Toni Braxton. Though Randolph and Carter have only known each other a few months, they've quickly bonded over their shared profession. When Carter fills him in on what she's up against, Randolph, at age 31 a songwriting veteran, tries to allay her doubts. "Sometimes it clicks and sometimes it doesn't," he tells her. "When it doesn't, it's nobody's fault."

Carter sits at an Apple monitor at 7Fourteen's loft headquarters with the company's in-house producer, Steve T, replaying the chorus of "Tender," a song-in-progress that has caught the fancy of Randy Jackson. One of the most respected and influential names in pop, Jackson has performed, produced and/or toured with artists from Jerry Garcia to Herbie Hancock to Celine Dion. He was an executive at both Columbia and MCA, and for the past five years has been one of three judges on American Idol. He sees "Tender" as a match for Idol winner Fantasia's new CD.

But Alan Melina thinks the song's hook needs work.

A bass-heavy romp with a scattershot rhythm, Roland 808 handclaps and a recurrent chime that tings along as Alisha Rene' sings Carla's ode to a forbidden thug.

Everybody in the hood is telling me you're that dude

And now I'm really feeling you

The way your grill shines when you bite your lip

The way you wear your hoodie with a baggy fit

I'm so into you I don't know really what to do

The song was built from scratch in this tiny studio, the size of a (carpeted, air-conditioned and comfortable) one-car garage. Twenty years ago state-of-the-art bedroom studios produced subpar results. But advances in technology have leveled the playing field, driving many a multimillion-dollar studio out of business. Here, with enough practice and a good ear, Steve T can produce music that's as sonically impressive as material that emanates from a studio ten times this size.

When Todd Butterfield found Steve T, the latter was living in a rundown north-county apartment with a handful of friends and not much money, making beats on a dinky computer and rapping about his life. ("I represent the mighty, mighty north side," the 22-year-old artist sings on one of his solo works. "I'm from the place what the niggaz call Murderville/North side, the dark side, where the brains get spilled.")

"I'm listening to a bunch of tracks by a bunch of nobodies and I couldn't believe how good they were," Butterfield recalls. "The stuff they were doing was crazy." He promptly signed Steve T and a couple of his roommates to 7Fourteen, which was then located in a Maryland Heights condo.

On paper, Butterfield admits, the business plan seemed cracked. "It was a stupid venture: Take a bunch of eighteen- and nineteen-year-old kids and try to make them pop stars with a few Miss Illinois contacts."

But Butterfield likes to gamble. Growing up in rural Quincy, Illinois, he began buying stock when he was fifteen. While still in college, he snagged a top finish in a national contest in which budding brokers created a million-dollar investment portfolio. After attending Northern Illinois University, he moved to Chicago in 1984 and got a job working for a firm that traded on the Chicago Board of Trade. He met his future wife on the Amtrak from Quincy to Chicago; they married four years later and built a home on seven acres of land Karrie's parents owned outside of Quincy in Payson, a ten-minute drive across the Mississippi from Hannibal, Missouri.

Butterfield signed on with the local Smith Barney branch, where he continued his winning streak. In his spare time, he spent his evenings at either the pool hall or the racetrack. (He says he named 7Fourteen for his lucky number; it once won him a big trifecta payout at the track, he says, and by chance — or design? — he finds that he tends to glance at clocks at exactly 7:14.) In 1997 he founded his own company, Butterfield Capital Advisors, which he, Karrie and Karrie's mother, Jean Howell, continue to run out of their Payson home. Karrie, meanwhile, had invested her time in a then-languishing Miss Quincy pageant in 1990 and by 1994 was on the board of Miss Illinois, where she worked with and advised three future Miss Americas.

She says the pageant and music worlds share a few traits: "Not so much as the music is concerned," she qualifies, "as it is the networking and marketing parts of it — the ability to really get out there and meet people and to be able to tell people what your goals and aspirations are — hope that they listen to you, and hope that they want to work with you."

Perhaps not coincidentally, that assessment dovetails with Alan Melina's view of Carla Carter. "It's not just talent," Melina says of 7Fourteen's marquee songwriter. "It's talent, personality and popularity. I want my writers to be pop queens. I want them to be popular with their peers, because it makes my job easier.

"Part of my job is pitching songs and getting a lot of rejection," Melina adds. "And another part is raining on her parade."

Which is what has brought Carla and Steve T, along with Alisha Rene', 7Fourteen's baby-doll diva, together to face up to the shortcomings of the hook for "Tender." (In addition to those three and Lil Roge, 7Fourteen's current roster includes a gospel artist, Praiz'; a female rapper, Lunee B.; and a crunk trio, Da Banggaz314.)

