As much of a stronghold as our town is for EDM, Denver is also a hotbed of hip-hop. Although we've always held true to the assertion, and such a declaration would seem perfectly reasonable to even casual observers, the point was never driven home more definitively than when we took a look back at the number of acts that came through town in 2012. While it was a daunting task, we paged through all of our write-ups over the past year and singled out the twenty best hip-hop shows. Keep reading to see which ones we picked, and, as always, feel free to add to the discussion below if you think we left something out.
20. Kreayshawn at the Fox Theatre, 12/5/12 At the Fox Theatre, Kreayshawn came on stage looking a little tore up -- or just less fashionably done up than her flashy, glammed-out crowd was possibly expecting -- and it was endearing. In fact, the slight woman from Oakland was perhaps better to see casually hollering "Can't hear haters, blasé, blasé," from underneath the reality of a hot-pink beanie, instead of the waves of Ombré weave and fake eyelashes she's so meticulously photographed in. Kreayshawn and her unnamed hypeman took to the stage almost immediately after Rye Rye's opening set, pushing out "Blasé, Blasé" to a more-than-ready audience. She bounced freely in short shorts and a long-sleeved tie-dye T-shirt that quickly became too warm to wear - and Kreay decided to parlay it into scarf for the duration of the show.
19. Cypress Hill at the Ogden Theatre, 4/20/12 Cypress Hill gets it. After coming to town last year on April 19, the premier stoner rappers of the last two decades intentionally made a 2012 performance in Denver on the actual weed holiday of the year: April 20. As B-Real shared with a sold-out Ogden Theatre crowd, he had inadvertently discovered our secret: Marijuana plus altitude makes us "high-high." By 9 p.m., the Ogden resembled a casting call for a cliché stoner movie: men in tie-dye T-shirts and blinged "420" jerseys mingled with women in smiley-face tank tops with crossed-out eyes. Security haplessly policed the situation by shining flashlights on lit joints, but there seemed to be no point: The crowd was there to get high with Cypress Hill.
18. Black Star at Cervantes', 5/11/12 The first strains of the Beastie Boys' "No Sleep Til Brooklyn" started blaring through the speakers as Yasiin Bey shook himself onto the stage to thunderous screams of applause. Wielding an red old-school "drop mic," the Brooklyn MC fist-pumped and enticed the crowd while theatrically mouthing the hook to the infamous track. Talib Kweli, back like he never left, raised his hands in acknowledgment of the more-than-packed house. His debonair style (Fedora clad, he was rocking a thin-cut vintage suit) was in stark contrast to a more pared-down jeans and tucked-in button-up from Bey. While he held his own black microphone, the sweat commenced to pouring, as did the righteous rhymes.
17. 2Chainz at the Ogden, 9/17/12 The moment 2Chainz took the stage, it became very clear why this show was moved from the Bluebird Theater to the Ogden at the last minute. When the ATL rapper finally placed the mic to his lips and dropped his verse from "Mercy," the crowd went absolutely insane as a music video played on an LED screen behind him. The B.O.A.T.S. (Based On A True Story) tour punched Denver right in the mouth, despite the rapper's declaration of the first rule of the tour: No fighting. Immediately following the opening verse of the hit song, 2Chainz rolled right into "Got One," and the show was officially under way.
16. Public Enemy at the Ogden Theatre, 12/8/12 Public Enemy took the stage around midnight last night with a bass line so loud it made your ears ring and eyes water. After serving as host for the evening for this traveling hip-hop classic caravan, Chuck D took the stage as the funky whistle from "Don't Believe the Hype" blared. The group's chemistry still seemed very sharp as the crew moved through its more than hour-long set, rocking "Can't Truss It," "Rebel Without a Pause," and the first verse of "Fight the Power," before Chuck demanded to hear only the bass going into a funky remix of the song. The energy level was high and the performance was sharp.
