Hip-hop is everything that surrounds us," declares Selecta Roswell (aka Sean Ryerson), whose pseudonym references the infamous New Mexico town where a flying saucer allegedly crashed in 1947. "And if some gray aliens leak out of my head and onto my computer, they are just as hip-hop as Ol' Dirty Bastard's gold fronts."
Selecta Roswell is a core member of the Dojo, a transcendent local hip-hop collective that also includes MC, producer and sound engineer Analog Suspect (aka Marissa Knight) and Undefiable MC (aka Gypsy). Roswell's interest in paranormal phenomena translates into the otherworldly blips and beeps that appear on the outfit's two recordings, 2002's Subliminal Teachings and the just released trip-hop-flavored Everything Flows.
"When I started deejaying at raves down in New Mexico in the early '90s, I took four trips to what is called Area 51 and saw some pretty crazy shit in the skies," Roswell recalls. "And I even went on a UFO hunting trip in England a few years ago. But besides that, I'm just another freak with too many episodes of X-Files on beat-up VHS tapes."
Mixing an unusual hybrid of Far Eastern cosmology, alien conspiracy theories and a fixation with all things Godzilla, the members of the Dojo craft a unique sound that expands the possibilities of hip-hop. Is the Dojo hip-hop? This is a moot point when you consider the group's atmospheric musings on "Godzilla vs. Dojo" and "Bombing on the Great Wall," from Everything Flows. In fact, this is instrumental hip-hop of the highest order that exists in an alternate universe. Listening to the Dojo is like entering a twilight zone where all of rap's vapid materialism and talk of gunplay has been vaporized. Instead of gangster posturing, the Dojo creates tracks that would sound fitting in a kung-fu remake of the futuristic classic Blade Runner.
On the more straightforward hip-hop offering Subliminal Teachings -- the yin to Everything's yang -- the act drops some dystopian Ridley Scott-type science fiction on cuts like "Malfunction Disorder," which pairs Analog Suspect with local rapper Extra Kool in a song that deals with the plight of a dying alienated robot.
"Extra Kool came up with the concept," Roswell explains. "He did it about being a robot that's dying and not able to understand why -- kind of that whole A.I. thing, where he's talking about having feelings, and he doesn't quite understand why he's falling apart. He winds himself up with this chaos in his head, and in the end, he ends his life himself."
The collaborations with MCs like Extra Kool illustrate the philosophy behind the group's vision: When Roswell and Suspect first brainstormed the idea of starting a hip-hop crew -- the two had previously been part of a drum-and-bass outfit with Hugh Bowen called Sundog -- they envisioned forming a collective with like-minded artists who sought to pool their resources to create a vibrant, communal scene.
"We're just into people that are into putting Denver on the map," says Roswell, "as opposed to people just interested in putting their own band on the map."
With that in mind, the members of the Dojo have dedicated themselves to establishing a temple where hip-hop artists in the area can approach their art with a discipline worthy of the Shaolin masters of kung fu.
"Dojo is a Japanese word. The simplest derivative of it is a long path with a destination at the end of it, and it's also a term that is used in martial arts, to mean a place to practice, a place of learning," Suspect explains. "And that's how we envisioned it for ourselves: Our studio is our dojo, where we hone our skills and practice, and other people can come and get involved and learn different skills."
The studio is in the basement of Suspect's home. It is the place where the Dojo's first two records were made and where a number of aspiring MCs have come under the tutelage of this formidable outfit.
"We have a lot of younger MCs who are like nineteen, twenty years old that are amazing MCs, but they don't have the essence yet," says Roswell. "When we take them into the studio, it's like we're showing them how to record; we let them watch us while we're playing with the computer, and we explain to them about mike techniques in the studio."
With Zen Buddhist-like patience, this twosome has helped coach inexperienced acolytes into becoming skilled performers.
"A lot of the MCs that we originally used first were younger people," Roswell says. "And it went hand in hand with the Dojo essence: 'Come down here; let us put you on a track that is going to be on this album. You don't have to invest anything in it; we're going to put it out, but we need your voice. We need you to come down, and we need you to do it right. And if you're doing something wrong, we're going to tell you. Don't get mad -- we're going to show you how to do it right.'"
Roswell and Suspect's efforts have paid off on stand-out tracks like "Opposite Phase," from Subliminal Teachings, which features guest MCs Fly Jedi, Bugaboo and Satta. But one of the more interesting collaborations on that record is on "Human Mosaic," which finds Suspect and Extra Kool trading off raps with MC EE.S.T -- who is of Japanese descent and brings to the forefront much of the Dojo's cross-cultural inspiration.
