Battle of the Beats

A culture war is rocking within St. Louis’ underground hip-hop scene.

It's Integrity night at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room and DJ Trackstar stands nearly hidden onstage behind his turntables. His gray-and-black Cardinals hat is pulled so low over his face that the flat brim reveals only a pair of wire-framed glasses and a stubbly beard. Leaning in close to his laptop's screen, he settles on a track, "The People," by Common. After cuing up the song, he slouches back to survey the scene he's created. The rapper's rapid-fire lyrics begin to rumble throughout the basement. At the door, an emcee with thick, waist-length dreads hands out fliers for his next show and hawks CDs with home-printed cover art. Dressed in polo shirts and Air Force Ones, the night's hosts, Finsta and Tech Supreme, shake hands with a producer who is submitting an entry for the upcoming competition known as Battle of the Beats.

Integrity, Trackstar's musical creation at Blueberry Hill on Saturdays, has entered its eighth week, and attendance routinely cracks triple digits. The Battle of the Beats, open-mic and live performances have also combined to create a new and vibrant outlet for St. Louis' burgeoning underground scene. Critical to the long-term success of Integrity is maintaining its relaxed atmosphere. Explains Trackstar: "We wanted to reflect something different than your average club experience and give people an idea of what we're about through the name 'Integrity.'"

Fans of underground hip-hop pride themselves on advancing the art and culture of the music, a stark contrast to many of the city's large urban nightclubs where the crowd is just out to party. The divide between the two approaches has sparked a culture war as events like Integrity fight to maintain a more tranquil identity in a scene dominated by rowdy hip-hop dance clubs. One DJ describes the struggle as "the looming threat of ghettofication."

"It's about us adhering to a set of standards of quality and art," says the 26-year-old Trackstar, who clerks at a downtown law firm by day under his real name, Gabe Moskoff.

For the past three and a half years, Trackstar, who teaches a hip-hop outreach class to kids at the Center for Recording Arts, had performed Friday-night gigs at the Halo Bar, a format he refers to as "hip-hop lounge." He'd feature underground artists such as Lupe Fiasco and Pharoahe Monch, alongside mainstream Southern rappers like T.I. and Lil' Wayne.

Early this year, Friday nights at the Halo began to attract an element altogether unlike its tight-knit group of underground hip-hop devotees. Drawn by the Southern rap Trackstar played, the crowd and mood of the night began to resemble a large, clamorous, hip-hop dance club. The change caused several guests to say they felt unsafe, prompting management to demand a change in format.

"I had people come up to me and say, 'It's getting kind of tense in here, a little uncomfortable,' so I started toning down the Southern aspects of the music," Trackstar says. The problem, he adds, was compounded by the closing of the some of the city's larger nightclubs, and the fact that there is no cover charge at Halo, making it an easy stop on a night of club-hopping.

"But I didn't do it fast enough. People were feeling uncomfortable," he recalls. "What it was put to me is [that] people who weren't members of the hip-hop community weren't feeling welcome because of the crowd that was there requesting T-Pain and Lil' Boosie every week."

In early June, Trackstar says the Halo Bar's manager approached him and made it clear that he either needed to change the music or find another place to play. To save his job, Trackstar relented and started mixing soul, rock and jazz in with his usual playlist. Attendance plummeted.

"It seemed like we were approaching a point where control was an issue," explains Pat Hagin, who books entertainment at the Halo Bar, Blueberry Hill and The Pageant. "We didn't want to lose control of the venue."

The Halo Bar, where Trackstar still DJs on Fridays, is not the first venue where different factions of St. Louis hip-hop have collided. Situated in the University City Loop, between the Halo Bar and Blueberry Hill, is 609 Restaurant and U Lounge, where James "DJ Needles" Gates describes similar circumstances. Needles hosts a Thursday evening set that he founded in 2003 called JazzyPhatNappy, a mix of hip-hop, funk, soul and other genres. A lounge atmosphere early in the night, he says, gradually transformed into a packed dance floor as last call neared. Eventually, Needles remembers, "people who dress like thugs" began attending. Several fights broke out and women started to complain about harassment. In response, in early May the club decided to enforce a 25-year-old age minimum for men and instituted a dress code that banned clothing like tank tops, do-rags and "tall," or oversize, white T-shirts.

