After the Fall
"I feel that the state of Colorado is trying to ban hip-hop, for obvious reasons," began Mix Master Mike Brown, resting his large hands on the table. "They want it to go away."
The obvious reasons, explained the DJ and promoter, were these: Denver-area officials didn't want huge crowds of black people partying in the heart of their entertainment districts, and the music they partied to, with its thumping beats and hard-ass lyrics, encouraged gangbangers and violence. "White people are in fear when they see a large group of black people," he said. The Mix Master had deejayed or promoted successful hip-hop nights in clubs across the city, only to find many of them closed down for one reason or another.
Clubs close all the time, of course, regardless of the music they offer. But hip-hop venues had been especially hard-hit in the previous six months, and Brown was feeling the pinch. In fact, the town had just lost its two premier weekly hip-hop nights in March, and coupled with the closing of F-Stop last fall after mediation with its neighbors failed ("Last Dance," November 7, 2000), it didn't look like a coincidence.
Certainly the timing couldn't have been worse. Brown had gotten married in Las Vegas just a few months before, and he'd bought a house. For the interview at the Denver Buffalo Company, he'd pulled up in a luxury sedan that went for at least $1,100 a month -- leased. Brown loved glamour. He was a "flosser," somebody attracted to things that shine: new cars with fly rims, jewelry, fine leather coats, even his smooth bald head. Everything about the man was big.
On this day in early April, it was his frustration. If black clubgoers harassed people at a white club -- Brown grabbed the salt and pepper shakers to illustrate his point -- the police would quickly step in to protect the club and to "stop these niggers from fucking with white folks," he claimed. "But they won't do that for us." And because the Mix Master was such a big fish in this pond -- some said the big fish -- he believed that Denver, and now Glendale, were making an example of him. He'd been promoting some nights in Aurora, too, but already neighbors there were starting to complain.
"Anywhere you put Mix Master Mike, you'd have 2,000 people," says Brown's protégé, DJ Swaun Blaze. "It was like he was the Pied Piper. He was playing music everyone wanted to hear."
"Any club he was at, the police were watching him close," admits one official with the Denver Sheriff's Department.
Denver Police Department lieutenant Judy Will, who oversees patrols in LoDo and around the ballpark, admits that there's some sentiment in her department against hip-hop. "I'd be lying if I said I don't think that exists," she says. "I do think that exists."
But others argued that the increased scrutiny was simply good law enforcement. "Nobody was trying to run him out of business," says DPD sergeant Tony Foster, adding that if someone had wanted to shut down the Mix Master, it would have been done years before.
As Brown continued talking, it became clear that what weighed most heavily on his mind was "the list." The Denver Police Department had compiled a list of individuals for whom off-duty Denver cops were no longer allowed to work; the list also included venues that were off limits. Mix Master Mike was on that list, Brown said, and that was proof that Denver was trying to kill off hip-hop. Few, if any, clubs were willing to run the risk of attracting a thousand patrons without off-duty law enforcement on hand.
Brown had a few contacts at the DPD who'd promised to get him a copy of the list. Once he had it, he said, he'd be back in control of the situation. He mentioned the possibility of a lawsuit, as well as a protest march on City Hall mounted with the help of Alvertis Simmons, organizer of Denver's Million Man March.
The Mix Master left the Buffalo Company feeling strong. The city had hurt his business, but he looked forward to the battle ahead, which he knew he could win. First, though, he and his wife, Tamara, were heading off on a short trip to Vegas. In fact, the Mix Master called from there on April 10 to say he'd finally obtained a copy of the list; he'd drop it by when he returned to Denver the next day.
But just hours after that call, Mike Brown jumped -- or fell -- off an eighth-floor interior balcony at the Luxor hotel and casino, landing in the lobby below. He died instantly.
The news hit Denver hard. Hip-hop radio stations were deluged with calls: The Mix Master couldn't be dead. The Las Vegas police and coroner were both calling his death a suicide, but people who'd been in touch with Brown days before, sometimes hours before, didn't believe it. He hadn't exhibited any warning signs. He wasn't unhappy or depressed. He was mad. He was determined. He was going to save hip-hop in Denver.
