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Back in May 2003, Denver believed it had made the bling-bling bigtime when Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam Records, stood beside then-mayor Wellington Webb and promised to bring his Hip-Hop Festival and Summit to the Mile High City.
Denver's still waiting for him to make good on that promise.
While Webb will be hitting the All-Star scene this weekend -- hosting parties at Club Bash with his grandson, who plays for the New Orleans Saints -- he won't be at any hip-hop summit. Simmons himself, fresh from New York's Fashion Week (the multi-talented fellow is also the founder of Phat Farm Clothing), will be here, too -- but not for any hip-hop summit. No, on Friday he'll be pushing his foot gear at the Finish Line at FlatIron Crossing.
"FlatIron," repeats Jeff Campbell, executive director of the Colorado Hip-Hop Coalition. "Oh, yeah, that's in the hood. Russell Simmons did the city wrong -- and I don't think he really cares."
Campbell does. He watched as Denver's overblown and underplanned Hip-Hop Festival and Summit imploded in May 2004, when Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit Action Network bailed out just a day before the event was supposed to start. Although a few workshops went on as planned at the Denver Coliseum that weekend -- including Mayor John Hickenlooper's appearance before a handful of kids -- the big hip-hop concert was canceled (not that many people had bought tickets, anyway), and Simmons was a complete no-show, as was his legendary voter-registration drive. "While we remain committed to convening the Denver Hip-Hop Summit at a future date," read a last-second statement from the Hip-Hop Network's New York office, "we have decided to postpone the Summit."
Until what millennium? At the Coliseum that sad weekend, Charlotte Stephens, head of Denver Safe City and the summit's local producer, talked hopefully of last September, but then fall came and went. When the summit was canceled, Benjamin Chavis, the former head of the NAACP who's president of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, had suggested that it might be rescheduled around the NBA All-Star Game already set for Denver; there'd been a successful Hip-Hop Festival and Summit in Los Angeles when that city hosted the All-Star Game in February 2004.
But this week, when all the bling-buying, hip-hop hoop-lovers hit town, they won't be attending any summit where they can mingle with members of Colorado's hip-hop community.
"There will definitely be some young entrepreneurs from Denver who will make connections and maybe get access to some resources -- if they step up," Campbell says. "But I'm pretty pessimistic. Basically, a bunch of millionaires are going to come into our town and make a whole bunch more money off of their hype, and then they're going to leave."
Last spring, Campbell was critical of Denver's abysmal planning for the summit -- which the city had once estimated would bring $20 million to town and instead wound up costing plenty -- and he's not handing out hearts and flowers now. "I know for a fact that a lot of the promoters are from out of town," he says. "We didn't even hold down our own real estate. At this event that can be directly tied to our urban culture, the money's going to go back to California, to New York. That's on us. That's our fault. I don't think the hip-hop community will be enriched because of this. That could just sound like a social entrepreneur whining. But I'm sincere about what I'm talking about." So sincere that he runs hip-hop after-school programs at Montbello and George Washington high schools and trains kids in spoken-word performance at the Spot every week. (He's also playing George Bush in a play at the Mercury Cafe, but that's another story.)
Although Campbell worked with the NBA to put some local kids in a commercial and is helping Carmelo Anthony with a party February 18, he's already anticipating what the hip-hop scene will look like after the All-Star glow fades. "It'll definitely keep moving," he promises. "The community is getting stronger ties with the national underground more and more."
Hip-hop carries such a powerful message that the Committee of Resistance, which Tuesday announced its opposition to the city wasting so much money and attention on All-Star Weekend, plans to offer a free hip-hop concert in protest in Civic Center Park Friday night. The group doesn't plan to let a little problem like no permit get in its way -- and if the city were truly hip, it would even help out the local talent.
Michael Coates, whose One Way Entertainment used hip-hop to push voter drives last fall, knows the power of hip-hop. "We were pretty disappointed that things didn't follow through with the summit," he says, "but it's basically a matter of time before the right people come here with the right influences and things really, really stick." Coates is helping plan parties at the Soiled Dove this weekend, working with local-promoter-made-good Big Jon Platt, who made good on his appearances at the Coliseum last May even as the summit tanked.
"Hip-hop will give us the opportunity to do so much," Coates continues. "Often we get these very influential people to come in, and then they leave, and there's no spark there. As a positive company, we want to be able to carry that spark."