On the surface, the hip-hop revolution seems to be making precious little progress along the Denver-Boulder corridor. While national artists pass through on a semi-regular basis (witness the July 21 Smokin' Grooves festival at Red Rocks), the area has not spawned an indigenous rap act that's achieved anything like widespread success since Lord of Word and the Disciples of Bass. But look beyond the region's most prominent live-music venues (rooms that, by and large, continue to maintain a quiet blacklist of hip-hop) and you'll discover a thriving rap underground. Moreover, many of the performers involved in this movement have no interest in crossing over--especially if it means compromising to gain acceptance from you Caucasians out there.
Take for example, L.K.G., one of the men behind 1332 Records Vs. the United States of America, a no-holds-barred compilation of local gangsta acts. "Denver's growing, and there are more and more artists coming here," says L.K.G., 1332's vice-president since its 1994 founding. "And eventually, we're going to put Denver on the map, whether anyone wants us to or not." He adds, "Hip-hop has really been done bad here. Club owners, radio, the promoters, the police, even the government have been doing everything they can to stop it from blowing up, but they can only limit us so much. They think that rap brings violence and all that, but we're just speaking about what's in the streets already. They know what's going on, but they don't want everyone else to know. And they don't like us bringing it to their face, you know? But we're going to keep speaking on it until it gets better."
The bulletins at the hearts of the thirteen tracks on America are as varied as the artists on hand. Dominator--described by L.K.G. as "an ex-gang member who lived that kind of lifestyle; he raps about stuff that he's lived or seen"--checks in with the ultra-hardcore numbers "12 Gauge Maniac" and "Ghost Moves." B. Black, who, along with his production company, Dankside, is responsible for most of the beats on the disc, delivers a somewhat less heavy gangsta turn on "Dumb Nigga." Shawn Head combines reggae and hip-hop on the catchy "Thrill of a Deal," "Walk the Streets" and "Pale." And Dynamight, who recently changed his moniker to Gemini, travels along the border of R&B and hip-hop in "Mr. Dynamight on the Scene." L.K.G. believes that Gemini, who opened up for Montell Jordan during the vocalist's most recent Denver date, is the 1332 signee with the most mainstream potential. "He's more the acceptable type," he notes. "He's got some gangsta stuff, but he's got some mellow stuff, too. He can perform anywhere."
Not so the other act on America, dubbed Fuck Yo Punk Ass. The combo, made up of L.K.G., D-Man and Governor Dog, is as nasty as any rap act ever to come out of Colorado. "Our style is political gangsta music," L.K.G. explains. "We're anti-government, anti-police and anti-white." These themes suggest the more radical factions of the Nation of Islam, but L.K.G. says his act is not affiliated with the sect: "We don't believe in the religious aspect of what they teach, but we believe in some of the messages they bring. We talk a lot about slavery and how we don't want anyone to forget it. We believe that we should have our own land, where we can be separate from everyone else, and that we should have our own businesses so that we can support ourselves. And we believe in their philosophy as far as white people being devils. Because they are."
America's liner is just as uncompromising as this screed: One side sports, among other images, a burning U.S. flag and a klansman on his hands and knees being menaced by a pit bull, while the other reproduces a graphic photo of a lynching. However, the four Fuck Yo Punk Ass cuts on America aren't mere polemics. Rather, the rappers work their ideas into cuts that can easily pass for standard gangsta fare. "All in the Life of a G" mates soulful music with references to "groupie-ass bitchez" and lines like "It's gettin' cold in these Denver streets/I'm gonna kill you before you kill me"; the so-overwrought-it's-goofy "Devil Killas From Hell" is supposedly narrated by the son of Satan, a man so evil that he eventually "smokes" Saint Peter and "jacks his cloud"; the hard-nosed "Famin in the Land" champions drug-dealing as a form of self-reliance; and the extremely funky "I Don't Give a Fuck" kicks off with, of all things, a statement of pride from a wino before evolving into this bit of obvious autobiography: "I started a record company to get off the grind/'Cuz I don't want to be a nigga with nothin' but time/And let me tell you, twistin' chickens ain't no career/And anyone who tells you different's puttin' shit in your ear."
Fuck Yo Punk Ass, which was formed three years ago and has a full-length CD, 1995's DK-ALL-DAY, to its credit, has had precious few chances to deliver such nuggets of wisdom in concert. The act shared a bill with Westside Connection last November and has headlined a few private functions, but as L.K.G. points out, "It's pretty hard to even get a rental facility for hip-hop. The landlords don't want to rent it out to you, and the ones that will charge so much that it wouldn't even be worth it." So L.K.G. has had to find other ways to reach gangsta fans--and he has. Thanks to promotional pushes at events like Denver's Cinco de Mayo celebration and a vigorous word-of-mouth campaign, L.K.G. says that 1332 Records has moved more than 3,000 copies of America in only a few short months of release.