And now, just like that, he was gone, and the whole scene is up for grabs.
Mike Brown was born in Denver in 1967, the third of eleven children. He attended George Washington High School, where he played basketball and softball, but after graduating in 1985, he gravitated toward a new kind of performance, a new kind of competition.
DJ Al Your Pal Taylor was deejaying at a club called Masquerade when the teenaged Brown came in. "He walked up to me and said, 'Please teach me how to DJ,'" Taylor remembers. "I got him when he was seventeen. He shouldn't even have been here." But he took him on anyway, teaching Brown the ropes. The mixing -- weaving a track on one turntable with a track on the other, and back again -- was relatively easy to learn. What Taylor really showed Brown was how to speak to the crowd, how to let the audience know who you were and what you were doing.
Brown soon found work at a club called the 19th Hole. By 1989, he was doing well enough to beat ten other DJs in a competition and be crowned the best DJ in Denver.
A year or two later, Curt Sims, a longtime promoter in town, was at one of his clubs when Brown approached with the claim that he could outperform the DJ Sims had hired. Then in his early twenties, Brown was an angry kid, still trying to define himself as a man, but he impressed Sims with his cockiness and talent.
The two became friends and worked together at various clubs over the next few years. Brown was fast becoming a superior DJ. Not only did he know how to work both the turntables and the crowd, but he was sharper than everybody else. Funnier, too: The crowd may not have caught everything he threw at them, but they knew Brown was special.
He wasn't afraid to stand up to anybody -- not the police, not the scene's bigshots. Friends remember that Brown was once banned from advertising with hip-hop station KQKS-FM/107.5 after arguing with a program director. (He was back with the station a year or so ago, though.) And Brown and Sims had their own falling out in 1996, when Brown walked off the stage during a show and out of the scene for a couple of years. "Mike was either gonna mature or die," says Sims.
It wasn't until 1998 that Brown re-emerged as the Mix Master, eager to prove he'd grown up. He joined Sims at Larimer 21 and then at F-Stop, the new incarnation of a club at 1819 Wazee Street. He also deejayed at Maverick's in Glendale, Excalibur, and the Skyline, an old roadhouse behind Coors Field.
Two years ago, at the urging of friend and promoter Lay Low Bryant, Brown began to shift his focus to promoting. There was more money to be made, and more prestige. Until around 1993, the scene for black clubgoers amounted to what Lay Low calls a "chitlin' circuit" -- a series of clubs catering to the over-thirty group, including Pierre's Supper Club and Bernard's, even the old Butterfield 8 in Cherry Creek. The younger crowd had to settle for house parties or the movies. But after '93, the younger set began looking for clubs that catered to them.
Brown caught that wave and moved it forward. The crowds came, and they kept coming. The Mix Master's popularity grew, and he became a fierce competitor. If a promoter or DJ went against him on a given night, Brown would undercut him by charging no cover. If someone tried to start a hip-hop event on a new night that Brown considered a threat, he'd do his own thing on the same night. And since Mix Master had the loyalty of the crowd, he'd win just about any contest.
"They couldn't crack it," Francois Baptiste, a friend and promoter, says of Brown's would-be competitors. "Many tried, but they failed."
"He had run-ins with everyone, but he knew how to run a business," says Julie Logue, who worked with Brown at the Baja Beach Club. "I've never seen a promoter who wanted to get it right like he did."
"A lot of locations he worked at, they never would have had the music there if not for his negotiation," says Roger Keeler, a promoter and DJ.
By this time last year, Brown had become one of the four major hip-hop promoters in town, along with Keeler's Pleazure Entertainment, Baptiste's 3 Deep Productions and LaVonce Long's Next Level. This foursome was responsible for putting on Denver's biggest hip-hop events. The biggest of all was the Thanksgiving Eve 2000 show at Baja, which brought 3,000 people to the ballpark neighborhood club to see Jay Z's DJ Clue.
