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"At 26, dude, I can't really split my time anymore," declares Yonnas Abraham. "You know what I mean? It's like, what you cash your checks doing is what you do — and I don't want to be a waiter or a bartender or a market researcher. I want to be an artist."
When he performs, Abraham's artistic zeal is unmistakable. As frontman for the Pirate Signal, one of Denver's brightest emerging hip-hop acts, he's simply electrifying. While DJ A-what manipulates the outfit's propulsive backdrops, Abraham raps with a profound sense of urgency, like "somebody had their mouth closed for 21 years and they opened it for the first time," as he puts it. Hip-hop's answer to James Brown, he's a blur of frenetic activity, as if jolts of electricity were being conducted directly to his nervous system.
Off stage, Abraham is just as animated, gesticulating frequently to punctuate his thoughts. "The best way to describe the way in my mind that the Pirate Signal works," he offers, "is that I am playing in front of a band. I'm a frontman, and that is how I engage the crowd. I perform as if there's a band back there and I'm the frontman of this band. And part of the reason for that was when I really began to get into the art of music, I began to fall in love with bands. There was this holy trinity of bands that really shaped me...first it was Tool, and then it was the Mars Volta, and then it was Radiohead. So that informed my music. I wanted to make music that was lush. I didn't want to make music where it was like, okay, you hear the beat, you hear the rap, this is what you're going to get.
"I wanted there to be surprises, and that's the one thing people say about my music — that it sounds like a live band," he continues. "So to me, I know that if I go play with any kind of band, I'll be good. I could open up for Fucked Up, I could open up for Coldplay, and I really sincerely believe that people will like it, because I know the music I'm making on a fundamental, basic level is compelling. And the fact that I'm performing with the intensity I'm performing with makes it a viable show."
When the Pirate Signal was nominated for a Westword Showcase Award a few years ago, the MC didn't mince words when we asked this question for our pullout guide: "If you had to choose one act to represent Denver, who would it be and why?"
"Some backwoods, boondock, uncivilized, alt-country, hootenanny cowboy shit sums this place up real nice, I think," Abraham wrote in response. "Or elevator music."
While there's clearly a demand for hip-hop in this town, and KS-107.5 consistently ranks in the top five in Arbitron ratings, local hip-hop has yet to be embraced by the masses. "There's no implicit respect for the culture," Abraham says, then retreats a bit. "There is on some level, but it's in a voyeuristic way."
The problem certainly isn't a lack of talent. Right now, the Front Range is brimming with a staggering number of talented hip-hop purveyors, an impressive class that includes 3 the Hardway, ManeLine, F.O.E., Whygee, Karma, 800-the-Jewell, Dent, Ichiban, Spoke in Wordz, Sunken State, Playalitical, Infinite Mindz, the Fresh Breath Committee, the Food Chain, Distrakt, Black Pegasus, Improv, Diamond Boiz, the ReMINDers, Air Dubai, Extra Kool, Strange Powers (an act that's relocated but still waves the Colorado flag), Time and Ancient Mith, which just completed a well-received European tour, among others.
Like countless charismatic figures before him, Abraham wears his emotions on his sleeve. In lashing out at the scene, Abraham was really expressing how isolated he felt in Denver — and his concern that seemingly no one in this city, much less anywhere else, was paying attention to the hip-hop being produced here. Things just weren't happening fast enough for him, as he made clear in these lines from "Go!"
"I gotta go, go, go/I gotta go, go, go/'cause Denver sucks/And I mean it literally/It really does/Sucks hope from people's blood/So they live their whole lives completely numb/And what do we become, if we don't leave this dump."
And the song continues: "I gotta leave this place/Told my pops/You should've seen his face/Why even wait/If the beat can make/I gotta leave this place/And tomorrow may be too late."
Pirate Signal won the award for best hip-hop group at that year's Showcase — but Abraham wasn't on hand to accept the honors. By then, he'd really left this place, and his father, Sam, and DJ A-what accepted the trophy.
"A large part of it was just not wanting to be the guy who always says he's leaving Denver and never leaves Denver," Abraham explains. "So as soon as I got the money ready — I didn't have shit; I had like a thousand dollars — I bounced.
"I had a girlfriend," he continues. "Her name was Aliah, and she's a major inspiration to me. Early in our relationship, when I was, like, 23...she was always coaxing me: 'You should leave this place. You need to leave this place.' And I was like, 'But, you know, this is home. I don't want to leave.' I never had desires to leave. Then I made that song, 'Go!' — but even when I made the song, I wasn't intending on leaving. I just was making the song, and it was about frustration. When I made that song, I literally cried thinking about leaving all these people — especially her, after having formed this relationship. And just the thought of it made me so sad. But I just explored that frustration. And one day I was just sitting in my house, long after the song was made, and I realized that I did have to leave. I remember feeling like that was my destiny, to go and do this thing."