Peter Black on growing up around music, So What! and the importance of community

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See Also: Tonight: Peter Black at the Meadowlark

Peter Black (aka Peter Gurule) first gained renown as a DJ as part of the long-running and legendary club night, So What! Since then, he's made a name for himself not just as a skilled DJ in a very real sense of the term but as someone who has taken what he's learned and imparted that knowledge on to up and coming DJs in the scene. With Analog Space, Black has also been a patron of local music and culture with curated compilations and events, including his After Dark festival and shows that bring together some of the acts and DJs Black finds interesting and worthwhile.

This year, Black has decided to retire from being an active promoter and DJ. He will still share his skills and knowledge, just not as full time as he had been. We had a chance to sit down with Black for a chat about his childhood, growing up with music, his start with So What! and his sense of why community is important.

Westword: You were born in Denver, but your parents moved out of Denver right away?

Peter Black: We moved to Utah, and then we moved to L.A. There we lived somewhere near La Brea. Very Latin population area. Lot of gang activity when they were young. My aunt was in a gang called the Dots. In Los Angeles, that was hardcore shit for women. That's just the women's side of my family. Nearly all of my male cousins were killed by gang violence. We had, when I was a kid, the FBI kick in our door looking for people who had robbed banks. Astronomical stories and things I could tell you about growing up.

How long were you in L.A., and where did you go from there?

I was there for a couple of years. When I was three, four or five, and I moved back to Denver and went to elementary school here. That was interesting. The history of violence sounds really weird for me, because I think people know me as an inner city kid; they always think of me being in their age range. When they get down to it, they realize I'm not. When I was in high school, it was the height of gang violence. Unless you came from Latin or Black neighborhoods, a lot of people weren't aware of that. The Bloods and the Crips were hardcore.

I went to West High School. When I first went, one of my first days there was when someone's head was blown off straight in front of everybody in front of the school in a drive-by. That was typical of what I saw from junior high on up. People being blasted by two-by-fours flying through the air, parties where the doors were kicked in when we were deejaying, people shooting at the whole party.

This world is completely different for me. It was a very concerted effort for me to make the jump from where I came from and where I am now. Say even my daughter and all the people that know me, I had completely escaped and reinvented myself to someone that these people have no idea led a different life. Life is very easy for me now.

What specifically lead you to make a conscious break from your previous life?

When I was in junior high -- I was a punk kid then -- I went to a school called Kemper. It was on South Federal near where the Vietnamese restaurants are now. Not punk as in music. Most of my friends my age we went through the birth of hip-hop, Prince then, literally, Run DMC. Caucasians, anyone not us, did Beastie Boys, and we did Grand Master Flash. Beastie Boys would have been later, too. But at the time, I was catching buses all the way to Aurora to a store that had phenomenal Black records.

Obviously you went to Sunshine Records.

I did go to Sunshine Records. I went to every record store because you would go anywhere in pursuit of music. Music was a way to get away. When I say "punk," I mean also we were listening to DFA and reading early versions of Maximum Rocknroll. We skated before there were skateparks. The whole thing of living in warehouses like some people do now.

So there was no musical separation for you?

No, no. It seems like it's taken twenty years for people to come back around to understanding that aesthetic. It's this weird amnesia people have that young kids think, "Oh, I listen to indie and this and this and this." For us, it felt like this weird New York aesthetic or vibe. It felt like a big city thing for me. We were listening to, like, Subhumans, and we were aware of Pushead's art just as much as we were listening to rap.

I think the hip-hop stuff came from listening to AM radio, like KDKO. I remember distinctly one summer when I was in junior high hearing "Little Red Corvette," and before that, early, really nasty Prince songs. "Oh my god, are we even allowed to listen to this?" Latin people -- and a lot of minority people, I hate to make that distinction -- but music is a large part of our lives.

From very early on, my parents always had parties, which is probably why I was always a promoter and went on to be a DJ. I can remember my dad and mom having people over all the time. If you were to look through photo albums from when I was young, people were always at our house and there was always music.

So maybe that inclination continued with me. I remember the kids going into another room but spying on them and as we got older, sneaking beers, emulating them and dancing and doing our own thing. That's some of the roots of it for me. Good times and music as a get away from being dirt poor. Music was free on the radio.

In your generation, there wasn't this big separation between music, or, more precisely, for it to be considered unusual to be into all kinds of music on some level.

And we were aware of it. There was this guy named Pedro -- which is funny that I call myself as Pedro Noir as one of many aliases I use; I'm also a visual artist -- this guy was a Boris Vallejo in a long line of Latin artists that were amazing. He used to do all the flyers for the best house parties with the DJs. I remember seeing them, and everyone collected them. If Pedro did your flyer, or if you managed to get him to do it, you knew that that shit was a guaranteed off-the-hook party. It was like he endorsed it already.

So it would be like we would see sound system parties that we would read about -- not that any of us were from the East Coast of Kool Herc and something else -- it was Denver's equivalent of, "Man, you should go here." I was too young to go, but I remember seeing the flyers, but I knew the art right away because I just thought of Frazetta or anyone else.

