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Fist City: Rockwell Knuckles aims to punch through St. Louis hip-hop's glass ceiling 

Editor's note: To download mp3 files of Rockwell Knuckles posted at the RFT music blog, A to Z, click here. To see a slideshow that accompanies this story, click here.

Countless DVDs are piled high in stacks in the living room of Rockwell Knuckles' north St. Louis apartment. Everything from A Clockwork Orange to Pretty in Pink is strewn around the TV set.

Across the room, clad in a crimson bathrobe, jeans and a T-shirt, Knuckles is seated cross-legged on his couch. The combination of his black horn-rimmed glasses and the way the robe drapes over his legs is vaguely monkish. If he grew an Afro and a goatee, he could pass for a young Spike Lee.

To him, even the most trivial films contain life lessons. At the moment he's citing one of his favorites, The Breakfast Club.

"Every movie is a riddle, man," Knuckles says animatedly. "Take The Breakfast Club. It's a movie all about people sitting in one room — which is amazing in itself — and everybody's already got an assumption about what the other person's about. They go in and go at it and go at it, and then right at the end they all get blowed and realize, 'Damn. We all the same motherfuckin' person.'"

An aspiring rapper, Rockwell applies the same acerbic wit and insight to his music, often dropping allusions to his favorite films into his verses. In one song, battling internal demons becomes, "One thing's for certain, one day everybody must face their own personal Tyler Durden."

True. At age 25 Knuckles is living his own version of Fight Club: He loves music but hates the music business. He self-released his first solo album, Northside Phenomenon, in November of last year but has done little to promote it. He says he's fed up with the rampant materialism of the rap record industry and the insular St. Louis hip-hop scene.

"[People] act fake and all chummy and shit with somebody they never hang out with, never planned on hanging out with, until they found out that that person could do something for them," Knuckles says, betraying a speaking voice several octaves higher than the booming one with which he sings. "I think that's cowardly and pathetic. But that's how it is. That's 'the business.' I don't wanna kiss nobody's ass. If I'm talented and you know I'm talented, then what's the point of me doing all that?"

He's not alone in his principles. Knuckles is part of a new wave of St. Louis-bred independent hip-hop producers and emcees, most of whom cut their teeth performing at the now-defunct Hi-Pointe Café. Their music is defined by innovative beats and clever wordplay — a stark contrast to the "ringtone rap" that pervades the city's clubs and radio airwaves. Knuckles' album is a unique blend of heavy hip-hop bass lines, rock guitar and jazz horns — imagine equal parts Lupe Fiasco, Notorious B.I.G. and the Beatles.

A handful of local artists have found recognition and critical acclaim by moving away from St. Louis. The majority are, like Knuckles, left struggling to find the formula for success in their hometown.

Sunlight pours through the plate-glass windows of the Loft, a nightclub on Olive Street in midtown. The club is half full of hip-hop emcees, DJs, managers, and promoters all mingling. They're on hand for a semifinal round of Koch Madness, a contest sponsored by local rap radio station Hot 104.1 (WHHL-FM).

A marketing promotion, the contest is essentially a St. Louis hip-hop version of American Idol. Each rapper is allotted three minutes to perform any original song of his choosing. A panel of three judges grades them on appearance, stage presence and song quality and decides who advances to the next round. The winner, to be crowned March 2, gets a single released on Koch Records and $1,000. More than 200 wannabe rappers turned out for the first two rounds. This day, eight will compete for one spot in the final four.

Knuckles, a semifinalist himself, is slated to perform in a later semifinal event, but he's on hand tonight to survey his competition. At the moment he doesn't look disgusted with the requisite networking/hustling that goes on at such events. Friends and associates pass by, exchanging greetings and handshakes. They talk shop.

One, the CEO of a local music marketing agency and an old friend, is surprised to learn that Knuckles released a disc in November. "Man, you have to promote that more," he admonishes.

Rockwell explains sheepishly that the man can download the record on the Internet, and adds, "I don't have the funds right now [to market it]."

"All it takes is a phone call," comes the reply.

