By Noah Hubbell
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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."
The metaphysical magnet drew Abraham to New York. He left Denver just as the Pirate Signal was beginning to pick up serious momentum here, and he figured that momentum would cross time zones. When it didn't, he couldn't escape feeling that he was starting over.
"It was just struggling, relentless struggling," he recalls. "I was still making music, but I didn't even know how I was going to get this stuff recorded. I was struggling to pay rent; how was I going to pay for recording time? I just realized how far I had set myself back...for better or for worse, what I've been dealt here, in the place where I've been born and raised and the music scene I came up in — this is mine. Me going to New York was me trying to penetrate this other place.
"When I was in New York, I had this bi-weekly that got pretty big after a while. Cats from all over New York would come, and it would be like, 'Brooklyn's in the house!' 'Queens is in the house!' And I'd always go, 'Is Denver in the house?' And everybody would be like, 'Huh?' It was always that kind of thing, and it sort of became a situation where I felt like a man without a country, because it was like, I'm not from there, and I left home."
Just as Abraham was beginning to realize all that he'd left behind, he got an offer to perform in Skull Candy's hip-hop tent on the Warped Tour — an offer that came through a Denver contact, oddly enough. He took it as a sign that it was time for the prodigal to head back home. At the end of the day, the Mile High City was what had made him who he is.
One of the major reasons he developed his own style, he explains, "was I grew up watching the scene, and it was just unimpressed — the state of being unimpressed. So much of it was that, that I felt like I had to make music that was like 'Ahhh!' to make them feel. If I would have stayed in New York, I would've stripped away perhaps the level of animation I put into my music. That's one of the things about being in Denver. The state of being isolated like this allowed me to become like this. I didn't have this strong influence. When I wanted to make hip-hop, nobody was around me. It wasn't like I knew where to go, I knew who to talk to. I had to figure this shit out myself."
Then again, that's what he's been doing his whole life. Abraham's parents were Eritrean; they walked for nine days through the desert to leave their war-torn homeland on the northeastern edge of Africa. They landed in Italy, where Abraham was conceived, then moved to Denver, where he was born. His parents split when he was three, and he lived with his mom in Virginia until he was nine. That's when he moved back to Denver, to live with his father in Park Hill, attending parochial school before he went to East High.
Already consumed with hip-hop, Abraham began crafting his own rudimentary beats his senior year. At the University of Colorado Denver, he began broadening his horizons with the help of Portishead and the Mars Volta, as well as the dense soundscapes of the Def Jux imprint. And then he formed the Pirate Signal with Ben TK, a devout Hari Krishna.
In 2004, the Pirate Sygnal, as it was then known, released its debut, a dense, esoteric release titled Norma(L): High Manchild's American Revolution(s). Album. After helping write songs for the next record, The Name of This Band Is the Pirate Signal, a far more accessible disc, TK departed the group. But Joey Kuvo, an ace engineer who was on hand for the inception, stayed on, and DJ A-what soon joined up and has been an integral part of the act ever since.
This reconfigured lineup began working on One Alone, a project that Abraham thought would be his masterwork; in the meantime, A-what and Abraham released an exceptional mixtape called Of Gods and Gangsters, Vol. 1. While that effort was well-received, it was only meant to tide folks over until One Alone was completed — and Abraham fully intended to finish it after the Warped Tour, when he returned to Denver. But then in March, Abraham and Kuvo had an inexplicable — at least to Abraham — falling-out, and Abraham and A-what had to start over from scratch.
Ultimately, Abraham says, this latest trial could turn out to be the best thing that could happen to the Pirate Signal, since it's reignited his creativity. In addition to making beats for his friends' albums, he's embarked on a project with Monolith co-founder Matt Fecher (aka DJ Hot to Death), which has already warmed up the stage for indie acts like Cut Copy. He's been studying with white-hot producer DJ Frank E, perfecting his production skills, and began work with A-what on a new album called, fittingly enough, No Weak Heart Shall Prosper, which is tentatively slated for release this fall. And he recently landed a regular gig at Maloney's. It's all about multi-tasking to create income.
"I realized this is a fork in the road," he says. "The choice is: worst thing that ever happened to me or best thing that ever happened to me. I'm going with best. I recently wrote a letter to Joey where I was like, 'You know what, man, may peace be with you, bro. I'm not really stressing any of that, dude. I moved on. I wish you the best, and I'm sorry for whatever I did to you.' It hurts in the respect that that was one of my best friends."
But it didn't hurt the Pirate Signal, which is once again gaining momentum, beginning with a buzzed-about performance at Sundance. "The things that scare me about the industry or performing is not 'What am I capable of?'" Abraham concludes. "It's like, how will I be judged because of where I'm from, because that's the shit that's out of my control. I know if they'd just give me a chance, I'll be fine. You know what I mean?"
For a full interview with DJ A-what, visit blogs.westword.com/backbeat.