My parents used to buy all these horror comics like Vampirella that had all the best artists like that. So I immediately knew the aesthetic and knew, "This guy, this is the real shit, this must be the real sound." I would see everybody going and low riders and all the cool clothes and being like, "Man, I want to be like my cousins when I grow up." In a few short years, it wasn't like now, you were able to slip out the basement window, and I was at the parties and even there were DJs, and I was like, "That dude's the dude. He's running shit."

In the punk aesthetic, I had crazy friends who moved here from other cities. The punk element came to me from Lakewood. They were troublemakers. There was a serious scene going on out there. People were selling acid and doing drugs, and our worlds clashed. These kids at the mall, which then was Villa Italia, and we would think, "We're not like them, and they're not like us." But as opposed to, I think, a lot of other people who try to stay in their social groups, I was always interested in, "How come we don't know them, or what are they doing, and what is their music? How come they skate, and we're wearing Winos?"

I always wanted to cross boundaries and understand different perspectives and music. The more I did that and became kind of a chameleon, the more I saw that I was able to relate and increase my social circle. Again, that was an escape of not being stereotyped, not being stuck in my neighborhood, gentrification, a poor kid. I think there was a big impetus to try to be someone that I wasn't, as bad as that sounds. I didn't want to seem poor forever. I wanted to seem like someone else.

Yeah, you see stuff on TV, you see stuff in movies, you see how other people are socialized and class differences, as evidenced by material goods that some people have and not others, and the activities that some people are able to engage in more easily than others, like vacation. And that's made to seem like "normal" even if it doesn't reflect your current reality and you're given a template for what success might look like. And in our culture, everyone wants to seem like a success, even if it's often ultimately an empty shell of what might really be successful for you, if you can see beyond what you're conditioned and what you've allowed yourself to be conditioned to wanting.

Yeah. I think it's you really try to acclimate and emulate what's around you. It was too easy to do what was around me as far as my peer group of Latin kids that, for the most part, ended up in trouble. Luckily ,my immediate family had pretty solid heads on their shoulders.

But from cousins and other people we know, they went to jail, and they were the people with tattoos and the criminals. I knew that's not what I wanted to be. I wanted to be something else, and the only way I saw that was escaping my immediate social group and learning to blend in with other people. Music was the perfect thing to do that in. "Oh, man, let's catch the bus down to Wax Trax!"

How old were you when you went to Wax Trax for the first time?

I would say I was twelve or thirteen. Paul Epstein, the owner of Twist & Shout, remembers me, and he told me when he hired me, "I remember you being a kid when you came in here," when Twist & Shout was South Pearl. I literally remember the first time going to Wax Trax because I caught a bus downtown. I never told my parents I did that, even though they never knew what we did. It was really far. I just remember it seemed like the buildings, the buildings, the buildings, because we used to do graffiti. I remember being mind-blown when I was in, say, Aurora, or another side of town, seeing the razor shaped building from the other side.

I remember buying records the second I could. I think that's what's so different about the music scene now. The history of the era in which we live, for me, whatever musical genre is, one of my big beefs right now, I buy all the music I play -- I always do -- unless it's promos or stuff for working DJs, and that's treated with the most respect of not giving it out to everyone. I don't share music online. I remember from the earliest time ever, I was hustling, and I was like, "Fuck, I want these records."

So I found a way to get money to buy records. From then on, I've had some of the biggest collections ever. I've sold my collection at least two times in Denver every time I've moved. There are hundreds of kids that own parts of my collection. I've had people come up to me, even some well known DJs in this city and others, "Man, I own some of the best records that came from your collection." I always think of the money that it took, especially as we get older, but now it's mostly collectors. It's become this eBay/Record Store Day thing I have a beef with. People don't really buy records that much unless they're in these cliques. Back then, everyone bought records.

It's disturbing to me that everyone can be a DJ. We did this party recently, and this guy showed up and said, "I play Serato." He doesn't own turntables, he doesn't own a mixer and had to borrow headphones. He didn't have the records that you use to play Serato, and he didn't have the box that you need. Basically, that tells me -- and I'm old enough to know this and been around -- that the copy he's playing with is pirated, as well as the horrible MP3s that he's playing are also all pirated. If that's what it is, everyone can be a DJ now? I don't really want to be part of that culture.

The immediacy of when he finished and [my colleague] got on and played all real records, and I get on and all my files are .WAVs and high quality 320k, and whatever, and the whole room explodes from just kind of going, and people wonder if it's cause they're drunk and it's later and we got peak time? No, it's because we know how to handle our shit, and we're putting it down. It's a shame if I have to show up your shit because you don't even know how to do it.

How did you get into deejaying?

Buying records you're really aware of it, especially in the '80s. You can't even see a Jazzy Jeff video or whoever was on Yo! MTV Raps without quickly becoming aware there is some pretty standard equipment. Turntables and, being somebody fairly smart, you wonder about the real stuff like Technics 1200s. I scrounged up and bought those. At eighteen and nineteen, I hustled and hustled' while everyone was around me was buying the cool car to make everyone think they were cool. I didn't have a car forever, but I had turntables. I had numerous pairs of turntables, and I bought collections of records.