In conjunction with the new policies, Needles, hoping to reassure his 609 regulars, dispatched an e-mail to patrons that read: "The threat of ghettofication is always looming. Unfortunately, 609 wasn't immune to this infestation of ignorance...while the music hardly wavered, the energy was that of a club promoted by local radio. To the females who felt less than safe and/or respected, I personally apologize. This growing number of thugs attending my event didn't bother me at first. I figured, my people is my people regardless of dress, grillz [sic] or doo rags [sic].

"If you were turned off by the increase of the oft-times thuggish crowd and the obligatory b.s. that comes with it, I welcome you back to experience the original theme of the evening...a relaxed, soulful night of networking, socializing and gettin' your respective groove on."

Nearly a month later on Friday, June 1, just as Needles' set was ending at 1:30 a.m., off-duty police officers responded to a gunman firing shots into a crowd gathered in a parking lot adjacent to 609. When the shooter pointed his weapon at police, they opened fire, wounding him in the ankle.

"There's no middle ground," Needles says. "It goes from everything is fine and dandy to a freakin' shooting."

Despite the fact that the gunman hadn't even been to 609 that night, the club was on the receiving end of bad publicity. Says DJ Trackstar, "If something happens, you don't blame soul or funk for what happened. But hip-hop gets blamed."

The violent reputation of some St. Louis hip-hop clubs did not develop overnight. In the last year alone, there have been ten shootings and two stabbings, resulting in a total of five deaths at hip-hop nightspots. Clubs in East St. Louis accounted for two of the fatal shootings and one stabbing.

Late last month, three seventeen-year-old boys were standing in front of Club Amp in downtown St. Louis when they were shot and wounded. Minutes earlier, a sixteen-year-old girl standing in the parking lot behind the club was shot and wounded in the leg. Police believe the shootings are related.

In April, St. Louis Excise Commissioner Robert Kraiberg suspended the liquor licenses of clubs Plush and Dreams, citing the establishments for "disorderly place and improper acts," including a shooting outside of Plush in November, and the indictments of the owners of Dreams for bank and credit-card fraud.

Kraiberg says certain musical formats lend themselves to trouble. "The most extreme example I can give you, is if you play Lawrence Welk, you're not going to have blue-haired old ladies beating each other over the head with walkers," he says. "It just seems that gangster rap will attract, well, gangsters."

As Integrity comes to a close for the night, across the river in East St. Louis, Club Onyx is just starting to pop. Traffic on Collinsville Avenue stretches nearly to the freeway, each ride bumping bass. The line to get in the door is endless and is slowed by security guards patting down each entrant for weapons. The DJ drops the Southern rap club anthem, "Wipe Me Down," by Lil' Boosie. When the deep drawling bass and sputtering hi-hat cymbal hit, the crowd, which can draw 2,000 on a busy night, makes the dance floor shiver.

The difference between Onyx and Integrity is vast. The former is a wild party that will go until six in the morning, its dance floor packed with a jostling, grinding crowd. The only thing holding it in check is an eighteen-man security team hired from an East St. Louis company called The Goon Squad.

On the early morning of August 21, even Onyx's high-powered security proved inadequate, when a bouncer was shot and wounded after asking a couple to leave the club's parking lot. That incident, coupled with a still-unsolved fatal shooting (also in the parking lot) on March 3 and a stabbing in January, caused East St. Louis officials to revoke Onyx's operating license. An investigation to determine whether the club will be allowed to reopen is pending.

Onyx's owner, Terrence, who asked that his full name not be used because he "likes to keep a low profile," says that St. Louis' hip-hop clubs changed with the music of the mid-90's, when artists like Master P and Lil' Jon popularized the genres of crunk and Southern rap.

Today, crunk is often referred to as "snap," and is defined by simple, chant-able lyrics backed by a slow, rumbling bass and a rapid hi-hat that speeds up the beat. "That's music that makes you want to do something to somebody," says Terrence.

It's also music that has little appeal for most underground hip-hop listeners.

"Lil' Boosie, 'Wipe Me Down,' I don't play stuff like that," says DJ Needles. "If all you like is that radio nonsense, I can't help you."

The genre of underground, also known as conscious or alternative hip-hop, is difficult to pin down. The lyrics usually touch self-consciously on politics, race and the shortcomings of mainstream hip-hop. The beats intentionally bend genres by sampling everything from funk and soul to techno and rock. Ultimately, as the name implies, underground is defined more by where it's heard than what it sounds like. With a few exceptions, if it's played on the radio, MTV or BET, it's not underground.

Underground is also a loaded term, and Trackstar doesn't want it applied to Integrity, explaining that it carries a stigma of a suburban, white fan base that alienates many mainstream hip-hop fans. Instead he prefers to call it "lyrical hip-hop," and Integrity co-host Derrick "Tech Supreme" Kilgore reluctantly refers to it as "under-the-radar hip-hop."