Knuckles says he entered the competition on a whim, after hearing about it from a friend. He likes the fact that Koch is a respected independent label, and he could use the cash. And, of course, it's a chance to get his music heard — even if it means playing the game on someone else's terms.

"I don't want to be the dumbass that's just sitting there doing nothing," he says. "People are like, 'Oh man, if you do this and this it'll work,' and I'm not doing anything, because of my principles. It's not me not believing in my principles, because I do. It's just a lot of people who stand on pride end up with nothing.

"I'm not putting all my hopes and dreams in a crapshoot," he adds. "That's a horse race. I'm going to do my songs. Maybe they dig 'em, maybe they don't. Maybe they like me, maybe they won't."

Registration for the contest opened in front of the Loft at 6 a.m. on a frigid January morning.

Knuckles was fifth in line.

Maurice White, a senior national director with Koch who attended the first round of the competition, says many artists he encounters have no clue what they should be doing to earn record deals.

"Poor management, poor business plan, unrealistic expectations," White reels off. "I guess that last one is what makes them artists, but a lot of them have expectations that are way over the top. There are certain business strategies, but they got be in the streets, grinding, trying to create a buzz."

"They don't do what's necessary and they go by the wayside," agrees Hot 104.1 DJ Charlie Chan. "They just give up. I get guys who are less talented in my face all the time, and eventually they get a record."

As the album title suggests, Rockwell Knuckles (given name: Corey Barnett) is a north-side native. He grew up in rough neighborhoods, splitting time between his mother's house just north of Calvary Cemetery and his grandparents' home a few blocks south of Fairground Park.

When Knuckles was nine, his father walked out on the family. His mother made ends meet by working in a quality-control laboratory at Purina. She earned enough to put him through private schools. He went to high school at Cardinal Ritter College Prep.

"I didn't grow up starving or destitute or anything," Knuckles says. "I ate good meals every day, I was a chubby baby. I come from hard-working people."

Leon Henderson recalls that while a student at Cardinal Ritter Knuckles displayed flashes of the shrewd social commentary that now infuses his music.

"His papers always reflected a lot of critical thinking," says Henderson, who is now the school's president. "Corey was always willing to engage in conversation and engage in critical reflection about what was going on around him in the community and the world."

The way Knuckles tells it, Cardinal Ritter also provided the inspiration for his stage name: "I was standin' at a bus stop at the corner of Thekla and Thrush wearing my Cardinal Ritter uniform. This bully started hassling me about it, so I punched the guy in the mouth. My hand was all bloody and it hurt like hell. One of my friends was like, 'Hey man, you got rocky knuckles.' So I went by Rocky Knuckles for a while, but then a lot of rappers in St. Louis started having names that end in y. So I thought: What do I do? I rock. I rock well: Rockwell Knuckles."

His first rap, which he performed at a church function, was called "Our World" and encouraged recycling. He was nine. The words were written by his mother. "'It's our world, it's one of a kind,'" he recites from memory. "'If we going to change it, we got to change our mind.'"

While in high school, Knuckles began attending and reading at poetry slams. At one event he met Gotta Be Karim, a St. Louis emcee who appears on Knuckles' album on the track "Leave Us Alone."

"He read his [hip-hop] rhymes, but he gave it the swagger of poetry," Karim recalls.

Eventually Knuckles began sneaking into the Monday night hip-hop program at the Hi-Pointe, honing his battle-rap skills and reinforcing his desire to pursue a career.

"I started rapping when I started going to the Hi-Pointe. It was very quintessential to my music," Knuckles says. "I was seventeen, eighteen, watching all these grown men rap. I see 'em in the street and they're Alex and John and Jimmy Bob. I come there and they're MC Smackabitch and DJ Punchafucker. Everybody was like superheroes in the night."

Rockwell Knuckles is hardly the first St. Louis emcee to credit the Hi-Pointe with launching his rap career. Fixtures on today's St. Louis underground scene who say they were regulars at Hi-Pointe Mondays include Gotta Be Karim, DJ Trackstar, DJ Needles, Black Spade, Nite Owl, Vandalyzm and dozens more.

