“Denver has yet to solidify a place for hip-hop where these people are passing the mike and ripping the place apart,” says Jeff Campbell. “It will eventually happen, but it’s not happening right now.”
Campbell, a longtime Denverite now decamping to Milan, Georgia, to take a job with the Genesis Prevention Coalition, a veterans’ support organization, knows what he’s talking about. His involvement in Denver’s hip-hop culture began when his family moved from Alabama to Longmont when he was four years old. There weren’t many other African-American families in the area, and Campbell says he found solace in watching Soul Train on Saturday mornings.
“If I wasn’t an anomaly, then maybe I wouldn’t be an entertainer,” he says now. “I was at the center of attention because I was so different. I easily became a class clown, because it was the way for me to find acceptance.”
At age fourteen, Campbell competed in one of the first national breakdancing competitions; it took place on the 16th Street Mall on June 9, 1984, and the Rock Steady Crew performed during the event. Campbell’s crew, Captain Crunch and the Poppin’ Bunch, took third place.
After that, Campbell felt the draw of having a creative voice of his own. He moved to Sacramento in 1989 and began working for Black Market Records, a label that focused on the then-rising gangster-rap sector of hip-hop. One of the label’s artists, X-Raided, was arrested for his involvement in a gang-related murder and eventually sentenced to 31 years to life in prison, and the promotional materials for his then-new album, Psycho Active, exploited the event. Campbell ultimately felt that he didn’t fit in with the world of gangster rap and moved back to Colorado in 1993. He assumed his career in music was over.
“But [then] I encountered this vibrant community, and that really transformed my life,” he says.
In Denver, Campbell met Mike D. Chill, who introduced him to prolific music producer and DJ Gary “Scratch G” Martinez. Because of his experience in the music industry, Campbell had immediate credibility with the locals. He brought practical knowledge, such as how to get a bar code for selling music, and how to create logos and get distribution. Martinez, Campbell and others established Kut-N-Krew Records in 1994. The label’s first release was Bedroom Boom, by the group Kut-N-Krew, which already had a large local following with its Latin-gangster hip-hop style. However, booking shows at more legitimate venues was slightly beyond the act’s grasp, and so the collective threw keg parties at places like the Women’s Club of Denver, at 940 Lincoln Street. One stigma that may have prevented the group from booking bigger shows was the notion that hip-hop couldn’t legitimately develop in a place like Denver.
“The story we always tell in Denver is that it doesn’t have a legitimate ’hood or big high-rise project developments, and that was our marker for [what was] ’hood and what was not,” Campbell explains. “How we do hip-hop here doesn’t have to be how they do it in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Atlanta or anywhere else. It can be whatever we make it. Kut-N-Krew and [my bands and I] really tried to step out saying, ‘This is what Denver sounds like. This is who we are. This is the real shit authentically cultivated out of this culture using Denver slang and the Latin influence’ — and not being Denver versus being Denver’s impression of New York or Oakland.”
By the late ’90s, Campbell had established his solo effort, Apostle, as a powerful force in the Denver scene. In 1997, an event took place that galvanized that scene in a way that hadn’t happened before. At Spin Records & Tapes, one of the only shops to sell local hip-hop CDs and tapes, there was a gang-related drive-by shooting that left a bullet in the store owner’s arm. Campbell, Martinez, Mike D. Chill and several other members of the hip-hop community banded together for a rally and block party to pay for the damages to the shop. 9News showed up to the rally and asked who they were, and a spokesman for the group said they were the Colorado Hip-Hop Coalition. The artists realized that they could organize on behalf of their community, and they began putting on events at Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center & Cafe at 2836 Welton Street. Today the space functions mostly as an event center, but then it was a hotbed of cultural activity.
Campbell and company ran after-school programs and developed a curriculum that included a six-week program of classes in deejaying, breakdancing, graffiti art and emcee skills, which they started with students at George Washington High School. But eventually Campbell realized that he lacked the experience to head a nonprofit, and he turned his focus back onto his musical project at the time, Heavyweight Dub Champion; in 2006, he moved with the group to San Francisco.
“We took Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and King Tubby-style reggae and added a metallic, industrial edge to it reminiscent of Meat Beat Manifesto,” says Campbell. “So we had a dub-hop industrial funk band.”
HDC got its big break at the 2006 Reggae on the River Festival in Arcata, California, when an attorney from Los Angeles offered to manage the band. As part of the offer, he insisted that the members establish the group as a business, a move that led to Campbell’s parting ways with the project.
“The two original guys in the band decided they were the band and everyone else was featured artists,” says Campbell. “I was the first one to go, because I had written songs and spent nine years in the band.”
In 2008, Campbell returned to Denver once again. He had already dissolved the Colorado Hip-Hop Coalition, and without an active organization or concern to return to, his transition back into the Mile High City was difficult. He sat on the board of Flobots.org in 2008 and worked in charter schools within the Denver Public Schools for three years as an administrator. This work further opened Campbell’s eyes about his path.
“I realized I was an artist and not an administrator,” he admits.
By 2013, Campbell was deep into a new artistic project: writing and performing a one-man show called Who Killed Jigaboo Jones?
“It was a one-man mockumentary on the hip-hop industrial complex,” says Campbell. “It was my semi-autobiographical journey through hip-hop.”
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A successful run of performances affirmed Campbell’s instincts about using art for his own transformation, and his story is one he feels that he can share with others who may benefit from hearing it. The chance to use art to assist others’ positive, practical transformations came when an old friend, P.J. D’Amico, told him about an opportunity to become involved with the Genesis Prevention Coalition. Campbell applied for an opening with the organization, and his experiences in public education, the nonprofit world and performance paid off.
Part of his new job will involve “galvanizing the constituency of supporters through social media and other means,” and he looks forward to the opportunities that presents.
“Who Killed Jigaboo Jones? really got me back on track again to recognizing that if I put the energy I put into other people, ideas and things and put it into myself and my own creativity, I could transform my reality,” concludes Campbell. “I could literally be the master of my fate…. That work was the perfect metaphor, because we all live in some sort of prison in that we limit ourselves and restrict ourselves in our thinking about what our possibilities are — or [there’s] an impediment or flaw of our character that imprisons us. And to transform that prison into a sanctuary where healing can occur, that same place that bound us in now becomes a place of freedom and expression that will lead to tremendous healing in myself and in the folks I’ll be working with.”