"The first thing that defines an artist who is local," says Montbello rapper Bumpy Chill, "is to do a show without using anyone else's beats and then see how the crowd reacts."
The Don Kronicals, which pairs Chill with his cousin, Aurora's L.O., has had no problems passing such tests. This summer alone, the duo has opened for national acts Big Pun, Ol' Dirty Bastard and Ice-T, and in each case, the audiences responded to Chill's microphone skills and L.O.'s rugged, innovative production style by going berserk. Several of the big names were impressed by the Dons as well; Smooth Da Hustler, who was also on the Ice-T bill, has already asked L.O. to collaborate on future projects.
The Saga of 2 Dons, a seventeen-track disc the Kronicals hope to release around the first of the year, indicates why this fledgling duo (which has been together for a little over a year) has gotten so many people in the Denver scene buzzing. On the disc, Chill and L.O. trade off rapid-fire lyrical blasts such as "Nothing Can Stop Don Kron," which Chill says touches on an incident during which "the gang task force came running up in the house with me and my cousin there, and me having to hide and sneak my cousin out, because he was illegal. We beat some people up." He adds, "That's our life. That's what we were living."
Chill, who's 23, doesn't go into detail about the cliques with which he once ran or any questionable behavior he might have engaged in at the time. Instead he alludes to past wrongdoing while crediting hip-hop for helping him transcend it. "I could be doing something else, and I was doing something else," he says. "So it's better that I'm doing what I'm doing now than being up in your house or trying to get you in the street. In my soul, in my heart, I didn't want to do some of the things I did. When your whole situation is bad, when you're struggling and when you deal with a lot of issues, you tend to get into a lot of wild situations."
"Lay Down," another Saga number, deals with similar circumstances via lines such as "Your strategy made a tragedy/Baby, you better holler daddy/Let me know what the fuck went wrong/Is it cut as a Teflon/We about to get it on/Keep your children out of the playground/We about to spray rounds/My nigger's dead/Everybody lay down." Chill says this song and others were inspired by the senseless murders of good friends such as V Ice, a promising area MC. As he puts it, "When somebody dies, you feel hurt--and it's better to say it on a record to get it off your chest. V Ice was one of the people who got laid down, snuffed out, and that puts vengeance in your heart."
Themes like these are commonplace in rap today--probably too commonplace. But what prevents the Dons' stark reflections from seeming stereotypical is the urgency with which they're delivered and the music that L.O. puts to them. He's a producer who takes chances instead of simply mimicking the hip-hop flavor of the week. From the salaciously jazzy bounce of "Limelight" to the symphonic flourishes heard in "Ambush," L.O. shows that he's well on his way to developing a sonic signature of his own.
L.O., who is nineteen, says he was first exposed to hip-hop during a trip to visit his stepbrother in Camden, New Jersey. Music by Run DMC and the Fat Boys inspired him to start scratching, and after mastering the turntables, he moved on to keyboards and samplers. Today he eschews the Puff Daddy/karaoke method of mixing in favor of doctoring samples until they're all but unrecognizable. "I'll always try to change it in some way," he explains. "I don't want to get a sample that's already hot. I just want to make a distinction that I'm piecing together my own compositions, so it can turn out to be a piece of art that I constructed." The results, which he calls "the Cillarado [pronounced 'killerado'] sound", are exemplified by "The Word Is Out," in which a Chill rap about bubbly ("I got a question for those who put Cristal in their rhyme/How you make a million dollars if you're drunk all the time?") rides atop a soundscape that mates Western motifs with doo-wop and Chill's trademark whistles.
At this point, the Don Kronicals expect Saga to be an independent release, but that doesn't mean they've decided not to shop it. Chill, who once had a deal with powerful Kurupt Management, plans to pitch the album to several of his famous acquaintances, including L.A. Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal, who's just started up his own hip-hop imprint. But the pair is also dedicated to forging a coalition with other Colorado rappers. "Unity is the key to success," L.O. says. "The more you can build, the more there is out there for your foundation."
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"There's very little unity right now," Chill admits. "It's really between the hot MCs; we have the gist of unity. That's why I've made several efforts to get MCs together --and that's all the way from Nyke Loc and Dez to Kingdom." Veteran rappers need to "take some of the younger characters and image-build with them," he goes on. "That's the only way we're going to get a scene. People need to support their locals and stop fighting at the venues."
If Chill has a philosophy, it's "stop hating and start creating," but he also feels that it's important to keep it real. To him, though, this advice is no excuse for giving in to hip-hop cliches. "I can see through people's facades, because I've been doing this for a long time," he says. "You can go, like, 'I've killed,' but nobody wants to hear about that if that's all you've got to tell. If you rap about it, at least paint a good picture of whoever's thoughts you're drawing from. If you go, 'I got a gun and I shot it,' describe the scene for me. If you've got to eat and you're doing it to eat, or your friend's got a deal and you're just trying to make money, do what you do--but remember what you're doing to this art."
According to Chill, he's got a lot more than cash on his mind. He's a practicing Muslim, and he expects to use the work of the Don Kronicals to explore Islamic issues. He's also interested in widening the audience for bilingual rappers. L.O., meanwhile, has formed his own production company, Connect Dot Productions, with an eye toward making music that Chill hopes will "touch anybody from the rich man to the poor man to every male, female or child."
To do so successfully, Chill believes that Colorado hip-hoppers need to come up with their own thing. "They shouldn't imitate an accent that they don't have to sound like whoever's on top," he says. "You need to be yourself, be natural, be who you are and be proud--and that's that. If you be who you are on the inside, you can't help but be beautiful.