"Mute that, but don't erase it," Carla commands. ("She always was a director," laughs Joyce McCowan, Carla's mother. "She loved to direct her brothers and sisters and any of the other kids when she got into a group. She tries to control everything.")

Steve T highlights a vocal-track sound wave on the screen and clicks a button. "Now move that line back a bar," Carter suggests. Over the course of the next two hours, the trio re-imagine the hook.

Advances in recording technology have made it possible for companies like 7Fourteen to supply prospective takers with intricately produced demos, a far cry from the bare-bones tapes old-schoolers like Alan Melina used to use. If Carter's melody doesn't work in one section of a song, she simply has Steve T cut-and-paste it elsewhere. If a line needs emphasis, Rene' adds another layer of sound in the vocal booth and Steve T stacks the harmonies until it sounds like the Alisha Rene' Choir. When they're finished, the song is transformed.

Songwriter Andy Goldmark, who has written hits for Jennifer Paige, Michael Bolton and Peter Cetera and just finished co-writing a song called "Giddy Up (Sheriff's Back in Town)" with Carter, says it's reached the point where the industry-standard software, Pro Tools, has itself become a musical instrument. "Just as the keyboard was something you'd play as you're writing a song, now you're constructing songs out of bits and pieces of other songs, and other stereotypes, and other beats and sound," Goldmark explains. "What this has done, particularly in hip-hop and R&B, is really broaden the horizon of what records sound like and what they can hold, and how much that information can change within a song. And it happens so quickly and with so much information at your disposal."

Or as another of Carter's new songwriting partners, Derek Bramble (hits for David Bowie, Whitney Houston and Faith Hill), explains about his job: "It's like somebody set me down with ten boxes of Lego bricks: OK, what am I going to make today?"

Alan Melina does a lot of his business at the Commons at Calabasas, a high-end open-air retail development about 25 miles north of Hollywood. A few years ago he cut most of his staff, stopped renting office space and started holding meetings at Starbucks, organizing his days on his BlackBerry. Though it sounds like a low-budget operation, it's anything but.

As a college kid in Sussex, England, Melina got into the music business booking concerts by the Who, the Kinks, Donovan and Muddy Waters. He became an agent in 1971 when he signed on with a young David Bowie; he also worked with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. By the end of the decade he was general manager of Chappell Music, which had on its roster the catalogues of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd. — and pretty much every other British band of the time.

In 1984 the Icicle Works hit "Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly)" rocketed up the Billboard charts with Melina credited as executive producer, and Melina relocated to LA. He was named head of Paramount Pictures' music-publishing division, where he signed a young pop chanteuse named Sade. When he struck out on his own again in 1989, he took Sade with him, giving him instant credibility. Artists represented by Melina's New Heights Entertainment have sold a combined 750 million records.

It was Melina's cachet that convinced Carter to commit to the Butterfields. "We signed with 7Fourteen to have Alan Melina walk Carla's music through the door of every major label there is," says Carter's manager, Chris Hansen. "To ding it. To get a deal for her songs. The Butterfields knew from the beginning that the only reason we were sitting at the table was because of Alan's weight."

Melina's success has its perks, the least of which is the ability to run down his curriculum vitae and talk music business at a table at Starbucks, clad in white Adidas tennis gear. (An aging British baby boomer with a tight smile and a head full of curly silvering black hair, Melina is a vague ringer for Monty Python mainstay Michael Palin.) He's just finished a match and has another scheduled for later in the day, at which he'll arrive in a black Lexus with a license plate that reads: MUSIC PUB.

Melina has made his living on the side of the music world where the real money is: publishing. When Carla Carter writes a song, she automatically owns it. But songwriters typically aren't salespeople, and they lack reliable methods of getting their work into the hands of artists. Music publishers like Melina sell their networking services in exchange for a share of royalties.

Melina's iPod is his portfolio. In the past he'd have to tote around acetates or CD demos; now he simply hands buyers his earbuds and hits "Play." Still, while technology has revolutionized the science of songwriting, the process of hitmaking hasn't changed in at least half a century. To borrow a page out of Alan Melina's dictionary: A music publisher is like a car salesman.

"It's not enough to have good material — which is of course hard enough," explains Tess Taylor, president and founder of the National Association of Record Industry Professionals, an industry trade group. "You have to be able to get it into the right hands. It's extremely competitive. Getting a song on a Beyoncé record, or even a Barry Manilow record, is big money. People are lined up for blocks to get that."

