If hip hop music were a body, then the DJ would most certainly be the spine, holding its constituents upright and sending signals to the rest of the body. Since the birth ofhip hop in the late '70s, the DJ was there, spinning records of his or her choosing in order to properly rock a crowd or underscore the lyrics being spouted into the mic by an MC. In this way, DJs have a large amount of control over not only hip hop music, but also the culture at large, those participating in the environment who choose other forms of expression (i.e., breaking and graffiti). According to DJ K-Nine (born Kenneth Bennett) of Bits 'N Pieces, DJ'ing brings with it a certain amount of power. And as always with power, one must wield it carefully and sparingly.
Recently at an orientation program for Washington University freshmen held at the Pageant, the DJ threw on Nelly's mega-hit "Hot In Herre," much to the vocal exuberance of the crowd. The first few bars of the track were almost completely drowned out by the screaming voices of 18-year-old college kids. To be sure, the DJ knew how to rock his particular crowd. Three days previously, at the weekly hip hop party "The Science" at Blueberry Hill, another DJ had thrown the exact same Nelly track on in the middle of his set. Static bodies and glazed-over eyes abounded. Different crowds, different tastes. These different tastes are difficult to surmount when a DJ attempts to execute another responsibility, one that every local DJ interviewed for this article claimed was significant: bring good music to your listeners.
"A DJ's job is to bring any kind of good music to listeners," said DJ Crucial (born Rob Fulstone). Crucial is, essentially, one half-along with friend and associate Andrew Yawitz-of F5 Records, a small St. Louis-based label that was formally born in 1999 with the release of Madeira, a collaboration between DJ Crucial and another F5 artist, Hi-Fidel, now living in Los Angeles.
"It's their job to use their taste," Crucial continued, "and what they think other people should be hearing and play those records. If you don't have good records, and you don't have an idea of what is a good record, and why it is a good record, then you shouldn't be a DJ. I would never dis any DJ who plays good records."
DJ Mike 2600 (born Michael Davis) of the Litterthugz Crüe, a local DJ collective, takes this idea one step further by saying that a DJ should spin new records in order to develop the visibility of new artists. In other words, a DJ should be responsible for the progression of the music. If this is the case, that the DJ as an institution within hip hop culture is the core of the music, then any given DJ should shoulder this responsibility and try something new. Unfortunately, this is not always possible, given the way that the music has been swallowed up by the mainstream media.
When asked if DJs had given way in perceived importance to MCs, Mike responded without hesitation that "DJs and MCs have taken a backseat to ego, to being a character on the cover of a magazine." Later, seemingly only in half-jest, Mike joked, "Nellyville is good for our economy."
Certainly, publications like Vibe and The Source know their audience. They seem to know what music is out there and what music is soon to be out there. Nonetheless, they also very clearly know their advertisers. DJ Needles (born James Gates), another mainstay along with Crucial at "The Science," views the mainstream hip hop press as a blockade for diverse coverage of hip hop artists. "You see publications like The Source identifying everything that's not ‘thug music' as ‘backpack music,' which is code for ‘soft music.' And, of course, you're not going to get anybody that wants to listen to something ‘soft.'"
Aside from more national issues, local artists have enough to deal with on their own. Mike 2600 called the St. Louis hip hop scene "mediocre, unorganized, and lazy, to be very blunt about it." Mike is not alone in this thought. It seems almost a running joke that to be one of the biggest hip hop acts in St. Louis does not mean as much as if they were in any other city. Supporting a local scene is not necessarily something for which our town is known.
After lamenting the persistent state of obscurity for even the best hip hop St. Louis has to offer, Mike commented, "I don't know what it's going to take for these groups to get known outside of our city, but hopefully something will happen….I think we need to take it upon ourselves to keep pushing, up the ante, step our game up and make ourselves be noticed. I don't think it's just gonna happen. We gotta work for it."
Perhaps our local DJs need to grab a tighter hold of the role of educating their audience. There is still plenty of work to be had by DJs who may as well be pressing buttons on a pre-determined catalog of pop hits readily heard ten times a day on commercial radio. DJ K-Nine refuses to play these types of parties, drawing a distinction in this context between "rap" and "hip hop," between a music produced simply for commercial consumption and something somehow more progressive and widely embracing.
If DJs in the Lou are to truly "step up their game," and bring our thriving Midwestern hip hop scene into the limelight where it belongs, moves need to be made. Many wonderfully talented DJs are doing incredible work in their craft and not being given their deserved props. More specifically, there are current weekly hip hop parties at many other venues besides Blueberry Hill, such as the Upstairs Lounge and the Atomic Cowboy among others, where DJs are doing exactly what hip hop has always done to stay relevant despite critics' doubts: move forward. | Kenneth J. Pruitt