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A Weasel No More

Get reacquainted with Steve Knutson, the Denver rock-scene alum behind four CDs' worth of hip-hop history.

Tommy Boy's Greatest Beats: The First Fifteen Years, 1981-1996 is a thoroughly enjoyable four-volume collection recently issued by Tommy Boy, arguably the independent label most responsible for bringing hip-hop into the musical mainstream. From "Planet Rock," a genre-defining opus by Afrika Bambaataa + Soul Sonic Force, to "Gangsta's Paradise," a commercial bonanza for Coolio, Greatest Beats' finest tracks define a very specific brand of New York urban cool. So it's rather surprising to learn that the set was compiled and co-executive-produced by Steve Knutson, a Caucasian from Colorado who once fronted one of Denver's most successful new-wave bands. Or maybe it's not--because Knutson, who's been in charge of sales at Tommy Boy for over a decade, has never let imagined boundaries keep him away from great music. "I started out as a fan," he says. "And that's still what I am."

Knutson arrived in the Denver area when he was three months old (he was born in Minnesota), and by the time he'd reached age seven, he was already a record fiend--the kind who still recalls the precise moment when he fell in love with rock and roll. "These friends of my parents who lived across the street had a teenage son, and he'd bought Are You Experienced?, by Jimi Hendrix, right when it came out," he says. "I remember going up to his room and him playing this album for me--and it blew me away so much that I took my father upstairs to listen to it, too. He said it was the worst thing he'd ever heard."

In the years that followed, Knutson became a familiar figure at Peaches and other Denver-area music stores--and when local outlets didn't have the stuff he wanted in stock, this self-described Anglophile went to the source to get it. "I corresponded with a fellow in London who I used to buy Who and Kinks singles from. He'd tell me all about going to places like the 100 Club, which was associated with the whole punk movement; the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks would always play there. So I was hip to that stuff immediately. To me, it was just the most exciting noise."

Along with several neighborhood buddies, Knutson subsequently formed a cover band that made plenty of racket as well. ("We'd play New York Dolls songs at high-school parties," he says. "We played at Cherry Creek High one time and got booed off the stage.") But an equally important outlet for his musical passion was Wax Trax, a record store opened in the fall of 1975 by Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher. According to Knutson, "I got a flier about it in the mail, and it listed all my favorite bands: New York Dolls, Bowie, and a lot of groups that I thought no one but me knew anything about. It was like a letter from heaven, because Denver didn't have anything like it then."

Wax Trax (which opened in an Ogden Street storefront before moving to its current location at 638 East 13th Avenue) turned out to be a dream come true for Knutson; he describes it as "a club with these passionate members who met each other by accident and realized they weren't crazy." He spent so much time there that Nash and Flesher hired him to work for them in late 1976. Two years later the owners decided to move the business to Chicago, selling the Denver outlet to regular customers Duane Davis and Dave Stidman. Knutson traveled to Chicago to help Nash and Flesher get the new operation up on its feet, but he left long before it mutated into the Wax Trax! imprint, which introduced the world to Ministry and many other singular acts. "They didn't really have a place for me," he says. Instead, he returned to Denver to aid Davis and Stidman in their hour of need. As Stidman said in a recent column commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the second Wax Trax regime (Feedback, December 3, 1998), the inventory initially consisted of LPs picked up at thrift stores. When those were sold, Knutson was put in charge of determining what to stock in their place. "Dave and Duane would give me an allowance of about $100 a week to go buy whatever cool imports were around at the time," Knutson says. "And when those sold, I'd have $200 to work with--and it snowballed from there. The business grew very quickly, because Wax Trax had such a loyal following of record nuts. They sort of willed it to be successful.

"There was something in the air back then--a purely aesthetic thing that we were all really excited about," he goes on. "And we knew how far we could impose our own tastes on other people. I remember one time buying 200 copies of The Modern Dance, by Pere Ubu, directly from David Thomas [the band's lead singer], and I sold them all in about six months, because I made just about every single person who came in buy one. And Dave and Duane would do the same thing. We were arbiters of taste in a certain sense--we even had a radio show that we inherited from the Jim and Dannie days--and it made everyone else want to be a part of what was going on."

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