Before he was an artist who sensed he was just about to hit -- and before many people came to consider him Colorado's greatest hope of penetrating the national hip-hop scene -- there was a time when rapper Don Blas felt the allure of street life, when even a brush with death couldn't stop him from going down a path riddled with gunshots, cell blocks and short-term illusory material gains. "When I say I took a bullet to the chest when I was banging, it didn't stop me," he says. "God put me through those things for me to know those things."
Luckily, Blas is alive to reflect back on the experiences of his youth. "I was really into the streets and gangbanging when my first daughter was born," he says. "I was very young, about fifteen years old. Her coming into the world was to me like God sending me a message of hope -- like, 'Look, man, if you don't change your life around, you won't be able to experience her smile and her love, her innocence.' That's actually what put me on my toes and made me want something out of life."
Today the only bullets the local rapper dodges are of a metaphorical nature: Blas has moved from gangbanging to banging on wax. His debut full-length, Capo di Tutti Capi, was released in June on his label, Mob Style Records. In many ways, the effort fulfills the expectations of those who feel Blas is one of the rappers most likely to break outside the Mile High region. Although Capo is his first record, the 25-year-old rapper comes across as a vet who clearly has studied all nuances of the game. Blas imparts some of this knowledge on the cut "12 Rules of Rap": "If you wanna rhyme/first of all don't bullshit/Make a nigger mad when that sound that bad/See a lot of y'all be so excited to bust/That your shit sound rushed/And that shit ain't plush."
TLC could have used the knowledge Blas relates in rhyme on rule number four: "Know your own rights and publishing/It's your own ass you're covering." The MC experienced firsthand how the major labels often deal with new artists when shopping his product to label reps. "I've been offered contracts from such labels as Sony Records and MCA Records, and they wanted the rights to my masters and things of that nature." The primary reason Blas started Mob Style is so he could maintain complete autonomy over his product. "I don't think you should exploit yourself by not educating yourself on the business aspect of things, and that's what happens to a lot of artists," he says.
As indicated by the title of Capo di Tutti Capi (an Italian phrase that roughly translates to "boss of bosses"), Blas is the man in charge of this project. He solo-produced nine of the cuts and co-produced four with local luminary Akil. The production quality of the disc raises the bar locally and, at the very least, keeps up with the national competition. This is partly a result of the alliance Blas formed with producer Efrom Jenkins, who has worked with De La Soul and whom Blas met after a gig opening up for the De La crew. Jenkins did production work on Capo di Tutti Capi in his New York-based Nu Studio.
The end result of Blas, Jenkins and Akil's combined labor is a sound that effortlessly moves between the sinister multi-beat-per-minute battle calls of "Get 'em All" (featuring local MC Kingdom) to the claustrophobic Mobb Deep-like iciness of "Thought They Knew," which features Wu Tang affiliate Dready Kreuger. "Thought They Knew" has Blas and Kreuger trading bars, with Blas dropping lines like "I'd seen strange fruit swinging from trees/Black bodies crucified in the breeze/I'd seen cops shoot niggers for nothing/I'd seen the worst-case scenario." This track, with its testimonial catalogue of injustices, gives the opportunity for Blas to shine as a lyricist and social commentator.
"They're very raw," Blas says of his lyrics. "I'm speaking for a lot of people who don't have a voice otherwise. I have friends in the penitentiary, friends who have been killed, brothers and friends who are going through things in life that don't have a voice to express certain issues. I've tried to look beyond my scope of music and my own thoughts and tried to encompass the thoughts and feelings of the masses and to give it back to them."
The disc also gives those masses a different flavor through its diversity and tendency to break from form. "One More Tear," which features live guitar accompaniment by Greg Foster, is one of the album's highlights, a highly musical cut you're not likely to hear emanating from the No Limit Army. This track stands as one of Blas's favorites because of the emotional intensity of the live playing. "The Spanish guitar playing kills me every time I hear it," he says. "It gives me a feeling more than hip-hop. It's not just about the beats and rhymes. To me, it's just music anyone of any age, race, sex, nationality can appreciate."
Amid eerie keyboard backdrops, Blas goes for a more cinematic approach on cuts like the record's first single, "Peruvian Connection," and "Hazardous and Harmful," which features Mob Style labelmate Johnny Da Bad Appleseed. According to Blas, "Hazardous and Harmful" is more "like listening to a movie. I plan to make more songs like that; I think those are areas that have been unexplored in hip-hop."
