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By Tom Murphy
When the members of Denver's Hilltop Klick get together with their friends in the National Blues Arsenal, they channel the spirit of Robert Johnson as much as they do any spitfire hip-hop MC. The three-piece Arsenal provides a riff-heavy, Delta-blues backbeat to the Klick's gritty street-smart sound, creating rap music with a sell-your-soul-to-the-devil, gutbucket kick.
That flexibility and willingness to experiment -- combining dirty blues with innovative rapping, for example -- has made Hilltop Klick one of the most enduring hip-hop crews in Denver. It's also reaped a ragtag crew of fans: A recent gig at Cricket on the Hill found cantankerous hillbilly legend Denver Joe singing the group's praises, while another show at the Mozart Lounge, a spot known for its eclectic clientele, had heads from the neighboring Park Hill hood, as well as members of various motorcycle clubs, bobbing to the Arsenal/Klick sounds.
"When we do the live stuff, our motto is 'We've been bringing the honkies and homies together since 1922,'" says Doughboy who, together with F.O.E., makes up the Klick's core.
9 p.m. Mondays
Mozart Lounge, 1417 Krameria Street
With the National Blues
CHUN People's Fair
10:55 a.m. Saturday, June 7
Doughboy and F.O.E. hooked up with the Arsenal when a mutual friend, Deuce Constanza from THE records, called and asked if the Klick wanted to perform with NBA in Dillon. The Klick planned on doing a regular set by rapping over pre-recorded beats, but when they arrived at the venue, they realized that the place didn't have a DAT or a CD player. So they improvised.
"The Arsenal was just like, 'We'll just freestyle beats behind you guys,' and ever since then, it's been hot," says F.O.E. "The crowd loves us. The mix between the two is phenomenal. A lot of people haven't heard that kind of stuff, and once we get off stage, people will come up to us and say, 'That's some of the tightest stuff I've heard around.' It just shows our versatility."
The group started out in 1990 as a bunch of fellas just kicking it and representing their Park Hill neighborhood; at the time, groups like the Nightcrawlers and a beatboxer named Sandman ruled the local scene. Doughboy originally started out a breakdancer, but after a stint in the Army, he came back to the neighborhood and worked as a hype man for F.O.E.'s cousin, Top Dog, one of the most talented rappers in the area at the time. Hilltop Klick was founded soon after.
"Back then, there weren't many groups, so it was more neighborhood-segregated," says Doughboy. "So that's how we became known as the Hilltop Klick. Most all of us is Hill-billies."
During more than ten years of performing, the group has worked with an impressive roster. X-Man, Melly Lok, Dave Dog, Joker Jam (aka Don Blas), Snatcher, B-Dog and Smooth are among onetime Klick members; some of these artists appeared on For the Love, an EP released in 1999. Lucky, a female vocalist, is currently sitting in with the group. But F.O.E and Doughboy have been the ones to hold things together, especially on stage. The chemistry between the two is undeniable, with F.O.E.'s smooth raps serving as a balance to Doughboy's life-of-the-party toasts.
"Doughboy is like the grandfather of the Klick," explains F.O.E. "He has a different type of flow. He's talking about some pimp shit. He's taking it to the OGs -- people that are older and can feel his street life. I'm a little younger, so I talk about the little young stuff that knuckleheads do.
"Dough may be the chicken in the gumbo, I may be the shrimp, and Lucky may be the hot spices, but when we all come together, it's flavor, no doubt."
Hilltop Klick is getting ready to release its debut full-length CD, which was originally slated for release last year. (The two say they didn't feel comfortable charging thirteen dollars for a disc during an economic slump; they formed their own label, Po'No'Mo' Entertainment, and will issue the CD for five bucks.) The recording boasts contributions from some of the town's premier beat-makers, including Cavalier, along with a couple of new remixes; the National Blues Arsenal shows up on one blazing track, and female rappers Kee Wee and Snappa pop up on the salacious and suave "Down Low."
"We show the versatility of the female rappers we have," says Doughboy. "They just lace it sick."
