Nick Menn, Tef Poe, and Noisey.
For this, the final installment of our coverage of the St. Louis music scene, we met up with local artists, and some time collaborators, Tef Poe and Nick “Whiteout” Menn (of hip-hop collective Doorway, alongside rappers L-Gifted, RT-Faq, and S.D). They’re such valued artists in the community that the mayor of the city gave Tef his own day (8/6 if you’re in the neighborhood and fancy a celebration), while Nick Menn’s has a street named after Doorway (it’s called Door Way—see what they did there?).
We’ve had our eye on Tef Poe for a minute and premiered his video with Rockwell Knuckles earlier this month. As soon as we touched down in the city he was the consummate host, showing us all the spots, from Vintage Vinyl on the U-City Loop, to bar and art space Blank Space on Cherokee Street, before ending up on a stoop talking into the early hours with Nick. (St. Louis oracle The Riverfront Times awarded Nick Menn the accolade of “Best Hip-hop Artist of 2013.”)
Last year Tef made waves as the undefeated freestyle champ on Freestyle Fridays on BET 106 & Park, driving 19 hours to NY every single week to compete. ”It comes with this negative stigma, most of the rappers you see on there don’t really go on to become all that big time,” says Tef 18 months after he scooped the title. “But it was a life changing experience. You know when you’re hungry and you’re looking for opportunity you will do anything. That what we represented at that time, just people from St. Louis pushing it—just trying to show people we weren’t afraid to get out there and compete with the big boys.”
Tef and Nick undoubtedly a counterpoint to the party soundtrack sonics of Nelly and JGE Retro. Often their music treads a darker line. Take Nick’s “Hero Inside,” a track written after three of Nick’s friends passed away under circumstances traced back to heroin addiction. This then inspired Nick to found Hero Inside, a charity designed “raise awareness surrounding the problems caused by heroin in a manner that addicts, their loved ones, and the general public can identify with.” Meanwhile Tef is similarly active in the community working in education reform and campaigning for fast food workers in Missouri to be granted minimum wage.
If you haven’t watched the St. Louis episode, which includes insights from Nelly and JGE Retro, check it out it here. For a more in-depth, grittier glimpse into the city’s scene—from shootings to what it takes to cut it in St. Louis and the city's influence on its artists—read on. First up a little getting to know you car ride with Tef Poe…
Noisey: So Vintage Vinyl is one of the best record store’s in the city right? What’s you relationship with it?
Tef Poe: I grew up in this store basically. My father used to take us on adventures, bike rides through the U-City Loop and we would end up at Vintage Vinyl because he was a big music nut. A real legendary St. Louis MC by the name of Kat Davis passed away a few years ago and we had this ginormous rap cypher the day of his funeral outside of Vintage Vinyl. That was kind of my coming out party as a rapper. I remember the electricity and energy of that day and I said I want to be a rapper. So Vintage Vinyl is kind of holy ground; sacred territory.
Was your dad you gateway to music originally?
Yeah. My dad is a crazy music fan and my older brother is actually kind of a legend in St. Louis: his name is Black Spade. He’s an independent musician, but he has been on the road with Cody ChesnuTTand a bunch of other people for a while. I aspired to be like him. We don’t do the same type of music, but I try to stay true to the heritage because he is a real stickler for the back to basics—staying true to who you are, not just making music for what the crowd might want to hear, developing your own talent and skill at your own pace and making what you consider beautiful. That is what we are all about.
Tell me a little about the hip-hop scene in St. Louis. What makes it unique?
When you get on the ground out here in St. Louis you figure out that there are a lot of people that don’t do cliché St. Louis music. There are some very talented acts and they run deep. People have spent years harnessing the talent and being dedicated to the city through art. That’s the thing I really respect about it. We have a lot of groups that have been here forever that I consider mainstays in St. Louis music: Legend Camp, Bits N Pieces, Family Affair, which is a group of twin brothers. There is a young group that is just getting started that I think is going to be huge named MME. And then there is this infamous group from across the river in east St. Louis by the name of Doorway. I do a lot of shows with them.
I did want to talk to you about Doorway, seeing as we’re going to meet Nick Menn. What’s their deal?