But Baja wasn't big just on holidays. It was becoming the hottest place in town several nights a week. So hot that the scene was ready to blow.
Where the Mix Master was larger than life, DJ Swaun Blaze is small, with softer features and his hair in cornrows. Brown wore jewelry; Swaun has piercings. But the Mix Master's protegé has his eyes: dark and brown and steely. They scrutinize you carefully. They miss nothing.
When he met Brown, Blaze had been honing his skills as a DJ for several years, first by throwing birthday parties for his younger brother, later by performing at high school proms and dances. Deejaying for teens was a forgiving experience. Unlike adults, the kids were just happy being out, and they were unlikely to boo Blaze off the stage if he faltered. But he wanted to get to the next level, and last year, that next level was Mix Master Mike and his colleague, DJ Big Daddy Rallo, who held court at F-Stop and Baja.
After F-Stop closed in early November, the action picked up at Baja, a few blocks away at 2229 Blake Street. Saturday nights, which Brown promoted, were huge, drawing anywhere from 1,300 to 1,500 people. On a good night, Brown could net between $6,000 and $8,000 just on cover charges. "The F-Stop -- packed -- was 900," Brown remembered. "Imagine adding another 600 folks."
Blaze went to the clubs and studied the DJs -- how they picked their songs, how they worked the crowd. Clubgoers rarely approached the Mix Master with requests, he noticed; they just partied. "It was effortless to him," Blaze says. "He played new stuff, old stuff. And the crowd stayed on the floor." Good DJs can control a crowd through their selection of tunes; they can put a crowd in the mood to fight or to fornicate. The Mix Master had that power. "I was kind of intimidated by his stature," Blaze admits.
By chance, Blaze worked with Rallo at a local telecommunications company, and he tried to use that in. "Rallo, Rallo, I'm nice. I'm nice," he'd say. "Just give me a half hour."
He pestered the older DJ every day. Rallo would tell him, "Just be patient."
When Rallo finally invited him to fill in for another DJ at Baja, Blaze was determined to earn the crowd's respect. Eventually, he told himself, hip-hop fans would talk about him they way they did Rallo and the Mix Master.
But it wasn't going to happen without Brown's help. Although Blaze's Baja debut went well, Brown and Rallo soon got in a disagreement with Keeler and Long, Baja's main promoters. Brown was used to doing promotions himself; at Baja, he was only a DJ. So in November, he and Rallo moved on to the Boat House in Glendale, in the old home of Jimmy's Grille.
With the Mix Master and Rallo gone, Blaze and another DJ, Big Mike, became the go-to guys at Baja. But within a few weeks, the Thursday-night crowd at the club dwindled from well over a thousand to just a few hundred. Blaze says the crowds followed Brown to the Boat House; Big Mike says Baja promised appearances by big acts like Destiny's Child and Kid Capri and then failed to deliver. For whatever reason, Baja's Thursday-night hip-hop became history.
Then Blaze got a call from Brown, and soon he, Big Mike, Rallo, Al Your Pal and the Mix Master were sitting down in a sports bar, discussing the future of hip-hop. Big Mike came to the meeting feeling uncertain: He'd been competing with Brown for years -- a situation made no easier by the fact that they shared the same first name -- and just the day before, he and Brown had argued about Big Mike working the Baja after Brown left. But Big Mike was willing to listen.
Brown spelled it out, especially to Blaze, the youngest man at the table. Brown didn't need any of them, but he'd rather have them on board. With Brown calling the shots and controlling the town's top DJs, his position would be secure -- and so would theirs. "It was kind of like a record label," Blaze says. "If you don't pick up the talent, someone else will."
Divided, none of the DJs could guarantee big crowds. Working together, they could rule the scene.
The other DJs bought in. And the so-called Fab Five began to dominate Denver hip-hop.
Sims remembers being "blown away" when he heard that Brown had brought such ambitious men together. "Everybody was competing, hating on each other, loving each other," he says. "Then he got everybody together and said, 'This is the way it's gonna be.'"
