I don't lie in my music," says Danny Vincennie. "I don't exaggerate shit, and if it didn't happen to me, you're not going to hear about it."
Vincennie, who has been performing under the moniker Extra Kool since going solo after the 2006 split of his long-running Optik Fusion Embrace project with Ace Gardiner (aka Satyre), has a knack for crafting disarmingly frank lyrics that are both playful and vividly evocative of personal hell.
Born in New Orleans, Vincennie moved to Colorado with his mother when he was four years old, and he grew up in both central Denver and Englewood. He often freestyled at home in his early teens, having become an early devotee of Kool Keith, Redman, Method Man and the Beatnuts, but he didn't get a chance to shine until he turned sixteen, when he was a student at Colorado's Finest Alternative High School.
Extra Kool, with Time, Church Fire, Maudlin Magpie and Dash Render, 7 p.m. Wednesday, February 20, Herman's Hideaway, 1578 South Broadway, $3-$6, 303-777-5840, 21+.
"I had a creative-writing course, and we had to write a poem about things we liked," he recalls of his first time rapping in front of a crowd. "Satyre was in the class with me, and there was this other kid in the class we called Tipsy. Satyre and Tipsy were already rapping as the Educators. The teacher had us write this paper about three things we liked, and instead of doing a poem, I did a rap. It was just a cappella. I wrote a poem about Kool Keith, skateboards and capes, like something Batman would wear. Satyre loved it, and he laughed through the whole thing. I thought he was dissing it. But later he was like, 'Hey, man, I've got a four-track tape recorder, and you have to be in our group.'"
And just like that, Vincennie was a member of the Educators. But his time in that outfit was cut short when his parents shipped him off to Las Vegas to avoid the potential repercussions stemming from a situation involving an acquaintance who had committed a robbery.
In Las Vegas, Vincennie lived with his sister, and he essentially stopped making hip-hop and got back into graffiti, which is where the Extra Kool moniker first came from.
"My sister gave me so much free rein, she treated me more like a friend than trying to be a mom toward me," Vincennie recalls. "I kind of half-ass dropped out of school while I was out there, and I got a job with her boyfriend at the time doing construction. I learned a lot about life while I was out there. I went to school, but I didn't go much, but I did end up graduating a year later, after I got back to Denver."
After successfully avoiding the potential problems that prompted his year-long exile in Vegas, Vincennie returned to Denver, where his musical influences became more refined. "This kid Guido gave me a Headshots tape, which is Slug from Atmosphere," he remembers. "It was Headshots — Industrial Warfare. It really blew me away. From there, Satyre turned me on to Mystik Journeymen and then Living Legends.
"Slug made hip-hop seem obtainable in a life sense," Vincennie declares. "Not necessarily in the sense of going to be a rapper and be famous. He made it feel like life, an actual routine that you could do. On top of that, I believed him. Even though there would be times when I would listen to Mobb Deep or an Ice Cube tape and they would talk about shooting people and murder and robbing banks, you don't believe it. When Slug talks about wearing his girlfriend's deodorant because he doesn't have enough money to get his own, you can relate to that. At the time there were other white MCs, but I latched on to him, and then I found Anticon."
It was Anticon.'s Deep Puddle Dynamics that inspired Vincennie to come up with the name Optik Fusion Embrace as a group name to replace the Educators, which he had rejoined by then. "I told them, 'We're not educating anyone on anything,'" quips Vincennie. Tipsy soon left the rap world and moved back to Chicago, where he, too, got re-involved with graffiti, but Gardiner and Vincennie continued on as Optik Fusion Embrace. Their made their live debut at Tarantula Billiards downtown.
From there, Optik Fusion went on to play Sunday matinee shows at the 15th St. Tavern before eventually being befriended by the Dialectix, an outfit that gave Optik Fusion a leg up in performing live around town. A short time later, Vincennie and Gardiner met several kindred fellow artists — Chris "Time" Steele, Chavo "Awareness" Trejo and Braden "Ancient Mith" Smith — and they collaborated on a show, opening for the Dialectix at the Bluebird Theater. "Time and I even square-danced on stage," Vincennie remembers. "He did that song 'Loser,' from Litterature, and we did a song with him and Ancient Mith. I felt like a giant. I still haven't ever really had that feeling again."
Optik Fusion had a handful of releases under its belt before the split, including One Man Empire, Ichabod Strange and Optimistic Pessimism. But all of that work proved to be a kind of training ground for what Vincennie would write for his Extra Kool albums. In 2006, he put out Tickled Pink, a dark and unsettling record that proved to be a turning point for the MC, who had grown up like a lot of men, sheltering emotions and even pretending not to have any. But with that album, Vincennie learned to express himself as a full human being, regardless of what some people might think of the subject matter. He also learned to have more nuance in his vocal delivery instead of carrying the same intensity and speed for a whole song. "Tickled Pink," he says, "taught me how to express myself emotionally and stay on topic."
The followup, the even darker Creature From the Whack Lagoon, catalogued one of the most challenging times in Vincennie's life: His brother died and his mom was dying (and eventually died, of cancer), and his personal life outside of that had fallen apart. "Why So Serious," which deals directly with his mother passing away, is a powerful song that's almost uncomfortable in its despair, matched only by "Part Two," in which Vincennie distills the harrowing emotions seething within him into a single song. "I didn't really see the light at the end of the tunnel when I wrote that song," he confesses.
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His next record, Chronicles of an American Waster, was almost a counterpoint, a bounce back from the darkest places of his psyche. "I tried to make Chronicles of An American Waster the polar opposite of Creature," he explains. "But the song 'Eddy,' on cool-ADE," his latest album, "is the true story of a guy who used to just beat the shit out of my mom," he notes. "That was one of my first memories of my mom.
"I like this record because it expresses where I am now," he adds. "I still suffer from a lot of guilt from when my mom died. There were things we should have hashed out before she passed away that I don't feel right about. I want people to know that I loved my mom, even though things didn't end right. I felt like on my previous records that I whined too much, and I wanted people to know that it wasn't just me whining."
Indeed, cool-ADE feels like Vincennie's most fully realized record yet, with a perfect balance of the harrowing and the happy and his startlingly honest songwriting intact. "The cool-ADE is the way I aid myself through my music and the way I change things to kind of mellow myself out," he concludes. "It was an attempt to try to grow as an individual."