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St. Louis-Based ‘Beat Battle’ Draws National Talent Online During Pandemic

Producer Klevah! holds up his trophy after winning a Fresh Produce battle at the Atomic Cowboy on March 4. The show was the last battle before the competition moved solely online.
File photo / Chad Davis
St. Louis Public Radio
Producer Klevah! holds up his trophy after winning a Fresh Produce battle at the Atomic Cowboy on March 4. The show was the last battle before the competition moved solely online.

When Blizzard the Mad Scientist stepped into the ring at the beginning of this month, he was nervous.

“I’m always nervous before battles,” the 27-year-old Detroit native said. “You know, it's just that anxiety that hits where, ‘What if this doesn't sound right?’ But then it does, I’ve got confidence.”

Blizzard, whose real name is Darnell McConnell, isn’t talking about boxing. He’s competing in a beat battle called Fresh Produce, a 10-year St. Louis tradition that’s become a centerpiece for music fans here and around the country.

The St. Louis competition pits music producers against one another for a biweekly prize that includes $150, studio time at Suburban Pro Studios in south St. Louis and recognition for the music they created.

“I’ve always looked at it like boxing, chess, because there’s always a strategy,” Blizzard said. “There's always some stuff you have to know about who you're battling and where you’re going to be.”

Blizzard won his battle earlier this month. This Wednesday, he’ll compete against seven other producers in the Fresh Produce Online Champions battle, which includes winners from several battles earlier this year. Competitors range from rising local acts to artists from around the country. Over three rounds, eight producers will battle it out for the title of Fresh Produce Champion, $250 and studio time.

The event started with the goal of giving greater attention to the artists who orchestrate the music behind the scenes, said Shaun Bardle, also known as DJ Who, the creator of Fresh Produce.

“The idea was to bring in talented producers around the city and kind of inspire other people to become producers and from there it actually turned into more of a battle,” Bardle said.

Fresh Produce started as a weekly competition, Bardle said. But after years of organizing the show, he took a break before bringing it back in 2016 with friend and business partner Ben Stein.

Since then, the Fresh Produce team has grown to include about 10 people and would pack shows at the Monocle, the Ready Room and the Atomic Cowboy. They also started livestreaming their shows three years ago. Bardle said the last onstage performance, in March at the Atomic Cowboy, brought in about 200 people.

“Probably seven days after that, we went into quarantine, so the country changed swiftly,” Bardle said. “Of course we were like, ‘well we're not going to be able to do this in person for who knows how long,’ and me being the optimist, I was like, ‘we'll be back in June,' [laughter], that didn’t happen.”

Since the pandemic began, a livestream has kept the competition going among musicians who perform from the comfort of their own homes and studios. And those online battles have featured many familiar faces from previous Fresh Produce competitions. St. Louis producer Orlando Clayton, who goes by the stage name Bigg Tank, won a Fresh Produce battle in July and will compete in Wednesday’s Champions Battle.

Matthew Sawicki (left), DJ vThom (middle) and Shaun Bardle host the March 4 show. Bardle started Fresh Produce in 2010.
Chad Davis
St. Louis Public Radio
Matthew Sawicki (left), DJ vThom (middle) and Shaun Bardle host the March 4 show. Bardle started Fresh Produce in 2010.

“Whether I win the battle or not, you know, people got to hear me,” Bigg Tank said. “It opens up doors, so that's one of the things that I love about Fresh Produce. Because not only are they just giving back to the music community here in St. Louis, but producers are being able to get out, showcase their music, make some connections, make some money.”

Bigg Tank said the competition gives his music a platform in a competitive field where many producers find it hard to get recognition for their talents.

“I want people to understand and recognize, where would this song have been if he didn’t have this track, if he didn’t have this beat?” Tank said.

The Fresh Produce organizers agree that music producers need to be given a bigger platform. Bardle says that’s why he started the event in the first place.

Matthew Sawicki is co-host of Fresh Produce and a music producer. He says the competition has been successful at highlighting the producers.

“When you're hanging out and making music, people don't necessarily know that, they only know the face,” Sawicki said. “So to be able to like give somebody a spot where they get to showcase their art, get to develop, get to grow and just have fun, just see another room full of people when we're live, see a room full of people do it get into what you're doing and respond, see the heads nod, that's great.”

And even though you can’t see the audience’s reaction online, Sawicki and Bardle said they’ve still had over a hundred people attend their livestreamed show at any given time from around the world. Bardle says they’ve even had competitors from Russia and South Africa.

For many of the participants, the battles are about showing their skills and connecting with other musicians who share that passion.

“Win or lose, I’m just here to have some fun,” Blizzard the Mad Scientist said. “I’ve got two friends that are in it, and my biggest accomplishment is if I can see one of them in the finals.”

Even though the beat battle will continue online, for now, the organizers of Fresh Produce and the producers say they still look forward to the day when they can once again compete in person, just to see that crowd reaction.

Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.