"That was where the best of the best of our city could congregate and make sickening music," says Vandalyzm. "It wasn't about money, it was just hip-hop."

Mondays were the brainchild of Lamar "Finsta" Williams, who explains that it began as an alternative to the mainstream, club-oriented rap that was becoming popular at the time: Even as St. Louis was beginning to embrace crunk, with its simplistic hooks and slow but catchy (and danceable) hi-hat and keyboard beats, the Hi-Pointe was promoting a style of hip-hop modeled after New York artists such as the Wu-Tang Clan and Gang Starr, emphasizing inventive lyrics and beats.

"We were still focusing on being wordy with the lyrics while everybody else was being stupid," says Finsta. "Everybody like, 'Where did these guys come from?' People would be like, 'Are you from New York or something?'"

While independent artists were able to gain a critical toehold in cities like New York, Minneapolis and the San Francisco Bay area, crunk, the movement that started with Master P, continues to rule in St. Louis to this day, with contemporary artists such as T-Pain and Soulja Boy dominating local radio and clubs.

Though it would enjoy brief reincarnations at other locations throughout the city, the last true Hi-Pointe Monday was held in September 2006, not long after new owners took over the venue. And by all accounts the local underground scene has never quite recovered. There have been several attempts to recapture the magic, the most notable being the short-lived Integrity, a hip-hop networking and showcase night at Blueberry Hill hosted by Finsta, producer Tech Supreme and DJ Trackstar, but almost all have failed.

"We always cling to how it used to be," says DJ Needles, co-host of Fat Laces, a local hip-hop show that airs Sunday nights on KDHX (88.1 FM). "It used to be better around here as far as actual events showcasing raw hip-hop. We don't really have that anymore."

Currently only a handful of underground hip-hop nights exist; the most prominent take place in the vicinity of Soulard: Needles' Café Soul every third Friday of the month at the Lucas School House, and Trackstar's Monday gig at the Old Rock House.

Trackstar speculates that the shortage of quality underground nights has rendered networking nearly impossible. Sadly, he says, most people don't seem to care.

"The only thing I can come up with is, the way everything is going with the Internet and MySpace, everyone thinks they're their own self-contained unit," Trackstar says. "Everyone thinks they can do all their self-promotion and networking on MySpace.

"People think they don't need events because they can check out other people's work and network and get feedback through MySpace, so why spend five dollars to go out?"

By the time Knuckles graduated high school in June 2000, he had joined a promising group of seven St. Louis rappers who called themselves Pangea. He enrolled in fall classes at Harris-Stowe State University but soon dropped out to pursue his music career. Pangea quickly became the Next Big Thing on the local scene.

"You can't talk about St. Louis hip-hop without talking about 'em," says DJ Needles. "They was the little cats that just further solidified that this area's got some real independent thinkers and profound writers in hip-hop."

The group's future, however, mirrored the fate of the supercontinent from which it took its name: Relationships deteriorated as members of the act drifted apart.

"It just got ugly, to where it come to the point that somebody was going to get their ass beat or shot," says DJ Charlie Chan, who had signed on to produce the band.

Knuckles says there are no hard feelings between him and his former bandmates, and calls his time with Pangea a learning experience.

"They're good people, man — musically cold, personally awesome," he says. "It's just everybody likes to work in music at their pace, and I got to keep movin' and groovin'."

Eventually the cast was whittled down to just Knuckles and two close friends, a rapper named Wafeek and Brian "Grand" Trotter, who pulled double duty as emcee and band manager. Soon after Wafeek moved to Tucson in 2003 to try his hand at the West Coast music scene, Knuckles followed. After a few months, the pair decided to move to LA to record a project with a production team called the Art Thugs. They wrote the entire album on the nine-hour drive across the desert.

"It was awesome," Knuckles recalls. "We were just driving and writing — the seat of your pants, a few bucks in your pocket, a couple hundred dollars next to nothing, working on what you got. It's like, 'OK, this is going to work. Yes, it is. There's no choice.'"

Wafeek says in those days Knuckles was willing to play the rap game.