So far, the Klick has had positive response to the first single, "Crack It Open," an anthemic party song that's landed some radio play in the South and the Midwest. Another cut, "Mile High," is a bona fide hometown fight song - and the Klick has big plans for it.
"It just represents our town so hard," Doughboy says. "I know when we drop it all the way, you'll hear it in the Pepsi Center, you'll hear it in Invesco. It's one of those songs that will get the whole stadium rocking."
Hilltop Klick knows it's got a ways to go before its music is blaring out of the sound system in major stadiums. At the moment, F.O.E. and Doughboy are going the Master P/Too Short route of selling the funk from the trunk, working a grassroots form of distribution. But they have also taken other measures to make sure their music is heard outside of Park Hill. For one, they play more shows out of state than at home.
"It's crazy, but we don't care, because we love to travel," Doughboy says. "No group in this city can say that they've done over 65 shows out of the city but us."
Every year during spring break, the Klick takes its biggest trip. Doughboy and F.O.E. charter a bus bound for the Kappa Beach Party in Galveston, Texas, an event that recalls Atlanta's Freaknik weekend.
"It's a weekend of pure fun," Doughboy explains. "If you're somebody like us, it's somewhere you can go to push your product, get on stage and get out there so you can get booked at other venues. It's just a whole bunch of people out there trying to make it. All the majors are there. You might meet somebody from Rap-A-Lot or Priority. You'll see people like Eve, Cash Money, Baby. You could sell or give them your music. It's a big networking experience that a lot of people from Colorado could benefit from."
While networking has helped boost the group's status outside of Denver, the Klick would like to see more local hip-hop talent cooperate to raise Colorado's profile.
"I don't know what it is. People are afraid to network together," F.O.E. says. "I think everybody wants to blow up, but nobody wants anybody to blow up before them. I think people are afraid to help people out with making it."
Instead of complaining about the scene, the group has taken a proactive approach in trying to get exposure for local artists. F.O.E and Doughboy serve as hosts of the popular public-access TV show, Hip Hop Madness. Produced and edited by F.O.E and local media stalwart Tito, the show airs a mix of videos by known and lesser-known artists, as well as videos, interviews and performances by locals.
"Hip Hop Madness started in 1997; I took it over in 1999," Tito says. "When I first came back to Denver from New York, I was like, 'No local people are getting any love?' People would come up to me all the time and put a CD in my face, and I was like, 'If I can develop my own format for local artists to come on the show, where you can put a face with the CD, then they can go ahead and get the CD sold.' You never know who could be watching. There could be a major producer who's here on business, flipping through the channels, who might hear something that catches his ear."
Hip Hop Madness has featured interviews with local artists such as Don Blas and Kingdom as well as sit-downs with performers rolling through town. Recent guests include Nappy Roots, Erykah Badu, Naughty by Nature and the Roots. Along with airing videos by artists whom BET would never touch -- such as Tech9ine and Kingpin Skinny Pimp -- the program also goes on location to places like the Kappa Beach Party and other music-industry conventions.
"We go to show rappers in our city what it looks like to go to a convention and see the different things that are going on," says Doughboy. "We go to the beach parties to show them where they can go market their product and make money with their product instead of staying so centralized in Denver."
The success of the program, which is currently seen in five states, has allowed the trio to launch an R&B-oriented show called The Groove Zone, which also spotlights local artists. (Hip Hop Madness airs Wednesdays at 11 p.m. and Fridays at 10 p.m. on DCTV Channel 57; The Groove Zone airs Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. and Fridays at 11 p.m., also on DCTV. Interested locals can call Tito at 720-297-1918 or firstname.lastname@example.org.) Ultimately, the guys hope to move the programs over to Channel 12 and reach a wider audience. The goal is to support local talent in the way that other cities, such as Houston and St. Louis, boost theirs. If Houston can help people like Lil' Flip move major units and St. Louis can launch Nelly, the same thing should happen here.
"If you push that one artist through the door and have the trust in him to go out there nationally, he's going to open up the door for everybody else," says Tito.
The Hilltop Klick would like to be that one group. So far, their united-we-stand campaign seems to be working for the betterment of Denver hip-hop: They rock the homies, the honkies and the hood rats.