In 2017, when Westword first covered Denver rapper Wesley Daniels, aka WesDawg, we wrote that he was an artist to watch. Three years later, with two mixtapes out and a third about to drop, he's gone from sharing the stage with locals to headlining his own concerts and touring nationally.
"I've just been focused on a lot of the music, the business side of it — getting those distribution deals and stuff like that," Daniels explains. "Because you can always drop music. It's how you want to do it and how you want to market it. That's what I've been on for the last year."
For Daniels, who has lived most of his life in Montbello, that also meant venturing outside Denver. For the past seven months, he's bounced between Las Vegas and California, doing as many shows and open mics as possible to get his name out there. It's a whole different vibe from his experience in his hometown scene, where too often, he says, artists are so focused on themselves that they fail to show up for each other. Daniels finds the new communities refreshing.
"The open mics are really good [in Vegas]," he says. "They're really packed. They really show love. The support is really different from back home, you know. They actually stay and support and watch."
Daniels, who has always thought that the Denver scene needed a stronger community, started rapping in high school, where he also pursued a passion for basketball.
"I used to freestyle rap with my friends, just joke around with it," he says. "But after they went to jail, I became more serious with it and more of a storyteller with it. Telling their stories and telling my story — things we went through growing up, the things we went through in high school, and everything that led everyone to where they are right now. I just continued to go with it, and life happened...and it just gave me more fuel to keep writing and writing and writing, telling my story."
Daniels's sound and style are influenced by some of hip-hop's greatest storytellers, like Kendrick Lamar and Lil Wayne, two of his favorite artists. Like them, he delivers both club-friendly records and narrative-driven conscious rhymes with finesse. Daniels also models his career on rappers who do things their own way.
"On the independent side would be Nipsey Hussle," he says. "Being an independent artist, I definitely followed [the] steps that Nipsey did, just being my own ownership, everything like that."
While Daniels's music is largely autobiographical, he's also influenced by film and television, particularly shows and movies that depict Mafia culture.
"Just growing up and watching all the mob movies like Goodfellas and Casino — things like that were always my favorite movies," he explains. "So when I started doing music, I just wanted to show different themes, something different than what anyone else was doing in this town. So I just gave it a Mafia theme."
One of his first mixtapes on SoundCloud was titled Mafia Music, and last fall he released a followup, Mafia Music 2. Many of his tracks include audio clips from mob-related media, including "Killa," the first single released off his upcoming project.
The outro to the song is a monologue from the TV series Snowfall, which is about the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic. While his ad lib growls and the chorus "I am a killer, I am a killer, I am a killer" may come off as violent, Daniels says the song symbolizes his tenacity. "I felt like with that song, it was making a statement. It was saying, I'm pretty much here to stay. I'm not going nowhere. You can put anybody against me. You can line me up with the best. I'm a killer. I'll adapt."
"Killa" is the first single off Daniels's latest project, which will be released on February 14. The mixtape is titled The Wolf of Montbello, an homage to another favorite movie, The Wolf of Wall Street. Though not a mobster, the film's protagonist — and his determination to make something of himself, going from humble underdog to revered wolf — inspires Daniels.
"Three or four months ago, I was talking to my friends about doing a theme. I love The Wolf of Wall Street. I love that movie. So I thought it would be cool to make a mixtape like that, just telling my side of things, my side of being the underdog and coming from pretty much nothing to where I'm at right now. Just like he did in the movie, the underdog of Montbello is almost at the top."
With some national success, Daniels is helping out Denver's other underappreciated musicians. In the past, he's been vocal about the lack of camaraderie within the city's music scene. While he thinks it's gradually improving, he's still frustrated by the egotism and individualism he says plague Denver hip-hop.
"I think it's starting to slowly grow, as far as the open mics," Daniels says. "But as far as artists going to other shows and people coming out to support, I feel that it still lacks in some areas. I feel like there's still a lot of hate with the local scene. I feel like everybody wants to be better than everybody instead of working together."
To celebrate the artists that he thinks are making positive contributions to Colorado hip-hop, Daniels is hosting a show at Your Mom's House on February 19, appropriately titled the Underdog Showcase. He'll headline an extensive lineup that he organized himself, including DavidSoldOut, Igknight Flo & Emigine, Fa$tLife Twin, Don Verse, BellSide Choppa, Elle Green, Dre Booth, Disobey303, Paisha Love and KBI.
"I picked these artists because, before I put the show together, I had been looking at their hard work, and I feel like they're all underdogs," Daniels says. "A lot of the shows that do happen, a lot of times you have just straight rap. There's no R&B; it's just rap, rap, rap. So I wanted to switch it up. I'm gonna have some rap, but at the same time, have a little jazz and R&B feel."
The Underdog Showcase, presented by Boogie Groove Entertainment, will take place at Your Mom's House at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, February 19. Tickets for the 21+ show are $5 in advance or $10 the day of the show. Find tickets and more information at yourmomshousedenver.com.
Listen to WesDawg and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.
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