Smith grew up in New Jersey but spent critical years in his development as a rapper in Rifle, Colorado, where his family moved in the mid-1990s. Not finding much opportunity for his art in western Colorado beyond some open mikes in high school and rapping at parties with friends, Smith moved to Florida and then Arizona in the year after he graduated, and made his first recordings during that time. He also spent time in Maui, where he met artists like the Mole and Demune, with whom he traded musical ideas. Smith later moved to Denver, but he returned to Maui for a visit and recorded his first album, His Story in the Faking, which was released in 2003. He came back to Colorado with some admittedly youthful notions about changing the world with his chosen creative pursuit.
“I thought I would just go to Denver and start a hip-hop scene if there wasn’t one,” says Smith with a chuckle. “Little did I know how daunting of a task that was. But I got here, and there was already an awesome underground scene. I vowed to have one show within the first three months, and I had two or three shows within the first months. I was very driven to get started, and there were a lot of cool, welcoming people here. Colorado felt like my home, and Denver was the first logical step in trying to do something new and bigger.”
Smith became friendly with people in the scene, which included artists like Time and AwareNess, Optik Fusion Embrace, Babah Fly, Dialectix, Gypsy, Strange Us and Johnny 5 of Flobots. Thanks to active open-mike nights at the now-defunct Sportsfield Roxxx on East Colfax near Aurora, the Soiled Dove’s former downtown location and community space Breakdown Book Collective, Smith became part of a flourishing hip-hop scene. This was a time when underground hip-hop was becoming a going concern on the national and international levels, before the movement plateaued toward the end of the 2000s.
“I think that it’s really weird, because I was perhaps a little late for it all in general,” recalls Smith. “Maybe that was a couple years before my time, even. I toured for the first time in Europe in 2007. I know that had I gone [between 2003 and 2006], I would have been established more as a musician. You got paid so much more, and it was easier to get a couple of thousand euros per show. But that bubble burst. That’s why I try not to just be a rapper. Some of the people I most respect musically aren’t particularly specific to a genre all the time even though they may be based in one genre. The best example, for conversation’s sake, is Beck. He has a steady idea of something, but he also strays from that and pushes beyond that.”
Certainly, as Ancient Mith, Smith has never been “just a rapper.” Each of his five albums is a peek into his varied interests as a songwriter. On A Pile to Keep, A Pile to Burn, he seems to sing as much as he raps, and the sound is based around different moods, with a narrative linking the songs together, an element that wasn’t used as much on previous efforts. While the 2006 album A Modern Day McCarthy and 2008’s [Under] Mining Skies (put out by Smith projects Rushya and Hungry Giant, respectively) garnered him a bit of an international audience, the fact that Smith has not stuck with a specific sound or project name over his career may have hurt him commercially. But he has a different perspective.
“I’d much rather do that than feel bored or unchallenged,” says Smith about the diversity of his work. “No disrespect to someone that does that, but I genuinely don’t understand how you could get comfortable with a style and keep doing that album after album.”
Regardless of what moniker he’s using, Smith has found a niche in the music world. In Denver, his ambition and ability to talk to club bookers has meant that he is sometimes chosen before peers with different personality types to play a gig. But he admits that he might not have been so diplomatic in the early part of his career.
“I think within my own community, I pissed people off and rubbed people the wrong way, even people who were cool with me, because I was trying to get shows so much and make opportunities for myself,” he recalls.
Despite his initiative, Smith observes that there are limits to Denver’s hip-hop scene.
“There are good shows here and such, but it doesn’t seem that there’s a support system to go beyond a certain number of things. You earn the slot at these venues, and you do that as many times as you can and you hold on to it, because if you don’t, somebody else is going to take it. The opportunities outside of that are limited, and getting out of state is hard, and we’re far away from everything. You reach a certain level [of popularity], and you hit the point where you think about whether you stay fighting for that. I felt like if I was going to do that, [I wouldn’t have branched] out and done something else. I’d rather get to see the rest of the world than be a shark in a pond.”
But now that Smith has several tours of Europe under his belt, he sees the benefits of having an established home base — something he eschewed for nearly a decade.
“You have to do what it takes, but you have to be conscious about what your goals are outside of that,” observes Smith. “Nothing wrong with trying to play the best shows in Denver for the rest of your life, but you’ve got to push yourself toward the bigger picture more. And that’s where I lost my focus on Denver, because my bigger picture didn’t involve Denver as much as it should have. Had that been a consistent thing more over the last eight years here than just focusing over there so much, I would be better off in both places.”
“It would have been nice to have had a hometown support system a little bit more,” he concludes. “Colorado Public Radio is super-supportive of me, so I feel like [my presence in Denver] is on the comeback. If I did focus on that more, it would be good to have a solid support system locally. But I wonder what the support system is here, because I feel like it’s more of a knife fight than a friendly thing here sometimes.”
YAWL has no plans to play the U.S. at this time because Dot is still based in Germany, but the duo will perform at that country’s prestigious Fusion Festival in late June, as well as a string of summer dates to be announced in Switzerland, Germany and Austria.