Brown negotiated with Baja for the DJs to return there on Saturdays. The Fab Five were getting paid, even on nights when they didn't play, and they were becoming friends. But Brown kept his cool. He told Blaze, "Don't ever fall in love with a club. It's here today, gone tomorrow."
Baja was no stranger to controversy. In 1998, the club had come under police scrutiny after allegations of fights and indecent behavior. "They'd gotten in trouble for allowing their patrons to become pretty drunk," says DPD lieutenant Will. "The result had been, a lot of times, combative or assaultive behavior."
According to Keeler, the big problems weren't on hip-hop nights, but on Fridays, when a rowdy mixed-race crowd came to dance to rap and R&B. On Fridays there were free drink specials that attracted a group itching to booze. Trouble on those nights led the cops to start watching the club every night.
"You have your officers that you hire," Keeler explains. "Those officers will do whatever you ask of them. But then once you have a certain amount of nuisance calls, the chief will send down officers to monitor your club. They're not working for you. If they see a fight break out, they may not do anything, perhaps in the name of 'observation.'"
Things came to a head on March 15, after a Wednesday night devoted to Latin-themed hip-hop. As the crowd began leaving the club around 1:30 a.m., a fight broke out. A large fight. Seventeen DPD officers and supervisors, four sheriff's deputies, one prisoner van, one Denver CARES detox van and an ambulance were called in. Six arrests were made, four people landed in detox, and the police initiated an investigation into three officers -- both on-duty and off-duty cops -- for improper procedure at the club. (According to the DPD, that investigation has just been concluded, and the results are still being reviewed.) "I don't think the officers at Baja were proactive," says a sheriff's official. "They were basically hanging out the door."
In the wake of that incident, Denver police chief Gerry Whitman withdrew permission for off-duty officers to work at Baja. The club was on "the list."
"This whole thing happened really quickly," says Baja's attorney, Alan Dill. "We said we can't do a thousand people with no police officers; please relent. They said no. We felt like we could not open to a crowd of a thousand people on weekends without Denver police. If we had an incident, we would have lost our liquor license."
So not only did Saturday nights end, but so did all nights at Baja. The club closed March 21. On May 15, it reopened as Heartthrob, a '70s- and '80s-themed club, with Denver police officers again allowed to do off-duty work there.
"It's no secret they don't want hip-hop in LoDo," club manager Julie Logue says of the police. "They think the music promotes violence." The irony, she adds, was that Brown's hip-hop nights weren't the problem at Baja: "It wasn't Saturday. It wasn't hip-hop. It wasn't anything Mike had to do with."
Meanwhile, the Boat House had watched its crowds grow from sixty people to sometimes ten times that. And the crowds were coming not just on Brown's Thursday and Saturday hip-hop nights -- when the club would pull in $10,000 to $12,000 in liquor sales -- but on other nights of the week.
Early in the morning of March 26, a bar scuffle broke out involving three black patrons, at least one of whom was throwing gang signs. One of his buddies tossed a half-full bottle of champagne at another guy, but the bottle struck a female onlooker in the head, knocking her out. After other patrons managed to eject the guy from the club, he went to his car and then returned to the steps of the Boat House with a .45 automatic and opened fire. Two people were shot, although their wounds were not serious. The shooter, Rashod McKay, was arrested the next day. He faces two counts of attempted first-degree murder and three counts of first-degree assault.
Sunday night wasn't his night at the Boat House, Brown pointed out, and there was no security. "I wouldn't have done that," he said. "Ever." Still, his crowd got blamed.
And it wasn't a Brown night a few days later, early in the morning of March 29, when two cars -- one filled with white patrons, the other with black patrons -- got in a spat in the Boat House parking lot. The cars left the lot heading down Leetsdale. One car pulled up alongside the other, and an occupant opened fire, killing a passenger in the other car.
"I don't think that's directly tied into Mix Master Mike and the Boat House, but it was tied into that crowd that followed him," says George Parker, one of the Boat House's owners. "I don't think it was necessarily a black thing. It was that black thing. Mike's crowd had a history."
