Sweet De, the lead voice for Denver's Cool eMCees, is at the microphone at Aurora's Platinum Studio, freestyling a new set of rhymes meant to conclude "The Funky Joint," a tune set for inclusion on the group's upcoming album. De's partner, Skoolboy Fresh, and semi-official DJ Chilli E. sit in the sound booth listening as De cuts loose: "I'll flip like a gymnast with style on the verse/Next time we do this, we better rehearse."
Fresh rears back, laughing. "What was that? Your tribute to Hammer?"
"It was my tribute to Doug Fresh," De counters. "I like it, man."
"I don't," Chilli E. says.
"Then give me another word to rhyme with `verse.'"
"Hearse?" Fresh asks. "Curse? Starburst?"
"`Starburst?'" De repeats. The three start guffawing again. Within two minutes they decide that the first couplet is just fine.
The enthusiasm of this trio is undeniable, even though they admit that thus far Denver isn't the most rap-friendly of cities--particularly when it comes to playing live. "We've had more opportunities to do shows because we know a lot of the rock groups out there," De notes, "but some venues don't want to open up to rap at all."
"Racism probably has something to do with it," Fresh concedes. "They're just worried about the possibilities."
Club owners needn't fret about the Cool eMCees; as Fresh says, "We stay away from gangsta rap. We do more of a party-type, boisterous rap thing." Indeed, much of the music made by the eMCees recalls the old-school styles popularized by De's favorite performers, such as Run DMC. This sound is not presently in vogue--hardcore remains rap's ruling force. Since auditory gang-banging has so saturated the marketplace, however, the eMCees' just-for-fun approach seems especially welcome. And the performers know it.
"A lot of people have had enough of the drink-your-beer, smack-your-women-type rap," Chilli E. claims.
"That's a fact," Fresh adds. "Rap used to say more than any other music out there. And now, a lot of these gangstas aren't saying anything. Man, a lot of them aren't even real gangstas."
De and Fresh don't pretend to be anything they're not. The pair met almost a decade ago, when they both were attending East High School and discovered they had a mutual interest in rap. Still, it wasn't until three years ago that they got serious about making a go of a hip-hop career. For much of the time since then, they've worked side by side with vocalist Quana, a dancer they call Bugsy, and Chilli E., a club DJ who has been reluctant to commit himself to the group full-time. "He's got the skill," Fresh says, "but he don't want to be for real."
Fortunately, Chilli E. was on board for "Real Homies," a fine, grooving contribution to The Denver Collection, Volume 1, a cassette (recently released by N.O.A. Records) that showcases a dozen first-rate local acts working in a variety of genres. He's also been behind the wheels of steel for the tracks cut for the eMCees' debut album, presently slated for release in late June. Fresh is excited about the group's new material, a majority of which is being played on live instruments (D.A. Oldis, the head of Platinum and a genial man so long as you keep your feet off his furniture, plays many of them). Nonetheless, Fresh knows that convincing Denverites to check it out won't be a simple matter.
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"I've been in record stores and seen people pick up a tape and say, `This looks kind of phat,' and then somebody else tells him, `Naw, man, that's local' --and he puts it back down," he reports. "It's almost like we're getting discriminated against by our own people. In every other city that's become something, the people there get behind the rappers first. That hasn't happened here yet."
De is trying his best to change that. He puts out a newsletter called D-Town Sounds, which focuses attention on local hip-hop artists such as the Renegades of Funk, Lord of Word and the Disciples of Bass and D-Town Brown. "It's supposed to come out monthly," De says, "but it doesn't always work out that way. D-Town is where it's at, though. That's our theme."
"That's right," Fresh concurs. "One of our things is that we're going to make it from here. Right here."
In that case, they'd better rehearse.