Hip-hop fans started anticipating big things last May, when Def Jam co-founder and hip-hop impresario Simmons stood next to then-mayor Wellington Webb, touting his Rush Communications pre-paid debit card and promising to bring one of his lauded Hip-Hop Summits to Denver.
It wasn't Simmons who predicted the summit would pump $20 million into the local economy; that was Eugene Dilbeck, at the time still president of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. Simmons wasn't the guy who said the event could attract 10,000 people and fill a venue as big as the Pepsi Center; that was Bennie Milliner, spokesman for the Denver Urban League, which was initially given the task of co-hosting the summit. And Simmons wasn't even the one who said the summit would take place in the fall of 2003; that was what some city official told pundits at the daily fish wraps. In fact, Simmons didn't say he'd be here at all. Which is good, because when the event finally takes place next week on May 14 and 15, Simmons won't be around.
According to Jody Miller, spokeswoman for the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), the non-partisan, non-profit, New York-based organization that Simmons and Dr. Benjamin Chavis founded in June 2001, Simmons's schedule is just too tight. "He wasn't at the L.A. summit, either," she points out. "He's always spread very thin, and he's traveling a lot for business. So it doesn't always allow him to be at each of the summits."
Besides, just a month ago, Simmons was in Denver -- promoting his new footwear line. "He was on a promotional tour at that time," Miller explains. "Sometimes he can be someplace and other times he can't. It all depends on the schedule that's laid out for him and the bigger picture. Please understand, it is absolutely nothing against Denver. He does the best he can to be at as many summits as he can."
But other prominent HSAN figures will be on hand in Denver for the organization's 22nd summit to date. "Artists are always there," Miller offers. "Dr. Ben, who's the president and CEO, is always there; sometimes Damon Dash is there, who's the co-chair."
Despite the grandiose predictions made for Denver's Hip-Hop Summit, Miller says that HSAN's part of the event is exactly what her organization envisioned -- no more and no less. "If the local organizing committees are arranging concerts and things like that, that's something they're doing maybe on the heels of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network," she adds. "But it's not traditionally what we do. The concerts are not a part of the summit. There have been one or two times when the local organizers or Clear Channel, who sometimes is involved in our summit from the radio standpoint or the production standpoint, has added a concert in the evening -- but that's their thing. It may be something that is aligned with the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, but it is not a hip-hop summit."
HSAN's traditional summit is a free interactive discussion with a panel comprising artists, industry people and local activist and youth organizations. HSAN also pushes its Hip-Hop Team Vote, "our main initiative which we launched at the Detroit Hip-Hop Summit at the end of April of last year," Miller explains. "We are really committed to registering two million young voters by the election and helping young people realize how powerful their vote is. If you look at the national news, CNN just did a piece a couple of weeks ago about the hip-hop vote and how politicians and everyone are reaching out now for these young people in the hip-hop communities because they do understand the power of the vote."
"Three years ago, Russell Simmons and myself co-founded the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, basically to utilize the power of hip-hop culture to promote positive social change among young people throughout America," Chavis confirms. "Hip-hop has a very powerful and, we believe, positive, impact on the community, in particular young people. And we wanted to harness that influence and direct it into positive social change, causes like public education and increasing awareness to try to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS."
Besides HSAN's panel and vote drive, everything at next weekend's Hip-Hop Festival and Summit is the work of SafeCity, a Denver agency that grew out of the so-called Summer of Violence eleven years ago; it's putting on the Denver Idol competition, the car show, the workshops and the concerts. Not that anyone's heard much about any of that. I was tapped to help judge both a logo-design contest and the Denver Idol competition, and until I finally reached SafeCity director Charlotte Stevens on the phone a few days ago, I had no information on Denver Idol. At all.
Nor does much of the rest of the city. Last week at www.FreshSites.com, a site as plugged in to the local hip-hop scene as anyplace in town, none of the posters had any idea when Denver's Hip-Hop Festival would be -- or what it would be.
"Does anyone even care that's it's coming?" one poster asked. "It seems to me that it has no buzz, because the city is in charge of it. Any opinions?
"What is it?" responded another poster. "What city? What are you talking about? I don't think anybody knows anything about it. Care to shed some light on the details? Can I get paid for performing there?"