Right now L.K.G. is shopping around for a national distributor in the hopes of increasing this impressive sales total. "We just want to represent Denver to the fullest," he says. "It's harder for us because we don't have as many resources, but there's just as much talent here as in New York or Los Angeles." His mission, though, is not simply motivated by a thirst for recognition and cash. "I feel eventually that there's going to be a civil war," he declares, "and we think people need to start preparing for it. That's what we're saying with Fuck Yo Punk Ass. Just be prepared."
Local music that makes the world go round--in a manner of speaking.
Live at the Bluebird Theater, a demo from Sketch, an act that moved to these parts from (surprise) California, features tight modern rock punctuated with crowd noises and exhortations from musicians that are typified by the lines "You guys are so fuckin' cool" and "This song is about getting crazy." There's nothing intrinsically wrong with ditties like "Down Syndrome," "Ga-Ga" and "Mother Fucker," and at least the three current Sketch-heads (Dave Allen, Steve Ames and Sam Parks) seem actively interested in entertainment. But you've heard this all before. The story's much the same for a more recent Sketch cassette, Goodness. "Stupid Love Song" demonstrates a keen grasp of demographics (Seinfeld is mentioned), while "Whatever They Said," "Buddha!" and "Incomplete" are melodic Nineties frat rock that will keep the suds flowing. Acceptable stuff, but no lives will be changed by it (KC Management, 157 Cumberland Gap, Nederland 80466). For his second CD, Flip Side, singer-songwriter Stewart Lewis is accompanied by plenty of pals, including Reed Foehl of Fool's Progress (Lewis's brother), Sherri Jackson and Patti Larkin, who contributes to the deliberate "Giant Zoo." Lewis is certainly a decent vocalist, and the playing is accomplished and the production refined. But the cut "Different" spells out the limitations of the disc simply by not being different enough. In short, the songs revisit familiar turf rather than striking out into unexplored territory. Flip Side will probably distract sensitive college sophomores, and a couple of the tracks, including a cover of Cliff Eberhardt's "Save Your Breath," stand out. But to say the least, you won't be blown away by the shock of the new (available in area record stores).
The latest EP from Noz is the best recording yet by these Denver eccentrics. Dan Grandbois's declamatory vocals work to good effect on "Daydream Alcoholic," a mock-funker with an indelible chorus, and "Just Collecting Bones," an upbeat little number about a bone collector with bone cancer who is buried in a place where kids will be able to find his bones. The disc is nothing to sniff at (Noz, 1829 South Grant Street, Denver 80210). City and Western, by Victoria F, is spare country built around the star of the show. Her voice is tough to get a handle on; it swoops and whoops all over songs such as "Wild Wild Wind" and "Put Out Again." But once you get acclimated to her wavery pitch, you'll probably find a tune or two to your liking. When she waxes sentimental, she's erratic--"If I Was a River" is strong, "Ex Catholic" merely long--but "(She Has) a Tendency to Lead" is articulate and heartfelt (322-4914).
A music critic has to know his own prejudices. Here's one of mine: a basic dislike of creamy pop folk. As a result, you'd anticipate that Watermelon, by Sweet Water Well, would be a tough sell for me, and that's proven to be the case. The singing on "Ghost Story," for example, is too pristine for my liking; a few cracks in the armor of Mike Nile's production would have made the passion for which this foursome shoots easier to discern. But even someone who has as much difficulty with this genre as do I would have to admit that the platter is not without its positive attributes. "Sitting on a Stone," "Zoeology" and "Brush and Tie" draw from the best efforts by Simon & Garfunkel (as opposed to "Amy's Sweater," which is inspired by their worst), and "The Ballad of Blue Jean" is actually loose-limbed, which is something I never thought these guys could be. I'm sure I won't be listening to Watermelon much, but I can understand why others might want to do so. And for me, that's something of a breakthrough (available at area record stores). Far easier for me to enjoy was You Just Squished Mr. Itchy Fish, by Gladhand. This quintet (Carrie Breeder, Mike Brown, John Getter, David Spurvey and Mark White) is nutty in all the right ways. "Have a George" epitomizes their overtly theatrical approach; just as you're expecting a track dominated by Spurvey's sputtering Pere Ubu singing, the rest of the band, led by Breeder on violin, explodes into motion and takes the song into an entirely new dimension. From the herky-jerky "C.C.C." to the comically martial "Rub the Fuzzy," Mr. Itchy Fish finds Gladhand in creative overdrive--and even though there are some dead spots, they're few and far between. Expect the unexpected (Gladhand, 146 West Ellsworth Avenue, #4, Denver 80223).