In fact, many of the tracks on Capo di Tutti Capi read like an Iceberg Slim-penned script for a Scorsese film. Yet with every other rapper seemingly obsessed with dropping Gambino-style rhymes, Blas struggles to distinguish himself from the pack. "So many people talk about these things who haven't actually lived them," he says. "Having experienced these things affords me the opportunity to keep it real in my songs."
The "keeping it real" adage also applies to the rapper's commitment as a Muslim, though some people have questioned how he can reconcile his religious beliefs with the often violent lyrical content of some of his songs. "A lot of people look at this album and say, 'This doesn't sound like a spiritual guy.' But the reality of religion and my spirituality is first embracing the things I've been through, the things I've lived and the things I've made it through. I've tried to embrace my own struggle, the struggle of my people and the world around me. That's what I try to portray in my lyrics. I really don't try to incorporate too much spirituality into my lyrics. I try to keep that separate."
To further support his point, Blas cites another artist known for his strong religious beliefs. "I read a quote from Run [of Run DMC]: 'You're not going to send a plumber to fix a sink with a Bible.' That's how I feel about it. To each his own. It's not for me to lecture a man in my lyrics and rhymes."
The quality of the lyrics and rhymes Blas does present on Capo should help position the Mob Style label as a viable player locally and one that's worthy of national attention. Still, Blas is well aware of the struggles he'll face establishing Denver as a credible place in the eyes of the hip-hop nation. "Denver has been unproven on the map, as far as hip-hop," he says. "They're like 'Denver, it's a cowtown.'"
Ultimately, says Blas, the goal of the label is to land national distribution and to "affiliate ourselves with other companies outside Denver, like your No Limits, your Rock-A-Fella. We intend to make ties with other families so we can start being recognized in other parts of the world." Taking cues from some of these more successful labels, Blas has begun building the company's organizational structure. "We have a president of marketing, we have a president of publicity. A president of advertising, a president of sales. We have CEOs," says Blas. "We have to Mob. We've got to be just bigger than the mentality of this local spectrum, and to me, that's Mob Style."
If there is a nerve center to Mob Style's mode of operation, it is the Hempshak, the lab where Blas and his partners in crime cook up the beats and the rhyme. For Blas, the term "hempshak" has specific importance. "The name is over two to three hundred years old," he says. "It was the refuge where slaves would go to read and to learn about themselves. This is where a lot of building took place for our nation back in the day. We were hung and persecuted, and hempshaks were places of enlightenment, places where people could go and be themselves and dance and have fun and learn." Blas's Hempshak serves as a studio as well as a kind of cultural center. "You come in the Hempshak, we have over 500 books on the shelf," he says. "We have pictures promoting Afrocentricity all around, just about our culture. It has a very significant meaning in the whole scheme of things."
Blas points out the important role that recognizing the past has played in his artistic development. "I've done nothing but follow the guidelines of great men before me," he says. "I've learned about the prophets of the Bible, I've learned about great people in history, and it's like, 'Let me apply the rules that they used in their lives to the things I'm trying to do in my life.'"
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The future looks promising for Blas. He performed recently, by invitation, at the prestigious South by Southwest music showcase, an industry who's who held each year in Austin, Texas. He's blazed stages opening up for Method Man and Redman as well as the Cash Money Millionaires, and De La Soul recently brought him along for some Florida dates on the crew's tour. And while it's only been available sine June, Capo di Tutti Capi has already exceeded Blas's initial expectations in terms of sales. "We've moved approximately 2,500 units, and it's grown. We have a Web site [mobstylerecords.com], and just recently, we've gotten 25 sales off the site, both from in and out of the country."
Still, Blas is not one to sit around and be complacent. Like many artists, he seems happiest when he's busy. Currently, he's working on his next release, Modus Operandi, and overseeing the completion of upcoming Mob Style releases from the group Cession and Johnny Da Bad Appleseed. Most important, Blas remains a family man.
"I'm inspired by my children, my family, my brothers and my younger brother, who is actually CEO of the label," he says, proudly adding that his brother recently earned an engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines. But perhaps Blas's biggest influence and the person most directly responsible for getting him into music -- and exposed to the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Sly and the Family Stone -- is his father, Joseph Ray Fisher, a working musician in Denver in the '70s. "He used to sing with Earth, Wind & Fire," he recalls. "There was never a dull moment in my household. There was always music playing, there was always some type of instrument around, whether it be congas, maracas, piano -- he always had something. Because of his love for music, I was always messing with those things, so this was my destiny."
Spoken like a true Don ready to uphold a legacy. Thankfully, in Don Blas's case, it's a legit one.