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Nuckle Up

P-Nuckle is awesome.

Just ask Chris LaPlante. This summer, the frontman made a bold proclamation at the Westword Music Showcase awards ceremony that stirred the ire of a few fellow nominees. When P-Nuckle was announced as the winner in the reggae/ska category, the frontman held up the award and zealously declared, "We deserve this." That moment was captured in my column published later that week, complete with a photo of LaPlante holding the trophy and offering up a single-digit salute. This audacious gesture incensed Lion SoulJahs' Kathryn Harris, and the keyboardist promptly fired off a missive taking LaPlante to task for his brazen demeanor that night.

"I would never say that P-Nuckle didn't deserve to win it," she wrote, "but I can hardly imagine an image more antithetical to what we hold the values of reggae to be -- respect for all people -- than the picture of the P-Nuckle guitarist holding the award while flipping the bird. What really matters most is that the vibe is being carried forward, and that reggae -- gospel music for the masses -- continues to penetrate the culture with healing, solution-focused lyrics and opportunities for community unity."

Thing is, LaPlante is all about community. Perched on a bar stool at 3 Kings Tavern and surrounded by his bandmates -- guitarist/vocalist Dave Jackson, bassist John "Chaka" Bohannon and drummer Cliff Pfeifer -- he gushes about how great it is to be part of Denver's tight-knit scene and asserts that Lion SoulJahs is among his favorite local bands.

"They should've won reggae," LaPlante insists. "It was a joke that we won. We're four white kids. I got no hair, man. Do I look like some reggae man who should've won the best reggae?"

Ultimately, LaPlante is not so much arrogant as he is confident. But if folks have a hard time making the distinction, it's certainly understandable. "A lot of people in this town are scared to admit that their shit is good," he says. "I don't think there's anybody in this town who can hold a torch to us.

"If you don't believe in your shit, nobody else is going to," he explains. "That's the bottom line. If you're not out there 100 percent selling what you got and being that salesman, saying, 'I believe in this. This is my shit. This is dope. Check it out. If you're not there, you're a bitch, 'cause you're girlfriend's going to be there' -- you know, something like that. That's kind of how it's always been with us. Nobody else is going to do us any favors, so we gotta represent ourselves in the highest accord and be like, 'Yes, we are the fucking shit.' If somebody doubts it, come to a show. If we can't back up what we say, tell me now. But I honestly think we can -- and we have. We've always been kind of in-your-face, ready to fucking take you out back and show what kind of a bitch you are. I never backed down from that. That's how we've always rolled."

LaPlante has been stirring things up since he was a kid in Littleton. He was suspended from elementary school close to forty times before being expelled -- and was so disruptive, in fact, that Jefferson County Public Schools put him through private therapy in an effort to set him straight. LaPlante's folks split when he was seven, and he ended up living with his father, a Jehovah's Witness who ruled with an iron fist. At thirteen, he moved in with his mom, a free spirit with whom he could discuss anything. And that's when the real trouble began. By seventh grade, LaPlante was dealing drugs as a member of the notorious Bloods gang. The following year, he got one last chance: Narrowly avoiding a six-month sentence at a detention center, he came across an educator who gave him the ultimatum that changed his life.

"I finally realized that education was a good thing after a teacher told me there's a million ways you can go," LaPlante recalls. "It's about whether you want to be working at the end or at the top."

From that point on, LaPlante excelled academically -- even if he persisted in his illicit extracurricular activities. At Columbine High School, he continued to deal drugs and partied with wild abandon. During his sophomore year, he moved with his mother to Prescott, Arizona, and immersed himself in music. And then his life took another turn: Shuttling between Prescott and San Diego, he met Ryan Immagart from Volcom Entertainment and was subsequently exposed to the burgeoning SoCal dub scene, a movement led by Sublime and followed by such acts as Slightly Stoopid and Bargain Music -- kindred spirits with whom P-Nuckle would regularly share bills down the road.  

