Ah, dawg, we can't leave yet," says DJ Chonz, nodding toward the front door. "The cops have this place surrounded. There's something going down."
With his ballcap tilted to the side and a smirk that never leaves his face, Chonz looks like a mischief maker. But he's not kidding: In the parking lot outside his office, two police officers are pacing, their guns drawn. The place is surrounded.
When it comes to Denver's hip-hop and R&B dance circuit, though, the Radio Bums are the ones who've got things locked down. Chonz and the rest of his crew -- DJs Sabotage, Bedz, Petey, Style N Fashion, Juanito, Dizzy-D, Psycho and Jay -- are the town's indisputable tastemakers. They hold residencies at nearly a dozen of the hottest night spots; they host weekly mix shows on KS-107.5; and several cut it up for the Denver Nuggets. Even local hip-hop artists acknowledge their influence. On another Saturday, a shrewd Denver rapper named Rie Rie (see review on page 84) stopped by with pizza and beer and played cuts from her new disc, soliciting their opinions. And the Bums' record pool -- a bi-monthly collective founded in 2000 by Chonz that functions as a conduit between the recording industry and the masses -- now includes 25 prominent area DJs like T Luv, Quote, Low Key, Emir, Jcee, Joaquin, Breaka Breaka, Sikkaflex and Frank E, who each spin at a half-dozen club nights themselves.
While most club crawlers are still wiping the sleep from their eyes and shaking off Friday night's buzz, their favorite DJs convene at the Bums' northwest Denver office to swap stories, clown with each other and take a dip in that record pool. Although DJ Jay now runs the syndicate, Chonz is the resident court jester. Like E.F. Hutton, when he speaks, everyone listens.
After an impromptu post-pool pick-up lunch at Taquería Patzcuaro, most of the mixmasters leave to make the doughnuts. But a handful stick around, mimicking scenes from Chappelle's Show -- "I'm Rick James, bitch!" -- in an adjacent office. And then Chonz enters the room, muttering the same phrase he will repeat again and again on his cell phone over the next couple of hours.
"Yo, cuz, we're surrounded," he says nonchalantly. Nobody seems to be paying attention, so he says it a little louder. "Yo, we're surrounded. We can't leave."
Puzzled expressions spread across the room. One by one, the DJs file into the front to peer through the blinds and see what's going down. DJ Petey pokes his head out the back door, only to be greeted with stern looks from the cops, who wave him back in. An armed man has barricaded himself inside the apartment next door, Petey reports. It's a standoff. No one is going anywhere.
This could be the first time DJ Chonz has stayed put since Westword first profiled the Bums five years ago ("Bummed Out," January 21, 1999). At the time, the crew consisted of Chonz and co-founder Hakeem Khaaliq, who now resides in Los Angeles and operates the Bums' West Coast office. They made a name for themselves as co-hosts with Francois Baptiste, a founder of 3 Deep Productions who also works for House of Blues, on a weekly hip-hop broadcast on KGNU called Eclipse. When that show ended, Khaaliq and Chonz began producing a series of well-received underground mix tapes they dubbed The Radio Bums Show. Chonz then joined Pepsi's Hip-Hop Pop Tour in Southern California and worked as an intern with the Cali Kings, a West Coast-based lifestyle marketing firm, but he soon returned to Colorado.
His stint with the Cali Kings gave him the foundation, experience and inspiration to launch his own street-level marketing operation. "Whatever they needed, I did," Chonz remembers. "They didn't really teach me what to do. I just basically watched and learned by being a member of their record pool. I learned how a record pool runs, and from there I saw how they were doing marketing -- street marketing and promotions, you know.
"So I came back from Cali with all kinds of records," he adds. "And me and my mom were talking, and she thought that I should start one here. So I started going to all the club DJs and was like, 'Yo, I'm going to start a record pool.'"
Initially, the pool consisted of just Petey, Bedz and Sabotage. And while Chonz didn't have much more than the records he'd brought back from California -- the major record labels were servicing another record pool in town -- that didn't stop him from trying to get more. "I started calling up the record labels," he recalls, "and it was like, 'Well, we already service a record pool there.' And I was like, 'Yeah, but their service is being cut, and I have all the hot DJs that are playing in the clubs."