The next week, Glendale filed a complaint against the club. Parker faced a mandatory license suspension of fifteen or thirty days, until the matter could be addressed at a hearing, but around City Hall, the sense was that the Boat House would never get its license back. Parker and his partner didn't want a liquor-license revocation to affect their ability to open another club or restaurant somewhere else in the future, so Parker decided to close the club altogether.
"I'm tired of shit getting blamed on us for stuff that doesn't deal with us," Brown said after Parker made his decision. "The cops scared that man out of his license."
In bigger cities such as New York and Los Angeles, Atlanta and Chicago, the black population is large enough to support many clubs, clubs that cater to different social groups and income levels. That's not the case in Denver. "There's not enough people to sustain two clubs in one night," says Baptiste. "Therefore, everybody from every social class goes there." And so athletes mingle with buppies who mingle with younger kids who mingle with the small number of gangbangers and potential troublemakers.
And even if the crowd is calm inside the club, black crowds tend to linger outside at closing time. That's when most clashes with the cops occur, because the police are eager to clear people out as fast as possible. "Crowds we had at Baja, if you allow them to, they'll loiter well past thirty minutes to an hour," says Keeler. "You'll have loitering at Market 41 for maybe fifteen minutes."
Market 41, with its majority Anglo crowd, pops up in many conversations about the local nightclub scene. The 1900 block of Market Street, where the club sits, has seen its share of violence, including stabbings, yet no club on the block has ever faced the punitive measures that hit F-Stop and Baja. "The behavior on that block gives me cause for great concern," admits Lieutenant Will. "It tends to be real assaultive."
"Market 41, that area, all those little clubs -- why do they continue to stay open?" asks the sheriff's official. "I think a lot of it is politics."
After all, how hard can it be for off-duty cops and other private security types to spot the few bad apples who could spoil a whole hip-hop crowd? In some cases, clubs may not want officers to be very active, because it could send the wrong message to their patrons. But promoters and club owners also talk about the need for security to be a cooperative, friendly presence that encourages the crowd to be responsible and lets potential troublemakers know to cool it.
Morrise Luckey, whose company has provided security at clubs for more than a decade, says he doesn't think hip-hop crowds are prone to more problems than other crowds. But no matter how carefully a club plans, things can get out of control.
Two summers ago, for example, the police were all over a packed after-party at the Skyline. Squad cars with their lights flanked the parking lot; overlooking the scene from Wewatta Street, Lieutenant Will bragged to her officers that no one would try anything. Yet somehow in the middle of all this, gang leader Clemmeth Nevels was shot in the face -- while a vice-squad car loaded with officers sat just twenty feet away, facing the wrong direction. Even more amazing, the shooter got away. After that, the DPD pulled off-duty cops from the Skyline permanently.
"We were pretty disappointed with the way that went down," Wills says soberly. "It demonstrated to us the length to which a person would go. It was pretty outrageous."
To Skyline owner Tiffany Simmons, it demonstrated the DPD's lack of commitment to helping her club. "The first time there's a problem, their first solution is to pull the police," she says. "How is that a solution? That leaves me, as an owner, wide open. People notice when the police aren't there."
The shooting incident allowed the city's Nuisance Abatement Office to shut the Skyline. In October, a fire ravaged the building.
Other clubs offering hip-hop have faced challenges, too. The Roxy in Five Points hosted a Saturday hip-hop night for six months. The crowd was small compared to Baja's, just a couple hundred folks, but even so, the club searched everybody as they came in. "If they looked like they were gang members, we wouldn't let them in," says general manager Don Rentie. "If they looked drunk or high, we wouldn't let them in." The club also charged a hefty cover.
The only problem, Rentie reports, was getting patrons to leave the parking lot when the club closed, just before 1:30 a.m. With extra manpower from the sheriff's department, they got the job done. "We never had any complaints," says Rentie. "We're friends with every club down there."