"It was really interesting, because he raps in Japanese, and that was actually a learning experience for us," Roswell remembers. "We were cutting and pasting and realized that none of us spoke Japanese. We didn't know exactly where to place the vocals. He had to come back in and explain the lyrics to us so we could place him right, and that was fun."
The Dojo's influence has also extended to a certain musically inclined Denver Broncos defensive lineman. The group met Trevor Pryce as a result of Sundog's association with Terraform Records, the Denver-based, nationally renowned dance label. Pryce appeared on one of Terraform's compilations, and through mutual acquaintances, he and Dojo eventually collaborated on some tracks like Subliminal's "Shady Existence."
"We had an opportunity to go over to his studio, and he hit it off immediately with me and Marissa, because we were the only people in the room who weren't talking football with him," says Roswell with a laugh. "He wanted to talk to us because we were like, ŒOh here's that new MPC [sampler], and how does that work?' He was really psyched that there were people in his studio that wanted to talk more about music than about how many touchdowns he made that weekend."
Even though Roswell and Suspect have parted ways with Terraform, the label helped the Dojo break into the European market. Through their association, the crew has developed a productive working relationship with the French label La Foundation, a Terraform sister label that purchased several of the group's tracks. One of the cuts, "Same People," appeared on a twelve-inch compilation titled Gasoline. The record charted on France's Radio Nova alongside those of other stateside acts such as Dilated Peoples.
Proudly, the members of the Dojo have put as much effort into pushing their product in Europe as they have in the States -- which makes sense for a group that counts as influences such European artists as Roots Manuva, DJ Vadim, the Orb, David Holmes and DJ Cam. They've also made some important contacts with some of the more renowned international beat-makers. When Vadim was in town, the outfit networked with him and passed on some of its recordings.
"I took one of his old beats, and I did some rhyming over it," gushes Suspect, "and I mixed it down and gave it to him, because he's been such a big influence."
Throughout the year, the Dojo has built a steady following and has experienced a steady increase in the sales of Subliminal Teachings, which peaked recently after their performance at Reggae on the Rocks, the annual fest at Red Rocks. Suspect also counts this as one of their most memorable shows.
"I had one of my friends who was walking up to the amphitheater, and he was like, 'I heard your voice reverberating off the rocks,'" marvels Suspect. "I thought it was a fantastic experience. We got a lot of people who had never heard us -- and would probably never hear us -- who got a chance to hear us, and that was great. We went on after the Wailers and right before Jimmy Cliff -- and it's just cool to say that."
The Dojo has played a steady number of gigs in the past year -- an impressive feat given the lack of venues seemingly willing to support local hip-hop. Marilyn Megenity, owner of the Mercury Cafe and a longtime supporter of local music, has given the Dojo a monthly showcase to host its Subliminal Teachings series, which features artists who seek to push the envelope of local hip-hop culture. At first the Merc seemed an unlikely place for a monthly showcase, since Megenity has long since sworn off shows that might draw the young male testosterone-on-overdrive crowd. She's experienced too many disastrous punk-rock and death-metal shows marred by violence and general hooliganism. Fortunately, the Dojo is no C-Bo.
"It was really touch-and-go for the first two months; it took about a month or two to explain to her what we were all about," says Roswell. "After we had our first two shows there, she realized that it was completely different from what she knew of hip-hop, and it just kind of snowballed from there. Every week we've had 50 to 75 more people, and she's happy with it."
Some of the crews that have blazed the stage with the Dojo include Dialektix, Accumen, Minezai and Optik Fusion Embrace. But one of the highlights of the series was the recent album-release party for Everything Flows.
"The party was dope; we played to about 350 heads and re-created the new instrumental album on stage with Dojo, Reverb, and the Verse and Dialektix MCs doing freestyles over all the tracks," Roswell says. "We also had performances from Colorado Springs's Still Catchin' Wreck, as well as the Draconians from Dorje Records. The visuals were provided by An-ism, who has become a staple of our performances; we'll be hosting a visual clash between them and Alala One of MotherEarthSoundSystem."
After the November and December Subliminal shows, the Dojo plans to take some time off to record its third disc. The group also plans to put out an EP of its reggae-influenced tracks, but for the immediate future, everyone's excited about promoting Everything Flows. Roswell's day job as head buyer of vinyl dance music for Twist & Shout Records undoubtedly helped contribute to the interludes, spoken-word bits, Asian music samples and vast number of found sounds that appear on the record.
"As far as getting samples and ideas" -- all of which add up to interesting sounds for human and extraterrestrial consumption -- "I'm surrounded by them every day," Roswell says with a smirk. "It's a soundtrack to a movie that's not there."
Perfect for a crew that works enthusiastically like hip-hop's version of Scully and Mulder as they revel in the discovery that the aliens of Denver's underground scene are not alone.
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