Although Denver doesn't have a reputation as a national hip-hop mecca, Jeffrey McWhorter, aka Kingdom, believes it's only a matter of time before the scene is acknowledged--as long as the artists and fans in the community support one another.
"You'll never see me talk down any rapper in Colorado," he vows. "I'll give them credit for anything that he's doing. He could be doing anything else, but he's out making his dream come true by becoming a hip-hop artist." He adds, "We need to unify. That's the only way we're going to make it. One rapper from the state is not going to put Colorado on the map; it's going to take a group of clout to put us out there. But if we keep stabbing each other in the back, we're never going to make it. You don't earn respect by disrespecting others."
Unfortunately, a certain percentage of locals don't subscribe to this theory--something that became painfully evident to Kingdom after he bested his competition in the hip-hop/funk category at the third annual Westword Music Awards Showcase last fall. Although he received plenty of congratulatory responses, a handful of his peers challenged the legitimacy of his title. "I was very disappointed," he concedes, "because as a Colorado artist, no matter who wins that award, you should respect that artist instead of talking about that artist and saying because he doesn't have an album out, he shouldn't be on the ballot. That's like blaming the public, who basically voted. And it was out of my hands then." Had another performer won the plaudit, he insists, "I would have congratulated them and kept on working on my album."
His efforts since then have paid off. I Reign Omnipotent, which reaches area CD stores this week, is a professional-sounding disc that should squash the protests of naysayers and playa haters who feel that Kingdom is not worthy of the crown he proudly wears on the album's cover (designed by Pen & Pixel Graphics, of Master P fame). It's too soon to know if he'll someday rule the Colorado hip-hop world, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility.
Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, and raised in the Los Angeles area, Kingdom became a rap fan at the tender age of eight; Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Afrika Baambaataa were among the old-schoolers who first caught his ears. When he was fifteen, he moved to Denver and began beat-boxing. He subsequently enrolled at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, and upon his return to the Mile High City, he polished his rapping skills. His first producer, Sla-T, was impressed by the results. "I auditioned for him by freestyling," Kingdom recalls. "And he liked it. So he started making beats for me, and I started writing rhymes--and we've evolved ever since."
In the years that followed, Kingdom steadily broadened his reach. He has the distinction of being the first Colorado artist to be included on an Urban National Network compilation, and he contributed a track to The Bizness, a CD companion to a movie assembled by producer Hakeem Abdul Khaaliq. (Kingdom also appears in the film, which chronicles the state's hip-hop community; it's scheduled for release this summer.) And he's established himself as an opening act for national hip-hop acts, having appeared on the bill at a recent Fox Theatre date starring Kool Keith ("Brother From Another Planet," January 22) and at a performance in Vail in advance of Common, the X-ecutioners and Roots member/human beat-box Rhazeel, with whom Kingdom hopes to collaborate in the future. But although he's honored to share stages with such esteemed acts, Kingdom admits to being frustrated by the failure of national promotion firms to provide even more opportunities for exposure. "I give props to Boulder; they give local hip-hop respect," he allows. "But the big promoters who bring in the Puff Daddys and who are bringing in everybody else, they don't give us any respect. Usually the promoters who bring in those kinds of artists are from other states, so they're not trying to hear anything from a local hip-hop scene."
A listen to I Reign Omnipotent might change their minds. Following a coronation theme, the disc blasts directly into "The Killing Spree," a track whose lyric Kingdom identifies as his favorite. The boastful rhymes play on Outbreak, a Dustin Hoffman flick about a deadly virus: "My lines will spread through your body like Outbreak/Bleed from your ears and eyes/Commit suicide of your mental state/I told you/Your insides will liquefy when I whisper in your ear/It's time for you to die." Clearly, Kingdom has no doubts about his skills. "For me to tell you that, I'm an ill motherfucker," he says. "My lyrics are not simple lyrics. You have to listen to them; you have to critique them. That's what I try to do on my album. I try to make it difficult--not a simplistic form."
