Listen up, all you would-be rap moguls: College is for suckers.
Want to be a baller like Roc-A-Fella's Damon Dash? Want to build an entertainment empire bigger than that of Russell Simmons? Then take heed: For a hip-hop education, the only relevant institution is the school of hard knocks. And if you weren't at the Spot last Thursday, you've already missed your first class. Go get a late pass.
On May 20, a week after the long-anticipated Denver Hip-Hop Festival and Summit fell apart, there didn't seem like a lot to appreciate about hip-hop in Mootown, much less celebrate. But that didn't stop a dozen or so future impresarios -- folks like Paul Matthews, aka Paas from the Break Mechanics; rapper Rie Rie and Ultrasound publisher Celia Herrera (no relation to yours truly) -- from joining in a panel discussion that capped off Hip-Hop Appreciation Week; it was organized and led by Jeff Campbell, executive director of the Colorado Hip-Hop Coalition, and Brandy Bertram, program director of YouthWorks!, which helps local kids realize their entrepreneurial potential.
Bertram kicked off the session by asking those assembled to list the characteristics of a successful entrepreneur. Visionary, determined, focused, confident, disciplined and perseverant, the group fired back. Bertram wrote down each suggestion, then asked everyone to pick at least three traits they identified with. As others pondered the assignment, Herrera pulled out a Sharpie and scribbled "All of the above."
Campbell then described five successful hip-hop figures and asked the group to identify commons threads -- which, besides the fact that four had never graduated from college, repeated most of Bertram's list. Those five visionary, determined, focused people? Simmons, Dash, filmmaker F. Gary Gray, activist William Upski Wimsatt and media icon April Silver.
Although Herrera has yet to amass the credentials of the fab five, she's well on her way. A 22-year-old single mother, she publishes Ultrasound, a four-color glossy magazine dedicated to covering Colorado's underground hip-hop scene. Her role at the mag extends well beyond the title of publisher: Herrera writes, coordinates and edits the rest of the copy, plus handles the layout. While a music zine isn't a novel concept, in the world of hip-hop, especially local hip-hop, it's rarer than a Dubya booster on the Plea for Peace tour.
"I've been involved in the local hip-hop scene since I was fairly young," Herrera says. "There has been a constant conversation surrounding how no one ever gets love around here. So the magazine is really an attempt to fill that void and have an alternate media outlet that's hip-hop-based, where local artists can get interviews and CD reviews and people can start familiarizing themselves with their music and their faces."
Herrera discovered the local scene while hanging out at the Spot, a place for kids to express themselves. At a friend's urging, Herrera, who played the piano, recorded a couple of tracks at the facility; years later, it wound up on one of the Spot's compilation releases. But in the meantime, Herrera's artistic interests grew into a passion for the scene. And in February 2003, those traits she so readily identified with last Thursday inspired her to launch the magazine -- on her own dime.
"I'm selling advertising now, but up until this point, all of the funding has come out of my pocket from various small-business loans and what have you," she explains. She printed nearly 5,000 copies of Ultrasound's second issue and pushes distribution through various grassroots organizations. Herrera intends to publish the magazine on a bi-monthly basis and insists that the finite number of local acts would be no obstacle. "There are constantly new artists coming up," she says. "There's a plethora of material to cover out here."
And cover very glowingly. Right now, Ultrasound sounds more like a cheerleader of the scene than a critic. "A few people have pointed that out to me," Herrera admits. "And I agree 100 percent. I wrote those, and I'll be the first to admit that I have a hard time really criticizing people. I'd rather pull out the positive, so I write from that perspective. In future issues, I'm having other people do the type of writing that requires that critical ear. It's a skill that I'm still learning."
All the folks at the Spot that night were interested in honing their skills -- and their collective ambition and hunger for learning may someday put Mootown hip-hop on the map.
Which is good, because the Denver Hip-Hop Festival didn't do the job. On Saturday, May 16, I sat in the almost-empty Coliseum for what remained of the festival. The concert had been canceled a few days before, the Hip-Hop Summit itself a day later. On Friday, Bash still hosted a talent competition, and that left a few panels for the next day that had hip-hop in this town looking as dead as Tupac. If the rescheduled event does come off in September, as SafeCity director Charlotte Stevens says is planned, the city would do well to listen to the opinions of those actually participating in the scene.
"Hip-Hop Appreciation Week was put together by the hip-hop community," Herrera says. "That's why people showed love. It went over beautifully. It really displayed how we're starting to come together as a community. Whereas the Hip-Hop Summit was put into the hands of people who, while they deal with youth, are not themselves involved regularly with the hip-hop community. I think that's why it flopped -- and it was a total flop."
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So what would Herrera have done, given the opportunity?
"I would have put it in the hands of the Colorado Hip-Hop Coalition, first and foremost," she says. "They are like an umbrella to so many other organizations. Jeff has helped a lot of us really get going in our elements and our own businesses. He has the manpower to be able to pull together a committee to organize an event of that size and fill a venue of that capacity -- easily.
"And plus, we know hip-hop," she adds. "We know what marketing strategies we have to use. We understand the business of hip-hop. You can't just put together a tight flier and hit the streets and expect 15,000 people to show up. Really, it just comes down to the organization. There's also certain entities that you have to involve when you've got a venue that large to fill. You've got to have KS-107.5 on board as your sponsor, doing your advertising. You have to have one of the concert promoters assist in that -- HOB or whoever. You have to have the names that have credibility in filling venues. They certainly could've met their goals by using the right people."
That's the anthem. Get your damn hands up.