Tom’s Press sits in an old corner-store building at 37th and Navajo streets. The exterior is patchy red- and blue-painted brick with wood paneling. A garish yellow placard screams, “FLYERS 1000 for $39,” and in the window a neon sign blinks, “FAX.”
Mom-and-pop corner shops and bodegas were once a familiar sight on Denver’s Northside. These days, they’re increasingly rare, and where they do exist, they’ve been dwarfed by the corrugated metal and particleboard of the largely gentrified Highland neighborhood’s multimillion-dollar condo-complex monstrosities and single-family fortresses.
“This is my own little clubhouse,” says Tom Quintana, the Tom in Tom’s Press. He owns this slice of vanishing working-class Denver. At 57, he’s not going anywhere, he says, even as real-estate types regularly offer cash to buy his shop.
“Everything is changing around here,” he says with an exhale, a phrase he’s spoken many times in the last half-decade as buildings in his neighborhood continue to be bulldozed and replaced. “The property taxes, they’re terrible, man. They just keep going up and up.”
Quintana leans against a counter cluttered with mountains of paper and card stock, smiling as he muses about his favorite old-Denver haunts like Longo’s Subway Tavern, the Bamboo Hut and, of course, fellow Navajo Street legend Patsy’s. Tom and his son, Tom Quintana Jr., were regulars at the infamous red-sauce joint, which closed last year after nearly a century in business.
Tom’s Press has only been around since 1980 — 1991 in its current location — making the business practically a newcomer in a neighborhood once known as Denver’s Little Italy before becoming a largely Latino neighborhood around the middle of the last century.
Tom’s Press is closed for the day, but Tom’s unofficial clubhouse is open. Tom Jr. — also known by his stage name, Tommy Rico — is posted up next to his dad, sipping a just-cracked-open Coors Banquet tallboy. TJ, as Tom senior calls his son, is here to pick up some freshly printed fliers for the upcoming Danver Showcase, a gig he and his hip-hop group, Fed Rez, are putting on.
Fed Rez will headline the showcase at Syntax Physic Opera, which will also include fellow local acts U.T.I.C.A, Abeasity Jones and DJ Lo. The Denver-repping Topeira Boxing Club and parkour group Flogang will be setting up shop there, too, along with Denver-by-way-of-Chicago music blog and promotions company 4th Shore Hip Hop.
The members of the three-year-old Fed Rez have been friends for years; some have known each other since middle school. The bandmates’ longstanding camaraderie cements a unified vision for how to put on a strong live show and smoothly deliver smart, satirical rhymes as they trade off the mic.
But the musicians say that making a concert enticing requires more than putting together a good lineup. They see incorporating elements beyond live music as key to getting people in the door.
“When you see a flier for a show and it’s just, like, the band’s name, who’s going to come to that?” asks Fed Rez MC Kyle Bacon, aka Bizantine Empire. “We like branding our shows as parties so the casual person who may not know us might come by.”
The party vibe comes naturally when Fed Rez plays. Crowds are thick with friends and high-school pals from their old Bear Valley neighborhood, plus many fellow local musicians running the stylistic gamut who come out just to hang.
The group’s 2016 album, Folk Rock — an expressive record reminiscent of Paul’s Boutique-era Beastie Boys, if the East Coast sass was replaced with some cooled-out Western chill — put Fed Rez’s three-way-conversation style to work.
“Danver,” arguably the LP’s defining track, not only demonstrates the rappers’ ability to take turns spitting bars in even stacks, but it has eternally connected the four friends to their quickly changing home town. The song is an unofficial anthem that gives proper respect to dustier, less hip Denver ’hoods like Athmar Park and Westwood. At live shows, fans know every word.