"When we were younger, he was always involved and communicating with people, being public, being around people, being sociable. We made so many contacts in Tucson just because of Rocky talking," Wafeek remembers. "He used to be a politician. He would kill himself trying to keep the peace with people and keep relationships. He'd bend over backward to be nice to folks. I think maybe that's part of why he closed off now — you can only do that for so long."

Responds Knuckles: "When I'm first getting in the scene, I'm naive. I still believe in the magic land of a record deal. You know those golden gates open up, you got that clothes sponsorship, you're on tour or you're just sitting in a studio just writing music, working on shit. You're just making money and you don't owe anybody money and everything is great. That shit doesn't exist and it never has."

The songs that emerged from the LA session have names like "Watching for the Pigs" and "Baby Killer," the latter a meditation on abortion. The beats are complex, consisting of one funk-fueled, unpredictable bass line after another. Knuckles and Wafeek engage in a game of lyrical one-upmanship throughout the verse/verse/verse song structure. The nearest comparison would be Bay-area hip-hop group Hieroglyphics.

The quality of the music, says DJ Trackstar, is spectacular.

"It's an incredible collection of songs. It's head and shoulders above any project from St. Louis that I've heard," raves Trackstar, who says he's tried to convince Knuckles to release the Pangea material. "Apparently there's sound issues they say they need to fix, but I say fuck that. Don't touch it. Don't do anything. Just put it on an album and put it out." [Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]

(Knuckles says it's a question of red tape: He doesn't have permission to use all of the beats and samples featured on some of the songs.)

Back in his living room, it takes some coaxing to persuade Knuckles to dig up a copy of his old album. As the music begins to thump over the speakers, he stares at the floor, arms crossed. Finally, his head starts to bob to the beat and he begins to mouth the words to his own lyrics.

"They're awesome songs," he says later. "But I can make better songs now. That's evolution in progress. Continents, dude — they do what they going to do."

Rapper and producer Van "Vandalyzm" Coleman, a St. Louis native, says that in order to make the connections necessary to be successful with his debut album, Megatron Majorz, he had to move to Atlanta.

"There's no chance of doing it here," explains Vandalyzm, who has since returned to his hometown. "It's a great place to get your iron sharpened, but at the end of day you have to go out of town to make it happen. I hate to say it, but because everybody is so small-minded, things as simple as finding a good publicist or manager — you have to go where cats are making moves and making a name for themselves."

Others have taken the same route. Like Knuckles and Vandalzym, St. Louis rapper and producer Black Spade honed his craft at the Hi-Pointe, developing a sound that's a unique fusion of jazz, soul and hip-hop. He moved to Brooklyn and promptly signed a deal with Om Records. Critics have warmly received his forthcoming release, To Serve with Love.

The phenomenon isn't confined to the starving artists of the underground, either. Popular mainstream St. Louis rapper Chingy recently defected to Atlanta, citing a need for a fresh start.

Finsta, the Hi-Pointe mastermind, speculates that the problem is that many people in the industry in St. Louis are clueless when it comes to operating outside their hometown.

"A lot of artists don't know the avenues to take," explains Finsta, who hosts the local music hour on Hot 104.1. "And they're pretty much the blind leading the blind when they find a manager that doesn't know anything outside of St. Louis, a manager has no inkling of the industry beyond the realm of St. Louis."

Others point to the fact that, in addition to the demise of the Hi-Pointe and Blueberry Hill's underground night, the Science, several clubs that used to book underground hip-hop (most notably former downtown hot spot the Galaxy) have closed, leaving a void in venues that cater to the genre.

Kenautis Smith, a Chicago native who produced Knuckles' Northside Phenomenon, says he lived in St. Louis for several years and saw a drastic difference between its clubs and the vibrant underground community of the Windy City, which has produced two of the most successful underground artists working today, Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco.

"St. Louis might have five or six hip-hop clubs, and two or three may cater to quote-unquote backpackers," says Smith, referring to the disparaging term used to describe underground artists who peddle their CDs on the street. "That means you see the same 75 to 100 people on any given night. They have to find a new way to promote the music scene."

