"I try to imagine what the scene in Denver would be like if we hadn't been here--myself, Darrin Choice, John Chamie, Hipp-E and the other visionaries," says Ken Hamblin III, better known as DJ K-Nee. "And I'm not certain it would be as interesting. We all saw that this music was something that needed to be here--that Denver was lacking."
Clearly, Hamblin--the son of right-wing radio commentator, author, columnist and professional provocateur Ken Hamblin--does not suffer the curse of modesty when it comes time to talk about his accomplishments. But his deeds back up his words. He and Choice (now a resident DJ at New York City's Concrete Jungle) founded Step On Productions in 1992, and since then the posse has become to Denver what the Wicked Crew is to San Francisco and Masters at Work is to New York: an organization of talented individuals who specialize in spinning important new music for a new audience eager to hear it. "We've touched Denver in such a major way," Hamblin notes with nary a hint of hubris. "We introduced acid jazz, we introduced drum-and-bass, trip-hop, and we exposed dancehall and reggae on a much larger level. These are all styles that have blown up on an international level, and we were the driving force behind their introduction to the Denver scene." Just as important, Step On is still a major player in the area, with five widely varied and extremely popular club nights at four very different venues.
It took a while for Hamblin, who grew up in Brooklyn and Detroit, to warm up to Colorado. "I hated Denver when I first moved here," he says. "There was nothing here. I noticed there was a lack of that type of culture you come to expect in the East." His salvation was Jerry's Records on Colfax, where he'd spend hours hanging out and buying used records ranging from jazz to hip-hop. He subsequently began making mix tapes that made him an in-demand personality at parties all over town. "At that point, I knew nothing about deejaying," he admits. "I had one record player and a cassette deck. I remember putting one of those tapes together for Alfredo Garcia, my longest-standing friend in Denver."
The relationship with Garcia proved to be fortuitous. In 1986 Garcia was involved in starting up a new nightspot, Rock Island, in what was then a dicey neighborhood--lower downtown--and he asked Hamblin, who was working as a freelance photographer at the time, to document the grand opening. Later, Hamblin got to know Rock Island's resident jock, Tony Ligget, and when Ligget allowed him to man the turntables as a birthday present, DJ K-NEE was born.
Hamblin deejayed at Rock Island from 1987 to 1990, then moved on to postings at 23 Parrish and the Aqua Lounge. In the process, he evolved from playing Eighties alterna-hits to whipping up the fusion of acid jazz, hip-hop and worldbeat that forms the basis of his sound today. The 1992 founding of Step On Productions was his declaration of independence from the mainstream club scene, as was Raw Vibes, a series of parties that provided a funky retort to Denver's nascent rave movement. After Raw Vibes established itself as a club event, DJ K-NEE became a familiar name among Colorado's nightlife adventurers.
Still, So What!, a bash that bowed at City Spirit Cafe in November 1992 before becoming a weekly staple the following January, is probably Hamblin's most renowned achievement. Currently based at 9th Avenue West, So What! is the longest-running acid-jazz party in the West. "It's happened consistently every Tuesday for the last six years," Hamblin says. "We haven't missed a week in all that time."
According to Hamblin, So What! was inspired by London DJ and radio host Giles Peterson. "I was reading about his radio program in The Face and I.D. magazines. He's the one who coined the phrase 'acid jazz' for the Nineties. He was playing the music that I was already buying at Wax Trax."
At first, venue bosses resisted Hamblin's attempts to transplant the concept into America's heartland. "It was difficult, because the owners of the clubs didn't completely see eye-to-eye with what my vision was," he admits. "Me and DJs like Hani and John Chamie could see a little farther into the future sound of music, and clubs didn't really feel that at the time. Club owners looked at us and said, 'You guys are DJs--you're a dime a dozen. You don't know what the fuck you're talking about.'"
Fortunately, the patrons at City Spirit understood. So What!'s potent brew of roots-heavy beats, jazz and house music struck a resonant chord with clubbers fed up with the predictable fare at traditional rooms. Along with 23 Parrish's Panic Bar, the party opened up opportunities for other turntable rebels. "So What! made it possible for other people to create independent club nights," Hamblin says. "We were the first independent promoters to create a night and have it continue to still run successfully."
