This Saturday, hip-hop duo Calm. will play its first show in three years, opening for Extra Kool at the release show for his latest album, Eight. The two acts more or less came up together, forming the early core of local underground hip-hop imprint Dirty Laboratory in the mid-2000s. Calm.’s two members, Chavo “AwareNess” Trejo and Chris “Time” Steele, both grew up in the northern part of Denver — Trejo in Park Hill and Steele in the area of the city often referred to as the Highlands.
“I grew up in north Denver, and it was called ‘the Nutty.’ I never heard it called ‘the Highlands’ until it was branded that way by [developers],” says Steele. “I was living there recently, until the rents doubled and I moved to Littleton.”
The topic of a changing Denver isn’t new to Steele. His 2013 solo album, Newstalgia, included commentary on foreclosures and the disappearance of onetime neighborhood fixtures — remarks that seem prescient now.
Steele got his first glimpse of society’s dark side at a young age, and it helped give rise to both his sharp, edgy wit and his compassion for other humans and commitment to social justice. When he was ten, Steele saw a man stabbed to death in a park near his home, and the perpetrators threatened to do the same to him and a friend if they talked. This incident had a deep impact on Steele; he became more devoted to his passions than most kids, many of whom don’t discover their focus until much later in life.
As an adolescent, Steele ran basketball tournaments to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation and solicited sponsorships from the likes of SLAM magazine and Wanna Battle Records. The latter invited Steele to a Denver screening of a documentary on Mumia Abu-Jamal — only to discover Steele was not, in fact, thirty, but thirteen. But it was that meeting that linked Steele with Jeru The Damaja, Main Flow and Dead Prez, some of his hip-hop heroes at the time. Before high school was out, Steele had written two albums’ worth of music, including 2004's critically acclaimed Litterture, which he released under the moniker Time.
A key high-school experience, one that informed the course of the rest of Steele’s life, was the change in curriculum that occurred after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
“[Starting] a week later, my school was taken over by recruiters for the next two years,” says Steele. “They would teach all our classes, and when they were done teaching, they would load us all into a Hummer and take us to lunch and try to get us to sign up for the military. It was like another version of the draft. They would teach us military history, and in gym class [they would] compliment us and say we would make good generals. We were never given college options at our school; we were perfect for fighting in Iraq [because] it was largely a working-class school. Due to hip-hop, I knew the history of resistance [and didn’t join the military].”
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By the middle of the decade, Steele and Trejo were working together as Calm. and had founded the Dirty Laboratory collective with friends, including Extra Kool, Doctype, Joshie Juronimoe and Damon JeVon. Steele also connected and collaborated with well-known hip-hop artists like Kool Keith, Sole and Common. The connection with Common arose from a chance encounter Trejo had with Common's father, Lonnie Rashid Lynn Sr., at a 7-Eleven in Lakewood where Trejo was working, and the bond endures: This past year, Trejo worked on a track for the upcoming Common album that features a final piece of writing done by Lonnie Sr. before he passed away in 2014.
These days, Steele is a respected political writer, with contributions to Truthout and Counterpunch, and teaches political science at the University of Colorado Denver. One of his interviews with Noam Chomsky, whom he befriended in 2012, appears in the 2013 collection Occupy: Reflections on Class War, Rebellion and Solidarity. All of that has kept Steele busy, but not too busy; he remains a prolific songwriter and relatively active performer. This summer he released a collaborative album with Ephelant called How to Sew Wounds With Words, with a cover by radical comic artist Seth Tobocman. A new Calm. album is also nearing completion. But for now, catch this rare performance, in which Time will take a more spoken-word-style approach, accompanied only by Trejo on piano, with no beats.
“It’s just piano with solos, straight Liberace and me,” says Steele.
Calm. with Extra Kool, Church Fire, Maulskull and Santone 7:30 p.m., Saturday, August 6, Mutiny Information Cafe, free, all ages.