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When the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" first joined the words "hip" and "hop" for a nationwide radio audience in 1979, Mike Merriman was little more than a bundle of gelatinous, fetal goo. And in 1983, when Run DMC's "Sucker MCs" led even those who didn't reside in the South Bronx to breakdance on sidewalks, a three-year-old Merriman was probably more of a fan of Big Bird than big beats. But today, as a nineteen-year-old student at Colorado University at Boulder, he's a full-fledged hip-hop head who bows at the altar of the turntable without missing a beat -- or a break. And as co-host of Basementalism, a weekly radio broadcast that beams out of the nether regions of the CU student union via the student-run Radio 1190, he's on a self-described quest to educate the area's not-yet-ill masses.
"Hip-hop has always been my favorite music," Merriman says, with a youthful enthusiasm that's as evident in conversation as it is on the airwaves. "About 1995, I became an official member of the culture, when it took over my consciousness. When I woke up, hip-hop turned on, and it didn't turn off until I went to bed, whether in my head or on my stereo.
"People have a lot of misconceptions about hip-hop," he adds. "They think that in order to create or understand hip-hop music, you have to be living in a poor mental state, or that you really don't want to look at any higher vision, whether through spirituality or morals or ethics, that you don't see enlightenment for humans as a possibility, that you're out for instant gratification and running around town in a bulletproof jacket, doing drugs and shooting people."
It's those kinds of sentiments that Merriman (known on-air as "Adict") and his partner, Colorado Institute of Art student Nate Harvey (DJ Resonant), seek to counter on Basementalism -- a show that's dedicated to exposing a range of local DJs and MCs and national members of the hip-hop underground, and to upping the cultural literacy of those on the Front Range and beyond.
The show began on an FM cable station under the direction of CU student Luke Stertz, known to those who plugged in during the early days as DJ Infinity. Merriman took over when Stertz graduated, in May of 1998, and the program joined the weekly show roster when a new-and-improved Radio 1190 took the airwaves with increased funding and wattage last November. Harvey, an MC and DJ with local outfit the Procussions, joined Merriman as co-host a few months later. For the pair, hip-hop -- real hip-hop, not gangsta posturing or commercial puffiness -- is more than a genre of music. It's a culture, and those who wish to join must first understand its customs. To that end, the duo has molded the show into a format that's familiar to the university-dwelling listeners who make up the bulk of its audience: It's Hip-Hop 101, with professors Adict and Resonant controlling the dials and providing the reference materials. Amid live performances, interviews with artists and spins of recorded tracks, the pair offers mini-lectures on the diversity and philosophy of hip-hop and lessons in its four noble truths: emceeing, deejaying, breakdancing and painting graffiti. The show is currently in the midst in a four-week mini-series of broadcasts that address each of these points individually; the recent DJ program, for example, featured samples of turntable magic from the Beat Junkies, interviews with artists such as British wizard DJ Shadow, and a remedial, "do-it-yourself" rundown of what's involved in the craft.
"There are so many elements to hip-hop," Merriman says. "Last night I was at the [CU] rec center, and there were five guys breakdancing in a room. Sure, they're not making music, but they were working on expression. That's hip-hop. It's a discipline, and that's what separates hip-hop from rap. Hip-hop goes with you everywhere."
The two are also history teachers: While they've provided students (and an increasingly high number of non-student fans) with what may be their first exposure to modern underground artists like Jurassic 5, Ugly Duckling and the Pharoahe Monch, as well as local up-and-comers like the collective Apotheosis Wisdom and turntablist DJ Vasra, they also spin tracks from the Eighties, that golden age of hip-hop, the era of Grandmaster Flash, parachute pants and clock-medallion necklaces.
"So many people that are into hip-hop are young, and they don't know about the old school, including myself," says Merriman. "When people say that old school sucks, that's saying hip-hop sucks, because that's where it came from. Everyone who knows about rock knows about Jimi Hendrix. People who are into punk know about the original punk bands. So on our show, we sort of take people through all of the elements of hip-hop, so they can know, well, what is breakdancing? Where did it come from? What does it mean to be an MC?"
Basementalism is the show Merriman and Harvey wish they'd had access to as youths growing up in Colorado Springs, a city with about as much street cred as Tiny Town.
"We didn't have any scene in Colorado Springs whatsoever," Merriman says, adding that his passion was initially fueled by vehicles such as Source magazine, MTV and breaker movies of the Eighties. "I wish I'd had something like this [show] when I was fourteen or fifteen, because then I would have had an earlier awareness that there are all these different areas of hip-hop. People don't realize that. If someone says, 'I don't like the lyricism' or 'I don't like the rap,' I tell them, fine -- there's so much more you can get into and interact with. This is a very participation-intensive culture; hip-hop can happen in your room, or you can take it to another level by writing lyrics, then maybe performing them."
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.
"I've had people, even people who work in the station and love all kinds of music, come up to me and say, 'I used to hate hip-hop, but I've been listening to your show, and now I love it,'" he says. "For me, turning even one person on to this culture is the greatest thing in the world."