The frustrating problem, Vandalyzm explains, is that few artists have the resources to go on tour, let alone move to a new city.

"We have to outsource," he says, "And when we outsource, that's how we get our success. But we got cats who ain't got the money to do that. So the music is falling on deaf ears. Eventually they get tired of it and quit."

"That's all it takes, is the initiative to get up and go," argues Gotta Be Karim. "Black Spade taught me that. We all broke, but once you get past the fact you don't have money, you just got to get up and go."

Knuckles says he's staying put for the time being.

"Honestly, I'm not sure where I'd go," he says. "There's no Shangri-La at this present moment."

Eventually Rockwell ran out of money and returned home from California, leaving his friend Wafeek behind. He'd been back, living at his mom's house for less than three months, when his life changed dramatically and unpredictably.

On the evening of July 5, 2004, lightning struck the roof of his bedroom, causing it to catch fire. Virtually all of his possessions were burned. There was little damage to the rest of the house.

"I'm sitting there with nothing," Knuckles recalls. "There's some pretty sweet symbolism right there. The good Lord is like, 'Start fresh, chief.' After that I started working on solo stuff.

"That's a lot to grasp: Lightning strikes your house," he adds. "It puts a lot of things in perspective. It makes you want to get your shit together and handle your business. Your mind can really wander after something like that happens. Plus I had to buy a new copy of The Last Dragon, a new Breakfast Club, a new Clockwork Orange, a new Goodfellas. All the important ones."

He cycled through several jobs — driving a dry-cleaning delivery truck, working as a clerk in a law office, canvassing for the 2004 election — all the while writing songs on his own for the first time in his brief career. He produced a 29-track mixtape called The New Standard and released it in late 2005. He performed constantly, scoring opening gigs for the likes of the GZA, RJD2 and Brother Ali. In early 2007 he began writing songs for what would eventually become Northside Phenomenon.

The album, released on and iTunes in November, is a testament to Knuckles' coming of age.

"It's more his voice, his vision, where he's coming from now," says Grand, Knuckles' friend and former Pangea cohort. "He channels all that through his music. Whether that be a good feeling or a bad feeling, pain or happiness, that's all channeled through his music."

No song is more indicative of his newfound songwriting maturity than "Hello Morning," a straightforward but charming love song about breaking up and getting back together backed by jazz trumpet, keyboard and a simple drum-and-bass rhythm. Complete with a Stevie Wonder-esque chorus, it's a drastic departure from run-of-the-rap braggadocio.

With its prevalent guitar-heavy beats, the album is also indicative of the artist's diverse musical taste. Knuckles drops references about everything from Outkast, People Under the Stairs and UGK to John Lennon and Prince. He is almost certainly the first person to ever rap, "Roll up on the block...bumpin' 'Hey Jude.'"

Patrick Marshall, a music critic at the tastemaking hip-hop Web site The Smoking Section, writes of the album, "Rocky's storytelling skills and command of language make [his] struggles more pertinent and the pictures more vivid."

But Marshall, a Washington University graduate who keeps up with St. Louis hip-hop, is virtually the only critic to have taken note of the album. Knuckles has performed only once since its release (in November at Integrity at Blueberry Hill).

"The fact that I was able to write about it on a national level was just kind of falling into his lap," Marshall says by phone from Chicago. "If he got it into the hands of the right person, they could be saying, 'This is somebody we could take a chance on.' He needs to be doing that. Whether he can do that from St. Louis it's hard to say. It sucks, you know, it's kind of where art and salesmanship coincide. Being popular in hip-hop today is a strange phenomenon. Just because you're popular doesn't mean you're talented."

Knuckles explains that some things, such as his inability to supply physical copies to record stores, stem from the simple fact that he doesn't have much money. He supports himself and his girlfriend by working the graveyard shift as a security guard at a grocery store. But he admits that he's reluctant to jump back into the music-industry grind after the failure of Pangea.

"I could have a lot more help than I have at the moment, but things like that make me nervous," he says. "I really don't want anybody involved in my music that doesn't have my best interests at heart."