In time, the Bums' record pool overflowed; today it's being serviced by just about every major imprint -- from Def Jam, Roc-A-Fella and Sony to Virgin, Columbia and Interscope -- as well as numerous indies. For a $200 initiation fee and $100 per month, each member gets two copies of every single, usually before it's even broken on the radio -- something that only one other pool in the country (DJ Vice's team in Los Angeles) can claim. In return for this service, the DJs offer their critiques of the tracks: Every Wednesday, the group's feedback is posted on the Bums' website or sent to the labels via e-mail.
In addition to getting the jump on cuts that will heat up dance floors in the coming weeks, the jocks get an opportunity to network. "The Boulder kids tell us what's hot in Boulder," Jay says, "and we tell them what's hot in Denver. Even though we often compete against each other, it's like a union."
A big union. With his growing commitments, keeping a handle on things became too much for Chonz. So in 2002, he opted to have Jay, a classmate from the University of Colorado at Denver, take over the pool's day-to-day operations. Since Jay didn't have any personal connections with the other DJs, he could organize the pick-ups and collect dues without being accused of preferential treatment. And the fact that Jay had worked in promotions at Jammin' 92.5 didn't hurt the Bums' marketing efforts.
"He's a hard worker and has great work ethics," Chonz says. "I knew he'd be able to do the job that I needed to get done."
Jay's not the only one Chonz has given a hand up. Bedz, the pool's assistant director who compiles all the feedback, currently hosts the Saturday-night street party at KS-107.5. Sabotage holds the same slot on Friday night; Psycho and Dizzy-D are both on the air from midnight to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday mornings. All were hired on Chonz's recommendation.
"I would give my left arm for Chonz," says Bedz. "He is single-handedly responsible for giving me almost every opportunity that I've had in this business. He is incredible. Not to sound like a dick rider or anything, but I'm in awe of him. I really am. He's one of the most genuinely selfless people that I've ever met in my life. It is second nature for him to hook up his boys and give people gigs and look out for the guys beneath him. He's in a position where he doesn't necessarily have to do that. He could just be the man and look out for himself and do just fine. That's just not how he's wound, though. There's just something about him that makes him want to reach out a helping hand. I pretty much owe my entire DJ career to him."
But Chonz is just returning the favors he enjoyed. Baptiste, his former KGNU cohort, brought him aboard to co-host the free-form Sunday-night mix show on KS-107.5, which led to Chonz's manning the weekend street parties. Before long, he had his own mix show, The Traffic Jam. Now during evening rush hour every weekday, Chonz is behind the decks when cars are stacked and the only thing moving is the gas gauge.
Back at Bums headquarters, nothing's moving, either. Two and a half hours have passed; any excitement over the standoff wore off long ago. Bedz is due on the radio in an hour, so he calls to give a heads-up that he may be late. Petey, T Luv and Chonz also have gigs they need to get to. It's starting to look like there may be a DJ blackout tonight -- or at least a brownout. Jay, Frank E and Sikkaflex just want to go home.
T Luv suggests turning on the news to see if anyone's covering the incident. As the DJs gather around the tube, someone spots a SWAT team in riot gear approaching.
Chonz is back at the computer in his office, unruffled, feet up, sorting through his private stash of songs, listening to snippets and bobbing his head. Although Chonz allows pool members to download tracks off the website, these are the ones he's kept for himself; he doesn't share everything. His cell phone rings again, and he starts telling the story. "We're surrounded by cops; we can't leave," he says with a chuckle. "I'm serious. We can't leave."
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Finally, around 7:30 p.m., there's a knock on the back door. Petey opens it. "You guys are free to leave," says one of the officers.
"So, how'd everything turn out?" Petey asks, as the pool members head for their cars.
"Yeah, we got him," the officer responds. "We didn't have to shoot him."
Chonz laughs, a wiseass to the end.