Melina is always at the front of that line. He brunches with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame record exec Clive Davis, has Randy Jackson's cell phone number and can walk into Atlantic Records headquarters in New York and be greeted with a hearty handshake.

"He doesn't have to go through third parties anymore," Taylor says of Melina. "He's brilliant at conceiving methods of getting to the right people. He's a terrier, the guy. He's absolutely unstoppable when he gets his teeth into something. That's the kind of publisher you want — and need — to represent you."

Still, the odds against any given song are staggering. First of all, says Melina, "It hasn't been recorded. And if it hasn't been recorded, it's not going to make any money. My bank manager would say it has 'zero value.' If I'm looking to get a song on the Beyoncé record and there's ten songs on that record, she writes maybe seven of them." That leaves three open slots, and every songwriter in the world is gunning for them.

Andy Goldmark does the math: "You make eight and a half to nine cents per song for every copy. If she sells a million units, you make $85,000 to $90,000 for the song."

Radio play pays another few cents per spin. Say Beyoncé's record tops the urban and pop charts, crosses over to adult contemporary stations, jumps the Atlantic and explodes in Europe. Goldmark: "You're looking at a very substantial amount of money: half a million to a million dollars."

Without connections, 7Fourteen would have a tough time getting their phone calls returned, much less placing Carla Carter's songs on million-sellers.

"It's like the U.S. Open," says Melina, his mind turning to tennis. "Try walking in as a wild card. The song has to be awesome. Good ain't good enough. Great is OK. If you think it's great, then sit for a week and think how you can make it classic, awesome, inevitably a standard."

Not long ago Carla Carter was working in the Juniors department at Dillard's at Westfield South County mall and writing songs in her spare time. Her contract with 7Fourteen includes only small financial advances, not enough to make ends meet. When she had to make a songwriting trip west, she'd have to ask the department store for days off. That ended in May, when 7Fourteen's demands outstripped Dillard's financial hold and Carter quit to make music full-time.

Carter's first big break had come at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport — and she wasn't even there. Her mother, Joyce McCowan, worked for American Airlines and was at the ticket counter when members of the Philadelphia rap group the Roots showed up, fresh from a show at the Pageant with Chicago rapper Common. McCowan noticed one member of the group, Kelo Saunders, who was plunking his keyboard while waiting to board.

She got him a good seat on the plane, McCowan remembers, and then, after exchanging pleasantries, told Saunders her daughter was a singer and songwriter.

Saunders gave McCowan his phone number. Not five minutes later, Carter called and sang to him as he boarded his flight.

"If she was really a singer and a songwriter, she would call, and I would hear her," Saunders says in retrospect. "Sometimes you just gotta give [people] a shot.

"She was like a little hummingbird," he adds. "She has a very beautiful voice."

Saunders invited Carter to Philadelphia. She came two weeks later (with her mother as chaperone) and stayed for two months, working with Saunders and Roots drummer ?uestlove, and sleeping in the guest room Erykah Badu used before she went platinum. Through Saunders Carter met platinum-selling producer Scott Storch, whose hits include Beyoncé's "Baby Boy" and Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River."

McCowan is recounting the tale in the dining room of the single-story shotgun house, painted pea-green on the outside, where her mother, Jannie Haynes, lives on North Sarah Street. Haynes, whose late husband was a Baptist minister, says many of her fifteen children learned to play music and passed along the art to their own kids. "We played at a funeral in Chicago and someone said, 'You all should get a bus and go on tour,'" she says.

Carter says she took piano and violin lessons as a child, but when she took up voice lessons, something clicked.

A younger sister, Carly, whom everyone calls Miss B, made up songs for them to sing. "[Carla] didn't have any interest in writing songs until her sophomore year of high school," says Carly.

To this day Carla insists her sister is the better songwriter, and Carly doesn't deny it.

Carter's best songs, like "Fool for Some Love," address common pop themes but do so from the point of view of a young woman who grew up on the north side. A slow confessional, "Fool" begins with a creeping rhythm, followed by a bluesy guitar riff. A Hammond B3 organ hums in the background as Carter outlines "all that ghetto shit" she did for love. "He got me turning into that girl I said I would never be, and that ain't even half of it, ladies. I was a fool for some love.... I checked his phone, I kicked his door, I bleached his clothes.... I've been running in the streets looking for this fool, feeling real stupid, don't know what to do," she admits, then confesses, "And I would do it again."

It's that persona Alan Melina is looking to harness. The Billboard charts are filled with female divas in need of songwriters. On top of that, black-oriented R&B material often crosses over onto the pop charts and reaches far beyond the urban centers where it's created.

