Underground hip-hop was on the ascent by the early 2000s and reached a bit of an apex in its popularity by the middle of the decade. Chris Steele released his debut album Litterture in 2004. His clever wordplay and thoughtful if irreverent humor made his rap songs stand out even among some of the genre's greatest artists. He was nineteen years old.
Denver has had a long history with hip-hop going back to the 1970s, when the KGNU program Eclipse went on the air. I urge anyone interested in that rich and diverse and deep history to see MU$A's excellent documentary, Soulz of the Rockies. Even as someone who grew up in Aurora throughout the '70s and '80s, I never knew much of anything about local hip-hop. Like a lot of people I knew, that seemed like some New York or Los Angeles thing.
The first hip-hop group I got to see in person other than Public Enemy was Ground Zero Movement. I'd only read about that group and Kingdom and Apostle and had merely heard about Brother Jeff (Jeff S. Fard) and his Cultural Center & Cafe. GZM was on its way to not being a group by the time I got to see it, and I never got to know any of those guys. But I got to know Yonnas Abraham of Pirate Signal with his DJ AWHAT a bit better — they seemed like an especially talented musical entity that navigated somewhat in the world of hip-hop but also had a presence in the general underground-music world.
In the mid-2000s, my roommate at the time did sound at the Climax Lounge and regaled me with hilarious stories of terrible bands. But a group of people he had only kind words about was this small rap crew that included people called Extra Kool, Time and Awareness. When I had a chance to write an article on Colorado hip-hop for the relatively short-lived Boulder-based music and culture magazine Cairn, I got to interview Abraham, Chris Nathan of Eclipse and some others, but couldn't track down Extra Kool, Time or Awareness. Imagine trying to put "Time" into a search engine alongside "Awareness," especially for artists who didn't then seem to have a huge presence on the internet.
Between the writing of that Cairn article and the time I actually got to see Time and Awareness as Calm., Chris "Time" Steele, Chavo "Awareness" Trejo, Danny "Extra Kool" Vincennie and some friends had formed Dirty Laboratory Productions for the release of their musical output. Perhaps it even existed in its nascent form around the time Time put out his first album. Either way, by March 24, 2007, when I caught Calm., not knowing it was the storied Time and Awareness, Dirty Laboratory had an identity, an aesthetic, a kind of ideology, and its releases were all high quality, both in terms of packaging and content. Its logo was unmistakable: a stylized fetus wearing headphones.
I had gone to the show to see Nightshark and Pictureplane not knowing a random third band would be on the bill that the other bands didn't know. But right after the show, Steele walked up to me and asked if I wanted a copy of the new Calm. album, Anti-Smiles. I did: The hip-hop group I saw was powerful, and Chris's words hit deep in the psyche. He had some humorous songs, but all of them had a poetic quality and layered ideas that really set the duo apart — not just from most hip-hop I had ever heard, but also from most other music in Denver and elsewhere.
Over the next several years I got to see Chris grow as an artist and split off from Calm. to write and perform music as Time. And from going to see Calm. I got to see other Dirty Laboratory artists like Extra Kool, Doctype and Damon JeVon. I accidentally got to see the tail end of the first great wave of underground hip-hop. This included Mr. Dibbs and Rob Viktum, and it included the late and great Eyedea & Abilities and Sole, the rapper whose '90s work laid one of the main foundations for underground and alternative hip-hop. I learned quite a bit about underground hip-hop from seeing the shows Time and Extra Kool played. Additionally, I became privy to a huge world of hip-hop in Denver, albeit just a glimpse. Someone more qualified than I should write more about that whole scene sometime. But I did get to see Ancient Mith more often, another artist who navigated between hip-hop and experimental music and indie rock, as well as Otem Rellik, Mane Rok and other notable acts.
At the same time, the Dirty Laboratory crew embraced my own music in a way that the underground rock scene did not. And that's the way those guys were and are — open-minded and supportive of anyone trying to go about things honestly. I saw a memorable show at the Bug in 2007 that included the usual Dirty Lab artists as well as Mr. Patterson, a kind of nü metal /death metal band that proved that not all of that music is bogus. Dirty Lab wasn't trying to be in a musical ghetto; it was expansive and welcoming — but most of all respectful. Jason Horodyski of Maudlin Magpie was often part of the hip-hop shows; so was Robin Walker, who was then a solo artist but is now in Nighttimeschoolbus.
From 2007 to 2013, Dirty Laboratory was pretty active, with perhaps a slowdown of a year while Steele was attending graduate school. Its releases were some of the best albums of that time and went relatively under-celebrated. I championed the music as often as possible, because it was always worthwhile. Extra Kool's Creature From the Whack Lagoon and Tickle Me Pink remain some of the most heart-rending albums I've ever heard, and Vincennie really put his pain and catharsis into those songs. Time's Fantastic Reality and Naked Dinner have a literary quality that makes most other albums given that designation seem quaint. Time's 2013 album, Newstalgia, his most recent, struck new heights of artistic development and sophistication. And still Dirty Laboratory is not well known in Denver.
Maybe Dirty Laboratory will experience a bit of a renaissance in coming years, but that group of people hit it hard for a good long while, including when Steele, who put out an album a month in his Hydra series in 2011. Even if it doesn't, Extra Kool and Time still do shows here and there. All I know is that the Dirty Lab crew made life better with the inspiration of their music and the way they welcomed a relative outsider in my own scene into their circle. It's that kind of kindness, genuine interest and mutual respect that makes for a strong, viable community, and many other groups in Denver and beyond could learn a lot from the ethos that informed and continues to inform Dirty Laboratory Productions. What follows are more scenes from my time going to check out Extra Kool, Time and the other hip-hop artists that traveled in the same circles.
*Author's Note on the High Plains Underground Archive: In the late 1990s, I started going to local shows on a regular basis. Growing up in the '70s and '80s, I didn't know there was such a thing as local music worth checking out. But I was drawn in after seeing a band called Rainbow Sugar (an all-female punk/hip-hop/experimental guitar rock extravaganza) opening for Sleater-Kinney's first show in Colorado at The Fox Theatre in October 1998. Next, I learned about a show at the now-defunct Rebis Galleries. From there I went to the first Monkey Mania show, and there was no looking back.
Rainbow Sugar was the first local band I photographed at Herman's Hideaway in 1999. But it was in 2005 when I got my first digital camera that my extensive photo archive started. In this series, called High Plains Underground Archive, I will share a small fraction of the tens of thousands of those photos, focusing on specific venues, bands, time periods, movements and whatever else seems to make sense. The title of this series comes from the working title of my book on the history of underground music in Denver 1975 to the present.
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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.