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Fresh Produce takes music producers out of the background and into the spotlight

Typically, bands and music groups make stars of the lead singer: the “front man” and spokesperson who gets all the eyes and attention. So most fans do not consider the team of people working behind the scenes to make the music radio-ready — especially those who produce, mix and master the audio.

Music producers are integral to the music-making process. Without them, artists aiming to get their music to an audience outside their own circle of friends and family often get overlooked. The St. Louis beat battle series Fresh Produce recognizes and honors the producer with its monthly, bracket-style competition.

Fresh Produce has gone through many phases under different names over the years. Back in 2009 before the competition started, what eventually turned into Fresh Produce was known as “Beat Meet” and served more as a gathering than a series.

Emcee Shaun Bardle, also known as DJ Who, bashfully explains the name change. “'Fresh' is a great word and it’s hip-hop. The point of Fresh Produce is for these producers to bring their freshness to things that they just made. And 'produce' went with it because of production.”

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Shaun “DJ Who” Bardle, a 43-year-old music producer, center, gives the rules to a Fresh Produce Champions Beat Battle while next to Kerwin Dewayne, left, and Prince "Prince the Prophet" Israel, a 26-year-old music producer from south Chicago, right, on Jan. 6 at Sophie’s Artist Lounge in Grand Center.

Since the early days of meeting in the basement of the now-closed Atomic Cowboy in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood, Fresh Produce has bounced around various venues in St. Louis. Shortly after its biggest show at the Ready Room in March 2020, the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had 350-400 people there on the show. We've never seen that kind of attendance in our spaces before,” emcee Matthew Sawicki said on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “We didn't want to lose what we had, we've been working so hard. We called all our friends and [were] just like, ‘Hey, we know you love the battle. We know you're not doing anything. Come join us in this new idea and see if we can keep the battle going.'”

Though Fresh Produce’s online competition started as a means to an end, the opportunity to reach more producers and a broader audience changed the competition for the better.

“We were definitely regional with Fresh Produce … Milwaukee, Chicago, Memphis, Kansas City, things like that. And then all of a sudden it was like Seattle, Washington and Ireland and South Africa and Carolinas and Georgia, New Jersey, you name it,” Bardle said. “And that's how we formed a lot of these relationships [including] with our newest champ Boomernati.”

On Jan. 6, the championships held at Sophie’s Artist Lounge showcased local, regional and national talent who participated in battles during last year’s season. Music producer Kerwin Dewayne participated in Fresh Produce battles numerous times. After traveling back and forth from his home state Wisconsin, he decided to make the move to St. Louis to live and work here permanently.

“I felt at home [with] just a lot more going on around me… an actual pulse in this city,” Kerwin said before his first battle of the evening. “It wasn't too hectic like New York. Like I said, it still felt familiar but a lot more culture, a lot more going on, and a lot more diverse.”

St. Louis native Prince the Prophet had lost eight Fresh Produce competitions before winning his first and making it to the championship. Where other artists may have left discouraged, Prince the Prophet saw learning opportunities.

Outside Sophie’s Artist Lounge, he said Fresh Produce “makes me so much better not only as a producer, but as a person and just as a creative overall. One of the big things about being a creative, especially in St. Louis, is you have to get out here and network. And being in this competition forces you to do that.”

If you want to see the beat battles live, do not expect a passive experience — the audience members at Fresh Produce are active participants, too. Along with enjoying a fun evening filled with music and entertainment, they are tasked with being the fifth judge of the competition. Sawicki uses a sound level meter to gauge which beat the crowd likes most and decides who moves on to the next round.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Marvell "Boomernati" Simington, a 36-year-old music producer from Kansas City, center, cheers on a colleague competing on Jan. 6 during a Fresh Produce Champions Beat Battle at Sophie’s Artist Lounge in Grand Center.

James Bishop has judged Fresh Produce since 2015 and now serves as head judge at each month’s battle. He said that despite the competitive nature of the event, there’s no rubric for judges to base their decisions on.

Bishop said: “I’ve heard beats from rap to trap to boom bap, to r&b, to pop, to EDM. All different kinds of styles. The thing that stands out for me is just creativity regardless if you use sample music or original music… a level of transitioning and how you can mix up different beats. If you give me a beat that in 30 seconds is one way, then the next 30 seconds it goes a whole different direction? That automatically gets me.”

For more on building a community of music producers in St. Louis and the outcome of last month’s Fresh Produce Championship, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

Fresh Produce takes music producers out of the background and into the spotlight

Related Event

What: Fresh Produce Beat Battle

When: Monthly starting Feb. 1 at 8:30 p.m.

Where: Sophie’s Artist Lounge, 3333 Washington Ave., Suite 102, St. Louis, MO 63103

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Miya is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."

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