THE SOUND OF D-TOWN
Shatta Mejia is a teacher--in every sense of the word. A high-school-level instructor for the past three years, he works in an alternative program under the umbrella of the Boulder Valley school system with "at-risk" students. "About 90 percent of them have really serious issues--they have criminal records, or they've been physically or sexually abused," he says. "There's also alcohol abuse, drug abuse."
In short, these are teens who often have more than a little trouble dealing with authority figures. Mejia says he gets through because he can relate to them in ways that many of his peers cannot. Among the reasons are his youth (he's 24) and deep involvement in youth culture. As the lead rapper, spokesperson and spiritual head of D-Town Brown, among Denver's finest hip-hop acts, he notes, "I'm already a step ahead. I'm very in touch with their lingo and their attitude. I don't have to say, `What's this?' or `What's that?' I already know."
In fact, Mejia adds, many of his students don't know what to make of him. They're into his music: "They're always saying, `Where's your tape? Rap for us,'" he reveals. But these Boulder kids, street-smart as they are, sometimes seem taken aback by the mere fact of Mejia's ancestry. According to him, "They never see a person of color in my position. They've never experienced it before."
The lack of Chicano teachers and the treatment of minority students in the Denver area are important matters to Mejia and the other members of D-Town Brown (drummer Kenny Ortiz, bassist Ken Grider, guitarist Raphael Tapia and DJ Hen G [Henry Gomez]). In fact, they almost refused to cooperate for this article because they felt that a recent cartoon by Westword's Kenny Be (about a proposed protest involving Chicano students in Denver schools) was racist--and because of what they see as an anti-Chicano bias in Westword as a whole.
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But, as demonstrated by the songs on D-Town's excellent album Tiempo Chicano, Mejia's concerns go far beyond these topics. "Chicharrones" mentions "hip-hop pride," "The Gift" includes the line "indigenous people don't have to steal from each other," and "4 Steps Back" is an antiviolence ode that contains an exhortation not to "be controlled by your money and your liquor." Even "D-Town Brown (Gonna Have a Good Time)," which in many respects is a simple party number, sports an introduction in which Mejia assures the listener that "D-Town Brown don't take nothing lightly--especially the police in our community."
"The lyrics are really deep--they're not just on-the-corner rap lyrics," DJ Hen G says. "They have messages and meaning, not just for hip-hop listeners, but for everyone."
What prevents these raps from devolving into well-intentioned but didactic propaganda is the music itself. Unlike many hip-hop acts, D-Town Brown is a real band, with performers who play original licks rather than sample snatches of music made by their predecessors. Ortiz--a former member of the sadly defunct Phantasmorgasm, as well as a part of Cactus Marco and Scroat Thrax--is an exceedingly powerful drummer who gives even the hardest beats a funky edge. Grider, a contributor to the rock-based act Cementhead, is a muscular bassist with a notable feel for hip-hop pulses. DJ Hen G, who also works with the Assault, another political rap group, uses turntable techniques that seem as traditional as anything taught in the old school yet remain modern and fresh. And Tapia, who plays his guitar with both D-Town Brown and the speed-core band Evulsion, is equally adept at James Brown riffs and roiling waves of distorted racket. As Tapia puts it, "We're fortunate to have musical diversity in the lineup. We've got a scratching DJ, a thrasher guitar player, a rocking bass player, the maddest funk drummer in town and a rapper who loves reggae, too."
D-Town Brown's roots can be traced to N.O.A., a band that was launched in the autumn of 1992 by Ortiz, Tapia and Phantasmorgasm's Big Mike. Mejia, who previously had been rapping with Denver's DJ Spellbinder, came aboard a few months later. "We did a show with Shatta and Spellbinder, and he was so great we asked him to join," Ortiz says.
As Mejia became more involved in N.O.A., however, Big Mike began to tire of the rap-based direction the group was taking. In mid-1993 he stepped away to concentrate on the more aggressive style of music that's come to exemplify Cactus Marco. By contrast, Tapia says, the other members "thought this was too good a thing to let it go at that" and decided to carry on without Big Mike's input. Although everyone involved insists that this split was amicable, the remaining performers renamed the group D-Town Brown in an effort to differentiate themselves from its previous incarnation as well as from N.O.A. Records, Big Mike's label. Tiempo Chicano eventually was released on the N.O.A. imprint, but D-Town Brown is no longer associated with the label. "We're unsigned," Ortiz says.
Tiempo Chicano was recorded in early 1994 with Tom Sublett on bass and DJs Spellbinder and Hen G serving as sidemen. Earlier this summer, after Sublett decided to devote his time to his primary group, Windowpane, Cementhead's Grider was brought aboard on bass, and DJ Hen G was made a full member. The band quickly developed into a formidable live unit--but that didn't mean that D-Town Brown's players found getting gigs easy. Like most other Denver hip-hop players, they complain that club owners are prejudiced against any group that plays rap or rap-influenced music.
"With Cementhead, it took us a while to build up power in booking, but once we did, we could get in anywhere," Grider says. "But now that I'm in D-Town, I'm finding that we can't get in a lot of places. I definitely think there's some hidden racism there. People have stereotypes about this music, but that's nothing new to us. Everyone in the group is of color, so we've had to deal with things like that all our lives. It's just another hurdle, but that's okay. We'll knock that hurdle down."
Mejia, a Denver native who's one of twelve children born to schoolteacher parents, aims to do the same to other obstacles placed before him using words as well as music. He's written a number of freelance articles (including one that was published in the Source) and contributes to Con Safos, a grassroots community magazine that's just reaching the public. He's also working on a book that will combine autobiography with advice for people of color who wish to embrace traditional--but not necessarily popular--values. The media comes in for some of Mejia's heaviest hits.
"The media creates illusions, telling us through commercials and videos and programs that something's important even if it's not," he says. "So I want to help indigenous people see past the illusions so they can realize what's important and what's not. So many of us are asleep while we are waking, and that's the way they want to keep it. I've had to struggle against that, too." He offers a mild chuckle. "I watched way too much TV when I was a kid."
Such seriousness runs counter to much of today's most popular rap, which exhibits many of the same sensationalistic elements that Mejia finds offensive in other art forms. He's especially critical of musicians who propagate misogyny. "I'm adamant about sexism," he says. "I have absolutely no respect for any artist who thinks it's cool to be sexist and who disrespects the sisters from his neighborhood. To me, that's a product of a sick society and totally contrary to the indigenous perspective."
This is only one of the lessons Mejia is trying to teach his students, and he admits that some of them never take them to heart--particularly those who have been so damaged by their lives to date that even survival is not a given. Still, he's learning to take things as they come. "Sometimes," he says, "just getting a student to improve his attendance from once a week to three times a week can feel like a huge success."
The 2nd Annual Ticketmaster Music Showcase Tour, with D-Town Brown, Shway, Lovebuzz, China My Eyes and Red Yak. 9 p.m. Friday, September 23, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $1.93, 290-
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