Denver has had a healthy underground hip-hop scene going back to the '80s, including significant acts like Legion of Doom, Apostle, Future Reference, the Strange Us, the Pirate Signal and Ground Zero Movement. Newer artists like Jimmy V are keeping that world vibrant and breaking ground in establishing an audience for the music among the city's youth. What follows are eleven of the most interesting and/or influential artists in alternative and underground hip-hop in Denver today, listed in alphabetical order.
11. Ancient Mith
Braden Smith has pushed his own musical envelope with each of his projects going back more than a decade. His latest is YAWL, which reconciles his thoughtful, ferociously intelligent lyrics with his interest in composing with synthesizers and more conventional methods of hip-hop beatmaking.
10. Bianca Mikahn
Bianca Mikahn's experimental electronic compositions underneath her commanding vocalized poetics delivered with intensity and conviction is a winning blend of intelligence and emotional power.
Time and Awareness bring together masterful beatmaking and hyper-intellectual literary lyrics for some of the most impactful hip-hop songs ever to come out of the Mile High City. Founders of the Dirty Laboratory label, Calm. helped bring respectability to an underground hip-hop scene that had been lacking. Though the act hasn't performed in years, Calm. is coming out of retirement for Extra Kool's album-release party at Mutiny Information Cafe on August 6.
This experimental hip-hop duo brings a direct influence from late '90s and early 2000s alternative hip-hop into its soundscaping. Its 2015 album Replica weaves in science-fiction narratives to comment on the state of the world. Few hip-hop acts cite Pere Ubu as a significant influence, but Curta is more than a little different.
7. Extra Kool
Extra Kool is one of the founding artists on the long-running Dirty Laboratory imprint. Kool's deeply insightful lyrics are like a master course in personal therapy; his creative use of childhood media figures as a path to making sense of the world and his struggles with dark times has been consistently brilliant. He'll be releasing a new album called Eight later this summer.
6. Key Lady and the Front Strangers
Combining inventive soundscaping and beats with a sort of gangster-rap aesthetic, Key Lady and the Front Strangers are equal parts challenging and accessible in both their music and their messaging.
Read on for five more of the region's best alternative hip-hop acts.
5. Otem Rellik
Formerly based in Fort Collins and now living in Denver, Toby Hendricks has incorporated noise elements in his soundscaping since the inception of this project. Hendricks creates some of his own noise-makers, but also uses more conventional methods as Otem Rellik; whichever approach he takes, his beats are always unique and utterly fascinating.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
This Fort Collins-based MC and beat-maker has been making waves on her own terms over the past few years, bursting onto the scene and establishing herself as a significant artist. Her frank explorations of personal trials and tribulations with race and sexuality are incredibly relevant to today's social climate.
As a founder of Anticon, Tim Holland has made alternative and underground hip-hop a known quantity on the international level going back to the '90s. When Holland moved to Denver in 2009, he continued his career as Sole and also established Black Box Tapes, an imprint he has used to release experimental music from Denver and elsewhere.
2. Stay Tuned
Stay Tuned is a hip-hop crew of noteworthy artists in their own rights. MCs Ichiban and Mane Rok, both with strong solo efforts under their belts, bring a sharp social critique to the group's lyrics, and DJ Awhat!!!, once the genius beat-maker for the Pirate Signal, he adds his masterful skills to the outfit.
1. Wheelchair Sports Camp
Kalyn Heffernan's truly unique rapping and underappreciated yet expert beat-making would already deem this project noteworthy. But she always recruits some of the best musicians in Denver to be part of the band, including Rubedo's creatively brilliant drummer, Gregg Ziemba, and master trumpet player Joshua Trinidad. Like few artists in Denver hip-hop, WSC has reached a national and international audience.