Don Is Breaking

With a new full-length album and his own record label, Denver rapper Don Blas is lighting up the local hip-hop scene.

Before he was an artist who sensed he was just about to hit -- and before many people came to consider him Colorado's greatest hope of penetrating the national hip-hop scene -- there was a time when rapper Don Blas felt the allure of street life, when even a brush with death couldn't stop him from going down a path riddled with gunshots, cell blocks and short-term illusory material gains. "When I say I took a bullet to the chest when I was banging, it didn't stop me," he says. "God put me through those things for me to know those things."

Luckily, Blas is alive to reflect back on the experiences of his youth. "I was really into the streets and gangbanging when my first daughter was born," he says. "I was very young, about fifteen years old. Her coming into the world was to me like God sending me a message of hope -- like, 'Look, man, if you don't change your life around, you won't be able to experience her smile and her love, her innocence.' That's actually what put me on my toes and made me want something out of life."

Today the only bullets the local rapper dodges are of a metaphorical nature: Blas has moved from gangbanging to banging on wax. His debut full-length, Capo di Tutti Capi, was released in June on his label, Mob Style Records. In many ways, the effort fulfills the expectations of those who feel Blas is one of the rappers most likely to break outside the Mile High region. Although Capo is his first record, the 25-year-old rapper comes across as a vet who clearly has studied all nuances of the game. Blas imparts some of this knowledge on the cut "12 Rules of Rap": "If you wanna rhyme/first of all don't bullshit/Make a nigger mad when that sound that bad/See a lot of y'all be so excited to bust/That your shit sound rushed/And that shit ain't plush."

Rapper Don Blas exudes a Mob mentality on his debut album, Capo di Tutti Capi.
Rapper Don Blas exudes a Mob mentality on his debut album, Capo di Tutti Capi.

TLC could have used the knowledge Blas relates in rhyme on rule number four: "Know your own rights and publishing/It's your own ass you're covering." The MC experienced firsthand how the major labels often deal with new artists when shopping his product to label reps. "I've been offered contracts from such labels as Sony Records and MCA Records, and they wanted the rights to my masters and things of that nature." The primary reason Blas started Mob Style is so he could maintain complete autonomy over his product. "I don't think you should exploit yourself by not educating yourself on the business aspect of things, and that's what happens to a lot of artists," he says.

As indicated by the title of Capo di Tutti Capi (an Italian phrase that roughly translates to "boss of bosses"), Blas is the man in charge of this project. He solo-produced nine of the cuts and co-produced four with local luminary Akil. The production quality of the disc raises the bar locally and, at the very least, keeps up with the national competition. This is partly a result of the alliance Blas formed with producer Efrom Jenkins, who has worked with De La Soul and whom Blas met after a gig opening up for the De La crew. Jenkins did production work on Capo di Tutti Capi in his New York-based Nu Studio.

The end result of Blas, Jenkins and Akil's combined labor is a sound that effortlessly moves between the sinister multi-beat-per-minute battle calls of "Get 'em All" (featuring local MC Kingdom) to the claustrophobic Mobb Deep-like iciness of "Thought They Knew," which features Wu Tang affiliate Dready Kreuger. "Thought They Knew" has Blas and Kreuger trading bars, with Blas dropping lines like "I'd seen strange fruit swinging from trees/Black bodies crucified in the breeze/I'd seen cops shoot niggers for nothing/I'd seen the worst-case scenario." This track, with its testimonial catalogue of injustices, gives the opportunity for Blas to shine as a lyricist and social commentator.

"They're very raw," Blas says of his lyrics. "I'm speaking for a lot of people who don't have a voice otherwise. I have friends in the penitentiary, friends who have been killed, brothers and friends who are going through things in life that don't have a voice to express certain issues. I've tried to look beyond my scope of music and my own thoughts and tried to encompass the thoughts and feelings of the masses and to give it back to them."

The disc also gives those masses a different flavor through its diversity and tendency to break from form. "One More Tear," which features live guitar accompaniment by Greg Foster, is one of the album's highlights, a highly musical cut you're not likely to hear emanating from the No Limit Army. This track stands as one of Blas's favorites because of the emotional intensity of the live playing. "The Spanish guitar playing kills me every time I hear it," he says. "It gives me a feeling more than hip-hop. It's not just about the beats and rhymes. To me, it's just music anyone of any age, race, sex, nationality can appreciate."

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