Doorway are young guys from Fairview Heights, Illinois. To me they represent a very youthful energy. They are from east St. Louis, so there’s a river dividing us. They were one of the first groups of the modern era of St. Louis music to come across the water and knock the doors down for other groups over there that were interested in coming over here and getting bigger fan bases.
When Nelly exploded how did you feel about it and what was your connection to him?
Man, it was amazing to see. That was the first time that I saw the city unify over an artist. Everybody was excited. I remember being a kid in the U-City Loop. I was like, “Wow man this is amazing, he is from here and he pulled it off!” I think everybody on some level is influenced by that.
Tell me about the other projects that you are involved in. Your lyrics err more on the conscious side of hip-hop…
Well, I believe that rap music is about touching topics, but not necessarily preaching about it. So I don’t want to be the conscious rapper who’s yelling “Hey, get your life together. Stop doing drugs and killing people.” But I throw some things in there and let the listener grasp what they want to grasp. I am very active in the community: I am known on the activism tip just as much as I am known on the music tip. Right now we’re working on some education reform with the Normandy school district, trying to help out the students and the community. I have worked with fast food workers to try to raise the minimum wage in Missouri. That’s a really big movement going on right now that I support fully. You really have to be a special personal to make it out of this—there is just no opportunity.
There are just not enough jobs?
There are no jobs and there’s a real ten-years-late way of thinking about things. The solution that would have been relevant 10 years ago is the solution they apply to the city. Always. That is just St. Louis in general, man. It’s just a really slow paced city—a really slow paced way of thinking.
Do you think Missouri’s slow way of thinking influences the music scene at all?
Yeah, I definitely do. If some of the artists would live in other places, experience other things, and know about other cultures it would help them get to their goals a little quicker. We get stuck in this universe of St. Louis, Missouri. A lot of people don’t leave this place. That is the ongoing problem out here. We have a lot of good artists, a lot of very talented people. If people were garbage I wouldn’t even sit here and tell you there were good. The talent is here, but the understanding of the business is just not. There are a bunch of people doing things, but there is such a disconnect between the guys that are doing stuff and the guys that aren’t. It creates some problem sometimes, just the lack of understanding how the business goes. People want “Hey man, why didn’t you give me a handout. Why didn’t you put me on that show?” But it doesn’t really work like that.
At this point we arrive at Blank Space on Cherokee Street (above). The venue is already crammed—there’s an indie band in the basement and an improv comedy troupe on the ground floor. Instead Tef and I join Nick Menn on a stoop opposite the bar.
Nick, Tef was telling me a little about Fairview Heights and kind of the neighborhood is pretty, the east side is kind of deprived, right?
Nick: Fairview Heights is a mixed population. Right next to Fairview Heights is not too bad, but east St. Louis, Washington Park, Centerville, it’s all pretty bad around there. A lot of corruption. We couldn’t do this, put it like that.
We couldn’t sit in the street and chat?
Nick: No. Two weeks ago, we had a show in St. Louis, it was Friday night, we got done at three in the morning. My boy Artifact—who is also in the Doorway Collective—he’s got kids and one of them was hurt and he wanted to go check on him. He goes inside, checks on his kids and it’s me and my friend sitting out front. This car drives past with like seven people and goes around the corner. I didn’t think nothing of it. Then three people walked up on the side of the car and I made eye contact with him and he covered his face. It was then that I saw a gun in his back pocket with an extended clip and so he kinda got to the front of the car.
My boy Artie was like, “Dude, throw it in reverse, they’re surrounding us around the car!” I just threw it in reverse and as soon as I did, he just pulled out his gun and just started unloading—pow pow pow. I tried to peel out, but I struck a light pole. They just kept running up and shooting. I stayed down and took off and got like a mile and a half away and then my car broke down because they shot my radiator up. We pushed the car to the side of the road, called some people and got picked up. Nobody was hit or nothing, I have a couple bullet holes in my grill. I had to get my car worked on, but everybody was straight.
That’s a miracle.
Nick: It’s just so random, stuff like that. You ain’t going to read about that in the papers. It was reported, but you ain’t going to read about that stuff because I wasn’t shot and I wasn’t bleeding all night. No one was hurt for real. It’s crazy over there, but there is good in it.
Like Tef it’s also important for your to give back to the community right? How did Hero Inside come about?