Armchair Martian, from Fort Collins, managed to land a deal with Cargo Records, and on Armchair Martian, its full-length debut for the company, you can understand why. These twelve songs, built around the voice and guitar of Jon Snodgrass, are propulsive, well-constructed and tighter than Ted Kennedy on New Year's Eve. They also sound astoundingly like mid-Eighties HYsker DY--and while that's a nice group to emulate, the similarities are so strong that they ultimately make it almost impossible to take Armchair Martian on its own terms. From "Back in the Hammock" to "Blue Monkey," these cuts rock convincingly--but next time around, I hope Snodgrass and company manage to come up with a style of their own (available in area record stores). Six of Denver's most notable punk bands can be heard on No Thanks to You, Volume 1, a series of recordings caught live at the Bluebird Theater in December 1996 by engineer/producer Robert Ferbrache. The 8-Bucks Experiment, Random Victim and Pinhead Circus acquit themselves well, but for me, the highlights were the Hectics' "Wasted" and "Ain't Coming Back," a three-song sample from the Hate Fuck Trio and, especially, "Harmone" and "Evo," by Uphollow, an outfit whose members are smart enough to tinker with the punk-rock formula instead of merely duplicating it. A strong area sampler (available in area record stores).
The Griffins, from Boulder, have been around since the early Nineties, and Starstuff, a new CD, includes songs from throughout their history; in fact, the lead track, "Inner Mystery," actually predates the band. Lead singer J.D. Droddy has one of those straining-for-the-notes voices ("Dog" finds him struggling mightily), while the music around him is a not-quite-so opaque variation on the R.E.M. folk-rock thang. And because that's not exactly the freshest style out there now, Starstuff frequently seems a bit tired. "The Griffin Song," a loopy bit that would have sounded just fine on the soundtrack of The Nightmare Before Christmas, is a curveball, but "The Longest Day" and "Forgotten" don't spin at all. Competent but unexciting (The Griffins, 4767 Valhalla Drive, Boulder 80301). The two-song self-titled demo by J. Jones and Soul Pursuit is the sort of commercial R&B that most folks don't associate with Denver. "I Don't Wanna Be Lonely" is a mid-tempo smoocher with vocals by Jones that flow smoothly into a Prince-like falsetto, while "I Can See Thru U" has a funkier, smoochier edge. There's not enough material here to really get a feel from the outfit, but based on these two samples, this may turn into an act worth pursuing (494-6927).
For listeners like me who have a difficult time pulling in the signal of KGNU-FM/88.1 in Boulder, help has arrived in the form of (fanfare, please) Advanced Technology. In other words, KGNU is now being broadcast live on the Internet in the Real Audio 3.0 format. Those of you who would like to listen in can do so by sitting down at your computer and visiting the address www.kgnu.org
The term "alternative-Christian music" has a strange ring to it: The category sounds perfect for Marilyn Manson and Slayer. However, Vision '97, Friday, July 25, and Saturday, July 26, at the Douglas County Fairgrounds in Castle Rock, is not the place to learn about satanism. All told, 23 acts, including Five Iron Frenzy and eight other local combos, will perform at an event that spokesman Fred Meyer describes as "Lollapalooza for Jesus." Call 727-8009 for more details.
Some unsolicited advice about how the management at KALC-FM/105.9 (Alice) should have disciplined Jamie White and the other morning-show morons who recently had a guffaw at the expense of a man who drowned while having an epileptic seizure: By firing them. Really. By firing them.
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Once more with feeling: By firing them. On Thursday, July 24, the Sleeping Brotherhood House Band wakes up Herman's Hideaway. On Friday, July 25, Cargo Records' own Inch joins the aforementioned Armchair Martian and Wretch Like Me at the 15th Street Tavern; the Blue Meanies sail a yellow submarine to the Mercury Cafe along with MU330; the Czars invade City Spirit; and the Alison Brown Quartet ventures to the Acoustic Coffeehouse in Nederland. On Saturday, July 26, Swallow Hill holds its sixth annual Folkathon at Swallow Hill Music Association (call 777-1003 for the complete lineup and additional details); Little Charlie and the Nightcats yowl at Brendan's; Johnson and the Garden Weasels get Sick at Cricket on the Hill; and Michelle and the Book of Runes are filed at Soapy Smith's. On Monday, July 28, Madder Rose blows a gasket at the Lion's Lair. On Tuesday, July 29, the Slewhounds bite at Iliff Park Saloon. And on Wednesday, July 30, Coco Montoya gets hot at the Bluebird Theater.
Oh, yeah--and because next week's column will consist entirely of reviews, here's a few bonus events for you. On Thursday, July 31, singer-songwriter Ken Mattus infests the Bug Theater, and the Skyline Cafe hosts an all-ages show featuring Backspackle, Plop Squad, Son of Sam, Pinhead Circus and Arizona's Generics. And on Saturday, August 2, Teenage Fanclub promotes its new Columbia disc, Songs From Northern Britain, during a free concert at the Ogden Theatre. No, the "free" part was not a misprint.