Denver rapper Cameron Mason, aka U.T.I.C.A. (Undeniably The Illest Cat Around), does not want to talk about his new single, “The Problem.” He didn’t want to pen it. He doesn’t want to share it. He even opens the track acknowledging that he wishes he didn’t have to make it.
“The Problem" — a detour from the club-friendly anthems Mason has dropped over the past fifteen years — is about police killings, particularly the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis cops.
“It’s a horrible tragedy,” Mason says. “I shouldn’t have to write these kinds of songs.”
Still, he’s released "The Problem," a track he wrote in early June, after joining the Black Lives Matter protests in Denver.
“When I woke up that morning, I knew I wanted to write, but the idea of wanting to write some catchy hip-hop song...just some general hip-hop...it didn’t hit me right,” he recalls. “I knew I had something to say, and I knew I needed to use what platform I do have to voice my opinion. I just knew a song like this was essential.”
Ready to record, he tightened his budget and bought a beat from Kazakhstan-based producer Pandora Nightz. The lyrics and the music were a perfect match, he says, and by early this month, he'd put out the track.
This wasn’t the first time that Mason thought about using hip-hop to respond to police violence. Back in 2014, when he was in the streets protesting the killing of Eric Garner, the rapper contemplated producing a similar song, but says he didn’t have it in him.
Now he views it as the moral obligation of any musician to speak out about issues that matter. Hip-hop, after all, is documentary in nature, he says. The best of the genre chronicles what's happening — the good and the bad.
“As an artist, you can’t help but feel compelled to say something,” Mason explains. “You can go to a protest and express yourself there, and if you have a means to broaden how you feel and broaden your reach, it’s your duty as an artist.”
Weeks have passed since protests started sweeping the country over Floyd’s death. A handful of reforms have been promised; the Colorado Legislature even passed a major bill. Still, Mason believes that people need to push the agenda and demand more change, and that musicians are in a good position to keep the energy going.
“I feel like we let up,” he worries. “Things aren’t okay, or anything like that. We still need to address that. We have George Floyd, We have Breonna Taylor. We have Elijah McClain. There are so many people who this is happening to.”
Mason, who grew up on Utica Street (which is where he got his rap moniker) in the Mar Lee neighborhood in southwest Denver and attended Kennedy High School, has been rapping since he was fifteen. Now 33, he’s spent years in an on-again-off-again career. His last album came out six years ago, and he says he needed the COVID-19 shutdown — which slowed down his work schedule as a manager at a Good Chemistry dispensary — to find time to release his new album, ill, which dropped on July 3.
“I was able to sit down and liven things up, because most of the time I’m working and have all these other things going on between my personal and professional life. Music has had to take a back seat,” he says.
ill is a collection of songs full of boasting and bravado, the kind of music Mason shied away from when writing “The Problem.”
“I drop music in my life for the love of it, and at the end of the day, no matter how my music aspirations go, I do truly love to create music,” he says. “I’m always going to put music out, and I’ll always strive to be — as far as hip-hop’s concerned — I definitely want to be one of the names out here that people remember long-term, and I hope to spread my reach worldwide.”
Denver’s hip-hop scene has grown over the past five years, and Mason thinks the quality of music is also on the rise. “Growing up before I had any musical aspirations, I remember picking up local artists," he says. "Nyke Nitti had a CD, and at school, I knew folks growing up who were sisters or brothers of certain artists. I’ve seen this scene evolve so much.
“Some of those artists maintain their staying power, and it’s something I salute them for and try to practice myself,” he adds. “It’s about putting out quality music. I feel like...there is really a focus on putting out quality music and making music that can last the test of time more so than just trying to stay relevant and putting out single after single and project after project. I feel like folks are taking their time with their music and trying to make things that will last.”
And through it all, Denver’s hip-hop scene has focused on pushing the movement to stop police violence. That's a trend that Mason hopes continues.
“It’s cool to have the hits and the club bangers,” he admits, "but at some point, you realize it’s almost disrespectful to not have a message and try to spread it.”
And even though weeks have passed since the protests took over the globe, he believes that now is the time to stay engaged.
“We can’t let it die out because time’s passed and life goes on,” he says. “That’s where these messages get lost, when we don’t stay on it.”
Hear "The Problem" and more from U.T.I.C.A. at soundcloud.com/uticasme.