The Wisdom of the Saint
Hip-hop in Denver, says the MC and rapper known as Apostle, is all skeleton and no meat. All foundation but no house. The dream of unity if not yet the reality. "You go into any mom-and-pop store in Denver, I swear everyone's a rapper," he explains.
The challenge, then, is finding a way to bring all these rappers together in one scene. But how do you even talk about a hip-hop "scene" in Denver without drawing a snicker? And can a city like Denver ever hope to produce a legitimate hip-hop star? These are the dilemmas facing the modern local hip-hopper inclined to ponder them, and Apostle is so inclined. As a producer and the founder of the burgeoning Colorado Hip Hop Coalition, Apostle has made elevating Denver's hip-hop scene his primary goal. And as an artist, whose third album, Last of a Dying Breed, is out in stores and who landed recent gigs opening up for acts such as Das EFX, Black Sheep and GZA of the Wu Tang Clan, Apostle feels he is closer to achieving it. "I feel good about it," he says. "I'm ready to assume the responsibility. The bottom line is I'm the hardest working rapper in Denver. I've got two groups, I perform regularly, I produce my own albums. This is just one more thing. It's a lot of weight on my shoulders but I want that responsibility."
Francois Baptiste, co-owner of a local hip- hop-centric promotion company, 3 Deep Productions, thinks Apostle's albums keep getting better and better. "This album, the production and lyrics and artwork," he says, "he's becoming an all-around artist."
Not bad for a guy who spent a few months living on the streets of Sacramento in the early '90s, and who nearly quit the business altogether two years ago. Onstage, Apostle's performances are fiercely intelligent and clever. At the Gemini Tea Shop in Five Points or down a few doors at Brother Jeff's Cafe, where he works as a cook, the "militant messiah" is much gentler. This is the other side of his personality, a Boulder-raised kid named Jeff Campbell who readily mixes in and out of the sharp MC persona.
Campbell is eager to talk about Apostle's music. Last of a Dying Breed is the first to be released on his own label, Survival Camp Records. The album was a year in the making and came after a rough couple of years, during which the would-be savior of music here in Denver almost called it quits. First there was the debacle of Seven Soldiers Entertainment, a record label he started in 1997 with an investor who ran a mobile DJ company. "I had known him for more than a year, had worked for him [at the mobile DJ company], apparently things were going bad for him, but he wasn't letting any of us know," he says. The guy was embezzling funds, and finally got caught by authorities. Fingers started pointing at Apostle, who says he was questioned at one point by the FBI but never charged with anything.
"I was basically abandoned by all my people, abandoned by all my so-called friends, who were there for the ride," he says. He had just opened for Run DMC, had participated in a tour of mountain towns with De La Soul, and thought he was headed for prime time. The financial boondoggle "nearly destroyed my reputation and my career as a recording artist," he remembers. "I thought about hanging it up a lot. I wanted to disappear and move."
A relationship with a longtime girlfriend, who had given birth to their son, went sour. "I just hit an all-time low. I wasn't working. I was broke, depressed. I definitely was no angel during that time," he says. The label went under, his partner went to jail; Apostle, however, started going to Brother Jeff's poetry nights, writing and performing, receiving the support of the audience, trying to put himself back together.
Friend Jhay Escalera says Apostle embodies both the militant and the spiritual. "He can be talking about some of the negatives associated with the African-American community, but then he comes right back around and offers some type of spiritual solution. He's one of the smartest people I've ever met."
His new album plays out these intertwined themes of earthy anger and spiritual love. On the Web site for his record label, www.survivalcamp.com, the rapper introduces an epic, apocalyptic tale about the end of the world that sounds straight out of Revelations. Natural disasters, the death of billions, an evil world government created by the United Nations that issues mandatory IDs, with those who don't have them thrown in jail or executed -- all that's missing is an antichrist. Humanity's salvation in this dark parable? Why, the Seven Soldiers Mercenaries, led by Apostle, who have created a new rebel society headquartered in the Mile High City. "Although members of the system called him an anti-government paramilitary extremist cult leader," the story goes, "those who knew him called him the chosen one."
