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Ah, dawg, we can't leave yet," says DJ Chonz, nodding toward the front door. "The cops have this place surrounded. There's something going down."
With his ballcap tilted to the side and a smirk that never leaves his face, Chonz looks like a mischief maker. But he's not kidding: In the parking lot outside his office, two police officers are pacing, their guns drawn. The place is surrounded.
When it comes to Denver's hip-hop and R&B dance circuit, though, the Radio Bums are the ones who've got things locked down. Chonz and the rest of his crew -- DJs Sabotage, Bedz, Petey, Style N Fashion, Juanito, Dizzy-D, Psycho and Jay -- are the town's indisputable tastemakers. They hold residencies at nearly a dozen of the hottest night spots; they host weekly mix shows on KS-107.5; and several cut it up for the Denver Nuggets. Even local hip-hop artists acknowledge their influence. On another Saturday, a shrewd Denver rapper named Rie Rie (see review on page 84) stopped by with pizza and beer and played cuts from her new disc, soliciting their opinions. And the Bums' record pool -- a bi-monthly collective founded in 2000 by Chonz that functions as a conduit between the recording industry and the masses -- now includes 25 prominent area DJs like T Luv, Quote, Low Key, Emir, Jcee, Joaquin, Breaka Breaka, Sikkaflex and Frank E, who each spin at a half-dozen club nights themselves.
While most club crawlers are still wiping the sleep from their eyes and shaking off Friday night's buzz, their favorite DJs convene at the Bums' northwest Denver office to swap stories, clown with each other and take a dip in that record pool. Although DJ Jay now runs the syndicate, Chonz is the resident court jester. Like E.F. Hutton, when he speaks, everyone listens.
After an impromptu post-pool pick-up lunch at Taquería Patzcuaro, most of the mixmasters leave to make the doughnuts. But a handful stick around, mimicking scenes from Chappelle's Show -- "I'm Rick James, bitch!" -- in an adjacent office. And then Chonz enters the room, muttering the same phrase he will repeat again and again on his cell phone over the next couple of hours.
"Yo, cuz, we're surrounded," he says nonchalantly. Nobody seems to be paying attention, so he says it a little louder. "Yo, we're surrounded. We can't leave."
Puzzled expressions spread across the room. One by one, the DJs file into the front to peer through the blinds and see what's going down. DJ Petey pokes his head out the back door, only to be greeted with stern looks from the cops, who wave him back in. An armed man has barricaded himself inside the apartment next door, Petey reports. It's a standoff. No one is going anywhere.
This could be the first time DJ Chonz has stayed put since Westword first profiled the Bums five years ago ("Bummed Out," January 21, 1999). At the time, the crew consisted of Chonz and co-founder Hakeem Khaaliq, who now resides in Los Angeles and operates the Bums' West Coast office. They made a name for themselves as co-hosts with Francois Baptiste, a founder of 3 Deep Productions who also works for House of Blues, on a weekly hip-hop broadcast on KGNU called Eclipse. When that show ended, Khaaliq and Chonz began producing a series of well-received underground mix tapes they dubbed The Radio Bums Show. Chonz then joined Pepsi's Hip-Hop Pop Tour in Southern California and worked as an intern with the Cali Kings, a West Coast-based lifestyle marketing firm, but he soon returned to Colorado.
His stint with the Cali Kings gave him the foundation, experience and inspiration to launch his own street-level marketing operation. "Whatever they needed, I did," Chonz remembers. "They didn't really teach me what to do. I just basically watched and learned by being a member of their record pool. I learned how a record pool runs, and from there I saw how they were doing marketing -- street marketing and promotions, you know.
"So I came back from Cali with all kinds of records," he adds. "And me and my mom were talking, and she thought that I should start one here. So I started going to all the club DJs and was like, 'Yo, I'm going to start a record pool.'"
Initially, the pool consisted of just Petey, Bedz and Sabotage. And while Chonz didn't have much more than the records he'd brought back from California -- the major record labels were servicing another record pool in town -- that didn't stop him from trying to get more. "I started calling up the record labels," he recalls, "and it was like, 'Well, we already service a record pool there.' And I was like, 'Yeah, but their service is being cut, and I have all the hot DJs that are playing in the clubs."
In time, the Bums' record pool overflowed; today it's being serviced by just about every major imprint -- from Def Jam, Roc-A-Fella and Sony to Virgin, Columbia and Interscope -- as well as numerous indies. For a $200 initiation fee and $100 per month, each member gets two copies of every single, usually before it's even broken on the radio -- something that only one other pool in the country (DJ Vice's team in Los Angeles) can claim. In return for this service, the DJs offer their critiques of the tracks: Every Wednesday, the group's feedback is posted on the Bums' website or sent to the labels via e-mail.