15. Lupe Fiasco at City Hall, 5/17/12 Lupe Fiasco loves his fans, and clearly the feeling is mutual. The more he gave, the brighter his Lasers shone. The connection Fiasco has with his fans is unmistakable. At one point he stopped the show to ask a fan if he was enjoying himself before allowing him to choose the next song. For his part, the Chicago MC looked right at home with his newly dreaded hair and baby-faced smile. As he spit, his voice sounded notably better than it does on record. There was a halo-like glow surrounding his mike -- which very well could have been a laser -- and he wielded it like a king with his scepter.
14. Atmosphere and Common at Icelantic's Winter on the Rocks, 1/27/12 Under a star-speckled sky and amid freezing temperatures, Atmosphere delivered a greatest-hits compilation at Red Rocks Amphitheatre for the inaugural Icelantic's Winter on the Rocks. Nostalgia aside, when he greeted everyone at the venue and opened into "God Loves Ugly," 10,000 winter-ready people joined in the lyrics and seemed to appreciate the beautiful chance of a lifetime to see raw, independent hip-hop displayed for the first time, during winter, at one of the most famous venues in the world.
13. Big K.R.I.T. at the Bluebird, 7/18/12 Big K.R.I.T. calls himself the King Remembered In Time, an appropriate name, because he truly is timeless. When the big king stepped on stage, all stern-faced, save for the occasional wry sideways grin, and started spitting his somehow simultaneously dirty and smooth southern slang, his aspirations were immediately clear: to bring the South and the rest of the country back to the days of OutKast, 8Ball & MJG and UGK. As he proudly (and accurately) boasted while opening the set, he makes it cool to be Southern. For a night, at least, for the lucky souls at the Bluebird for the Live from the Underground Tour, Denver was a part of the South.
12. Hopsin at Cervantes', 10/18/12 Rocking his signature white contacts, Hopsin came back to the stage a couple of songs later in a Spider-man hoodie. The crowd sang, "Oh, hell no!" in unison during "Baby's Daddy," and remained equally hyped during "Pans in the Kitchen." At this point, crowd surfing turned into crowd walking, the first time we've ever seen such a thing. Hopsin, propped up by upraised hands, walked across the crowd before being delivered back to the stage to perform "Am I a Psycho?," his track with Tech N9NE and B.o.B., shirtless. As it had been all night, the crowd was electric and willing to do whatever the performers demanded.
11. KS Classic: Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube at Comfort Dental Amphitheatre, 8/24/12 With a lineup in which the youngest performer was Bizzy Bone of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, at 35, one might assume that this show was doomed to an early bedtime and fading energy as the night wore on. In reality, the crowd got more and more hyped as legend after legend graced the stage, finally culminating about halfway through Snoop Dogg's set with total audience involvement, in perfect cadence, answering the night's ultimate question: What is his motherfucking name?
10. GZA and Killer Mike at Summit, 9/22/12 "I don't have a hypeman, so you're my hypeman," Killer Mike told the crowd two songs into his set. "So get hype, motherfuckers." The crowd was more than happy to comply. Opening with the first three songs from his new album, the MC emitted a raw energy on stage that kept the crowd hyped over songs like "Dear Lord" and, later, "Reagan," which he introduced with a diatribe about the socioeconomics of the war on drugs. The crowd gave that energy right back, bouncing and bucking along with Bonecrusher's Southern club anthem "Never Scared," on which Mike featured, and then swayed along at the end of "Ric Flair" as DJ Trackstar dropped the Phoenix Express tune "You Make My Life a Sunny Day," which is the origin of the beat's smooth horn and vocal sample.
9. Death Grips at Larimer Lounge, 11/23/12 Most bands that get hyped rarely live up to it. Death Grips was better than any hype could convey. Zach Hill and MC Ride put the amount of energy into this less than hour-long performance equaling what you'd have to sustain for a five hour show of almost anyone else's music. Hill and Ride were streaming with sweat and as they thrashed about, and those of us near the front were speckled with sweat.
8. DJ Premier and Pete Rock at Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom, 9/22/12 At the end of their set at Cervantes', DJ Premier's Houston Astros hat was dripping with sweat, while Pete Rock appeared to have barely broken one. Over the course of their set, the two matched wits, furiously playing through the genres before going into their signature songs and reminiscing over past artists and even breaking out some TV jingles. But their exchange had less of a battle feel and played more like one big house party.
