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Hip-hop in Denver, says the MC and rapper known as Apostle, is all skeleton and no meat. All foundation but no house. The dream of unity if not yet the reality. "You go into any mom-and-pop store in Denver, I swear everyone's a rapper," he explains.
The challenge, then, is finding a way to bring all these rappers together in one scene. But how do you even talk about a hip-hop "scene" in Denver without drawing a snicker? And can a city like Denver ever hope to produce a legitimate hip-hop star? These are the dilemmas facing the modern local hip-hopper inclined to ponder them, and Apostle is so inclined. As a producer and the founder of the burgeoning Colorado Hip Hop Coalition, Apostle has made elevating Denver's hip-hop scene his primary goal. And as an artist, whose third album, Last of a Dying Breed, is out in stores and who landed recent gigs opening up for acts such as Das EFX, Black Sheep and GZA of the Wu Tang Clan, Apostle feels he is closer to achieving it. "I feel good about it," he says. "I'm ready to assume the responsibility. The bottom line is I'm the hardest working rapper in Denver. I've got two groups, I perform regularly, I produce my own albums. This is just one more thing. It's a lot of weight on my shoulders but I want that responsibility."
Francois Baptiste, co-owner of a local hip- hop-centric promotion company, 3 Deep Productions, thinks Apostle's albums keep getting better and better. "This album, the production and lyrics and artwork," he says, "he's becoming an all-around artist."
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Not bad for a guy who spent a few months living on the streets of Sacramento in the early '90s, and who nearly quit the business altogether two years ago. Onstage, Apostle's performances are fiercely intelligent and clever. At the Gemini Tea Shop in Five Points or down a few doors at Brother Jeff's Cafe, where he works as a cook, the "militant messiah" is much gentler. This is the other side of his personality, a Boulder-raised kid named Jeff Campbell who readily mixes in and out of the sharp MC persona.
Campbell is eager to talk about Apostle's music. Last of a Dying Breed is the first to be released on his own label, Survival Camp Records. The album was a year in the making and came after a rough couple of years, during which the would-be savior of music here in Denver almost called it quits. First there was the debacle of Seven Soldiers Entertainment, a record label he started in 1997 with an investor who ran a mobile DJ company. "I had known him for more than a year, had worked for him [at the mobile DJ company], apparently things were going bad for him, but he wasn't letting any of us know," he says. The guy was embezzling funds, and finally got caught by authorities. Fingers started pointing at Apostle, who says he was questioned at one point by the FBI but never charged with anything.
"I was basically abandoned by all my people, abandoned by all my so-called friends, who were there for the ride," he says. He had just opened for Run DMC, had participated in a tour of mountain towns with De La Soul, and thought he was headed for prime time. The financial boondoggle "nearly destroyed my reputation and my career as a recording artist," he remembers. "I thought about hanging it up a lot. I wanted to disappear and move."
A relationship with a longtime girlfriend, who had given birth to their son, went sour. "I just hit an all-time low. I wasn't working. I was broke, depressed. I definitely was no angel during that time," he says. The label went under, his partner went to jail; Apostle, however, started going to Brother Jeff's poetry nights, writing and performing, receiving the support of the audience, trying to put himself back together.
Friend Jhay Escalera says Apostle embodies both the militant and the spiritual. "He can be talking about some of the negatives associated with the African-American community, but then he comes right back around and offers some type of spiritual solution. He's one of the smartest people I've ever met."
His new album plays out these intertwined themes of earthy anger and spiritual love. On the Web site for his record label, www.survivalcamp.com, the rapper introduces an epic, apocalyptic tale about the end of the world that sounds straight out of Revelations. Natural disasters, the death of billions, an evil world government created by the United Nations that issues mandatory IDs, with those who don't have them thrown in jail or executed -- all that's missing is an antichrist. Humanity's salvation in this dark parable? Why, the Seven Soldiers Mercenaries, led by Apostle, who have created a new rebel society headquartered in the Mile High City. "Although members of the system called him an anti-government paramilitary extremist cult leader," the story goes, "those who knew him called him the chosen one."
The tracks on his album reflect this outsized personality, though they also are infused with wit. In "World Wide Conspiracy," Apostle spins a slick tale of a government that, after doping him up with the music of Puff Daddy, takes his own DNA to create a clone that will destroy hip-hop: "The specimen would be raised in a controlled environment/Surrounded by poverty, drug abuse and violence/Bombarded with the images of luxury and tricknology/Until its appetite would overcome its integrity." The clone becomes the world's biggest hip-hop star, but Apostle escapes and challenges his alter ego to a duel at Mile High Stadium, where the MC starts "taking it to the next on him, dropping that intellect on him/Then I ripped him from head to toe/Took his materialistic flow."