Dave Self, one of the DJs behind the hip-hop collective called Den One, didn't grow up in a rap-loving household. "My stepmom and my dad were like, 'What is this Run PRQ and the Beastie Boys? What is this shit? This is just a fad,'" he recalls. "And I would be like, 'Shut up--you don't know. This is not just a fad.' And now here I am, 25 years old, and it hasn't gone away."
Den One, which consists of Self, Alan Barnes, Chris Pfeiffer and Dave Stanfil (aka D-Self, Fat Al, Eddie and Stan Lee, respectively), has exhibited staying power as well; these former graduates of Manual High School assembled the group in August 1996, and they show no sign of losing interest in it. But Den One is notable for more than just its longevity. Instead of spinning for a traditional hip-hop audience at a traditional hip-hop venue, the four spread their brand of musical knowledge at the 15th St. Tavern, a venue at 623 15th Street that has become a haven for punk acts and indie rock. Every Sunday beginning at 9:30 p.m., they demonstrate that hip-hop is a universal language--and thanks to their emphasis on old school and reggae, they also provide a hell of a good time.
Self came up with the concept for Den One, a name that denotes both the quartet and their recurring Tavern party, shortly after returning to Denver from Atlanta, where he attended college. While in Georgia, he says, "I'd go to all these really cool underground spots that were not clubs, really, but they had mixed crowds, cheap drinks, and they spun a wide variety of hip-hop and reggae. They weren't playing all the Bad Boy stuff or all the stuff you hear on the radio." Back in Denver, he learned that the Tavern was looking for someone to operate the wheels of steel on Sundays. After landing the gig, he approached Barnes, Pfeiffer and Stanfil to assist him. As for the name, he says, "I had this idea to start some kind of reggae crew called Dub Scouts of America, and when I was a Cub Scout, I was in Den 1. So I thought it was a cool analogy for a place where people can come together."
At first blush, the Tavern seems like an improbable setting for such a gathering; its ramshackle interior is more Ramones than Eric B. and Rakim, and its ambience is far removed from most chill-out lounges. But such contradictions actually enhance the event's atmosphere, which blends a kegger mentality with a break-dancing vibe.
The patrons to whom Den One plays are equally diverse. In the beginning, Pfeiffer notes, "it was dive-bar drunks and our friends. I would put on a videotape of, like, air disasters, and then we'd throw on a hip-hop record. And the next thing you knew, there'd be some old drunk guy bobbing his head as he watched this tripped-out video. And there's nothing better than that." Today, however, Den One's bashes are peppered with young men and women of every color and creed, all of whom seem to get along just fine. The jocks point out that the only police incident that has taken place during a Den session was caused in large part by the police themselves.
"It was a little taste of the new order," claims Pfeiffer about the episode, which took place in January shortly after the Denver Broncos won Super Bowl XXXII. According to him, "everybody inside was having fun until a little canister of our city's nutritious tear gas" rolled through the Tavern's front door.
At the time, Self was playing The Year of the Broncos, an album that commemorated the Broncos' first trip to the Super Bowl, in 1977. "It was hosted by Bob Martin from KOA," Self says, "and he'd say things like, 'Craig Morton fades back,' or 'There's Randy Gradishar.' But then, all of a sudden I was like, 'Someone is smoking a cigar in here.' And the next thing I knew, I was on the ground, crawling out the door."
"What really sucked," Barnes interjects, "is that I had just bought a Guinness in a can, and I had to pour it on my head."
"We should bill the police department," Pfeiffer says.
Cops have had no reason to roust anyone at Den One flings since then; there have been none of the fights that so many club owners associate with hip-hop, in large part because the DJs keep the focus on the music. They don't see themselves as performers. "We wanted to be anonymous," Pfeiffer says. "We're not on stage trying to entertain."
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Likewise, they prefer to steer clear of hip-hop cliches. Self has no interest in becoming "a rap-asaurus, or Rapelstiltskin," he says. "We're not trying to be typical--like 'Yo, yo, what's up.' We're four white kids, we love the music, and for me, personally, there's a nostalgic party thing going on. In high school you would listen to Kid 'n Play, EPMD and Public Enemy all in the same night, and you'd think nothing of it. Because it was all rap."
The average Den One playlist is just as eclectic; the turntablists are adept at mixing flavors. Barnes usually opens by playing mellow grooves of the sort issued by the Mo Wax imprint. "I play music that a lot of people have never heard," he confirms. "I buy weird shit from Germany and London." As for Self, he specializes in splicing together songs by Eighties artists such as Run DMC and Slick Rick with material by dubsters like Lee Perry and the Mad Professor. But sometimes he takes another direction entirely. For example, he's been known to showcase soul music in order to introduce novices to the tunes that have formed the basis for so many rap classics.
Not everyone is knocked about by Den One's approach. "I had this one guy come up to me while I was playing beats and dub," Barnes remembers, "and he was like, 'Yo, man, when you going to play Journey?'" But other skeptics have been won over. "We'll get people who come in and can't believe this is cool," Pfeiffer notes, "but by 11:30, they're partying."
For Pfeiffer, such moments are what have made this experiment a success. "Denver is a cool place; it has an open-mindedness that a lot of cities have for all kinds of music, all kinds of cultures, all kinds of backgrounds." He feels that there's still a ways to go--which is why he's looking forward to the day when "Gladhand, Slim Cessna and a hip-hop group could all play together." But until then, at least there's Den One.