With the release of Things I Learned While Dying in Denver, the hip-hop duo’s sixth LP under the band name Calm (stylized Calm.), Steele and Trejo have struck a nice balance between slick rhymes, engaging beats and uplifting and challenging lyrics. The music is an approachable, entertaining plea for people to care for others.
Trejo’s production work across Things I Learned is impressive; each song is filled with character, variance and distinction without feeling gimmicky or formulaic. He puts listeners on edge with blaring sirens and sucks them back in with pleasing melodies and beats.
On the other end, Steele avoids belaboring the positive vibes by turning the focus in many different directions, including in on himself. He addresses what can be done to combat racism (“punch a Nazi"); the hypocrisy of religion (“teens get kicked out for being gay/churches reject them, so where can they stay?”); and what to say to family members during Thanksgiving (“racism exists, patriarchy’s real/Kaep is right: Police got the steel”).
Steele acknowledges that it took hard lessons to get where he is today. A track like “Focus on Legacy Not Currency” says as much, as it details the decision to turn down a sponsorship with Jägermeister, only to regret partnering with a whiskey company for a quick buck years later.
Steele and Trejo believe their work can be used as a guide for younger artists wanting to make socially conscious music, even if the pair hasn't always gotten things right.
“I was joking, but I called Things I Learned While Dying in Denver 'the failure’s guide to winning,'” says Trejo. “We failed so much that now we’re getting some traction. ... You could say we failed at everything, and it’s not been successful. But you should look at each one and [see that we] learn something from it, and we keep progressing from it. Instead of letting it stop us or letting it discourage us, we keep learning from it, analyze it, reiterate it and then keep going.”
Steele and Trejo’s analysis of systematic inequality in the United States and here in Denver is most evident in the music video for “Develop and Deploy Empathy.” While shooting the video, which shows the duo posting up around town in stairwells and alleys, Steele and Trejo met a man sleeping out at night, completely unprepared for Denver’s cold weather.
“He was using a real thin sheet, using it to cover up, and he was on a manhole cover on the sidewalk and using that as warmth,” recalls Trejo. “His shoes were his pillow, so he didn’t have shoes on his feet. We went and got him a blanket, some warmers, some gloves, a beanie, and then we saw him getting kicked out of there, off the sidewalk."
The duo lays the blame on what happened to that man on the city's criminalization of the homeless.
“They call it an urban camping ban, and that’s where they classify a blanket or anything a shelter, so they say someone’s camping outside, and they can throw their stuff away or ticket them,” says Steele. “It’s essentially a policy to kill people. We were doing this music video, and we were cold. We were like, 'Damn, this is so messed up. We just wanted to show solidarity with what we were doing with our music.' We were like, 'Let’s just make this a coat drive.'”
Steele and Trejo have elected to have their album-release show at Mutiny Information Cafe on December 8 double as a coat and warm winter gear drive for Denver Homeless Out Loud, an advocacy and outreach organization for people experiencing homelessness.
Success for the two musicians is found in creating material they believe in while supporting the causes they champion.
“There’s always challenging yourself to be content with what you release,” says Steele. “At the end of the day, if you have twenty albums that no one bought but you stand behind everything you made, then I think that’s cool.”
Yet this doesn’t mean that Steele and Trejo don’t value growing an audience.
“There are a lot of people who are unaware [of the state of the world],” says Trejo. “They don’t know, so we feel that if we spread the knowledge and make people aware of what’s going on in the world, they might feel the same way. It’s kind of like letting people know, 'Hey, this is what’s going on,' and we want to make a difference. We want to make an impact, and we want to see things change."
Calm. album-release show, Saturday, December 8, Mutiny Cafe, 2 South Broadway.