The city of Denver wet its collective baggy pants at last week's announcement that Def Jam founder Russell Simmons would bring his Hip-Hip Summit to Denver sometime this year. In town to launch a new credit card designed for low-income and debt-scarred individuals, Simmons made the spontaneous decree while sharing podium space with outgoing mayor Wellington Webb at a press conference on Thursday, May 29. Though no date, or month, or any other specific has been nailed down for the event, locals have already begun fantasizing about its impact, both culturally and financially: Eugene Dilbeck of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates that the city could reap about $20 million in tourist dollars, while hip-hop proponents say they can actually feel Colorado's cred elevating.
"When I moved to Colorado five years ago, it was pretty limited as far as hip-hop goes," says Jason Swartz of Ground Zero Promotions, an independent firm that brings underground acts to venues in Boulder and Denver. "Over the last couple of years, everyone has worked really hard to make this a hot seat of hip-hop. Artists who used to not want to come here now call me up and want to play three or four times on every tour. It's just cool and kind of surprising that someone like Russell Simmons would have picked up on that vibe in this state."
Cool, yes. Surprising, definitely. Just about every local rapper has vowed to raise the city's status from a middle-of-nowhere bastion of white-ism to a metropolis that's keyed into hip-hop, arguably the most relevant force in youth pop culture. But we're no Detroit, or New York, or Los Angeles. Heck, we're not even Cleveland or St. Louis -- because this city hasn't exactly warmed to the phenomenon. Though indie shows by artists like J-Live and Anticon draw decently in club- and concert-style settings, Denver doesn't have a decent full-time hip-hop venue, much less a breakout artist, and promoters who launch theme nights around town complain that they're regularly shut down by club owners, cops and citizens who regard all hip-hoppers as bling-bling-happy, gun-toting thugs. (Of course, a few folks in the hip-hop community are to blame for showing up to said club events and behaving like bling-bling-happy, gun-toting thugs.) If Simmons was picking up on some vibe here, he must have a very finely tuned radar for such things, because in this city, it's usually a pretty scratchy feed.
Denver's uncomfortable relationship with hip-hop could be one of the topics discussed at the two-day summit. Neither Simmons nor Benjamin Chaviz, president of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, which organizes the summits, could be reached to talk about plans for Denver, but according to Ellen Zoe Golden, who's with the Network's public-relations office, the events are tailored to suit the particular challenges of each host city. Golden -- who, by the by, hadn't heard anything about a Denver date -- says the summits aren't SXSW-style music-industry conferences so much as a merging of the minds: Musicians, politicians, youth-advocates and community boosters gather to explore hip-hop's cultural and political power. The summit could come to Denver and make a case for hip-hop...in Denver.
Just don't show up, demo in hand, expecting Mr. Simmons to sign you to Def Jam.
"It's not a convention for industry. It's a series of meetings where people sit around talking about problems," says Golden. "We did one in Los Angeles that focused on problems specific to the West Coast in hip-hop as well as youth culture. We've done things like work to increase awareness of labeling, to give parents more opportunity to see what their kids were listening to. The goal at every summit is to come out of it with a series of initiatives that the Network can work on over the next period of time. We've come up with literacy programs, done concerts to raise money for youth outreach. In Detroit we worked on a program to empower millions of young voters. The Network comes from the viewpoint of hip-hop as a force -- not just a kind of music -- that stretches across pop culture."
When not hosting these meetings, the Network also works to attack stereotypes. This spring, for example, Simmons threatened a boycott of Pepsi after the company yanked a commercial featuring Ludacris and began running one of Mr. and Mrs. Sharon Osbourne in its place; Simmons claimed the move reflected a cultural bias against rap culture, and Pepsi eventually put Ludacris back into rotation.
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But Simmons's own track record in this town isn't sparkling. In February, he bailed on a panel discussion with members of the Colorado Hip-Hop Coalition; the activities board that governs the University of Colorado at Denver and Metro State had scheduled Simmons's appearance as the highlight of a month of hip-hop-boosting happenings. (Simmons, who called in sick the day before the engagement, was seen on television later that same day talking about the Ludacris/ Pepsi snafu; the activities board wasn't required to pay Simmons a deposit or fee, but it did lose hundreds of dollars publicizing the event.) Simmons was also scheduled to speak to students on the Auraria campus in August 2002, but invoked his thirty-day cancellation clause and nixed the gig. The non-profit Network has hit a few snags itself, including an Atlanta summit that was canceled after the promoter of a related festival failed to obtain the necessary permits from the city. (The meeting has been rescheduled for later this summer.) But the Network has also shown that it knows how to deliver: Since forming in New York in June 2001, it's held nine summits in cities around the country. Over 17,000 people (Eminem and Nas among them) showed up for the April gathering in Detroit, where organizers introduced a program to encourage youth participation in government.
Speaking of government: The Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Urban League are among the organizations expected to work with the Network on plans for this city's Hip-Hop Summit. The confab will probably be scheduled for September or October, which leaves only a few short months to work out the bugs -- months when Denver will also be breaking in a new city council and mayor. (Maybe we'll be addressing him as Mayor Hip-en-hopper?)
Everyone involved in the planning should take a cue from the hip-hop canon: Once you put something like this in motion, you can't, you won't, and you don't stop.