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Of course, it's a fine line. The solutions to problems are usually best dramatized when the problems are made as vivid as possible. For instance, in "Can't Get Away," Machete's narrator claims in his chorus, with great vigor, "You talkin' about bangin' and shit'? Nigger, I done did that shit."

"That tune was biographical," Machete says. "Everybody's making money doing dirt. I've done all that stuff, but I'm not gonna make it a focus of what I'm doing." He says he was always basically a good kid and a good student, but he spent some years hanging with a bad crowd. Still, though he saw some of the darker aspects of the lifestyle, he seems to have spent most of his time deconstructing it: "They didn't like that, so I was just, like, whatever." Machete has studied at Howard University, the University of Colorado at Denver and the Community College of Denver, where he is now one class shy of graduation.

"It was a trip to work with him," says Muhammad. "He'd have the whole thing planned in his head. Everything measured out in his own words" -- and everything in his head, never written down. Machete also had the basic groove he was looking for. Muhammad would then noodle around until he found something Machete liked; he says the two tried to "find a field to resonate in." Muhammad queried Mecca about his influences -- artists like Rakim, Ice Cube, early Fugees -- and then studied them himself. He would also listen to each track for hours on end, listening for any slight thing to tweak or change. With no instruments or equipment at home, Muhammad had to do his work in his head, too, then in the studio. The album took almost two years to record.

The two are currently recording a follow-up album that they expect to be ready by late next spring, and Machete is looking for venues in which to perform. "We're always looking for shows," he says. "I'm certain it's harder for artists to come up in Colorado than it is somewhere else, for the simple fact that Denver doesn't support the local hip-hop scene." Club managers, he points out, are worried about violence and the high cost of insuring live rap and hip-hop concerts.

Muhammad, meanwhile, is trying to build a stable of artists to produce. He hopes to do a hip-hop equivalent of Blood on the Fields -- the three-disc epic on slavery from composer Wynton Marsalis -- and he wants to get a band together, a "hardcore rock/Brazilian funk" group. He misses the stage. "The stage is like a horse: You get on it, saddle it, ride it. I know how to mount a stage." Turns out he'd rather do it with his hands on a guitar instead of a podium.

"I've been suppressing this side of my being for so long," he notes. "I have an artistic side that's very strong."

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T.R. Witcher