Even such open-ended terms prove inadequate because several popular artists, such as Lil' Wayne and Kanye West, have crossover appeal between the two audiences, and this gets to the root of Trackstar's problems at the Halo Bar. His eclectic playlist drew both the underground community and fans of Southern rap, the latter bringing with them the violent stigma associated with clubs like Onyx. It was a crowd Halo's management and regulars weren't comfortable with.

"It's like when you're talking about rock," Hagin says. "Are you more likely to have problems at a Slayer show than you are a Wilco show? You bet. You can lump both artists into the 'rock' category, but they're completely different audiences."

Such stereotypes do not sit well with Integrity's Tech Supreme, who says he's a fan of all styles of hip-hop. "To say that type of crowd likes to fight is horrible, it's a generalization," he says. "Anytime you form an opinion based on an outside perspective, you're being prejudiced and ignorant. When you do that you're finding a scapegoat for a bigger problem."

Wes Allmond has experienced both worlds — mainstream and underground. As general manager of Ch'rewd Marketing, a Chicago-based hip-hop promotions firm, he makes the rounds to mega-clubs like Onyx and talks up the latest releases from major record labels. He was also a DJ at Blueberry Hill's previous underground hip-hop night, The Science, before that event ended last year.

"Hip-hop kids call 'em thugs and the white T-shirt dudes don't give a fuck," Allmond says, describing the tenuous relationship between the two audiences. "They really don't know underground."

Both factions of St. Louis hip-hop insist there's a widespread bias against their music and culture. Trackstar says many people form opinions about the music and its listeners based on the lyrics. The common themes of mainstream hip-hop, or "the big four," as he calls it, are money, drugs, women and violence. "People hear hip-hop," adds Trackstar, "and when they're not involved in hip-hop, the first thing they think is the mainstream perception of it — the guns, the drugs, the money, the misogyny. That's scary to people."

The 609 Lounge's owner Bernie Lee believes that negative reputation is why DJ Needles' JazzyPhatNappy night was blamed for the shooting that occurred next door to his club. "Because it's a lot of black people, it's how St. Louis projects things," Lee says.

Whatever the case, the perception has made it more difficult to establish small, underground hip-hop nights. Lamar "Finsta" Williams, Integrity's other co-host, ran an underground hip-hop night at the Hi-Pointe Café for nearly ten years (an environment so friendly, he describes it as an urban version of Cheers), until the place changed hands and the new owners sent him packing. A frustrating search for a new venue ensued.

"We'd been to a few places and they turned us down — always because of the type of music we play," Finsta recalls. "People don't think that there's room for underground rap music. If it's not what's being played on radio or if it's not crunk, they say, 'Well, we're not going to make any money off it.'"

Even when new hip-hop nights are established, clubs often resort to dress codes and age minimums in hopes of deterring what they feel is the wrong crowd. After recently starting his own underground hip-hop night on Wednesdays at Queen of Sheba in University City, Scott "Lyfestile" Woods says the issue of a dress code came up with the club's owner.

"There are a lot of places where they only want a certain kind of people to show up. They want the black dude that's dressed up like Usher to get up in the joint because they're comfortable with that. They assume he's not going to cause trouble," says Lyfestile, who decided against the dress restriction.

St. Louis Police Capt. Jerry Leyshock, who commands the city's fourth district, an area that includes two large hip-hop nightclubs, says he's noticed a recent decline in police calls, thanks in part to dress codes. "They have specialists opening up clubs who realize there are going to be problems if the police are called constantly," he says. "They try to have standards for their clientele."

Trackstar and Hagin say they once considered banning tall white T-shirts at Integrity but then against it. But, says Hagin, "That's not really what we want it to be about. If you get to that point [of a dress code], you have to seriously consider why you're doing it at all."

When dress codes, age minimums and other measures fail to achieve the desired atmosphere, club owners try and change the music format. For some, though, that smacks of flat-out racism.

"St. Louis is really a hood city. We don't want to look at it that way or feel that way, but it is. The hood element is going to go anywhere they please," says DJ Charlie Chan, who spins at hip-hop nights at the Delmar Lounge and The Loft, and hosts a show on hip-hop station Hot 104.1.

"If you're playing music that they like, if you got a spot that's poppin' — black, white, Mexican, it doesn't matter — they're going to show up. And it seems like once the black people show up, they want to change the music."