Known for giddy, left-field lyricism and sonic innovation, Rockwell Knuckles is the most exciting hip-hop talent to come out of St. Louis in years. His rapping is technically impeccable, but his humor recalls the bumbling Kenny Powers, whose fictional audiobook is referenced in the title of Rockwell’s new album, You’re Fucking Out, I’m Fucking In. The work shows him hitting on all cylinders, a regional heavyweight ready to take his place among the best underground emcees in the nation. Opines Riverfront Times critic Christian Schaeffer: “Rockwell Knuckles stands tall as St. Louis’ most capable and adventurous hip-hop artist.”
He’s also been called a cross between Willie Wonka and Tupac Shakur, which might sound odd but makes a certain sense. “You combine pure imagination with harsh reality,” says Rockwell, “and you’re bound to get something interesting.” Born Corey Barnett, his rap name comes from a childhood altercation at a bus stop with a neighborhood bully – who was hassling him for wearing his private school uniform. He bloodied his hand punching the tough in the mouth, and since he was also known to “rock well,” the moniker Rockwell Knuckles stuck. (You can call him Rocky, however.)
Rocky later dropped out of Harris-Stowe State University to focus on his music, recording now-lost classics with his clique Pangea. He teamed up with rapper Wafeek and the man who now manages him, Brian “Grand” Trotter, before losing almost everything he owned in a fire caused by a 2004 lighting strike. He promptly reprioritized and dedicated himself to his music more strongly than ever, releasing his fiercely melodic debut Northside Phenomenon in 2007. The work featured the beats of venerated local Kenautis Smith and was a revelation to the city’s backpacker scene, landing Rocky on the cover of St. Louis’s alt-weekly Riverfront Times.
Teaming up with luminaries like Vandalyzm and Black Spade – on whose critically-beloved Om Records debut To Serve With Love he appears – he continued his ascent with works like mixtape The Glow and album Choose Your Own Adventure. His lyricism evolved rapidly, developing into the playful style he calls “multi-faceted brain-burning mind fuckery.” He calls his posse, meanwhile, the “Bullet Train Army.” With Rocky in the conductor’s seat, it also includes collaborators like Theresa Payne and Trackstar the DJ, and represents his forward-thinking mentality. “We’re constantly moving, building, trying to make things better and help people day by day,” he explains. “It’s an ideology that will turn into a way of being.”
This locomotive is quickly gathering speed; Rocky recently performed on a mini-tour with Gary, Indiana phenomenon Freddie Gibbs, and has also played with new-generation stars like Yelawolf and Big K.R.I.T., captivating those artists’ fans with his unorthodox style. “People look at me crazy while I’m rapping,” he says. “I know that’s a good sign.”
You’re Fucking Out, I’m Fucking In is his magnum opus, a progressive rap album with pop sensibilities that is both intelligent and fun. The genre-hopping, outer-space beats come courtesy of producers including Trifeckta, Adult Fur, and B-Money, but the lyrical fluidity and overwhelming confidence is all his own. “I wanted to show what I’m capable of, point blank period,” Rocky says of the work. “This is not a ‘something for everyone’ record. Like Kenny Powers, the whole project has an aggressive, non-apologetic, abrasive [vibe].” His mission statement becomes clear raps on standout track “Silly Human,” on which he raps: “Just the band on the run, Rockwell and the gang/ Is the coast clear?/ Yeah I see no road blocks…baby, we build robots.”