Sam Baron fits the profile of a quintessential Gemini. Dualistic nature? Check. Contradictory? Yep. Complex? Definitely. Exuding confidence often to the point of arrogance, the MC, who answers to the name Mane Rok and is also one-third of the hip-hop trio Maneline, carries himself with an unwavering bravado that's earned him a reputation for being egocentric. And deservedly so.
In 2005, when he was nominated for a Westword Music Showcase award, the outspoken rhymesayer described himself as a quote-unquote fanfuckingtastic MC -- and followed that up with an unapologetic assertion that his skill at rocking the mike freestyle was unmatched. "I can freestyle about whatever," he noted flatly. "Everyone says that, but I really can. And if you really took the time to listen to the clever shit I write, you'd be amazed."
Of course, as the quintessential Gemini, Baron has two sides. Publicly, he's the picture of poise. Privately, however, he admits that the thought of how his music will be received frequently has him "scared shitless." As it turns out, all that grandstanding is mostly just that.
CD-release show, with Deca, Spoke in Wordz, DJ AWHAT!! and Distrakt, 8 p.m. Saturday, March 24, Shelter, 1037 Broadway, 303-534-0222.
"That's funny," he says. "I get that all the time. People think that I'm really arrogant and that I'm conceited. And I know, I do give that off. I think that's directly correlated to my insecurity and my need to overcompensate."
An MC with self-esteem issues? In the rap game, where swollen egos are the order of the day, Baron is an anomaly. And the surprising duality doesn't end there. Although his ideals fall in line with the more thought-provoking hip-hop artists who typically eschew the ostentatiousness of the mainstream, Baron admits to being materialistic.
But then, he's been the odd man out for most of his life. The son of a first-generation Mexican immigrant, he grew up in a modest ranch-style house in the Swansea neighborhood, surrounded by kids who would go on to become card-carrying gangbangers. Thanks to a nurturing mother, Baron avoided a similar fate.
"We were fortunate, my sister and I, that we didn't get sucked into a lot of things that other people fell into," he says. "My mom was very strong; she was at the helm of our family and did everything. My dad was the money maker. He worked long hours and was gone at five in the morning and wouldn't come home until it was dark. So it was all about my mom, and she was very involved in making sure we didn't fall into that shit."
Being singled out early on for his precocious intellect didn't help his street cred much, either. Nothing says gangsta quite like being in the gifted program.
"I was ostracized because of that," he remembers. "I was one of a very few Mexicans around all white kids. And so I've always been separated. And it's always been that way since I was young. I've always been in programs where I was the token minority."
But at least in school, his heritage wasn't questioned. "Growing up, me and my sister were always told we were whitewashed," Baron grouses. "To boot, when I started getting more into emceeing and started rapping when I was fourteen, fifteen, all of a sudden I was black -- trying to be black. I've never been able to be Mexican. That's why I feel like I'm always stuck in the middle. I've never been able to just be accepted as me. I have friends even now who tell me I don't have my hood pass and shit."
If anyone's earned a hood pass, though, it's Baron. When Swansea got too bad -- a mailman reportedly quit his route after being shot at three times -- his family moved to Park Hill, then south near Garfield Park. Baron attended Horace Mann Middle School, then went to George Washington High School. "I've lived all over the city in all these neighborhoods," he points out. "If anyone's from Denver and represents the city, it's me, goddamnit!"
Baron's Maneline protegés, on the other hand, would have a harder time getting past the ghetto gatekeepers. MC/producer Casper Macanally (aka Inkline, pronounced "Incline") and DJ Adam Williams (aka Dee Jay Tense) are two white boys with a predilection for hip-hop. But like Baron, who was turned on to hip-hop while admiring graffiti as a blue-haired skate punk, Williams and Macanally embody the notion that it's all about getting in where you fit in.
Macanally learned how to adapt early on; he had to. A preacher's son and the youngest of five, he never lived anywhere longer than a year. In fourth grade he started listening to hardcore rap acts like Too $hort and NWA (interesting choices for a preacher's kid), but he was consumed with sports and didn't develop a real interest in hip-hop until the mid-'90s. After a stint playing guitar in an experimental noise-rock band, he decided to try making beats and rhyming. By then, he was into Wu Tang Clan and OutKast and already pretty well rounded musically.
"I've always been into different types of music, never one thing -- which you can probably tell from my production," Macanally offers. "When I sample, I sample anything, everything, and basically try to update it and translate it into my own sounds. I try not to limit myself to one type of sound. That's how I've always done it. That's why I chose the name Inkline. I'm always at an incline, never happy with where I'm at. Once cats get comfortable, they get passed by cats who want to work."
Baron and Macanally, who met through mutual friends, had already collaborated on a couple of songs when the latter moved to Denver in October 2005. Baron had just parted ways with his previous outfit, Ideal Ideologies, and now he hooked up with someone whose ideology he truly shared. "Fuck just being an MC," Baron says. "This is songwriting. You need to transcend those boundaries. I think that's the problem with a lot of MCs: They just want to be rappers and that's all. Why? You're making music. You're writing songs. People don't consider rappers as musicians. It's like, fuck that. It's really important to me that my stuff is musical."
Macanally's production on Till Then..., the outfit's outstanding debut, underscores that sentiment, with beats spanning wide on sunny, keyboard-drenched cuts like "Young Bux" -- which calls to mind Ahmad's "Back in the Day," both in tone and texture -- to such dark, brooding, soul-baring tracks as "Come Back." A flurry of tom hits lays the foundation for Baron as he fervently delivers the lines "'Bout to lose it all, really, just walking away/Tail between my legs, I crawl, no option to stay/Hella frustrated because I'm not getting paid, while idiots on the radio have you nodding like slaves/Makes me feel like this whole time it was nothing but useless shit/As far as Mane Rok goes, it's as good as my music gets." Throughout Till Then..., Macanally's unhurried, rhythmic flow augments Baron's forceful cadence.
If you ask Baron and Macanally, though, they'll tell you that Williams is the cornerstone of Maneline's sound. Williams took over for Baron's best friend, DJ AWHAT!!, who was spread a little thin as DJ for the various factions of the L.I.F.E. crew, a loose group of friends who formed an artistic collective akin to the Hieroglyphics crew. A well-regarded turntablist who's competed in numerous DMC and Guitar Center battles, Williams was also a founding member of the Crunk Bros. with DJ Cysko Rokwell and appeared regularly on Radio 1190's Basementalism during its formative years.
"Tense is a monster on the tables," Macanally says of Williams. "He just picks it up. In a year and a half, we've rehearsed twice, and I'd say nine times out of ten, his execution is perfect."
Not too shabby for a kid who started deejaying on a makeshift setup consisting of an old-school, all-in-one console with a record player and cassette deck, a belt-driven Toshiba turntable and a buzzy, beat-up $50 Jazzy Jeff mixer.
"Our show is nothing without Tense," adds Baron. "I refuse to do a show without him, because he's that integral to our music and our show."
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A show that Maneline is now ready to take on the road, putting its money where Baron's mouth is.
"What I've come to realize is, rappers have the biggest egos in the world, and that's just the way it is," Baron concludes. "And we don't want to accept that maybe we're not up to par. Ever. We're always the best. We're getting old. I can't sit here and bullshit myself anymore. It's time to give the people something."
But with Till Then..., one of the finest hop-hop releases in recent memory, Baron and crew have already done just that.