7. Nas & Lauryn Hill at the Fillmore, 11/16/12 For over an hour, Nas masterfully mingled new material and classics for a set that climbed to operatic moments of greatness -- epic swells of sound that emphasized the sharpness of his lines. Backed by a five-piece band and DJ Green Lantern, there was an arena-rock feel -- there's a fine line between head bobbing and head banging -- especially once he started into material off Illmatic, including "NY State of Mind," "Ain't Hard to Tell," and "The World Is Yours." During the latter, he flipped the line about "presidents to represent me" to include an Obama reference, which drew a round of cheers.
6. Drake at Comfort Dental, 5/13/12 At Comfort Dental Amphitheatre, not only did Drake bring along a slew of his homeboys for the Club Paradise tour, but he displayed mind-blowing artistry. Erudite and gorgeous, the Toronto MC charmed the entire place with his theatrics and gestures while his live band crushed shit behind him. Removing clothes as he went along, he ran through hit after hit after hit, bringing guest MCs 2Chainz, Waka Flocka and French Montana out to join him. After watching him perform for more than an hour, one thing's for sure, and a second is for certain: You can hate on October's Very Own if you want to, but you're wasting your time.
5. A$AP Rocky at the Ogden Theatre, with Danny Brown, 10/16/12 A$AP Rocky walked onto the stage with his crew in tow, ski mask over his face, looking like some radical of ill repute. Odd Future and Pro-Era have pulled the same stunt, only more effectively. The rapper invigorated the Ogden immediately with overwhelming energy and powerful flow. He leapt into the crowd with abandon more than once, and there's no doubt the crowd received his energy well.
4. Macklemore at the Ogden Theatre, 12/6/12 All Macklemore has to do was pose dramatically to induce the same frenzied reaction from an audience that a slightly lesser MC would draw with their signature song. Granted, a very sizable portion of his Denver audience comprised easily riled high-school girls, but that should truly take nothing away from the fact that the stories he tells are utterly compelling, and his performance at the Ogden was not one iota short of exhilarating. His stories are deeply personal, universally relatable and delivered with such poignancy that it becomes impossible not to be moved.
3. Slaughterhouse at Cervantes', 4/18/12 Emerging onto the stage one by one -- Crooked I first, followed by Joell Ortiz and then Royce da 5'9" and, finally, Joe Budden -- the members of Slaughterhouse came together like a perfect storm and immediately proceeded to murder the game. Royce da 5'9" climbed a speaker almost straight off and demanded that the lights get turned all the way off, and the crew went into "Sound Off" in the relative darkness, sending the capacity crowd into an absolute frenzy.
2. Kendrick Lamar at the Ogden Theatre, 10/8/12 The stage was set by an erupting smoke machine, thundering bass and a massive light spectacle, all in preparation for a dynamic, five-foot, six-inch MC in old-school high socks and a voice that seems too powerful to come from such a little body. The second that Kendrick Lamar strutted onto the stage in his grey hoodie and loose shorts, looking like he had just finished an afternoon jog, the rapper held the sea of people that filled the Ogden to capacity in his little hand. He spoke his opening bit and then launched into "HiiiPoWeR," and his words were no longer his own, but shared by the entirety of the venue.
1. Deltron 3030 at Cervantes', 9/16/12 It's been nearly fifteen years since the release of Deltron 3030, the group's only effort until recently, and it still carries the same weight it did when it was originally played. Granted, in those fifteen years a lot has changed, but this album is a staple in most hip-hop heads' collections. Each track is beautifully crafted and tells of life as it happens in the future. Interpreted, it's sort of an Orwellian prophecy on the future of hip-hop with claims that "in the year 3030 everybody wants to be a DJ" -- which, if you examine our pop culture, happened about 1,018 years early. Del and Dan have still got it, and at Cervantes' they delivered a perfectly blended set of tracks off their first album along with some of the new tracks on the forthcoming Deltron Event II. As the set progressed, Del did his Del-thing and remained motionless between some tracks, catching his breath in order to focus on the next effort. As the set grew amplified, the energy followed suit.