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Sam Baron fits the profile of a quintessential Gemini. Dualistic nature? Check. Contradictory? Yep. Complex? Definitely. Exuding confidence often to the point of arrogance, the MC, who answers to the name Mane Rok and is also one-third of the hip-hop trio Maneline, carries himself with an unwavering bravado that's earned him a reputation for being egocentric. And deservedly so.
In 2005, when he was nominated for a Westword Music Showcase award, the outspoken rhymesayer described himself as a quote-unquote fanfuckingtastic MC -- and followed that up with an unapologetic assertion that his skill at rocking the mike freestyle was unmatched. "I can freestyle about whatever," he noted flatly. "Everyone says that, but I really can. And if you really took the time to listen to the clever shit I write, you'd be amazed."
Of course, as the quintessential Gemini, Baron has two sides. Publicly, he's the picture of poise. Privately, however, he admits that the thought of how his music will be received frequently has him "scared shitless." As it turns out, all that grandstanding is mostly just that.
"That's funny," he says. "I get that all the time. People think that I'm really arrogant and that I'm conceited. And I know, I do give that off. I think that's directly correlated to my insecurity and my need to overcompensate."
An MC with self-esteem issues? In the rap game, where swollen egos are the order of the day, Baron is an anomaly. And the surprising duality doesn't end there. Although his ideals fall in line with the more thought-provoking hip-hop artists who typically eschew the ostentatiousness of the mainstream, Baron admits to being materialistic.
But then, he's been the odd man out for most of his life. The son of a first-generation Mexican immigrant, he grew up in a modest ranch-style house in the Swansea neighborhood, surrounded by kids who would go on to become card-carrying gangbangers. Thanks to a nurturing mother, Baron avoided a similar fate.
"We were fortunate, my sister and I, that we didn't get sucked into a lot of things that other people fell into," he says. "My mom was very strong; she was at the helm of our family and did everything. My dad was the money maker. He worked long hours and was gone at five in the morning and wouldn't come home until it was dark. So it was all about my mom, and she was very involved in making sure we didn't fall into that shit."
Being singled out early on for his precocious intellect didn't help his street cred much, either. Nothing says gangsta quite like being in the gifted program.
"I was ostracized because of that," he remembers. "I was one of a very few Mexicans around all white kids. And so I've always been separated. And it's always been that way since I was young. I've always been in programs where I was the token minority."
But at least in school, his heritage wasn't questioned. "Growing up, me and my sister were always told we were whitewashed," Baron grouses. "To boot, when I started getting more into emceeing and started rapping when I was fourteen, fifteen, all of a sudden I was black -- trying to be black. I've never been able to be Mexican. That's why I feel like I'm always stuck in the middle. I've never been able to just be accepted as me. I have friends even now who tell me I don't have my hood pass and shit."
If anyone's earned a hood pass, though, it's Baron. When Swansea got too bad -- a mailman reportedly quit his route after being shot at three times -- his family moved to Park Hill, then south near Garfield Park. Baron attended Horace Mann Middle School, then went to George Washington High School. "I've lived all over the city in all these neighborhoods," he points out. "If anyone's from Denver and represents the city, it's me, goddamnit!"
Baron's Maneline protegés, on the other hand, would have a harder time getting past the ghetto gatekeepers. MC/producer Casper Macanally (aka Inkline, pronounced "Incline") and DJ Adam Williams (aka Dee Jay Tense) are two white boys with a predilection for hip-hop. But like Baron, who was turned on to hip-hop while admiring graffiti as a blue-haired skate punk, Williams and Macanally embody the notion that it's all about getting in where you fit in.
Macanally learned how to adapt early on; he had to. A preacher's son and the youngest of five, he never lived anywhere longer than a year. In fourth grade he started listening to hardcore rap acts like Too $hort and NWA (interesting choices for a preacher's kid), but he was consumed with sports and didn't develop a real interest in hip-hop until the mid-'90s. After a stint playing guitar in an experimental noise-rock band, he decided to try making beats and rhyming. By then, he was into Wu Tang Clan and OutKast and already pretty well rounded musically.
"I've always been into different types of music, never one thing -- which you can probably tell from my production," Macanally offers. "When I sample, I sample anything, everything, and basically try to update it and translate it into my own sounds. I try not to limit myself to one type of sound. That's how I've always done it. That's why I chose the name Inkline. I'm always at an incline, never happy with where I'm at. Once cats get comfortable, they get passed by cats who want to work."