On a recent Wednesday evening at Cold Crush, a customer sits on a high bar stool, eating a shrimp po' boy. The bar is half filled with twenty- and thirty-somethings, talking and sipping cocktails. Original art hangs on the red-brick walls. There are about twenty people in the building, but it's only 7:30 p.m.
The unmistakable drawl of Ol' Dirty Bastard slices through the low chatter over the P.A.: "You're gonna love this." Resident DJ Gypdahip has amplified the line, an ad lib before the MC's most famous song, "Brooklyn Zoo." The track kicks in, and a couple of people clap; someone gets up and starts dancing.
One of the bar's owners, DJ Mu$a Bailey, is sitting outside on the patio, finishing his cigarette and talking to a few people from the neighborhood. Another, Brian Mathenge, is inside talking to a middle-aged woman in an elegant dress. The third Cold Crush owner, Eric Cunningham, is behind the bar, working to get the beer restocked. The energy is starting to pick up. Bailey and Gyp, who have deejayed together for two decades, take turns in the booth, and by 11:30 p.m., the room is at capacity.
It's like that most nights from Wednesday to Sunday, and special events can bring a crowd early in the week, too. Accolades have poured in since Cold Crush opened in late June last year; in January, Westword's Cafe Society blog named it one of Denver's best new bars. But its three owners aren't satisfied yet, and their plans for the future involve everything from broadening the appeal of the current Cold Crush to opening a new nightclub in Denver.
Bailey and Cunningham met more than twenty years ago, when they were both high-school students in Denver. Later, Cunningham worked tending bars and then managing them in Denver, and Bailey earned a reputation as one of the city's best hip-hop DJs and concert promoters.
When Mathenge came to Denver from Los Angeles a few years ago, he had no intention of opening a business. But he met Bailey and Cunningham one night at a bar on Colfax, and the three immediately connected. "Sometimes you just know when other people have a skill set you appreciate," says Bailey. "We complement each other well as people."
They soon identified what they saw as a void in Denver's nightlife scene. Mathenge recalls sitting down with Bailey about two months after they met and telling him, "You either gotta hang out at these little dive bars or you have to go downtown to the guest lists, VIP and all that. I'm from L.A. I've done all that VIP stuff." He wanted something different, a "lounge where you could get food, hang out with your friends." They brought Cunningham into the conversation and set out to, as Mathenge describes it, "make a place for us."
They found a building to rent at the southwest corner of 27th and Larimer streets and decided to focus on three things: art, music and food. They borrowed a name from the Bronx-based hip-hop group Cold Crush Brothers, which formed in 1978 and featured artists who would go on to be in both the Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
Critically, though, the three had no particular demographic in mind for the business. "My dad is black, my mom is white," says Mathenge. "This is all I have ever known: People party together. I hadn't seen that here."
He put up the bulk of the money required to open the bar, but he credits Bailey and Cunningham for having the vision and connections that give Cold Crush its identity. The menu is expansive and constantly adapting, featuring appetizers, sandwiches, salads, desserts and a substantial juice bar. The art on the walls changes monthly; so does the enormous mural painted on the outside wall facing 27th. While the music played is mostly hip-hop, Bailey and Cunningham try to experiment with their offerings as much as possible. "That's why we have so many different DJs and artists in here," says Bailey. "You never know what someone's gonna like."
The result has been a place where you're just as likely to find people in suits as you are people in shorts, young rappers reading Faulkner out on the patio, and middle-aged couples getting cozy on the dance floor. Governor John Hickenlooper has even stopped by. "Every night when people come up to me, thanking us for bringing Cold Crush here, they are thanking us for bringing a different vibe to the city, not just, 'This is the new black club,'" says Mathenge. "That's not what it is."
They hope to further expand the clientele in the future. "My hope for the next year is that we continue to make this place comfortable for more people, and the only way you do that is change," says Bailey. "That's part of the brand -- to incorporate music, art and food. We don't want to just have one formula that works and run that into the ground."
That includes the music. "We mostly spin hip-hop," says Mathenge, "but believe you me, if we find some cool DJ who spins '70s and '80s rock, we'll bring them in here on a slower night to try it out. We don't turn down ideas."
Their success has allowed the three owners to consider other ventures. "We have plans to open a new spot soon," says Mathenge. "That will be more of the nightclub, make-money type of thing."
Cold Crush has also caught the attention of people outside Colorado. "I get friends from Chicago and New York who say they wish they had something like this out there," says Bailey. "A place where they could just go listen to Biggie for lunch --"
"-- with the governor!" interjects Cunningham, and all three men laugh.
"Part of my vision is to see Cold Crush in Amsterdam, Cold Crush in New York City," says Bailey. "Just a small bar where we crack off."
Even if they take their business across the Atlantic -- or even across town -- they plan to maintain their home base at 2700 Larimer. They may change the music or the art on the walls, but the original idea of a place to hang out with friends will remain. "We're going to keep this place the same for as long as the owners allow us to be here," says Mathenge. "It's the energy we want the same. We want peace.
"I don't care what you do," he adds. "If you're gay and want to come here holding your boyfriend's hand, you got love from us. We're not judging you; we don't care. You can do what you want."
"That's as hip-hop as it gets," says Bailey. "Hip-hop is everybody, and that's why this place works."