"We're going but my people told me it wasn't till August," another wrote. "Where is it at? I'm trying to get info."
Here's the info -- at least, the info available on May 3. According to Stevens, on Friday, May 14, the Denver Idol finals and performances by Frankie J and Baby Bash will run from 5 to 9 p.m. at Club Bash in LoDo; admission is free. On Saturday, the lowrider car show and free workshops will start around 9 a.m. at the Denver Coliseum and continue through the day. The official HSAN summit panel will run from noon to 3 p.m., with a concert that night featuring Big Tymers, Yin Yang Twins, YoungBloodz and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony(tickets to the concert are $38.50 to $49.50).
But after seeing that lineup on the event's official website (www.denverhiphop.com), one FreshSites poster wrote: "I wouldn't pay 5 bucks to see any of 'em. Why does Denver hip-hop summit look exactly like a Clear Channel concert?"
If this actually were a Clear Channel production, though, it's a safe bet that you would have known all the details long before now. Stevens admits that SafeCity could have handled publicity better -- but it wasn't for lack of trying. Six committees and countless volunteers, including summit chair and former mayoral candidate Penfield Tate, lobbyist David Cole and former city spokeswoman C.L. Harmer, have all been working on the event's logistics. It would have been nice to have a centralized office with a full-time marketing person on the job, Stevens says, but that didn't fit into the $260,000 budget.
"We have never tried to fool ourselves," she says. "We'll be the first ones to say -- I sure will -- that I don't know what I don't know. But at the same time, you can't just leave those kids out there hanging with nothing. We don't have a problem with being criticized for what we do. But then again, the good news is, there is something good happening to at least criticize."
Jeff Campbell, executive director of the Colorado Hip-Hop Coalition, has made his share of criticisms. "My organization was used in the initial pitch to get the summit here," Campbell says. "And I had Def Jam calling here, calling my office, and I was thinking, 'Wow, I must really be putting in some work.' In reality, they were throwing my name around to validate themselves. So when I found out they were using my name without my permission, that was damaging to me."
It was also ironic, because SafeCity turned down a grant request from Campbell's organization in 2003. "Last year it was like, 'No, we're not going to give you any money for your little hip-hop thing," he says. "And now this year, they're all about hip-hop."
And when Campbell did become part of the official organizing committee, he never really felt he was part of the process. "I feel like when you community organize, then the community is involved in the overall planning, in the input stage, in the brainstorm stage," he says. "I was absolutely not a part of that. I was just given orders. When I showed up to the first meeting for the Hip-Hop Summit, it was like, 'Jeff, you're going to be in charge of this, and this is what you're going to do.' And from that jump, I felt slighted." Adding to the frustration was the fact that SafeCity initially planned to launch the Denver Hip-Hop Foundation as a beneficiary of the event, essentially duplicating the efforts of Campbell's own grassroots organization. Stevens now says her office will will split any proceeds from the event between SafeCity's summer job program and Campbell's group. But even HSAN is still learning as it goes along. "We're always working out kinks," Miller admits. "As in any enterprise, the bigger it gets when you have a really, really small staff and you rely heavily on the people you work with on the ground in each city, there are always going to be kinks to work out and growing pains and learning and revising things."
Next year, Stevens thinks SafeCity will have a better handle on things. That is, if there is a next year. Chavis plans to wait for the response to this initial summit before deciding whether to make Denver an annual event. "At the end of the day," he says, "we want to make sure that we've done something to inspire and uplift and encourage and motivate young people to keep their high aspirations. The response we get from the young people will help us to determine whether or not we want to do this again in 2005.
Campbell met with Stevens and Tate last week to discuss his frustrations. Acting as mediator, Tate really smoothed things over, saying something "really powerful" that put things in perspective: "He was like, 'This is not the end of hip-hop. When they leave, hip-hop doesn't end.'"
So even if Simmons won't be there next week, Campbell will be. "I mean, I'm still Apostle," he says of his performance persona. "And hip-hop is what I represent, and if I don't speak the truth, then I'm not truly authentic to the culture that I claim to represent. I'm always vocal about how I feel. Sometimes it's not as eloquent as I feel like it should be. And sometimes it's not as popular. But I think in the end what I bring to the table is more valuable than not."
And the beat goes on.