For Robert Woolfolk II--aka Dap, one of the pair of performers behind the impressive Denver-based rap group nGomA--musical eclecticism runs in the family. His father, the Reverend Robert Woolfolk Sr., is the spiritual leader of Five Points' Agape Christian Church and an acknowledged leader of Denver's religious community. (The Reverend Woolfolk was a central figure in "Sanctuary," an August 15, 1996, Westword article about local black churches.) As such, he has a fondness for songs that sing the praises of Jesus Christ and a certain discomfort with tunes that do not attempt to raise one's spirit. "He's loosened up a lot over the years," Dap reports of his father, "but mostly when I was growing up, I was forbidden to listen to hip-hop and funk. I don't want to paint him as tyrannical or anything like that. He was just being a parent, trying to expose his children to the right elements."
At the same time, however, Dap's uncle, Andrew Woolfolk, was moving along a far different path--as a saxophonist for the influential R&B act Earth, Wind and Fire. (Andrew joined the combo in the early Seventies, around the same time as fellow Denverite Philip Bailey. After leaving EW&F, he became part of a brass section that tours with singer/drummer Phil Collins.) As a result, Dap was exposed to disparate musical influences--the sacred vs. the secular--virtually every time the Woolfolks gathered for Thanksgiving dinner.
Some people would have been torn asunder by this dichotomy, but not Dap. In fact, Collage Mindstate, nGomA's debut CD, achieves a balance between the nasty and the nice that was no doubt influenced by both of the elder Woolfolks. Although the disc sports plenty of profanities, it's more musically ambitious than the efforts of most Denver hip-hoppers; the tracks vibrate with jazz and funk sounds that studiously avoid the tried and true. Moreover, the words of Dap and cohort Maurice Smith, who answers to the name Reese, are wiser and more optimistic than those voiced by a great many of their contemporaries. "Iwuzthinkin'," "Growth," "Stimulation" and many more effortlessly combine smooth sonics and fine rhymes that leave your intelligence intact--which is why Mindstate is among the most enjoyable CDs to be produced in Colorado in 1996. (See "Get Local," January 2.)
The sound of nGomA (a Swahili word that translates to "rhythm and drums") is so diverse because Dap and Reese come from such dissimilar backgrounds. Dap grew up in the Park Hill area alongside what he describes as "a lot of hardheads" who prided themselves on "listening to the most underground stuff that they could." But because he wasn't allowed to purchase or bring home this mate-rial or most other sorts of pop music (only EW&F won an occasional exemption), he received a strangely scattershot education in funk, rap, soul and rhythm and blues. By contrast, Reese hails from a military family and spent ten of his most formative years in Italy and Germany. A lot of his fellow Army brats didn't get a chance to absorb much of the local culture--they spent the majority of their time on bases with fellow English speakers. But because Reese's mother is German, he and his kin generally lived "out with the Germans," as he puts it. And because he speaks fluent German, he was able to delve into the country's media: "I listened to the radio all the time and got a lot of the European flavor. I guess what I was most into was pop music."
"Cheesy pop music," Dap interjects good-naturedly.
"It wasn't all that bad," Reese replies. "I got to see Run DMC and the Beastie Boys on tour, you know. But I also heard mainstream stuff--things that even today I'll recognize without ever having known who the artists were who did them. It was really different than if I'd grown up in the States."
Dap nods. "He didn't see Mister Rogers until he was seventeen. But it's been cool to learn about how he grew up. I've really learned a lot from him, especially about jazz, and I think he's learned a lot from me about things, too. And you can hear that in the music."
"It takes a lot of compromise," Reese says, "but we find a way to make it work for both of us."
The Smith clan moved back to America in 1987, with Reese landing in Denver four years ago. By that time, he'd made a recording with a band that he declines to name. ("It's not that I'm embarrassed about it," he insists, somewhat weakly. "It just doesn't really represent where I'm at now. We were trying too hard for a hit, and you can hear that in it.") A year later, he and Dap met while taking video courses at an area art school. The pair soon discovered a mutual love of music, but it took a while for them to become a band. "He just had some free time at a studio at the school," Dap remembers. "So Reese said, 'Let's do a song.' And so we did. And then he said, 'Let's do another one.' And we did that, too."
"Even after that, we didn't really consider ourselves a group," Reese notes. "But after a while..."
The bulk of the material on Collage Mindstate, which began taking shape in 1994 and 1995, was overseen by Reese (a computer specialist presently employed by the federal government), Dap (who works at Sunshine Records) and sometime co-producer Lil' Italy. From the beginning, the samples on which the bulk of Collage is built were exceedingly varied--and so, too, were the lyrics. "We wanted the songs and the concepts to be about every aspect of a person," Dap says. "No one's mad all the time, and no one's happy all the time, either. We wanted to reflect that so that the songs would remain true to as many different aspects of the human experience as possible."
"Our human experiences," Reese elaborates. "We put the album together so that if you listened to it from beginning to end, you would know a little bit more about where we come from. We wanted it all to be real. All the interludes between the tracks really happened--we just cut them up and used them. And all the phone calls on there were real messages. So I guess you could say the album is about us."
Because of this approach, Collage lacks the sort of imitative gangsta posing that's endemic in Colorado hip-hop platters. "I'm not saying that there isn't gang stuff going on around here," Dap contends. "There is, and I've seen it. But it's nothing compared to what's going on up in Detroit, say. Reese and I went up there for a while, and it was the real deal. Then we came back, and it was like, 'I'm sure glad we live here. Look how clean everything is.'
"One person gets killed on our record. So I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I would never write something from a gangsta perspective. It's something I might do someday--and because it would be a creative decision, I'd hope that something good would come out of it. But this record is about who we are, not who we can pretend to be. And we're not rich, we're not into Versace..."
"We're not pimps," Reese throws in.
"We're just ourselves," Dap says. "Just two guys trying to make good music."
This simple goal can be a struggle in Denver, a community where bookers at many clubs steer clear of hip-hop for fear that the music's patrons will turn the place into a shooting gallery. The men of nGomA get the chance to play live occasionally, but they view the CD as their best calling card. "We took a lot of time with it--got the graphics just right and made sure the sound was great," Reese says. "People thought we were crazy to spend as much money as we were spending on everything, but when it dropped, they were really surprised. They could see that it made a difference."
Thus far, these expenditures haven't turned the heads of executives at national labels--and Dap and Reese concede that the relative complexities of the music may make nGomA somewhat less attractive to A&R types. But that doesn't mean they're ready to sell out just yet. According to Dap, "I don't think that's a temptation at all."
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"I think it would be different if we were signed and under pressure to get a hit," Reese points out. "Right now, we're not losing anything for doing things the way we want to. It's a longer struggle, but in the end it will be worth it."
"Maybe not having the Madonna mentality will set us back," Dap says. "But at least we can look at ourselves in the mirror from an integrity standpoint."
That's an approach that the Reverend Woolfolk can understand--but that doesn't mean he's ready to put a doo-rag on his head and take a place in the front row at the next nGomA concert. In fact, Dap has been unable to convince his father to attend a show. But he doesn't view his father's reluctance as a slight. "I know that he won't agree with some of the things I'm doing," he concedes. "He supports me in the sense that he knows that I'm doing something positive. I mean, I'm not a murderer or anything. But he's not going to compromise his beliefs, and I respect that."
As for uncle Andrew, a family member who would seem more likely to enjoy the nGomA oeuvre, Dap acknowledges, "I sent him one of our CDs, but he's yet to give me his opinion." He laughs. "My brothers and my sisters and my mom like it, though. So I guess I'm doing all right.