I would say the number one person, my mentor, was DJ K-Nee. He founded So What! Ken Hamblin. His dad was a famous talk show host. His crew was called Step On Productions. They were running a few years before me. K-Nee was a DJ at Rock Island. So before I was old enough to really go see other DJs -- this was when LoDo still had all the viaducts -- we all hung out outside of Rock Island, and they had one teen night a week. That was really the intro for me.

Like how we talked about music across all boards, there was the goth, there was the new wave and K-Nee was playing soul stuff. The '80s were how we think of New York: Jean-Michel Basquiat and everything else. Everything coexisted peacefully. That was literally happening. All the guys I knew -- John Chaime was a legend, and he lives in Berlin now, K-Nee, a lot of the gay DJs, like the people at the Grove -- so you'd go and see them, and I was like, "Man, that's incredible. That's what I want to do."

The minute I was old enough to be really old enough to be in a club at 21, K-Nee was doing a night which was the birth of So What! Most people think of me being one of key partners in it or whatever. He had started a party at City Spirit Cafe. The Zeppelins owned it, they've been huge in the development of Denver, but that was kind of their baby then.

My age range fell perfect when Denver went through every year as you went up, you could drink at 18, 19, 20 and then 21 when it became the real age. I was grandfathered in. I went down to the party and I was blown away. It was a scene influenced by London and Acid Jazz. A Tribe Called Qwest was coming out, and De La Soul and the whole Native Tongues movement in New York.

I started heavily going to the party and instantly connected with K-Nee and said, "Hey, I have all these records. I'd love to come play!" I don't know how or why, because people didn't just do that then. It took years and years to even get in on being a DJ. K-Nee was like, "Sure, come down. Play." It was one of those moments where you connect with someone where you have similar musical taste or you hit it off.

It meant you can't just show up and play, which is what DJs do now. You had to be there an hour early. You need to help haul in the sound system. You need to learn how we plug in the subs that separate with crossovers into the rest of it and this and this. Literally everything that I teach every kid I know right now was from years and years of going through K-Nee showing me how things work and from there all the people that came through go through the same thing.

So he basically gave me my break, and with him there was a small group of people who were really big heads at the time. John Chaime, this guy named Swingset, who went on to be really famous, L7 who went on to be part of the first wave of jungle and drum & bass in the U.S. when it barely rolled into New York -- all branches of the Step On Crew.

How do you feel about how electronic dance music has evolved from a truly underground, kind of subversive, subcultural phenomenon to where it is today?

I felt like when we came up, because people will say it's always recycling itself, we were really pushing for the underground. We were wanting to see it go more mainstream. It was in its infancy. Whether it was hip-hop, a lot of things we were about, house music, you name it. Sure, we were aware of its roots, but it was not in the form it would be yet. We were really interested in pushing it and moving it on. We feverishly believed in it so much, electronica -- or whatever you want to call it, I didn't ever really call it that because there was such a soul element to it. It was below the radar. It was underground.

I believe now that it's mainstream when you have people like AEG, all these people vying to buy every independent promoter and do all these festivals, whether it's Girl Talk hitting Westword's thing, to Pepsi Center and the biggest shows this year at Red Rocks are electronic. There's no question in my mind that it's gone overground. I've read numerous articles about how everyone is trying to buy everybody. It's going through what the '90s did with grunge rock right now.

Anyway, point being, for me, whatever my role in that paradigm has happened. It's probably taken it to the limit as far as I want to be involved as a DJ. There's other things that go on. You know, a million other things in technology that can be explored. But as a DJ, I think our role in pushing that up has done what it was supposed to do, and maybe this is a good time for me to leave the building and let it be whatever it's going to be from here on out.

It seems as though with every event you've curated, a sense of community and building community is central to your thinking behind that.

Everything about it is related to community. From my mentors bringing me up and his overwhelming spirit of community -- they were the nicest guys I've ever met [and] had a real genuine concern. We don't see much of that anymore. We don't see many people that want to help other people, that want to show people the ropes. There's so much of how to make it as opposed to showing people how to make it in providing stepping stones and community.

You say that some of the things I've done have a curatorial aspect to it, that's exactly what it is. I try to very much think about, not only whether it's a DJ night or anything, who's involved. There are elements about them that fit together, but there are differences. Would they get along well with people or should they be interesting to me? So there's this symbiosis of, "You haven't met him before?" I'm the king of that when I go out. Lauren Zwicky is one of my right arms right now, and I've made a conscious effort to really bring her up, because I've seen this really good thing in her soul of who she is. Almost like Kenny Hamblin, my mentor, did with me. I've given her everything. If there's any questions, I go out of my way to answer every question and anybody else wanting to know that.

But a lot of people don't want to take advice, because they're too cool for it, or "You're old school," and this and that. But it's like, "Maybe you have a lot to learn, because I had a lot to learn from some of the oldest people ever." To this day, some of the coolest things I've done, I never would have thought of from that aspect because they put a different spin on it and opened my mind. We have too many people that want to know it all but aren't as committed to community.

Peter Black, with DJ Max Klaw and guests, 9 p.m., Friday, July 6, Meadowlark, no cover, 303-293-0251, 21+

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