The guy with the red Cardinals hat peeking his head through the curtains at The Monocle in St. Louis looks hesitant. He arrived to the Missouri venue early because he’s one of eight music producers taking the stage tonight—but at first glance, he doesn’t recognize anyone in the room. Inside the The Monocle's purple-lit interior, stagehands fidget with speakers and cords, readying the space for the night's event. He steps through the curtained entrance and spots another local music producer, leaning on a stool along the back wall. As he daps up his friend and circles to greet another one behind him, his red and white flannel shirt brushes open, revealing a black t-shirt with large white lettering: Beats & Blunts & Bourbon.
A few minutes later, one of the hosts of the event, Shaun Bardle, walks across the venue space to welcome the three friends along with five other newcomers. They're all here for Fresh Produce, a monthly beat battle series run by a loose collective of local volunteers and music fans. For the past several years, the series has welcomed beatmakers and music producers from across the St. Louis region and surrounding cities to compete for bragging rights and more than $300 worth of perks—a cash prize and studio time among them. Bardle, who goes by "DJ Who," has been organizing and hosting the show since its inception nearly a decade ago—and since January of 2018, he's also been co-hosting Fresh Produce's biannual Champs Battle, where the winners from the last six months compete for the ultimate title.
The eight music producers surrounding Bardle are this month's competitors. Bardle gathers them for a quick meeting to go over logistics, check in with each producer, and set the tone for the night. Fresh Produce's current core team of organizers includes Bardle; Matt Sawicki, his co-host and owner of Suburban Pro Studios on St. Louis’s south side; Ben Stein, a member of local DJ collective, The Basement Sound System; and Jesse Heirendt, also known as "DJ High Rent." This month, they're joined by guest judges Trifeckta, Tech Supreme, JBJR, and Wavy Wayne—all St. Louis producers with a penchant for classic rap beats, melodic hip hop tracks, and EDM-inspired breakdowns—along with eight or nine other friends who contribute their skills as photographers, videographers, graphic designers, and social media managers.
When the doors finally open, the crowd spills into the room. Vincent Thomas, known as "DJ VThom," is already settling into his role as DJ for the night, mixing bass-heavy hip-hop beats with songs like Mick Jenkins’ "Drink More Water" and Smino’s "MF Doom." Bardle and Sawicki take the stage to welcome everyone to Fresh Produce. The audience is young and diverse, with a healthy mixture of first-timers and regulars. The old heads and veterans of St. Louis’s hip-hop scene watch from the back of the crowd, quieter but no less attentive.
The city's hip-hop music scene is hungry. While Smino's rise has put the St. Louis accent back into music rotation, plenty of other local artists are both hitting their strides and collaborating to make sure they hit their strides together. Young artists like LA4ss, the rapper behind the infectious St. Louis hit "Jayson Tatum," and 2019 NPR Artist to Watch Mvstermind, have built strong local fan bases, while rappers like Matty Wood$ and pinkcaravan! are following suit. Veteran rappers like T-Dubb-O—a frequent Fresh Produce attendee who has collaborated with many of the series' competitors for production on his own mixtapes—prove the city’s longtime artists are just as eager to put out fresh music. Rather than vying for visibility among themselves, though, St. Louis artists are committing to exploring more local talent and collaborating with other St. Louisans for everything from photography and cover art to new beats, music production, and more.
But rappers and DJs still sit at the forefront of the music scene, with underground festivals like SlumFest and a string of popular DJ nights across the city. Fresh Produce shares that same community-minded vision—but they put music producers squarely in the spotlight. Producers show off their best work and get to know the work of their peers—all while developing their own fan bases and name recognition, making it that much easier for them to connect with artists across the city’s blossoming hip-hop community and keep every aspect of the scene thriving.
Fresh Produce's head-to-head competition format is nothing new. From rap battles and old school dance crew battles to b-boy and DJ battles, it's a well-known hip-hop staple—one with its own flagship events. The DMC World DJ Championships, founded in London in 1985, is arguably the longest-running global DJ battle, while Red Bull’s massive 3Style DJ World Championships is generally known as the biggest and most high-profile. Both competitions focus on DJs spinning live to showcase their skills. But at Fresh Produce, the spotlight is specifically on beatmakers, and highlighting producers from the St. Louis region’s hip-hop scene.
"I want the focus to be about the producers, you know what I mean? That’s what it’s all about," says Bardle during an interview at Suburban Pro Studios. "It starts with those eight producers who come in the room, and they get to know each other; they look at each other and they size each other up. And then next thing you know, a month later they're making a track together."