Nick: Yeah, Hero Inside is a non-profit organization that I started up in 2013. It’s aimed at raising money for detox and rehab programs for people that are on heroin and maybe have other addictions. I lost three friends in 2011—two of my friends overdosed, one on a bad batch, another friend blew his head off because he was depressed with it—and I wrote a song about it and it kind of took off and people said, “This really helps me.” We put on events and music festivals and all the money that we raise goes to rehab. Just trying to help a little bit. We did a show in April and it was a mix between speakers—family members talking about losing their daughters—and we had judges coming in talking about what’s going on in Illinois, because it’s a problem. The judge in St. Clair county—my county—is going to jail for heroin possession and doing heroin. Wow, that’s two really depressing stories back to back.
Nick: Really, I have fun. I promise, I like being here.
Well let’s lift the conversation a little bit, both of you guys have won awards for basically being promising artists in St. Louis, and you’ve worked together a whole bunch. What is it about the St. Louis music scene that inspires you guys, or the city itself?
Tef: The same way that Snoop Dogg is a product of Long Beach, the same way that Eminem is a product of Detroit, the same way that Nas is a product of Queens, New York—I’m a product of St. Louis. I was thinking about it this morning, I’m like the St. Louis version of General Zod from Superman, I believe at all costs that it is my job to preserve the integrity of this city. If I have to take you out to prove that then so be it. That’s just my life mission, I’ve completely dedicated all of my being to being a representative of this city, inside my music, inside my being, inside the way I talk. Just the very conversations that we’re having, just showing people what type of culture we have out here, bringing people like Nick into the fold and showing everyone that there’s different sides to the coin, different experiences and even working with him just proves that people can be from here, be from different places. We weren’t raised together, we didn’t grow up together, but he’s like my brother. You can have hometown pride and be unified and also work with somebody from a completely different universe and achieve your goals.
Nick: I’m the type of person that’s like, if I get to know you too and then you’re a good person as well then I’m going to listen to your music even more and respect it on an even greater level and there’s a lot of people like that here. You can form bonds with people and feel like you know somebody. I just wish it was exposed better, but I guess that’s what we’re doing.
Tef Poe, director Lance Bangs, and Nick Menn.
Do you think there’s a good sense of community in the St. Louis music scene?
Tef: I definitely do. In the beginning there wasn’t as much unity, but now it’s like a really strong, unified front among the artists. We support each other at all costs. I go to people’s shows, if they got a show on the road and I’m in that city, I’ll go to the show, check them out. I’ll support them, I’ll even help them get booked in other cities if they need that help. We’re not stingy with our connects, like if we got a connect and you’ll use it without messing it up for me, I’ll pass it along to you and hopefully that creates a culture with people who are doing the same.
Even something like the Blank Space, it was built to be a hub for artists to come through and have somewhere to be, to have somewhere to experience things. You got an album coming out? You can do your album release party here. You got a show or a listening party? You can do a listening party here. That’s what we’re all about right now, just working and being progressive, for real.
Nick: St. Louis is tired of watching other cities blow up, we’ve been tired of that shit. We all share. I can get the contact to throw a show at Blank Space from him if I don’t have it and I’ll throw shows for somebody else, I’ll give you the contacts. No one’s stingy with their shit.
Tef: The thing I think people like me and Nick represent is there’s a lot of unsung success stories here. Future is a world-renowned artist, but he used to live in St. Louis, a lot of people don’t know that. I can go to studios where you can see his name written on the wall, and I look at that and I smile like, ‘Wow, he pulled it off.’ He’s not a St. Louisan but he lived here.
Like Nick was just saying, it’s about opening up the communication with artists and passing along the connects. We do a lot of bigger shows, like we did Lupe Fiasco in front of the Arch, people as far as I could see! We did Nipsey Hussle but in the same breath, we’ll come back after doing a show with a couple thousand people and do a show with a few hundred people in this venue just to show the artists here, “Yo, everybody’s still trying to work with each other. This is just an example, but look at what we’re doing and you can do the same thing.”
Something you didn’t used to see in St. Louis in the old days was the club scene, working with the underground, quote-un-quote hipster scene. Now, all these different scenes are merging, you’ll get the cats that are making the club records coming to our shows. Back in the day it was like two totally separate departments, two different languages. Now it’s this big gumbo of everybody working together.
Kim is an Editor at Noisey and the host of the Made in America series and she's on Twitter -