Several songs on the album reflect this anxiety. "Worried for the future/Knew they'd tempt me with an offer I couldn't refuse/Then they'd send me to a place where nobody could hear me at all/'Cept the people listenin' on the other side of the wall," Knuckles raps on the title track.

Other times, his humility keeps him from pursuing opportunities. His friend Vandalyzm, with whom he has collaborated, is involved with the influential underground hip-hop collective the Justus League, but Knuckles says he won't pursue an in with the nationally recognized crew.

"It's great I know someone who is a part of that, but I don't want to sniff up under that. People respect you less," he says.

Meanwhile, he says with a straight face that he wants to be the next Notorious B.I.G. or Tupac. The paradox borders on absurd, and Rockwell knows it.

"If I sit around waiting to work with good, honest people I'm going to be waiting a long time," he says. "My grandkids be like, 'Granddad, that CD out yet?' 'Nope, still waiting for those good, honest people.'"

At the Loft, the last performer in the semifinal of the Koch Madness competition has just exited to half-hearted applause. Boogie D, Hot 104.1's operations manager, a massive man clad in a Washington Redskins jersey, makes his way to the stage. Before announcing who will advance to the next round, he launches into a canned speech about the music industry.

"The one thing record labels look for is making money. You are a commodity. You are a product," he says. "The music business is sales. It's a job, just like a car salesman."

"That's my problem," Knuckles says later. "I don't want to play that punk-ass game. I just want to make my music, put my music out and perform my music."

Other talented rappers have shared Knuckles' dilemma and coped with the reality of their situations.

"You have to first define your own success," says rapper Big Pooh of the popular underground North Carolina hip-hop duo Little Brother. "You can't let TV or what other people deem success determine what success is to you. I live comfortable, have my own town home, cars, can take a trip somewhere if I want. I'm comfortable. I'm not flying [Gulfstream] G-IVs around the globe or pulling up in Maybachs on 24s, but I'm still successful."

When the Seattle underground hip-hop duo Blue Scholars couldn't find any takers for their debut album, they created their own label, Mass Line Records, and released it themselves. DJ Sabzi, the group's beat maker and producer, says a by-any-means-necessary mentality is essential.

"We know what we want to do and we're going to do it. If somebody helps along the way, great, but they didn't so here we are," says Sabzi. "The plans I have don't depend on anybody doing anything for me. I'll do it anyway. If an opportunity opens up along the way, like a record deal or a beat battle, sure I'll go for it. But I'm not going to be sitting around in my garage mailing out demo tapes waiting for somebody to do something for me."

Nite Owl, who narrowly defeated Knuckles in this past weekend's Koch semifinal round, agrees.

A seasoned performer and businessman, Nite Owl is a perfect foil to Rockwell Knuckles. After graduating from Ladue's Horton Watkins High School and Central Missouri State University (since renamed the University of Central Missouri), he moved to Atlanta and later to Augusta, Georgia, where he worked as a radio DJ. He's had record deals and has toured extensively throughout the region. He employs a live backing band, a DJ, a street team, a personal assistant and a stylist. On stage after his victory, he hyped a show later in the evening at the Old Rock House, as well as the upcoming release of his new album.

"It's cool they're giving away $1,000 and a single, but none of that amounts to the amount of promotion I'm going to get for my new album out of this," Nite Owl says. "I had a plan, a strategy to win and then promote my new album. I played college football, and athletics are not that different from music. It takes a team and a game plan to be successful."

For the time being, anyway, Knuckles is confident his talent will see him through.

"Everybody has their own tricks of the trade and common sense about how it should work," he says. "And not everybody's music is built for this method of getting the shit poppin' or that method of getting shit poppin'. I've got people that I can rely on, like, when it's time, but I'm pretty much just doing me right now. People look down on me and say I'm foolish, I'm not playing the game, but the bottom line is you can't rap as good as me."

Correction published 2/28/08: In the original version of this story, we incorrectly transcribed a comment from DJ Trackstar. Trackstar said Pangea's album was “head and shoulders above any project from St. Louis,” not “anybody from St. Louis.” The above version reflects this correction.

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