And You Don't Stop

These student DJs are hip-hop professors.

The educational approach of Basementalism is what Merriman feels sets it apart from other similarly themed broadcasts.

"There are underground hip-hop shows all over the country," Merriman says. "But we are interested in much more than just playing music, though that's the backbone of what we're doing, and we play it well. But lots of radio DJs just want to come in, throw on their records that they got in the mail and go home. I'm so passionate about not just coming in and talking about the Broncos game, telling a few jokes, taking a few calls and saying, 'Oh, yeah, that was a good track.' That's my greatest fear. We have to be more deliberate about what we say, because what we want to do is to help unify the scene."

Unifying what little scene there is locally is no small task, they admit. While it's increasingly likely that you might hear DJ Spooky beaming from a coed's SUV, Denver and Boulder still lack the cohesion it takes to cultivate a lively hip-hop culture. Some of the problems are logistical. Though a smattering of clubs, including Tulagi and the 15th Street Tavern, host regular DJ nights, the age restrictions of nightclubs prevent a large portion of the audience from having much exposure to live artists. And while venues like the Fox Theatre and the Gothic Theatre have been known to host progressive hip-hop artists, attendance rates vary: When the Beat Junkies, Cut Chemist, Jurassic 5 and the Dilated Peoples stopped at the Fox in August, the show was a brisk sellout; when Jurassic 5 returned to the Gothic in November, the crowd had thinned dramatically. And many clubs, perhaps recalling the days when a rap concert conjured images of 5-O and drive-bys, are hesitant to book local artists -- period. So when those who've taken a stab at making the music -- kids who five years ago would have started garage or alternative rock bands -- find themselves with no public performance spaces, they head back indoors, to record and mix music on computers, to distribute mix tapes in person or over the Internet. All well and good, Merriman says, but this isolationism does little to foster his vision of a hip-hop Utopia.

"A lot of people want to be DJs," Merriman says. "Kids that you would not expect are making beats with their expensive equipment. And so many people are in love with hip-hop in their basement. Frat boys, a girl in her room. That's what they're into, but they don't express it."

The widespread recalcitrance to embrace the genre could have something to do with that hard-to-shake notion that hip-hop is the sole domain of the streetwise, the down-and-out, the hard, the criminal -- surely it can't be relevant to the lives of young people who dwell in Boulder, Colorado, a town known more for its trees, teas and murder scandals than its urban culture?

Not so, say Merriman and Harvey. "There is absolutely no common denominator in hip-hop," says Merriman. "The guests on our show and the people we play are multi-ethnic, multi-cultural. The only demographic that determines hip-hop is youth, whether it's a state of mind or an actual physical age. The process is therapeutic, and that's true for everyone who gets involved. What people write about is what's true of their own lives. Some people talk about how they're the illest or the dopest on the mike, or how they will destroy you. Some talk about God, Allah, relationships. Some people will bring in something that's directed only to their race, but maybe that's the only place they feel its relevant. It's all valid."

"Hip-hop differs from person to person," adds Harvey. "Everybody has a different vibe or feeling that they get from it. For me, it's really a medium for expression. It's really a reflection of what's going on and of society itself. It's energy, it's reacting."

And it is, lest we forget, also music, though hip-hop detractors might argue otherwise. Merriman and Harvey are passionate defenders of its inherent artistry. "These DJs are musicians," Merriman says. "They know about time, rhythm patterns. They know everything that a symphony conductor or a jazz drummer knows about. They are drummers, or trombonists, or flautists. They play their voice as an instrument."

"Hip-hop is really just an extension of jazz, in more ways than one," Harvey adds. "At the beginning of jazz, it was raw talent. People didn't understand it; they thought it was a fad, just like they do with hip-hop. But then people who loved other forms, classical, started to love the melodies and rhythms of jazz, and it started to get exploited. The real artists went underground, and that's what's happened with hip-hop."

Basementalism is in the process of trying to change its scheduling, as its current time slot (from 9 to 11 on Tuesday nights) occurs after Radio 1190 has powered down considerably; as a result, the broadcast's levels of clarity vary, depending on where listeners are tuning in from. (The show comes in crystal-clear, however, over a live Web broadcast at www.radio 1190.com.) For Merriman, the shift will bring him a mighty step closer to realizing his dream of local enlightenment, if not world domination, via college radio. It will happen, he's confident, one listener at a time.

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