Back in the early ’90s, the debate coach kept a boombox in her classroom, cranking up soul, Latin and R&B while she graded papers. Then her students started bringing in their own music, mostly hip-hop — which, it turned out, Shepard loved.
Still, nobody thought the forty-something North High School teacher would become a legend in Denver hip-hop, and especially not for the reason she’s so well known. Her journey began in the classroom, with a chance invitation to a party.
“One of my favorite [students] came strolling in with a flier in his hand for a hip-hop rave that was held up on a mountainside, up on top of a mountain above Boulder,” she recalls. “The name of this joint was Apogee. It comprised eighteen rap bands over three days.”
She bought tickets and decided to turn it into a class outing for a student who was turning sixteen.
The festival mixed music and skating; halfpipes were everywhere. “It was just a constant anthill of people skateboarding,” Shepard remembers.
The Denver band Lord of Word and the Disciples of Bass performed, as did the Beatnuts, members of the Pharcyde, and Common.
Up on that mountain, it didn’t take long for Shepard to start hobnobbing with artists.
“Since I’m a very outgoing person, my students would say, ‘Shep, that’s Fatlip,’ and they’d push me, and they’d say, ‘Go talk to him. Go talk to him,’ because they knew I was intrepid, and they were shy. That’s how that day went, and it was a gas,” she says. “I didn’t know that I was meeting people who were going to be considered royalty down the path. That’s a hell of a way to start off as your introduction to hip-hop.”
After that, she began going to hip-hop shows in Denver and Boulder, where the scene was booming. When she would take students there for debate tournaments, she would get them into clubs they weren’t old enough for yet and introduce them to dancing.
“Well, I had gone up to watch Smokin Grooves one time,” she remembers. “There was a young man sitting in the stands in the afternoon, with his little dreads up in a ponytail. Of course, being the shy and retiring person that I am, I went down and sat by him and said, ‘You surely do look like Jean-Michel Basquiat.’ And he said — this is deadly — ‘Who’s that?’
“So we got to chatting and just chatted away for a little while, and then he said, ‘Well, you’ll have to excuse me, because I have to go down there and play.’” As it turned out, he was the guitarist for Michael Franti and Spearhead.
“Now I have a friend, right? Well, that’s dangerous, because that’s a door,” she says.
The next time Franti and his band came through town, to play Red Rocks, Shepard cooked up trays of food and took them to a back door of the venue. The manager came out, thanked her for the meal and took her back to introduce her to the band. That’s how she met Franti.
That same year, Franti came back through town to talk politics with fans as part of the Spitfire tour. Shepard cooked a couple of vegetarian quiches and gave them to management to deliver to the speakers. When Franti came on stage, she was sitting in the front row, but the way the podium was positioned, she couldn’t see him. So she hollered out, “Michael, move that podium.”
“Shep, is that you?” Franti asked. “Thanks for supper.”
“My brain lit up,” Shepard says. “I thought, wow, these guys have money in their pockets, but that doesn’t mean they can find anything really good to eat in a strange city, right?
“That began the beginning of my trademark: Roll up and roll the food out and enjoy the show,” she says.
For more than two decades, Shepard has been known as Denver’s hip-hop mom. She’s fed artists from MURS and Lupe Fiasco to The Roots and De La Soul, developing close friendships with many along the way.
“It snowballed,” she says. “It got to the point where people were calling me up and saying, ‘Okay, Busta Rhymes is coming to town, and we want you to cook for him,’ and I’m like, ‘Hold on, wait a minute. I don’t know Busta Rhymes. Give me some good reason to cook for Busta Rhymes. I can’t think of one right now. I love Busta Rhymes’s music, but I’ve already got a long list of people.’”
Shepard says she doesn’t charge artists for the meals and never will. “These are costing me $50 to $100 minimum each,” she says. “And if I hooked up something like the Roots, you’re talking about way over $100.”
Over the years, she’s seen Denver’s hip-hop scene boom and bust. In the early to mid-’90s, most of the shows were taking place in Boulder. But by the end of that decade, hip-hop concerts were held in venues throughout Denver.
“I think hip-hop was really starting to catch on around ’95, ’96, ’97 in Colorado. I think that’s when it really started,” she says. “I think we all thought we were going to have a truly raucous hip-hop scene for decades, and we’re now in a situation where there’s not a lot of hip-hop everywhere you look. But in ’96, ’97, ’98, ’99, there was. There was hip-hop all over town, all up and down Colfax. All up and down Lawrence Street. Clubs were booking hip-hop acts all over the place, all up and down Broadway. Big clubs, little clubs. Denver was considered a really busy place to go.”
Eventually, the smaller shows stopped happening. “Denver had a bunch of really skank promoters,” she recalls, noting that artists were treated badly and ripped off, and ultimately stopped coming through town.
She also argues that the music has become predictable, largely because of a lack of great producers. “I’ve always said the key to hip-hop is the producer. The lyrics are great. Lyrics are fine. But let me tell you something — Tupac would not be known if it weren’t for his producers. Period. Sorry. Neither would Biggie. They had access to producers who could really make songs that people wanted to play over and over and over again.
That’s not what’s happening now.
“Production has changed. The values have changed,” she continues. “Song structure has pretty much evaporated. There is no song structure. It’s the same hook times a billion. That’s not what made great songs.
What made great songs was actual song structure. There was a bridge, and there was a damned good reason for the bridge. There was an intro. There was a conclusion. There was tone and mood and all those things that music was capable of creating,” she says. “Young people coming up don’t know that, and they think they can just get a little drum kit and snap out a little ditty and put it on continuous loop and spit over it, and then they’re going to have a song. That’s not a song. It’s nothing.”
This is a conversation Shepard’s been having with Lupe Fiasco for a decade, since she took him a meal at the Gothic Theatre.
Over the years, the two have became close friends. “One day he was in town, and he said, ‘You know, I’m really not happy with the condition of hip-hop right now. I’m disgusted with the lyrics, and I don’t think that the people who are coming into hip-hop, who want to be MCs — I don’t think they realize that there are other levels of the craft that they can develop.’”
He and a group of older rappers had talked about starting a program to mentor younger MCs and give them literary skills; Shepard offered him resources she had acquired as a teacher.
“A couple years go by, and he doesn’t mention it again,” she says. “I thought, okay, that’s all well and done. But then, this last August when he was in town, I’m at the Ogden, and I’m creeping backstage and stuff. He comes, and he said, ‘I have my school up and running, and I’ve been coaching them over the Internet and in conference phone calls. They’ve been sending me sixteen bars every week.’”
Shepard was impressed by all he was teaching, including grammar, song structure and metaphor. Fiasco invited her to lead a workshop at a writers’ retreat he was hosting. She agreed.
“Here’s what they skip doing,” she says of emerging artists. “They don’t read, right? They skip their high school English classes: ‘Oh, that stuff is boring. I’m going to go create.’ ‘Yeah? What kind of tools do you have in your toolbox, honey? None, okay?’ Because what’s interesting is what’s coming out of people who have something interesting to synthesize with.
“Creativity is about synthesis. It’s about taking two known things and putting them together into a new arrangement. That’s the whole definition right there. It’s all you need for creativity,” she says. “Kids don’t understand that. So when it’s time to have a vocabulary test, they ditch school, and then they wonder why they’re boring. They’re boring because they haven’t filled their noggins up with enough stuff to stir it up, put it in the oven and come up with something new.”
Artopia 2019 will celebrate decades of hip-hop culture on Friday, March 1, at The Church, 1160 Lincoln Street; find the complete lineup of artists and performers, as well as ticket information, at westwordartopia.com.