Concerts

Denver's Unknown Rave Legacy, as Told by Freqish

Brandon Lee, aka Freqish.
Brandon Lee, aka Freqish. Freqish
Freqish, aka Brandon Lee, has watched the rave scene unfold since the late ’90s, as it transformed from cultural pariah to music-festival darling. In a lot of ways, that evolution also defines Lee’s path, from adolescent Denver raver to now having a stage named after his own song at Dirtybird's CampINN — the premier house-music label’s winter showcase.

The CampINN stage is named after Lee's song “Let’s Get High” — an homage to the soulful sounds of early Chicago and New York City house music. The track is defined by its jazz-laden diminished chords and a bass line that’s more reminiscent of the Meters than the modern tech-house riffs that dominate the majority of Dirtybird’s releases.

Along with a release on Dirtybird, Lee's put out tracks on DJ Dan’s InStereo and pioneering house-music label Nervous Records, and has done collaborations with Detroit's Gettoblaster. Freqish released his latest EP, Crazy World, on Wednesday, May 25, on Street King, a sublabel of King Street Sounds. The EP features two tracks, "Reign in the Night" and “Crazy World,” which he co-produced with JRAE. The eponymous song's vibe is similar to that of “Let’s Get High,” with funk-infused bass and diminished organ chords. “Reign in the Night” is decidedly more opaque, with off-kilter, Latin-infused drums and a snarling bass line that glides over the track before giving way to a fuzzed-out sitar, wistful synthesized crescendos and oriental horns.

But before this success, Lee was reveling in a Colorado rave scene that he believes doesn’t get the credit it deserves. “When you say Colorado, people don’t associate it with dance music, despite birthing Beatport, which brought dance music to the masses,” says Lee. “We also had 10,000-plus (audience) events every Friday and Saturday for years. I got tired of seeing Carl Cox and Paul Oakenfold because they played here so much. Doc Martin, Richie Hawtin, Donald Glaude, Paul Anthony, DJ Micro, DJ Icey — the list seriously is too long to print.”

Lee emphasizes that ’90s Denver wasn’t just some cowtown. Instead, it was on the vanguard of the dance-music scene, with people throwing massive festivals without any permitting and having to contend with the police. “The promoters in the ’90s are the real OGs," he states, "because they had all odds stacked against them. And this generation of dance-music listeners need to understand the hell that they went through. The lawsuits, the court dates, the slander, the blood, sweat and tears that they put in, all so that they could bring us this music and the fans could be free.”

Lee went to his first rave in 1998. “I had a group of loyal friends, and one of their older brothers, who was a DJ, told me and my mom that they were taking me to a birthday party,” remembers Lee. “When we pulled up, I got out of the car, and I could feel the bass on the concrete from like three blocks away, and as we got closer, I could feel the vibration more. I saw a building with steam pouring out of the windows, and it looked like water dripping down the sides of the building because of all the sweat. I told my boy Mason, the older brother, ‘I thought we were going to a birthday party...’.”

Until that point, Lee says he had only experienced a few house parties, where he'd had alcohol. He hadn’t even smoked weed yet. Now he was in an environment where anything went — a concrete palace of hedonism, in a way. “So my boy Mason brings me onto the dance floor and asks me to lick his hand, and I’m like, 'Fuck it, YOLO,” reminisces Lee. “My whole world changed in an instant. I started to feel the vibe and get out of my head for the first time in my life.”

From that moment on, Lee realized he’d changed and that things were different now. He felt he had this secret thing that the other kids didn’t know about, and he and his friends wanted to share it with everyone. So they started promoting, folding up fliers, slipping them into people’s lockers — and then getting suspended for dropping buckets of them down from the upper tiers of Thunder Ridge High. “Basically, the school system hated me,” says Lee.

Shortly after this, though, the scene changed when future president Joe Biden pushed through 2003’s Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act, colloquially known as the RAVE Act. “The government came along and saw how profitable these parties were and realized they weren’t getting their cut," Lee says. "People like Joe Biden launched smear campaigns against the promoters. They passed the RAVE Act and shut things down so that they could set up the infrastructure and rebranded raves as ‘festivals.’ Our culture was stolen from us, but the underground moved on.”

Lee credits the opening of Beta Nightclub in 2008 with bringing Denver nights back to life. He says it was a club born out of love for rave culture and was instrumental in pushing dance music to the masses. “Once again, history repeated itself, and the best artists came to Colorado to showcase their talent every weekend,” he reflects. 

Beta eventually became unsustainable when DJs started to charge exorbitant fees to play, he suggests, while ravers coming to the shows wouldn't profit the bar, as most partake in other extracurriculars rather than alcohol.

With all of that around him, Lee naturally found his love for deejaying and production, performing under the moniker NativeOrigin303. However, his mentors — Beatport co-founder Jonas Tempel and Gettoblaster’s Paul Anthony — said that the name was a little "too much," and he decided to go by Freqish just before the pandemic. “It was a hard pill to swallow, because I had created so much music under that name," Lee says. "But change is good, and nothing to fear. Feeling fear means you’re making the right choice."

During the pandemic, he was listening to Claude VonStroke’s “I’m Solo” at every moment he could, and that it was the inspiration behind “Let’s Get High.”

“Barclay [Crenshaw, Claude VonStroke’s real name] and I share the same birthday," he says, "so my superstitious ass figured that I needed to craft something that spoke to him.” Next thing he knew, “Let’s Get High” was signed to Dirtybird, and Crenshaw was playing it frequently in his sets.

Since then, Lee's career has taken off. On Thursday, May 26, he'll be at Bar Standard with JackLNDN, who also shares a love for Freqish’s music.

“It’s crazy, because when my track ‘Falling for You’ came out, my boy Lucas sent me a video of Jack playing it at Ruby Hill,” recalls Lee. “Then he dropped my track on a Nervous Records mix, so I hit him up to say thank you. Jack responded and said that he also enjoyed my music. A while later, he hit me up on video chat and asked if I would like to play a show with him. I was honored, because I thought DJ etiquette was a thing of the past.”

Freqish plays with JackLNDN, Thursday, May 26, at Bar Standard, 1037 Broadway. Tickets are $10.
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