Talk to young artists and they’ll tell you the hip-hop scene in Denver is just getting going, that they will be the next big thing and put Colorado on the map. Of course, youthful rappers have been making that claim since the ’80s, despite Denver never gaining the hip-hop notoriety of Compton, Atlanta, Brooklyn, Houston or Detroit.
Even so, over the years rappers, DJ crews, graffiti writers and B-boys have made their mark in Colorado and beyond.
With this year’s Artopia set for March 1 at The Church, where it will celebrate decades of hip-hop, we reached out to a handful of players in the Colorado scene — a longtime promoter, a fan who has cooked food for hip-hop artists, a multi-talented B-boy and MC, and an emerging rapper — to get their take on where local hip-hop’s been and where it’s going.
This is the first in the series.
High-schoolers in the late ’80s looking to throw a kegger in Las Cruces, New Mexico, knew that Francois Baptiste had the hookup.
In a town of mostly Latino and white residents, Baptiste, one of the few black students, stood out. “I was kind of the party guy,” he says. “They’d tell me, ‘Hey, my parents went out of town.’ I’d bring the DJ, I’d bring the kegs, and we’d go to your house and have a house party.”
In 1991, he moved to Colorado to study at the University of Colorado Boulder. While his peers devoted themselves to engineering, law and literature, he studied the art of being a party animal.
Early on at school, he met the brothers of Zeta Beta Tau fraternity, who needed a DJ. “I opened my mouth and said, ‘Hey, we’ll deejay for you,” Baptiste remembers, not entirely sure whom he’d recruit to perform.
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ZBT hired him to play a gig for $75, and he quickly formed a crew of fellow black students who provided the frat brothers with entertainment. Next thing he knew, kids across campus were asking his team to spin at their parties, too.
He and his friends invested in nicer turntables and would lug twenty crates of records up flights of stairs into frat houses, where they would give the kids of CU Boulder — a school best known for its keggers back then — the soundtrack to their youth.
To an outsider, it might have seemed like Baptiste was wasting his life partying; in truth, he had stumbled onto a vocation. Those early college years would form the base of 3Deep Entertainment, the Denver hip-hop promotion company that Baptiste has run with friends for more than two decades. The company, which promotes hip-hop shows for Live Nation and AEG, also manages artists like Trev Rich, the closest thing to a breakout rapper Denver has had in years.
When 3Deep started, it was a crew of ten friends having a good time. Only three were DJs, a few just liked to hang out, and Baptiste and another guy handled business. “I don’t know what the fuck we were, really,” he says. “I guess in a way, I was a little bit of a manager.”
Once their frat-party days were behind them, the 3Deep team started throwing hip-hop nights at homes, warehouses and even Boulder’s Dairy Arts Center. Social media didn’t yet exist, so if they wanted to get people to their shows, they had to hit the streets and hustle.
“This is when you really had to work to do something: go to get posters and fliers, go to all these places, record stores, put posters up and staple shit, make sure you had your fliers in certain places,” Baptiste recalls. In the early ’90s, he mostly steered clear of the Mile High City, which had been mired in gang violence and had all but lost its hip-hop scene. The city had gained national notoriety as a dangerous place for a touring artist to play — particularly after DJ Quik rapped in a song about a bad experience he’d had with local promoters and fans.
At a 1991 concert, Denver gang members had shown up at one of the Compton rapper’s concerts and started mocking him. He responded by flashing gang signs their way. A riot broke out, and Quik was charged with assault.
He wrote about the incident in “Jus Lyke Compton,” rapping about how the feud between the Bloods and the Crips had spread across the nation to cowtowns in Texas and Missouri and, yes, to Denver.
The song came out on his 1992 album Way 2 Fonky. That same year, a few entrepreneurs, including Don Strasburg, now the head of AEG Presents Rocky Mountains, had taken over booking at Boulder’s Fox Theatre, hosting jam bands and a few hip-hop concerts.
“The Fox Theatre literally opened up right at the peak of dope ’90s rap,” Baptiste says. “Don just wasn’t scared of shit.”
Strasburg had seen 3Deep’s name on fliers all over town and reached out to Baptiste, inviting him to help book the venue. His first hip-hop show included Common Sense (now Common) and Organized Konfusion.
“I want to say it sold the fuck out. It blew everybody away,” Baptiste remembers. “The funny thing was, hip-hop was so looked down upon; I think we had ten police officers or a hundred security — overkill for this. It blew out. It was amazing. That literally started the hip-hop revolution in Boulder.
“The Fox Theatre was on fire,” he continues. “People would leave Denver to get out of the bullshit and go to Boulder because it was a safe college town.”
Baptiste started expanding his influence, deejaying alongside DJ Chonz and others on independent radio station KGNU, playing hip-hop by local and national artists and hosting rap battles. Back then, KGNU’s signal barely made it to Denver, where radio stations mostly banned hip-hop, according to Baptiste.
“They wouldn’t play hip-hop; they wouldn’t touch it. They would not play a lick of hip-hop,” he recalls. “They thought it was shit. They thought it was too violent and misogynistic. They would not touch it, so we didn’t have any outlet.”
Eventually, KS-107.5 moved into the Denver market, playing a spectrum of urban music. In the early 2000s, the station invited Baptiste, Chonz and a rapper named Kingdom to put together a radio program in Denver.
“Sure enough, they let us do a show together for six years on KS-107.5,” Baptiste says. “We just got up there and played music and did breaks for two hours and played locals.” He also interviewed Kanye West, Raekwon, KRS-One, Gang Starr, Guru and even Janet Jackson.
“It was really the wild, wild West out here. It wasn’t like New York or L.A.,” Baptiste explains. “You had to fight for shit to get shit done. People really didn’t like hip-hop at all. They despised it. They liked certain things — they liked to make money off it, certain things like the concerts. But Denver was a very violent culture for hip-hop. It’s gotten better now, but in certain circles, it’s not highly liked.”
He may be a local promoter, but Baptiste likes to prop up artists who set their sights beyond the region — who tour and build music-industry connections outside of town, like the Reminders and, more recently, rapper Rich.
The biggest shift Baptiste has seen in the hip-hop community over the past quarter-century is the impact of social media and online music platforms, which have cut out the need for record labels and traditional gatekeepers. But he says there are limitations to just how much success an artist can find online...and in Denver.
“I think there are ceilings here,” he explains. “How many times can you tag the same eighty people on Facebook? ‘I’m dropping this project; listen to it.’ How many times can you upload shit?”
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Worst of all, in the promoter’s view, many of today’s rappers just aren’t that original.
“It’s very, very safe music,” he says. “I think, individually, people are looking different, but they’re still sounding the same. I think the whole world right now sounds the same.”
And it’s the artists who defy that trend that Baptiste wants to promote.
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.