Hopped Up

How onetime hip-hop outsiders became KS-107.5 playas.

The last decade has brought big changes to the Radio Bums -- and all of them have been for the better.

DJ Chonz, Francois Baptiste and Hakeem Abdul Khaaliq formed the Bums in 1996 to champion hip-hop's music and lifestyle in a part of the country that was behind the genre's curve. They advanced this goal via Eclipse, a groundbreaking show that was heard on Boulder's KGNU and became a forum for worthy-but-underexposed national acts and area performers such as Kingdom.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media proved much more difficult to crack. KS-104 was the only commercial station in Denver playing more than a smidgen of hip-hop at the time, and its ultra-conservative playlist left no room for Colorado talent. In early 1997, shortly after a dial-position switch transformed KS-104 to KS-107.5, Khaaliq protested this philosophy by picketing the outlet over its rejection of a first-rate compilation he put together. The gatekeepers wouldn't bend, though, and they were just as unreceptive the following year, turning down a Kingdom track even after it had racked up an outstanding score on the broadcaster's rate-a-record feature. Cat Collins, who'd just come aboard as program director, insisted in these pages that he was "sympathetic to the plight of unsigned musicians," but he added, "I have a responsibility to my company and my listeners, and I have to draw the line somewhere."

Radio Bums (from left) Kingdom, DJ Chonz and 
Francois Baptiste are living the dream.
Tony Gallagher
Radio Bums (from left) Kingdom, DJ Chonz and Francois Baptiste are living the dream.

In contrast, today Collins is embracing those very same Bums. They are celebrating their tenth anniversary together, and The KS-107.5 Mix Tape Show, a variation on the Eclipse formula that's heard at 11 p.m. on Sundays, is entering its fifth year. The hosts of the proceedings are Chonz, Baptiste and Kingdom, who's now in the position of evaluating local submissions at the very place that dissed his. He recognizes the irony and tries not to abuse the privilege. "I don't turn anybody away," he emphasizes. Even so, there are only about four slots for locals per program, and as a result, Kingdom concedes, "It's not easy getting on, and it'll never be easy. That's the business that we're in."

This isn't Kingdom's only gig at KS-107.5. He also handles man-on-the-street duties for the station's morning extravaganza and occasionally appears on other shows. Chonz, meanwhile, is all over the airwaves. He kicks off the so-called "street parties" that air from 8 p.m. until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and is largely responsible for choosing mix associates such as DJ Bedz to assist him. On weekdays, he serves as the de facto sidekick for jockette Dreena Gonzalez during the portions of afternoon drive sandwiched around his solo showcase, a commercial-free hour of live mixing that begins at 5 p.m. "It's all because of Cat's open-mindedness," Chonz says. "He saw something in us, and he believed in the music and the scene here."

This attitude constituted something new at the station. Prior to Collins's arrival, KS-107.5's overseers were nervous about fully embracing hip-hop, probably because plenty of advertisers were gun-shy about investing in the format. (Betcha veiled racism was a factor in many instances.) Collins, however, went to the trouble of asking his audience what interested them. "The radio station evolved because of listener feedback," he says. "I'm always reaching out to listeners through research to see what they want more or less of, whether it's a song or mix shows -- and men consistently told us they wanted mix shows. After a while, I thought it was the next step to take, and then it was just a matter of choosing the right person."

Although Chonz, one of the region's premier mixologists, certainly filled this bill from a skills perspective, few would have blamed Collins for blowing him off. After all, the Bums had publicly portrayed KS-107.5 as a soulless corporate behemoth whose obstinacy was stunting hip-hop's growth in the market. But Collins didn't let that stop him from befriending Baptiste, who is both an independent concert promoter for 3 Deep Productions and a staffer with House of Blues. When Baptiste, a commercial radio novice, suggested adapting Eclipse for KS-107.5, Collins encouraged him to generate a sample recording. Baptiste did so with the help of Chonz and Kingdom, and Collins liked what he heard enough to launch the feature in early 2001. Collins was particularly impressed by Chonz -- so much so that he not only hired him to helm the weekend street parties and the live-at-five weekday mixes, but he had a special studio built to accommodate him.

At this point, the Mix Show is the lowest-profile program to which Chonz contributes, but, he says, "I'm very passionate about it." One reason is the creative freedom that Collins gives the Bums. Aside from some ultra-loose guidelines, they're not told what songs to play or whom to include. For that reason, they've been able to spotlight excellent local acts such as the Ground Zero Movement and the Rraahh Foundashun as well as introduce artists and songs that have later gone into general rotation. The program debuted "Laffy Taffy," a Down 4 Life cut that's a current KS-107.5 staple, and played Paul Wall and Mike Jones joints long before they'd graduated to prime time.

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