The tracks on his album reflect this outsized personality, though they also are infused with wit. In "World Wide Conspiracy," Apostle spins a slick tale of a government that, after doping him up with the music of Puff Daddy, takes his own DNA to create a clone that will destroy hip-hop: "The specimen would be raised in a controlled environment/Surrounded by poverty, drug abuse and violence/Bombarded with the images of luxury and tricknology/Until its appetite would overcome its integrity." The clone becomes the world's biggest hip-hop star, but Apostle escapes and challenges his alter ego to a duel at Mile High Stadium, where the MC starts "taking it to the next on him, dropping that intellect on him/Then I ripped him from head to toe/Took his materialistic flow."
"Legendary" is a standard rapper's boast made fresh, as Apostle tries to riff through every prominent Denver Bronco, then made genuinely amusing when he turns to Denver radio and TV personalities, promising to "Investigate you like Tom Martino/I know the score like Ron Zappolo/They hate to see niggers down on LoDo/You never hear me on the radio 'cause I don't sniff crank with Rick, Larry, Jennifer, Jamie, Frosty, Frank/5-0s and females on my trail by the hour/Fantasize in the shower/Of Adele Arakawa."
He goes a little reggae with "Wilderness Warrior," where he links the current struggle for survival of black America with Harriet Tubman and the trials of the Israelites. In "Don't Waste Your Time," he proclaims: "If I die tomorrow don't trip/I've already escaped hell once/I'm not afraid of this dimension/'Cause I'm a Highlander/Traveling the galaxy lookin' for some answers." The track is built on a super-smooth bassline that sounds like it came from a Marley song, and the tune vamps out with some jazz synthesizer noodling.
Apostle admires artists like Rakim and KRS-1, "people that when they came onto the scene, they changed the game. People like Prince. After they established themselves, people sought to duplicate them." He digs dance hall and plays with a dub-hop group, Heavyweight Dub Champion, a reggae-hip-hop marriage. Last August, the band opened up for the thirteenth annual Reggae on the Rocks festival, the biggest crowd Apostle had ever played for.
He wants to get the music back to its deejaying roots, to a time when interplay between DJs and MCs was more prominent. "There are too many rappers, not enough MCs," he says. Rappers are an industry creation, "something the machine of pop culture created. These guys are just programming beats. It's basically just microphone masturbation. People aren't being true to the art form -- innovative and original." Relative terms, Apostle well knows. "People could say the same thing about me. If you think I'm not original, you must be tuned out."
While Apostle the artist dreams of making it, Apostle the coalition-builder stays busy. Campbell is also eager to discuss his plan for putting Denver hip-hop on the map. He calls it the Colorado Hip Hop Coalition, an idea he modeled after both the Bay Area Music Coalition and the New York-based National Rap Coalition. "I was impressed with that whole idea," he says. "I said, 'Why don't we just do it grassroots?' Here -- our own thing. Our concerns are a little different than the national scene." Like, will anybody buy local records? Like, can you hear a local artist on the radio? Like, can anybody get paid?
"Basically a hip-hop chamber of commerce," the coalition began in 1997 as an organization through which artists could network with each other and with local labels and promoters, record stores, radio stations and clubs; Campbell would like member artists to get health insurance, too. The coalition, he says, is an equal-opportunity assistance organization whose aim is to provide exposure for all the hip-hop heads struggling to get their name out in the Mile High City. But people are expecting the wrong thing out of the coalition if they expect it to guarantee success, he warns. The coalition is supposed to make rappers better entrepreneurs, not make them stars. Apostle is all about synergy, working together, but that requires giving up a piece of yourself. Can rappers do that?
"That remains to be seen," Campbell replies. "The concept of the coalition is 'Let's put the ego aside.'"
The coalition would "be nice in theory," Baptiste says. "But unless someone can devote their day job to it, I don't think it'll happen." And so far, things have been pretty quiet. A few meetings have been held, preliminary plans drawn up. But there are always reasons for the coalition's stalled progress: There's no dedicated radio support in this town, and clubs are leery of booking hip-hop acts because of the perception that the shows will turn violent.
"Everyone thinks it's easy," Campbell says. "There are so many rappers, so many labels, and not enough listeners. If you don't have radio support, club support, I don't care who you are."
