Fresh Produce, a Beat Battle, Draws Hip-Hop Luminaries

click to enlarge James Lion takes the prize at Fresh Produce in March 2022. - Phuong Bui
Phuong Bui
James Lion takes the prize at Fresh Produce in March 2022.


At 9 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month, the Blue Strawberry hosts a hip-hop "beat battle" called Fresh Produce. It's a chance to show off your backing-track creations, for a shot at a $500 prize for best beat of the night.

The competition is part of the fun, says its founder, Shaun "DJ Who" Bardle. But there's more to it than that. "It's a networking event disguised as a beat battle," he says, noting that a long list of local rap luminaries show up monthly.

The competition began as a weekly event called The Basement at Atomic Cowboy, and then at one point was known as Beat Meet, before evolving into Fresh Produce.

click to enlarge Audience vote counts towards the final score. - Phuong Bui
Phuong Bui
Audience vote counts towards the final score.

In early 2020, the event drew its biggest crowd yet to the Ready Room, with producer Skateboard Prodigy emerging victorious. Then COVID-19 hit. Luckily, Fresh Produce was able to segue into live streaming with only a few hiccups.

Now, however, they're back in person. At the show, expect to see a full tech operation: multiple cameras, lots of equipment, and a big screen behind the stage with graphics. A second projector ensures no one misses the competition's play-by-play.

While COVID wiped out many spaces for live music in St. Louis, Fresh Produce is in it for the long haul. One of their missions is to develop talent. If you win Fresh Produce, you might next become a judge. "That's one of the best parts of the whole thing, watching people just keep coming back, not giving up," says one of the event's organizers, Matthew Sawicki.

click to enlarge Producer Blackmagik (left) faces off against Beats & Vibes host Tim "Madman" Moore. - Phuong Bui
Phuong Bui
Producer Blackmagik (left) faces off against Beats & Vibes host Tim "Madman" Moore.


"This is probably the biggest recurring hip-hop event in St. Louis," adds Tim "Madman" Moore, one of March's competitors. COVID trapped people inside for nearly two years, so everyone seems to be well practiced. At recent events, "there's definitely been a huge step up in quality and creativity," continues Moore. He also runs Beats & Vibes at Handlebar — a sister event where DJs enjoy longer sets, as opposed to Fresh Produce where artists go back and forth with brief cuts.

"Even though producers have been a part of hip-hop from the beginning, usually rappers get all the shine," Moore adds. "Even though [Fresh Produce] highlights producers, it benefits rappers too because it's a place rappers can hear new producers and hit them up."

click to enlarge Fresh Produce is a networking event disguised as a hip-hop battle. - Phuong Bui
Phuong Bui
Fresh Produce is a networking event disguised as a hip-hop battle.

Winners are picked through a panel of judges, and with the help of an SPL meter, which measures audience enthusiasm through decibel levels. Upsets happen all the time. "It's a whole chess game," Sawicki says. "Your good beats might be in your back pocket, but then you might play them too early and fizzle out toward the end."

For many competitors, this is their first time on stage, and a great opportunity to develop chops. "The show is always free; we don't get paid," says organizer Ben Stein, adding that they're working to build community in a city that likely has more budding producers than rappers. "It's all about passion. Even if you don't win, if you're very good, everybody saw what you did."

About The Author

Devin Thomas O'Shea

Devin’s writing is in Slate, the Emerson Review, Jacobin, theNation,Protean, Current Affairs, Boulevard, and elsewhere. @devintoshea on twitter, @devintoshea on instagram...
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