Denver has never been widely associated with an essential rap scene. The city's proximity to the Continental Divide leaves it just a scaled-map millimeter or two from the dead center of the country, a fact that means bad news for sushi lovers and puts rap musicians in a geographically dictated artistic quandary. But while it may be difficult to pinpoint where Denver rappers fit in the whole West Coast vs. East Coast debate, some locals have emerged as unique hip-hop stylists with as much range as the Rocky Mountains. Longtime scenester Desmond "Dez" Ross is among them.
Dez is part of a growing association of area rappers, including Kingdom, Nyke Loc, Vamp Dogg, Chill and groups like the Hilltop Clique and 29-60, who think Denver hip-hop is a product that deserves to be heard alongside national artists like Jay-Z and the latest flavors bouncing from the East, South and West.
"These people are trying to take the right steps to really blow it up here," says Dez. "Denver is a hard market to break. I think a lot of the problems that we run into trying to come out of Denver is that we don't have enough confidence as artists that we can compete with the mainstream. Until one of us blows up, it's going to be hard to get a local following."
With the release of his debut record, Under Pressure, on UnderPressure records, it seems that Dez has more confidence than a Y2K bunker has freeze-dried lentils. "I feel like I can get out there and put it down with anybody in the business, and I feel like everybody should feel that way about their stuff," says Dez. Under Pressure had an eventful entrance into the register of local recordings at a sold-out CD-release party in June at the Ogden Theatre.
Under Pressure is Dez's first effort as a solo MC, though not his first experience with a studio setup and a DAT machine. He has appeared on numerous projects by artists including Low Down, Nyke Loc and Vamp Dogg. His career as a solo performer was slow in coming, however. "I was working with so many different managers who either had internal issues or different strategies on how to get things accomplished," explains Dez. But his managerial gripes ended when he officially hooked up with local rap promoters and UnderPressure brass Le-Jon Vivens and Steve Jackson.
"I always worked with them throughout my career," Dez says. "They were promoters at clubs throughout the city like Chocolate City and LoDo Music Hall." Prior to Dez's formal association with the label, Vivens and Jackson were responsible for helping him land opening spots for national acts like Naughty by Nature and Ginuwine. Recently, the label has taken an aggressive approach to marketing Under Pressure with prime commercial spots that have appeared on BET, MTV and during the airing of the local hip-hop show Rhythm Visions on KBDI-TV/Channel 12. Combined with a street-team approach that has led to billboard postings advertising the album across the city, it's clear that this collective is determined to make Dez a known name among the Mile High hip-hop heads.
Fortunately, the disc lives up to the hype. Dez's distinct lyrical flow comes across on tracks like "Represent," where he boasts "From day one I shoot the gift like the sun/I rise daily and shine/Conceptual thoughts fill my mind." According to Dez, the song was inspired by a time when the young rapper "was coming up, and I would battle these older kids, and to me, I shined," he says. "That's what got me known to so many other rappers in the city." Songs like "Lust, Envy, Greed" reflect a spiritual growth and maturity as a lyricist; spoken in three different voices that represent the deadliest of sins, the track moves like the ghosts in A Christmas Carol. "I thought it was something that was cool, to come off in three different personalities, in a spiritual mode, and come at you like a spirit," he says. "It had let me know that I had broadened as a writer, because I came up with a concept."
Further evidence of a spiritual awareness in Dez's lyrics appears on the title track, where the narrator faces a daily struggle for his people to survive ("Dead president distractions got our reactions delayed") and deals with the pressure by appealing to the Lord to "save us from these lives we lead today/Lord forgive us and let my soul bear witness."
The rapper boosts the visibility of homegrown hip-hop by featuring local talent on some of the disc's more stand-out tracks ("Project Made," with "Bumpy" Chill and Sherm DeMarco, and "We Drop," with Nyke Loc, who also produced the track). To handle the beats, Dez enlisted some of the better-known producers in the area -- ZaBoo, Akil, Marv-G, Cavalear. "I was happy with the production on the project," he says. "The sound was really a mixture of different flavors. Akil, who has a big sound, East Coast or whatever, and then I came with somebody like ZaBoo, who is regarded as strictly a West Coast producer. I was able to combine that all on the same album to get universal beats that can move from the South to the West and over to the East," says Dez.
Dez and the guys at UnderPressure plan to utilize an intensive marketing approach to get their product heard not just in Denver, but outside the area as well. Some of the first cities they plan to hit are an interesting triumvirate of Omaha, Laramie and Atlanta. "We're going to attack it from a good marketing and promotional standpoint," he says. "We're just going to go out to these other cities and try to plaster and beat the streets as though they were our own."
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One undeniable influence on the young rapper, from a marketing standpoint, has been Big Jon Platt, a onetime local DJ/promoter and now an A&R consultant for Virgin/Noo Trybe Records and vice president in the creative department at EMI publishing. Platt has worked with both Jay-Z and Jermaine Dupri, among other notables in the industry, as well as serving as a kind of mentor to Dez. (Dez and Platt both hail from the Montbello area, and Dez played high school basketball with Platt's brother.) "When I first started out in the eleventh grade, getting gigs in the club scene, and Big Jon was a big DJ out here, he would listen to my demo tapes. It would just inspire me to keep doing it," he says. "When I saw him being successful in the game through his perseverance and paying his dues, it really made me feel what he was telling me. That it would pay off for me, too. He would just tell me to be hardworking and study the game. One of the most important things he told me was that there are a million people who can rap. But that doesn't mean they're going to make it as an entertainer, because you really have to develop a full economic package, or you have to have a bomb sound or develop something unique," says Dez.
Dez has every intention of doing just that. Along with plans for a second release, the rapper hopes to launch his own label, Skyscraper Records. Right now, perhaps heeding lessons gleamed from Platt, Dez remains focused on Under Pressure. "The big thing now is to keep the presentation as big as possible and to get on some of these shows with these big names," he says. Dez aims to crack the code that propels a local player to the level of a national rapper who finds favor with an often fickle record-buying public. It's a transformation he's personally witnessed in other artists. "I opened for Jay-Z at Chocolate City, when his Reasonable Doubt dropped. It was empty," he says. "Three months later, everybody and their mother wanted to be like Jigga. Everybody singing his song. We was crawling all over it, not realizing he had just been here three months prior."
Everybody and their mother wanting to be like Dez? Sounds good to him.