Last month, however, just as the club was letting out, a shot was fired several blocks away. No one knew who'd fired the shot -- much less whether the shooter had been at the Roxy. But the next thing Rentie knew, Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth had written a letter to Roxy owner Jeff Hurd, alleging community dissatisfaction with the club. Hurd, not surprisingly, was concerned that the city might try to take away his liquor license, so on April 21 he decided to put hip-hop on hold for a while. "Their perception of hip-hop is very negative," Hurd says of city officials. "I know they do not want it down there."
Hurd reintroduced hip-hop at the Roxy this past weekend.
The Gothic Theatre, a concert hall in Englewood, has also experimented with hip-hop. Club Metropolis, which ran from the end of last summer to January, was rather euphemistically billed as an "urban dance night." According to Matt Need, the Gothic's talent buyer, the plug finally was pulled because the crowds weren't big enough -- Englewood isn't a place anyone thinks of for urban anything. But the smallish crowds that did make it there were still a challenge to manage. "Things will happen at rap shows that don't happen at any other shows," Need says. "Bathrooms get tagged, the sides of buildings get tagged. That does make a huge difference in what we book."
Need realizes that even attempting to discuss this is tricky. "From the standpoint of a white promoter in Englewood, it has all the earmarks of a racist response," he says. "I don't know if any one of us knows how to deal with it. Maybe that's it." But booking hip-hop is still worth it, he adds, from both a financial and musical standpoint -- although the Gothic has no hip-hop shows scheduled in June and July.
Other club owners simply keep away. "I saw the other clubs that were trying to do hip-hop and were closed down, and I didn't want to do that," says Regas Christou, owner of the Church. "Usually when you have hip-hop, you have a lot more problems than when you don't do it. It seems the city or the police department or somebody doesn't want that kind of venue to exist."
And that attitude extends beyond nightclubs. Brown wanted to do a party at the Skate City roller rink at Sixth Avenue and I-225 in Aurora, but the rink's owner told him he'd have to hire fifteen off-duty cops. Brown couldn't afford that kind of security for a "damn skating party," he said. "I had to cancel." Promoter Lay Low Bryant had trouble booking a Holiday Inn for one of his pajama parties; he says the manager told him he wouldn't make things easy or cheap for Bryant. "He was very unknowledgeable about the stuff we needed," Bryant adds, "but he was very knowledgeable that he didn't want to do it."
Club Onyx in Capitol Hill is one of the few venues still doing live hip-hop; since November, the club has offered hip-hop on Tuesday and Saturday nights. Tuesday's crowds are mostly black, the weekend crowds mostly Latino. And according to owner Joseph Stewart, it's not a misperception that hip-hop crowds are tougher to handle. They are.
"It is a more difficult crowd," says Stewart. "There are more problems." On hip-hop nights, Club Onyx runs with four times the usual number of security guys, plus four or five off-duty police officers, all of which comes out of Stewart's pocket. Fights are more common, and they tend to escalate as friends of the combatants step up to back their guy. But as many other club owners and promoters have discovered, hip-hop is also lucrative. Even with the extra outlay for security, with hip-hop Stewart can make double per person what he does on other nights that are given over to industrial and alternative music.
Club Onyx recently entered into mediation with neighbors concerned about the hip-hip crowds. Stewart hopes the solution is more assertive action by off-duty cops: He wants officers to write tickets when kids fight or play their stereos too loud. The catch is that if the police write too many tickets, neighbors can use those tickets to prove the club is a nuisance.
Since mediation began early this month, the hip-hop crowds have been pretty well-behaved. While neighbors have "somewhat unrealistic expectations" about the club's ability to make crowds completely polite, Stewart says, he's going to try to make hip-hop work. But noting that just last week a neighbor complained to the media about patrons trampling through her garden, he remains a realist. "I won't go down in flames," he says.
The paranoia over hip-hop probably reaches its apex with Sims, who has owned or run many clubs in Denver over the years. Last fall, even as F-Stop was closing, Sims and several partners purchased the Denver Buffalo Company restaurant four blocks south of the State Capitol. The restaurant is known for its buffalo-themed fare, its gift shop, and performances by Lannie Garrett as "Patsy DeCline."