So What!, a radio program that attempts to capture the mood of its club-bound cousin, is thriving as well: It runs Friday nights on KUVO-FM/89.3 from midnight to 2 a.m. Hamblin, who co-hosts So What! with current Step On partner/Freestyle magazine editor Shawn White (also known as DJ Style N. Fashion), is no stranger to broadcast mediums: He oversaw the video show Rhythm Visions from 1989 to 1993 and helmed a similar program, Da Hook Up, in 1995. "I brought in atypical elements," he says about his TV time. "Whether it was Portishead, Tricky, Massive Attack or Jamiroquai, those things were finding their way into the mix."
These days, however, Hamblin is concentrating on the clubs. In addition to So What!, his Yardie Lounge, a dancehall-reggae fling that began at Soapy Smith's in 1993, is now niched into the Cosmo Lounge, with DJ Dragon (Lamar Henry) joining him in the spotlight. (Deirdre O'Loughlin, who goes by "Ms. Deirdre," serves as the hostess for both events.) K-NEE also offers up acid jazz two nights a week at Boulder's 'Round Midnight and joins Step On associate Mikim for Worldwide at the Lion's Lair, a space not previously on the dance-music map. In Hamblin's words, Worldwide, which he created with DJ Aztec, a onetime collaborator now living in San Diego, "grew out of the fact that there is still all this music that I don't get to play at my other venues. It's Brazilian music, worldbeat, phat beats from around the globe. It's not about mixing, it's not about having a dance floor. It's a lounge experience.
"Worldwide is also about bringing back the intimate side of the City Spirit residency, which a lot of people miss since we moved to 9th Avenue West," he goes on. "9th Avenue West is a great location, but it's so big that a lot of people can't get into it. The Lion's Lair is a perfect little dive bar that reminds people of the old City Spirit vibe."
With so many projects in so many places, Hamblin is doing what he can to increase the hipness of late-night Denver. But he's frustrated by the pace of progress. "It's sad that most of the clubs in Denver are still owned by businessmen who never truly participated in the club scene," he points out. "I mean, how many disco nights do you need? I know people love it, but at the same time, you can try to move forward on some level. That may change in the future, though, as people who came up through the club and rave scene move into having proper businesses, which is already happening." Hamblin also takes issue with concert firms that are only now opening doors to dance artists. "We still had to wait until the music hit internationally--when this music was on the cover of every magazine in the world--before the local concert promoters finally started thinking it was cool to bring Aphex Twin and the Chemical Brothers to town. But it should have happened five years ago."
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On the personal front, Hamblin has no such complaints. He's in charge of a mini-empire, and while it could hardly be more different from the one overseen by his dad, it's flourishing on its own terms. "My father has always been doing interesting stuff, from photography to running his own television station, his own advertising agency, and as a cinematographer," he says. "And for the longest time, I was nervous about living up to his standards--living up to what other people expected from me because I was his son. But at some point I moved beyond that, for the most part.
"We have mutual respect for each other," he insists. "I still don't think he understands or identifies with what I do, but I think he's become respectful of the fact that I've been able to carve out a living doing what I do. And, of course, I haven't gotten myself in any trouble or marred the family name. I've been a bad boy from time to time, but the Denver Police Department won't be ringing my father's phone."
Plenty of others are calling K-NEE: He's in more demand than ever, thanks to a reputation for knowing what the future holds. "It's all about roots, dub, reggae, drum-and-bass, world music and, most importantly, it's about love. Step On Productions is about love, too--the love of the music--and the people can feel that when they come out to the parties. They trust me to take them where they want to go."
Worldwide, with DJ K-NEE and Mikim, 9 p.m. Mondays, the Lion's Lair, 2022 East Colfax Avenue, 303-320-9200; So What!, with DJ K-NEE, DJ Style N. Fashion, Mikim and Ms. Deirdre, 9 p.m. Tuesdays, 9th Avenue West, 99 West Ninth Avenue, $5, 303-572-8006; DJ K-NEE, 9 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 'Round Midnight, 1005 Pearl Street, Boulder, 303-442-2176; Yardie Lounge, with DJ K-NEE, DJ Dragon and Ms. Deirdre, 9 p.m. Thursdays, Cosmo Lounge, 1523 Market Street, 303-893-3553.