A few weeks ago, Fed Rez spent the day working on a new video for “Bruh Button,” Folk Rock’s next single. “We made the video at Joaquin’s gym, and we were talking about adding a theme to the showcase; otherwise, it would be just another Fed Rez show, and that’s not what we’re about,” says Quintana, explaining how Topeira Boxing Club came into the fold for the upcoming showcase. Joaquin Romero, the club’s owner, and Fed Rez go way back. They became friends through Joaquin’s brother Esteban, who went to Kennedy High School with Quintana, Bacon and MC Sean Higgins.
Fed Rez members want to build an ethos-over-genre relationship within the music community and beyond, and they do that by weaving friends’ businesses and musical projects into every aspect of their work. The group doesn’t see itself as merely three rappers and a DJ; rather, Fed Rez is a creative entity that taps into the people around them to create everything from music videos and live shows to merchandise and mutual promotional opportunities.
Weeks before the show, three-fourths of the group are kicking back at Tom’s print-shop clubhouse, scheming with beers in hand, working out how to make the upcoming concert go off just right. MCs Bacon and Quintana shoot the shit with their DJ, Anthony Kunovic, aka DJ Who? Tony. Their bandmate Higgins (Higgs Boson) is out of town, on tour with Wheelchair Sports Camp.
The MCs and their DJ wander through the winding maze of rooms, past an out-of-commission vintage soda machine, a few hulking printing presses dismantled for parts, and a paper-folding contraption. A machine that numbers raffle tickets is still in operation, used yearly for printing raffle materials for Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s summer bazaar.
Bacon stops at a light table, resting among the well-loved piles of printing gear. “This is where I made the first Fed Rez logo, years ago. I drew it and cut it and taped it together with Scotch tape,” he says, describing a road map and manifesto of sorts that he also drafted there late one night, a master vision for Fed Rez’s creative future. It was in that shop that he and his friends dreamed up the band.
Quintana pulls the conversation even further back in time, reminiscing about birthday slumber parties he threw as a kid at his dad’s shop, and after-hours middle-school sleepovers held in the same space where local papers were printed.
The crew settles in for more beers on some wobbly stools in the garage at the back of the shop where Quintana’s dad keeps his hot rods — among them a pristine 1980 red Corvette Stingray and his prized Harley, purchased from his friend Arlin, who owns another Northside staple just up the street, 2 Wheelers.
Both the Stingray and the bike made cameos in Fed Rez’s “Danver” video. Much like the aesthetic of the Mile High-proud song, the idea behind the upcoming Danver Showcase plays on both the camaraderie of local artists and the city’s subtle but still recognizable kitsch.
The Danver Showcase flier is awash in Denver references, from the red RTD bus-stop sign displaying the time, date and place of the party to green street signs announcing Fed Rez and U.T.I.C.A. on the bill. A certain “Strong Arm” television attorney makes an appearance on a bus bench at the bottom of the flier, though a crafty bit of design graffiti covers his face.
Along with the fliers and posters, Fed Rez is having actual tickets — ones that look like old-school ticket stubs, thanks to the design skills of DJ Who? Tony — printed for the show as well. Tom’s Press produces those too, of course. Offering a physical-ticket option is all part of Fed Rez’s plan to make its events stand out from the run-of-the-mill local show.
“I think people are more compelled to come to a show when they have a ticket,” Bacon says optimistically.
That modicum of extra effort beyond a Facebook event invite can go a long way. Fed Rez is creating a piece of “I was there” Denver ephemera, much like Tom’s Press inadvertently does during business hours, printing little pieces of history, like raffle tickets for the neighborhood’s 120-year-old Catholic Church.
Denver’s Northside has been changing, but, says the senior Quintana, when it comes to his community, “We’re not dead yet.”
And his son and Fed Rez are ensuring that no matter how many big-box apartment buildings go up, there will always be pieces of the old city left to rally around. After all, this is Danver, bud.
Fed Rez’s Danver Showcase, 9 p.m. Saturday, April 8, Syntax Physic Opera, 554 South Broadway, $7, 720-456-7041.