Still, in order to ensure that the new ownership group faced no interference from the city, Sims's attorney wrote a letter to Excise and Licenses director Helen Gonzales, agreeing that the Buffalo Company would not present the music "commonly called hip-hop, rap music, heavy metal, or DJ's or persons such as Mix Master Mike."
Brown himself admitted that a crowd of 1,500 black clubgoers would, if provoked, cause more trouble than a crowd of 1,500 white clubgoers -- but he added that he didn't believe a black crowd was provoked more often than a white crowd. Lieutenant Will recalls that Brown had a tremendous following, and that following included a fair number of gangsters. "Unfortunately, a by-product of that was the clubs he worked, the crowd really was getting stirred up," she says.
Brown acknowledged that there was a small gang element in his crowd. But he wasn't prepared to let anybody screw with his business. He emphasized security and wouldn't tolerate any trouble. "Why would I do all that and at the end of the night want people to tear it up?" he asked.
That's why he was really burned to learn that he was on the DPD's list, one of sixteen individuals restricted from hiring off-duty officers. Brown was by no means the star of the list; of the five clubs included on it, Baja Beach Club was the only one he'd been connected with. "I don't think they woke up thinking about him every day," Sims says of the cops. "Although he liked to think that. It kept him motivated."
According to Will, the list includes individuals who have warrants for criminal activity, as well as owners of establishments that repeatedly violate the liquor code. "Once you're on the list, certainly you have the wherewithal to approach the chief and renegotiate it," says Will.
Brown never got the chance.
Mike Brown's wife and mother don't want to talk about what happened in Las Vegas six weeks ago. Friends, however, say Brown's death still puzzles them.
Tamara and Mike Brown had gone to Las Vegas to attend a friend's wedding. They'd checked into the Luxor, the huge black pyramid at the end of the Strip. On Tuesday, April 10, Mike was suffering from abdominal pain -- apparently a side effect of surgery he'd undergone in Denver several weeks earlier to repair a stomach ulcer. So the Browns drove to a Las Vegas hospital, where he was given morphine. When he had a bad reaction to the morphine, he was given Benadryl to counteract the first drug. That knocked him out for a few hours, friends say.
When Mike woke up, the hospital discharged him and the couple headed back to the hotel. Mike was disoriented, complaining of hallucinations, his friends say. He was suddenly jittery. At the hotel, he took a shower, then another shower, then he tried to nap but couldn't sleep. He took another shower. Later, he told his wife that he was feeling better and was going to go downstairs for something to eat. Worried, she said she'd go with him. He told her he'd be all right.
The interior of the Luxor is a giant atrium, with each floor sticking out a little further as you ascend to the top of the pyramid. The eighth floor, for example, juts out further over the ground-floor lobby and restaurants than does the seventh floor, which extends farther than the sixth floor, and so on. Shortly after leaving his room, Brown went over the eighth-floor balcony. The police and the coroner's office ruled the death a suicide, as witnesses said they'd seen Brown take the plunge.
Mike's friends and family do not believe his death was a suicide. They say suicide didn't fit with his personality, which was self-important and proud; he simply had too high a regard for himself to have ended his own life. Although concerned about recent closings of Baja and the Boat House, Brown was already looking into other business ventures. By all accounts, he was looking forward to his fight with the city on behalf of the music he loved.
Tiffany Simmons spoke with Brown just days before he died. "To me he seemed very excited," she says, echoing the sentiments of many of his friends. "It didn't sound like suicide was where he was heading."
At the Luxor, the balcony railings are solid, at least a foot thick, almost four feet high. Brown was a big man, about 6'4"; his friends say he weighed at least 220 pounds. Perhaps he had enough height to accidentally tip himself off the ledge -- but that isn't particularly likely.
More compelling is his friends' theory that Brown had a bad reaction to the Benadryl and morphine and suffered a complete disconnect with reality in the minutes before his death.