Sawicki echoes the sentiment. "I have no problem telling emcees they can't get involved or that this isn't the place for them," he says bluntly. "I'm very quick to be like, 'Guess what? This is not a place for you to shine. This is a place for people who don’t normally get a spotlight.'"
Their chief priority has always been to help St. Louis producers get to know each other as creative peers and build a stronger, more dynamic, more collaborative music scene. And when competing producers come from nearby cities like Memphis and Chicago, the cross-pollination only strengthens.
Stein whittles roughly 40 producer applicants per month down to the eight who will eventually face off on-stage. Competitors arrive armed with a handful of pre-made beats, which will be judged on musicality, inventiveness, originality, and their ability to hype up the room.
Part of Fresh Produce's monthly formula also includes spotlighting each of the eight competing producers, recording interviews and posting them on Instagram in the weeks leading up to the beat battle. Several of the most recent competitors name Timbaland as an influence in their video clips. One mentions wanting to open a studio with recording equipment, rehearsal space, and a dance studio. Another says he wants to jumpstart the EDM scene in St. Louis. Most say, in a variety of ways, that they want to connect with artists and eventually produce music full time.
"I wanted the audience to know more about the producers, and to know that it might be a guy with two kids who makes beats on his setup in the kitchen," explains Bardle. "I wanted people to understand that sometimes these hits don't come from a soundboard like Dr. Dre has."
Sawicki and Bardle introduce the first head-to-head pair to kick off the evening: longtime producer and musician Bigg Tank and Fresh Producer's first ever Champs Battle winner Matthew Thurman. After their set, the crowd cheers for their favorites—but the winners aren't named until the round is over. Next up are more producers from the St. Louis area: Flexxworthy and JusDevin, then dB Tha Producer versus STiLES, and finally Splycer versus Blaze Luminous. Once all eight producers compete in the first round, the judges head to the basement to deliberate and decide which four producers will move on to the next round. The second round runs the same way, followed by another deliberation period for the judges, and the announcement of the top two producers of the night: Bigg Tank and Blaze Luminous, a hip-hop and EDM-inspired producer who hails from East. St. Louis.
In the final head-to-head battle, producers play two sets of beats for a minute and a half each, enjoying an extra 60 seconds of room to flex their talent. It’s nearing midnight at this point, but the venue is still pulsing with sound and chatter—despite it being the middle of the work week. The sweet and smoky scent of a lit Black & Mild floats lightly across the room, and before the final round even begins, people start shouting out the producer they're rooting for.
"In between the sets we specifically say, ‘Yo, go meet a new friend,’ whether it be a producer or just somebody that loves beats," Barde says. "That’s why we have the Beats & Blunts & Bourbon merch—that’s what we’re about."
Fresh Produce’s final round begins with Blaze Luminous dropping a drum-infused beat that throws the crowd into a steady nod. Bigg Tank follows with a heavy bass number that reverberates through the venue, and Blaze Luminous responds with a more melodic opening than his competitor before skillfully twisting the beat into an entirely new rhythm. Bigg Tank closes the third round, dropping an infectious snare-heavy beat laced with a catchy sci-fi sound effect.
Reading the audience’s energy, Bardle and Sawicki unexpectedly let both producers share one more beat to end the night. Bigg Tank shares a solid, multi-layered hip-hop track reminiscent of earlier rounds, but with a stronger EDM influence. Blaze Luminous counters with a bigger, more dynamic swing, playing an EDM beat that rises and dips at just the right moments. The judges give Blaze Luminous the win, and the crowd erupts in screams as he lifts the Fresh Produce trophy—a single speaker encased in a triangular wooden frame—above his head in victory.
After the show, the audience spills out of the venue space and into The Monocle’s bar area. New acquaintances exchange contact information, veteran hip-hop fans grab a seat at the bar, and the Fresh Produce team starts breaking down equipment. No one seems quite ready to leave.
In St. Louis, getting a sizable crowd to come out month after month to listen to some beats—skillfully constructed beats, certainly, but still, just beats—is pretty impressive. But what’s even more remarkable is that the vibrant community nurtured at Fresh Produce rests entirely on a network of generous sponsors, local volunteers, music lovers, and everyday St. Louisans genuinely wanting to see their city thrive and being willing to put in the energy to do so.
“Watching Fresh Produce grow the way it has—it’s nothing but positive vibes in the room the entire night,” Bardle says. “The city needs a lot of that, and if we can do that every month, then I’m happy. Also, I just love beats—I love beats.”
This article originally appeared on VICE US.