"The hood is popular right now," says Carter. "Everybody knows about what's going on in the hood. Even if you're from Chesterfield, you think you're tough, so you'll sing a song about the hood and feel tough."

A very large bouncer has just denied Todd and Karrie Butterfield entry to the VIP room.

Only moments ago the couple — the only white, middle-aged faces in a sea of twentysomething hip-hop fans — was holding hands like newlyweds, wending through the packed dance party at Dreams, a nightclub on Washington Boulevard just north of the Saint Louis University campus.

Now, as Karrie flashes her best sincere smile, Todd, dressed in baggy jeans and color-coordinated baseball cap and sneakers, presses his case. Da Banggaz314, the group that just closed out a roof-raising live performance downstairs?

I might just thump his ass, I might just jump his ass

He keep on bullshitting, I might just thump his ass

Ain't no bitch in me, nigga! Ain't no bitch in me, nigga!

That's his band — a 7Fourteen act! The bouncer frowns, shakes his head.

The Butterfields are accustomed to these scenarios; if you're a white person making money in the St. Louis rap scene, you'd better be. Last year Todd was physically thrown out of the Arena Club in north county, ostensibly for videotaping. The bouncers, he recalls, gave him some advice. "They said, 'You don't know where you're at. Why are you here?'" Butterfield says he told them to get used to him because he wasn't going anywhere. "They said, 'Take your Chesterfield/Town & Country white ass back to your loft.' Then they escorted me out to my Hummer."

"Some people have started calling him 'Bulworth,'" confides rap insider Wes Allmond, head of the local hip-hop-promotion firm Ch'rewd Marketing, referring to the Warren Beatty film about a politician who turns to rap to win an election. "They see this older white dude dressing 'hood' and they're not sure what to think."

"My guys told me I gotta dress this way: 'You're a CEO of a record label. You gotta,'" Butterfield laughs. "It's not my normal attire — at least it wasn't. It used to be a suit every day for the investment company."

Chris Hansen sees precisely that disconnect as one of 7Fourteen's greatest assets. "A lot of companies talk the talk. But these guys have been putting their money where their mouth is," Carla Carter's manager maintains. "And when you do that, I don't care if they know a lot about the business. If they'll hire the right people to run the business, it's all good."

When the Butterfields signed Steve T, Todd took 7Fourteen's newly minted producer on a $32,000 shopping spree at Guitar Center. Since then they've adopted him as a surrogate nephew, or the son they never had. They even spend leisurely weekends together at the Lake of the Ozarks. "Put him on our yacht and he comes back a different person," Todd Butterfield says. "He'll get down there and relax, and then on the way home he'll say, 'I gotta get home because I've got music in my head that I need to get out.' And he'll come home and do something crazy."

The Butterfields also shower their roster with apparel. Case in point: 7Fourteen's vocal booth, which doubles as a sneaker closet for Da Banggaz. When Carla Carter goes on songwriting trips, the Butterfields cover all her expenses.

"They really generous, nice people," Carter says. "When me and Alisha were out in LA with Karrie, we'd tell her we were going out and she'd give us a couple twenties without us even asking her."

Hansen says that in the wrong hands, that kind of generosity could be a disaster. "There needs to be good business people managing this type of situation," Hansen says. "They are powerful because they have money. When you're signing acts that come from the hood, they don't have any money. So it's easy to impress them with nice suites and studios and advances. But that's not business.

"The cool thing about Todd and Karrie is that they're not 'alpha,'" Hansen goes on. "They very much want to see things work out. Although we don't always agree, we find a way to come back together to accomplish our goals. You can have confrontation without having destruction. That's really important, because it's hard in the music game to speak your mind clearly. I feel like I can pick up the phone anytime and tell them exactly how I'm feeling."

Out in the clubs, the Butterfields have a tougher time getting their point across. Though he's ultimately able to talk his way past the bouncer at Dreams, at Club Onyx in downtown East St. Louis Todd has been known to pay bouncers to accompany him and his crew. He fully expects there'll come a time when he'll need security 24/7. Success breeds jealousy, Butterfield notes.

On the former front, Atlantic Records will soon release DaBanggaz314's first single, the Steve T-penned "Don't Step on My J's."

"After Da Banggaz got signed, people started to really pay attention," Todd Butterfield boasts. "They had heard about 7Fourteen, maybe knew what we were trying to do. But nobody realized how serious we were until we delivered Da Banggaz a record deal.

"Now everybody wants onboard."