A Good Rap

Exploring the mindstate of the hip-hoppers in Denver's nGomA.

For Robert Woolfolk II--aka Dap, one of the pair of performers behind the impressive Denver-based rap group nGomA--musical eclecticism runs in the family. His father, the Reverend Robert Woolfolk Sr., is the spiritual leader of Five Points' Agape Christian Church and an acknowledged leader of Denver's religious community. (The Reverend Woolfolk was a central figure in "Sanctuary," an August 15, 1996, Westword article about local black churches.) As such, he has a fondness for songs that sing the praises of Jesus Christ and a certain discomfort with tunes that do not attempt to raise one's spirit. "He's loosened up a lot over the years," Dap reports of his father, "but mostly when I was growing up, I was forbidden to listen to hip-hop and funk. I don't want to paint him as tyrannical or anything like that. He was just being a parent, trying to expose his children to the right elements."

At the same time, however, Dap's uncle, Andrew Woolfolk, was moving along a far different path--as a saxophonist for the influential R&B act Earth, Wind and Fire. (Andrew joined the combo in the early Seventies, around the same time as fellow Denverite Philip Bailey. After leaving EW&F, he became part of a brass section that tours with singer/drummer Phil Collins.) As a result, Dap was exposed to disparate musical influences--the sacred vs. the secular--virtually every time the Woolfolks gathered for Thanksgiving dinner.

Some people would have been torn asunder by this dichotomy, but not Dap. In fact, Collage Mindstate, nGomA's debut CD, achieves a balance between the nasty and the nice that was no doubt influenced by both of the elder Woolfolks. Although the disc sports plenty of profanities, it's more musically ambitious than the efforts of most Denver hip-hoppers; the tracks vibrate with jazz and funk sounds that studiously avoid the tried and true. Moreover, the words of Dap and cohort Maurice Smith, who answers to the name Reese, are wiser and more optimistic than those voiced by a great many of their contemporaries. "Iwuzthinkin'," "Growth," "Stimulation" and many more effortlessly combine smooth sonics and fine rhymes that leave your intelligence intact--which is why Mindstate is among the most enjoyable CDs to be produced in Colorado in 1996. (See "Get Local," January 2.)

The sound of nGomA (a Swahili word that translates to "rhythm and drums") is so diverse because Dap and Reese come from such dissimilar backgrounds. Dap grew up in the Park Hill area alongside what he describes as "a lot of hardheads" who prided themselves on "listening to the most underground stuff that they could." But because he wasn't allowed to purchase or bring home this mate-rial or most other sorts of pop music (only EW&F won an occasional exemption), he received a strangely scattershot education in funk, rap, soul and rhythm and blues. By contrast, Reese hails from a military family and spent ten of his most formative years in Italy and Germany. A lot of his fellow Army brats didn't get a chance to absorb much of the local culture--they spent the majority of their time on bases with fellow English speakers. But because Reese's mother is German, he and his kin generally lived "out with the Germans," as he puts it. And because he speaks fluent German, he was able to delve into the country's media: "I listened to the radio all the time and got a lot of the European flavor. I guess what I was most into was pop music."

"Cheesy pop music," Dap interjects good-naturedly.
"It wasn't all that bad," Reese replies. "I got to see Run DMC and the Beastie Boys on tour, you know. But I also heard mainstream stuff--things that even today I'll recognize without ever having known who the artists were who did them. It was really different than if I'd grown up in the States."

Dap nods. "He didn't see Mister Rogers until he was seventeen. But it's been cool to learn about how he grew up. I've really learned a lot from him, especially about jazz, and I think he's learned a lot from me about things, too. And you can hear that in the music."

"It takes a lot of compromise," Reese says, "but we find a way to make it work for both of us."

The Smith clan moved back to America in 1987, with Reese landing in Denver four years ago. By that time, he'd made a recording with a band that he declines to name. ("It's not that I'm embarrassed about it," he insists, somewhat weakly. "It just doesn't really represent where I'm at now. We were trying too hard for a hit, and you can hear that in it.") A year later, he and Dap met while taking video courses at an area art school. The pair soon discovered a mutual love of music, but it took a while for them to become a band. "He just had some free time at a studio at the school," Dap remembers. "So Reese said, 'Let's do a song.' And so we did. And then he said, 'Let's do another one.' And we did that, too."

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