"Way More Than Legal Weed and Ski Resorts": Cisco the Nomad on Denver Rap

Denver-raised rapper Cisco the Nomad might be the busiest twenty-year-old in the state. In between classes at Colorado College, Cisco, whose birth name is Clay Edwards, finds time to write plays, act and rap. You can hear his latest single, "Vinyl," off of his upcoming LP Future Real Estate, here for the first time:

The name Cisco the Nomad is a reference to literary character Francisco the Man in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel 100 Years of Solitude, a traveling accordion player who spreads news by improvising songs. “That’s what I want to do," Cisco says. "I don’t care how I’m telling the stories — I just want to be able to tell them. I’m going to travel around everywhere and tell them."

Cisco has been a storyteller since he was twelve years old, writing poetry for hours in the back of RTD buses. He rode the bus all the time, visiting his mother in Lakewood and traveling around the city. “It’s a way to grow up really fast,” Cisco says of his time on the bus. He witnessed countless people struggling to make ends meet and realized he was the same as them. “I remember the day I realized I was poor; the magic of discovering what it means to struggle and realize that everyone is struggling too.”

Cisco grew up caught between two worlds: his father's rough neighborhood in southwest Denver, where he sometimes heard gunshots, and the high-class environment of his middle school, Colorado Academy, a prestigious private school filled with children of wealthy families. At first he found it hard to connect with his classmates because they didn't seem to have much in common. “I didn't get along with people very well at all. I didn't have a ton of friends."

His poetry helped him bridge the gap with his classmates. “I liked telling stories. People seemed to like me the best when I was telling a funny joke or reading a poem.”

At Colorado Academy, he formed a hip-hop/funk group called Churchgoing Black People and wrote the lyrics for all of their songs, including some about smoking pot with Jesus. “We wanted to make people laugh,” he remembers. The group's high point was a performance on the rooftop of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Cisco also found time to pursue improv and worked with the Black Actors Guild, a local theater group, as often as he could. Two of his short plays, The A Train and The Sandbox, were produced at the Curious Theatre as part of the Curious New Voices program. The A Train is about a young man who dies and is greeted by his grandfather on the train to the afterlife. In The Sandbox, Satan takes the form of a nine-year-old and presents another child with a gun as an ultimate solution to end his bullying. The play ends with the child contemplating what to do with the gun lying in the sandbox.

Cisco’s rap career started in the hallways of Lakewood High School, where he spent one semester before returning to Colorado Academy. He and his friend Andre Hallman Jr. were known as Thing 1 and Thing 2, in part because of their wild afros, and they both impressed classmates with their rapping skills.

Hallman invited Cisco to the home of Kalyn Heffernan, the leader of local hip-hop group Wheelchair Sports Camp and a co-worker of Hallman's at Youth On Record. Heffernan, a fixture in the Denver hip-hop scene, opened up Cisco’s eyes to the quality of music that could be produced at home. “I realized it was possible to make rap music by yourself in your basement,” he says. “She really inspired me to pursue music.”

Cisco and Hallman laid down verses over a Heffernan beat and the result was Cisco’s first ever recorded song. They got a chance to perform the song live when Heffernan invited them on stage with Wheelchair Sports Camp at a Summit Music Hall show. “It was a really cool opportunity,” he says.

Cisco sharpened his rapping skills further at a hookah lounge in Denver, his crew’s official hangout. He and his friends spun rhymes early into the morning and before long, Cisco could freestyle for twenty minutes straight.

He delivers most of his verses in a deadpan baritone like Tyler the Creator, but will also show off his singing voice, as on the track "Astrology" and his new single "Vinyl." He raps plenty about his crew’s mischief around Denver, but he’s not afraid to tackle tough themes, like the ones he explored in The A Train and The Sandbox.

On the track "Heartburn" Cisco muses about his hot-and-cold relationship with his mother, something that didn’t come easy. “When you’re saying what’s really on your mind, it’s acidic. Like acid reflux,” he says.

LSD is also a common theme in his raps. “I think about perspective a lot. If I get the opportunity to shift perspective I can understand somebody else’s situation better. The LSD gets in you and all of a sudden creativity is tangible. I use it as an exploratory tool, that’s what it is to me.” Cisco believes there's an underbelly of hardship and struggle in Denver that’s hidden by its perception as  a peaceful haven for hippies. “I grew up seeing the ugliest parts,” he says of his time in southwest Denver. “They ignore those of us in the city who are bitter, who are struggling. I want to give them a voice. Your struggles are known.”

Cisco would like to see real issues tackled more in mainstream rap. “I see a lot of people who are vocal in what they care about, but apathetic in action. I don’t see a lot of artistic integrity in what’s popular and being sold,” he says. Of Drake, he says, “You can’t come in and say you’re the best rapper ever if you’re not writing your own material.”  

At Colorado College, Cisco is keeping busy producing three plays, taking classes such as “contemporary action theater” and working as a stage manager. He performs his music regularly in Colorado Springs and is planning a Denver concert soon. His current crew, Sketchfam, will release a collaborative project in early 2016 called A Baby.

Cisco says he wants to put Denver on the national rap radar: “I want to give people a reason to say ‘Damn, we've really been sleeping on Denver. They go hard out there. That city is way more than legal weed and access to ski resorts.’"
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