But now the coalition may finally be building some steam. On April Fool's Day, Apostle will headline a coalition fundraiser at the Tivoli on the Auraria campus. And members of the coalition just voted to put together a local radio station on the Internet, where each member will have his music aired for 45 minutes each day alongside posted photos and bios. Of course, the coalition still needs to buy a computer, and there will be fees for purchasing a domain name and getting linked to the major search engines. But the impresario sounds confident that his group can get the station up and running, and he also talks about someday sponsoring a Colorado hip-hop awards night.
"We want to have enough going on, so that we've got more coverage than anyone else," he declares. "We want to create the avenues so if you want to be a part of the scene, you'll have to come to us. To create enough action and business so everyone can have a piece."
After that, though, it's every playa for himself. "If I help you reach the same level of visibility, then the cream rises to the top," he says. "The consumer will decide."
Apostle assumes he is the cream. So if the coalition ever gets going, it might come across as merely a publicity machine for him. That's a possibility, Campbell concedes, but he can't help it if he turns out to be better than the rest. "Everybody's not gonna like what I do," he says, "but if more people like what I did, maybe you should look at what I did."
"Webster's defines 'apostle' as a leader or advocate of a new cause," Apostle says. "I don't think my cause is new, but I think my approach is. It's new because it's a representation of unclaimed territory in the hip-hop world, and that's Colorado."
He defines himself as both Apostle and Jeff Campbell. Jeff Campbell. Apostle. Two distinct personalities. "Apostle is an alter ego. Jeff is a person who struggles to get things done." Despite that, Apostle has chosen Jeff to represent him. Confusing, isn't it?
Just ask the industry folks whom Campbell deals with. He calls them up and tells them he's representing a young Denver rapper named Apostle, never letting on that he is Apostle. "Sometimes they don't take you seriously when you're the artist representing yourself," he explains. So far, it seems, they haven't caught on, which is probably good for him. "Sometimes," he adds, "I'm surprised they're two people."
Campbell is originally from Decatur, Alabama, but he's spent most of his life in Boulder; his father, who worked for IBM, was transferred there in 1972. Writing stories and poems came early and easy. His father helped him memorize a piece about Paul Revere's famous ride by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the second grade. In school, he participated in theater and speech and won three state championships in debate, placing in the top ten nationally all three years. He acted as well: Chino in West Side Story, Brutus in Julius Caesar. Though he was accepted to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena following high school, he didn't receive any financial aid and wound up not attending. He decided to go to California anyway -- in 1989 at the age of eighteen -- to "become a famous rap star."
Instead, Campbell struggled. He lived in an abandoned house in Sacramento, hooking up the electricity there with jumper cables. "I didn't want to swallow my pride and say I failed," he says. He spent a few months living on the streets, reading books in the library during the day. "In the time I was homeless I did a lot of self-education, a lot of Bible reading, a lot of spiritual research into cultures and religions across the world."
A job at a Sacramento label, Black Market Records, got him working again. He did marketing, calling record stores across the country, trying to push product that wasn't his. It taught him about the business but brought him no closer to his own dreams of stardom. Besides, California was an insular place. They took care of their own but didn't bother much with out-of-staters. "I did not fit in with what they were trying to do," he says.
Gangsta rap was hot; he didn't dig it and was ostracized. So Campbell returned to Colorado in 1993 and started Cuttin' Crew Records Inc. with a partner named Gary Martinez. The label was the first in Denver, he says, to have its own logo and publishing company; it signed a national distribution deal with BMG Latin. But in addition to producing Latin albums, the label also began to produce gangsta rap, and so Apostle walked away.
For all the missed opportunities, Apostle appears calm and focused. In addition to frying up catfish at Brother Jeff's, Apostle offers a hip-hop commentary called Survival Camp 101 Sunday nights on Boulder's KGNU 88.5 FM. Maybe it's the spiritual side of the "chosen one" that keeps him level -- Campbell finds much continuity in all the religions. "Wilderness Warriors" begins with this line: "The presence of God is everywhere/You have only to consciously embrace it with your intention."
Apostle wears an ohm ring, a Hindu symbol representing the sound of the creation of the universe. "Everything in life has a beat, a rhythm," he says. "To understand rhythm is to understand life. To understand yourself is to understand the universe."
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