If the album consisted solely of braggadocio and violent imagery, it would be easy to dismiss it as derivative gangsta rehash. However, Omnipotent contains several uplifting numbers, such as "Who's the Future," a song inspired by the death of Kingdom's friend Shaka Franklin, who committed suicide in 1990, and "Black Family," which Kingdom says is "about raising our family, and how we've got to stop all this gang violence and start becoming a family like we used to be." The tune also contains a couplet in which Kingdom confesses, "Some of the fruit I give/Is not the best fruit I give to my people"--and this point is underlined by "Murderous Midnight," which immediately precedes "Family." But Kingdom isn't concerned about sending contradictory messages. "This album--some of it is fact, some of it is fiction," he points out. "It's entertainment; you have to take it for what it is. If I talk about crime and violence on one song, then I'll talk about a positive message on another one. It's like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde effect.
"I'm not telling someone to go out there and kill," he insists. "If this was Terminator II, you wouldn't try to blame Arnold Schwarzenegger --so why blame me? If you're not smart enough to find the line between entertainment and realness, that's your fault. I might not express positivity in every song, but please give me credit for talking about some positivity."
Kingdom's goal of providing something for everyone on Omnipotent extends to the platter's music. "We wanted to make this album give you a variety," he notes. "We didn't want it labeled one-sided, you know. We wanted it to become very universal." To that end, he utilizes several producers, all of whom bring a unique flavor to the mix. Kingdom counts them off: "Sla-T brought the rugged side of me. Travis 'T.T. Finguz' Todd brought more of the mellow tones. Auto Vandeveer brought more of the musical-radio-type things. Chris Johnson brought more of the with-the-homies-riding-type beats. And Hakeem brought the down-to-the-underground-can't-see-over-the-freeway-type style."
Of these five collaborators, only Vandeveer doesn't hail from Colorado. Kingdom hooked up with him in Los Angeles, where he had traveled in order to attend his grandfather's funeral. "I met him through a friend--he was doing work with Vanessa Williams, the En Vogue people, Coolio's people," he says. "He actually doesn't work with unsigned artists. But he wanted to battle me, because he raps, too, and he also sings. So we battled, and I guess I impressed him so much that he said he would work with me." This offer led to one of the highlights of Omnipotent, the Vandeveer-produced "Sick Thoughts," a track that sounds like a pair of rappers directing verbal fusillades at each other. In truth, both warriors are Kingdom. "My voice was hoarse that day," he says, laughing.
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The challenge for Kingdom in the coming months will be to move enough units of the CD to attract the interest of distributors. One of the ways he hopes to push the product is via video: He's looking forward to completing a clip for a Johnson/Todd remix of the single "Shrimp and Lobster," which features the hot-buttered-soul background vocals of area diva Dai Dai. (The track rivals anything by Puff Daddy in its evocation of the good life: "Kingdom is the richest, fattest fellow.../Makin' money like mobsters/ Eating shrimp and lobster.") But he also hopes to stir up good word-of-mouth--and he's formed Three the Hardway Records, a partnership with longtime pals Tyrone Gray and Kevin Cardona, to make it happen. According to Gray, the company plans "to distribute the record ourselves at first. Hopefully we'll sell 10,000 to 20,000 units and pick up a distribution deal. We've got to show them a track record."
Denver radio outlets are also being targeted, although Kingdom recognizes that getting any of them to commit to airplay won't be easy. "We don't get enough support from local radio," he declares. "We should have at least one hour where they only play local music, just to show love. If they showed love for the local scene, who knows how much bigger their radio stations would be?"
Love is something Kingdom wants to spread, too: Witness "To All My People," in which he pays tribute to every region in Colorado. "That was basically me just giving my state props and letting them know I'm representing the state," he says. Which is exactly what you'd expect when a monarch talks about his kingdom.