Mister Freedom Is a Breath of Fresh Air for Colorado Hip-Hop

Despite being from Denver, producer and DJ Alex Warzel (who goes by Neon Brown and was living in Oakland until recently, when he moved back), says he never used to think much of the city’s hip-hop scene.

“I’d never been into rappers from Denver at all,” he says. “I didn’t think hip-hop existed here.”

But whenever he was back in town, Warzel (who also occasionally writes for Westword) would look for gigs, and on one trip he hooked up with a Facebook friend, Jayce “FL” Cabell, who was looking for a DJ. When Warzel heard Cabell’s music, his opinion of the Denver rap scene changed.

“I was blown away,” he says.

After listening to his Limbo album, Cabell says, Warzel proposed that the pair do something together.

“He had this project [called] Mister Freedom. The beats were all mapped out,” says Cabell.

Warzel says Cabell took the finished beats and music and wrote lyrics for the entire album, start to finish, without changing any of the music.
“I’m still blown away that Jayce wrote it that way,” says Warzel. “Ninety-nine percent of the time with rappers, it’s like, ‘Nah, you need to cut this out or change this.’ But Jayce made that entire album work. The songs, they all blend together.”

Cabell says the way that Warzel composed the beats helped him flow from track to track without the need for changes.

“I was mainly trying to focus on the concept of an album,” says Warzel. “These days, everything is about singles, not albums. I tried to take the concept of, ‘Let’s look at it like we’re working on a really long single.’”

The pair took on the moniker Mister Freedom for the project. Their eponymous album has been up on Soundcloud for about a month now, and they say the reaction to it has been phenomenal. The next step is to get it out in a physical format, promote the music and get enough money together to continue the project. To do that, they’ve launched an Indiegogo campaign with the modest goal of raising $5,000. Their idea was to keep their expectations low and give fans something of value for their donations. The campaign lays out exactly what the pair needs for each aspect of the record’s creation and promotion, from hiring a PR firm to production costs for CDs and vinyl.

“We’re giving exactly what we’re getting the money for,” says Cabell, adding that $13 nets donors a vinyl copy of the album and a download — a good deal, as any record collector can tell you. Incentives increase with the donation amount but stay reasonable. The top-tier donation of $100 gets fans a signed Mister Freedom CD, a signed vinyl LP, a download code, a tape, a T-shirt, a sticker, a personal thank-you from Warzel and Cabell, and a personalized Mister Freedom baseball jersey with any number the fan wants on the back.

It’s a lot for the money, and that’s on purpose, the two say. They want people to know that they aren’t rich or living lavishly.

“Even in my past work, I’ve never been one to glorify typical things,” says Cabell. “I’m an honest rapper as it is. I don’t think I come off as someone who’s bloated with cash. If you listen to the way we talk about things, it doesn’t sound like we come from money — and I don’t think this comes as a surprise to our fans, to people that know our music.”

Crowdfunding the Mister Freedom album, he adds, gives people the opportunity to be a part of something real, something that’s not perpetuating a false image and helps grow the scene.

“If you fund yourself and stay consistent, I believe there is some future for your music,” Cabell continues. “You don’t have to shoot for Kanye. Shoot for the middle. I think you could make a decent living.”

“This one is definitely worth it,” says Warzel. “It could do some damage.”

Mister Freedom is approximately thirty minutes long, a nonstop piece with sections that each tell a piece of a larger story, according to Warzel, who says he based the concept loosely on the William Klein film Mister Freedom.

“It’s about bringing back freedom in your own way,” he says of the album. “What does America really mean to you? Musically, it’s about not giving in to what’s happening these days, not being worried to take chances.”

“For me, it’s a person living in America, experiencing America, expressing their opinions,” adds Cabell. “This album is very different from other stuff in my catalogue. We were both pushing our limits. There’s stuff about politics, war, police brutality.”

Although working with Cabell has changed Warzel’s view of Denver’s hip-hop scene, both agree that the city could step up its game.

“He was coming from Oakland, so he was unaware of what was going on here,” says Cabell. “But I think it’s true to a degree. There’s a lot of rappers, a lot of people chasing that dream. But there aren’t a lot on the surface doing things. Plus we have some dope guys who aren’t working very hard.”

A bigger issue, both men say, is the lack of interest in hip-hop from promoters and the media.

“I’m originally from Chicago, and my family, my brothers and sisters, they know nothing about Colorado,” says Cabell. “It’s just a hard market to break from.”

A big part of the problem, he says, is that radio stations in Denver don’t have the creative latitude to bring local hip-hop acts into the studio or play their music. “They won’t let us on the air,” says Cabell. “They won’t play any independent musicians at all.”

Both are hoping that events like last weekend’s Larimer Block Party will start to change attitudes toward hip-hop in the Denver area.
“I think Colorado is in its infant stage,” says Warzel. “[Larimer] is literally the first block party of its kind. It’s a small block, but there’s room for expansion. This is what could be the beginnings of something much bigger.

“There’s a little culture here that hasn’t changed since I jumped into the rap scene. We’re working on changing that.” 
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Oakland Childers has been a music journalist since he was sixteen.