An autopsy was performed and a toxicology test done, but that report is not public record in the state of Nevada. "There is nothing in his tox that would have caused death," says Ron Flood, coroner for Clark County, Nevada. "There were traces of things identified, but nothing that would have caused death."
Tamara Brown has retained a lawyer to look into her husband's death.
Lay Low Bryant doubts it was suicide. Right now he's calling the loss of his friend a "very unfortunate accident."
Unfortunate for Brown's friends and family, unfortunate for hip-hop fans.
The Baja was a promoter's dream that could host between 1,300 and 1,800 people a night, more if you consider that people came and went throughout the evening. None of the remaining clubs offering hip-hop can hold over 700. "These kind of events are not going to continue, because that club is gone, and Mike is not on the scene," Keeler says. "We're not going back to clubs where capacity is very low. At this particular point, we're not on track to do that anymore."
Although owning a club would give a promoter more power, LaVonce Long thinks the chances of that happening are slim. "Most of the promoters I know don't want to take the responsibility of running a club," he says. "We already have jobs."
Insiders suspect the younger crowds will start sneaking into the older clubs such as Club Mix or Bernard's. "That'll work for a few weeks or months, but then it'll crack down," says Lay Low Bryant. And after that, what's left? Dave and Buster's? "Can we party together, or are we gonna go back to house parties with the red and blue lights in the basement?" he asks.
Still, the scene is showing signs of life. Club Onyx continues to offer hip-hop while it tries to placate the neighbors. Big Mike and Al Your Pal are doing Wednesdays at an Aurora club/restaurant called La Casona. Blaze and Rallo will DJ at La Rumba on Friday nights, although the format will stick mostly to old-school jams and R&B. Baptiste, who has a Latin hip-hop night Wednesdays at La Rumba, is planning a Thursday hip-hop night at Bash, to be called Chocolate City. But while the roster of DJs for that night has yet to be determined, the most recent promotional flier doesn't include the Fab Five.
Could the Fab Five make a comeback as the Fab Four? Already, a Soiled Dove gig that was to have included the remaining quartet of DJs featured only Blaze and Rallo, and Al Your Pal sounds doubtful that the whole group will get back together. "We can't find a place big enough to support us," he says.
Big Mike is skeptical, too. "Everybody wants to see what their worth is," he says. "Are they worth the major one or just a small fee? The Fab Five is over. It may be tried again, but it won't be as good."
Without Mix Master Mike to pull them together, the hip-hop DJs may stand alone as they face an increasingly hostile city. Whoever tries to take over for Brown will have "big shoes to fill," says Lay Low. "You're going to go through the same shit he did." And unless the crowds get their act together, "urban clubs and hip-hop are gonna be like dinosaurs. It's gonna be extinct."
But the city's as much to blame as the crowds -- maybe more, Long says. "Until the city of Denver recognizes there's some discrimination going on, it's not going to happen," he argues. "You're gonna have a hole-in-the-wall club here, a hole-in-the-wall club there, but you're not going to have a major hip-hop club."
"The future is us," Blaze says. "There are still no better DJs in Colorado than us. Mike chose us for a reason. There's no way they can stop..." he begins, then stops, then continues. "How can they stop people from wanting to dance and listen to music and take their minds off things?
"Mike's legacy lives through me," he concludes. "I'm going to push just as hard to get the things done he wanted. Because it's what we all wanted."Mike Brown's memorial service was held on a warm, sunny Thursday afternoon, at the New Hope Baptist Church in northeast Denver. The main floor was packed with well-wishers; the wraparound balcony was half full. The service was emotional, intense. Friends sobbed openly over Brown's casket, and after her eulogy, Tamara Brown broke down into wails of sorrow.
But then there was the music. The Reverend Charles Williams tied his remarks to the feel-good Staples Singers hit "I'll Take You There." The choir sang, and friends began to reminisce about the Mix Master. "I hope he's up in heaven scratching hard," said Antonio Hill, a friend.
Ahmad Lewter, one of the pallbearers, said he knew that Mix Master Mike had Jesus himself dancing to his mixes. "Play that again, Mike," the Lord was saying. "Play that again..."
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