Ru Johnson doesn't want goodbye parties.
The hip-hop maven is leaving Denver for a gig at the National Cannabis Festival in Washington, D.C. But before she goes, she's throwing a Test Kitchen concert on Friday, August 31, at the Gothic Theatre. If you want to say goodbye to her, that's where you can do it, she says.
At Test Kitchen — Johnson's showcase for unknown artists trying to get recognition from industry reps — some performers underwhelm, a few fall flat on their faces, and many garner interest, going on to headline shows and collaborate with bigger named acts. And that's the fun of it.
Friday's event, hosted by the podcast Life Is Dope, is inspired by Drake's new Scorpion album and includes a first half dubbed "A Side," with artists Sirdevon, Prisha Love, Jamm LeFrere, Drew Avon, Shaelyn, Trey Triple A, and Lpeez; and a second half, "B Side," with Michael Louis, Looney Ando, Phoenixx Ugrilla, Ked Colorado, Dope Boy Duce, Vrron Paul, Ransteez, Acyfe, Bobby Blackheart and Jelie. Seasoned artists Larry June and Trayce Chapman will headline.
This iteration of the showcase, which once ran as a bimonthly event but has been dormant in recent months, will include a new component: the Test Kitchen Academy. "It will consist of about fifty people who are tastemakers and talent buyers, and they'll vote" on their favorite artists, Johnson says. "They'll be up in the balcony and cheering [the artists] on."
AEG talent buyer Francois Baptiste, whom Johnson has dubbed "the most powerful man in urban music, period" — and music manager Matt McNeal of Dreamville, J. Cole's record label, will offer artists feedback.
The performers, who will first be interviewed by the podcasters of Life Is Dope, will take to the stage and strut their stuff — assuming they have it.
"I fear for them all, because rap shows are difficult," Johnson says. "And more importantly, there's going to be a gang of people there, and some of these cats have never played at all. So I'm like, 'Good luck.' That's what this is for. It's Test Kitchen; it's a first-listen showcase. Try that shit out. If it doesn't work, you should know that it's not going to work somewhere else."
Johnson has a good idea of what it takes to succeed in Denver's hip-hop scene. She blogged about the rap scene in her home town of New York City and came to Denver by way of Pittsburgh around twelve years ago. Soon after arriving, she noticed that media outlets were failing to cover emerging artists and venues had too few opportunities for rappers. She was recruited by Westword's then-music editor, Dave Herrera, to write about Denver hip-hop. She honed her voice as an outspoken critic and tastemaker while profiling national and local artists and reviewing concerts and albums.
"I was interested in telling the stories of rappers at that time," Johnson says. "I was interested in telling the story of Rick Ross or of Waka Flocka or whoever. But I found there were so many stories here in Denver that were coming across that weren't being told on a national level. Once I started doing that, that need continued to show itself. "
After a few years at Westword, "I moved to the Denver Post and started to do the same thing," Johnson continues. "I can't say 'Go fuck yourself' in the Denver Post, but I was writing about [hip-hop] more on a newspaper level ... I thought I was going down a Newsweek/Pulitzer Prize-winning direction in my life, but that was not — thank God — where I was going."
After a trip to Coachella, Johnson returned to Denver inspired to try her hand at large-scale promoting. She left journalism.
"My next step was to take it to an event-production level," she says. "I started booking artists, and I started recommending artists to talent buyers. Then I started creating opportunities that were my own shows and my company's shows to build bigger and better stages."
Johnson refers to herself as "an accelerator. You call me when you want things to move faster." The downside of that has been that her phone has been ringing nonstop and her email box has been jammed with requests from burgeoning artists demanding her attention and promotion and booking skills. To satisfy those artists without allowing them to swallow up her life, she formed Test Kitchen.
What's next for Johnson?
"I'm going to bring my expertise around music and politics and cannabis, and I'm taking that shit to D.C., and we're going to crush it," she says about her work with the National Cannabis Festival.
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Ultimately, her hope is to use her experience as a music promoter, journalist and activist to set up clinics at festivals, where she can help expunge the records of people convicted of cannabis-related crimes.
Her experience booking and promoting shows will help her in all of these organizing efforts, she says. "I'm not just producing rap shows for my health," she says. "This is an excercise in moving people. I learned how to do it on a really small level, I learned how to do it on a big level, and now I'm doing it on a festival level."
As she leaves Denver, she has some cautionary words for people involved in the music scene. "There is a smallness to the community right now, which is bizarre, because the city is blowing up," Johnson says. "For as huge as this city is getting, the music community in particular...the people in it need to recognize that Denver is popping, and it's not going to get smaller. And we have to welcome in and market to and work with all of these new people who are coming in. That's the only way it's going to survive on a music level — the only way."