LaPlante returned to Colorado for his senior year, graduating from Columbine in 1998. After that, he attended Arapahoe Community College before transferring to Metro State, where he earned a degree in computer science. Around that time, the guitarist began playing with DJ Justin Spahlinger in Cornerstone, an outfit that later evolved into P-Nuckle. Amid the personnel shifts, LaPlante took over vocal duties and started solidifying the current line with the addition of Bohannon, a native of Hemet, California, on bass, and Miami-bred Jackson on guitar. (The band went through innumerable drummers before finally linking up with Pfeifer this year.)

A tireless promoter even then, LaPlante hustled CDs out of a backpack everywhere he went. As a result, the reconfigured unit gradually built up a following and graduated from performing in front of a handful of people at Herman's to weekend headlining slots. But one thing never changed: LaPlante and his bandmates were determined to make music that helped folks escape the turmoil of their daily lives.

"Life is already full of downer shit," LaPlante notes. "Life sucks. Everybody knows that. But if you make music that for one minute you can listen to a song that can take you away from your crappy life, that's it."

LaPlante's bandmates concur.

"If you took dump trucks full of sand," offers Jackson in a laconic stoner drawl, "covered Colfax and made it a fucking beach instead of walking down Colfax and having people being like, ŒWhat's up, motherfucker? What are you looking at?,' you'd have people smiling at you with Coronas in hand."

"Everybody would be barefoot," Bohannon chimes in, "and it would be all good."

"There's a bunch of people in Denver walking around in black who never smile," LaPlante adds. "If I see one of those kids out in the crowd smiling, dancing and having a good time, I'm like, ŒFuck yeah. Mission accomplished.'

"This is the only life you've got," he continues, "and you've gotta make the most of it. It's just sad to me to see all these kids being so miserable they're cutting themselves and being pissed off and just anti-everything."

LaPlante, who came up admiring groups like Bad Brains and Fishbone and turned to music as a form of release, knew a couple of troubled kids at Columbine who could have used some of the positivity he gleaned from those bands. Armed with a fake ID at the age of sixteen, LaPlante would buy booze for Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. He had no inkling of the mayhem the two would later wreak; he remembers them as agitators, the type of guys who wore swastika shirts to school just to get attention.

"The jocks picked on everybody," LaPlante remembers, his eyes glazing over slightly. Clearly uneasy drudging up memories of Harris and Klebold, he's never before spoken publicly about that day in April 1999. "But what drove them over the edge was that the amount of teasing couldn't be stopped. You had these guys who were seniors in high school, who had a senior class of jocks who would rather spit on them than talk to them, whose little brothers and sisters were freshmen, picking on these kids. But in fear of retribution from kids in their own grade, they couldn't do anything."

Although he knew them, LaPlante was no member of the Trenchcoat Mafia. He was just an amiable stoner dude who got along with everybody. In fact, his best friend, a football player, was on Harris and Klebold's hit list. "I was that guy in the middle," LaPlante explains. "I was selling speed to the football team -- everybody did speed, every football team I ever met. Everybody was all speeded out. I was in between the whole thing, dude. It was a horrible thing, because we knew all the kids. It's one of those things that you just wished never happened."

But after it did, LaPlante and company were determined to make sure it never happened again. They helped resuscitate the waning Silence the Violence shows that had started up after the Summer of Violence back in 1993, and continue to do everything they can to effect change -- whether it's brightening spirits with their jovial brand of reggae-and-dub tinged rock, or provoking people to think with their songs. In "Gas on the Fire" -- a song on Resident 303, the act's new record -- LaPlante urges listeners to rise up against oppression, staying true to the insurgent spirit that reggae was built on. It can't always be about the party; sometimes you have to be the turd in the punch bowl.

"As a people, we don't really have that big of a voice," he concludes. "But that fire is there. And by going against the popular thought, the right wing, you're throwing gas on the fire. The way I see it, the more the people know, the more agitated we get as a populace. You have to have that voice. If you have a megaphone at your disposal and you don't have anything to say, you should never have been given the megaphone in the first place. That's kind of what 'Gas on the Fire' is all about: It's like, yeah, throw gas on the fire, make it crazy, stir it up."


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