“Being a white woman in hip-hop has allowed me to be invisible,” says Nicole Cormier, a writer and editor dedicated to Denver’s hip-hop scene. “It has allowed me certain rights that I don’t think a man would have in this community.”
Cormier acknowledges that regardless of her identity, being a critic has its own set of challenges: “I’ve been threatened. People are combative to my face, which I would much prefer over hearing about it from someone else. I don’t ever have hard feelings about anyone who may not like me because of my opinion. I’m putting my opinion out there, and I get that not everyone is going to like me.”
Before Cormier was a music critic, she was a critic of the media. She went to college to study communications, but admits that for a long time, she wasn’t that fond of journalism itself. “I was anti-media for a good chunk of my life. It was funny that I ended up writing,” she says.
Not only did she end up writing, but Cormier became a revered voice in Colorado, respected as both a lover and a critic of our hip-hop scene — making it hard to imagine her work as any kind of accident.
A lifelong fan of hip-hop, Cormier had been going to concerts for years, but after one particular show nearly a decade ago — at which she watched MC Tonedeff spit his speedy rhymes — she was inspired to write about the experience. “I passed it on to my homegirl who went to the show with me, and she was like, ‘Oh, my God, I didn’t know you could write!’” says Cormier. That friend pushed her to do something with her talents, and not long after, Cormier fell in with the print publication Colorado Music Buzz. The paper immediately recognized her tremendous knowledge of a genre that was severely lacking coverage and brought her on as the editor of its hip-hop section.
Because the paper’s focus was mostly local music, Cormier says, it was imperative that she become invested in the beat she was covering. Not having much experience with Colorado hip-hop to that point, she dove in, attending live events from start to finish, making sure she caught every act.
In the beginning, Cormier covered her subject as an outsider; she didn’t spend much time buddying up to rappers and DJs. She preferred to be a fly on the wall, observing and taking notes on a scene that she was learning about and reporting on from the inside out.
After several years at Colorado Music Buzz, Cormier found herself at Westword in 2010. She continued her thorough coverage, profiling musicians, MCs, DJs, producers and vocalists — anyone and everyone connected to Denver’s thriving but still relatively unheralded hip-hop community. In 2012, she decided she would rather be her own boss when it came to writing and launched the Hip Hop Roll Call website.
Helmed by Cormier, Rachel Chesbrough and friend, webmaster and graphic designer Justin Romero — also known as Dyalekt from local hip-hop act Diamond Boiz — the site became a hub for hip-hop coverage. These days, Hip Hop Roll Call attracts thousands of visitors each day and is considered one of the top sources of information and criticism on the local art form. Cormier explains that the website was a manifestation of her own desire to speak on how much music has influenced her personally.
“Writing about people’s art in general can be terrifying; the things you say can rock their whole world,” she says. “It can make them quit, it can make them angry — which is honestly kind of the exciting part about it, too. They make you feel things through their music, and sometimes we can make them feel things, too.”
Her devotion to Colorado hip-hop hasn’t gone unnoticed by those music makers. Mane Rok, a staple of the scene who has also booked countless other artists over the past decade and a half in Denver and beyond, expresses how much Cormier’s role is appreciated in the community.
“Nicole is someone I count as a friend now, but in the beginning stages of all of this, she was just a music writer I met along the way,” he says. “Then it hit me: We sit here as artists and bust our asses for this art, and as much as Nicole gets credit in a byline, how many times did we sit back and say, ‘Without your work, our work would have fallen on deaf ears’?”
For her part, Cormier is impressed by the support she’s experienced in the local hip-hop scene as a whole, and credits Rok in large part for bringing the local scene together with the national scene on one stage, in front of bigger audiences.
“There are niche hip-hop communities everywhere, but the way it exists in Colorado is kind of unique,” she notes. “Other, smaller scenes don’t have local openers on national shows like we do in Denver. You don’t see a show come through Denver without at least several local openers warming up.” She adds that Rok’s push to bring Colorado artists to the forefront is something she hasn’t seen in bigger cities like New York, Atlanta, or Minneapolis, all of which have well-known hip-hop scenes.
Now, however, Cormier’s tenure as one of Denver’s most supportive and critical voices is coming to an end. In addition to running Hip Hop Roll Call, Cormier has been covering music for AEG affiliate AXS since 2013, and she was recently offered a full-time staff position in Las Vegas with the company’s website. She’ll say goodbye to Colorado at the end of this year, leaving the fate of Hip Hop Roll Call unknown.
Cormier says she wouldn’t feel right covering the Colorado scene remotely; her reporting has always been as meaningful as it is because she’s out at shows, talking to artists and observing Denver’s hip-hop community in person. Being in Las Vegas will make that impossible.
Still, there’s hope for her work to continue in Denver: Since she and Romero started Hip Hop Roll Call three years ago, they’ve brought other writers aboard, and Cormier has a few in mind that she hopes will step up to the challenge of leading the site with their own unique voices.
Mentoring other writers is another role that Cormier played in the music community here. Says Rok: “She did what, to me, is one of the most important things for anybody in any art scene to do: She worked to pull other people in on her side of what she was doing. People don’t always reach back and say, ‘Let me help other people.’ Nicole helped other writers.”
When Rok found out that Cormier was headed for Vegas, he decided it was time for the community to show her — and her work — some love, and began to put together a night starring some of the writer’s local favorites, including his own act Stay Tuned and Romero’s Diamond Boiz.
“She’s been there for all hip-hop,” he says about Cormier’s dedication and the desire to express his — and others’ — gratitude. “She would be at a show from beginning to end; she would make sure to see the openers. Without her being so proactive herself — and in particular, proactive about our scene — I don’t think we would have gotten as much recognition as any of us have gotten.”
Cormier says that while she and her husband have sold their house and are definitely settling into Las Vegas for a long while, coming back to Denver isn’t out of the question. The scene that the writer, editor and lover of hip-hop has been a part of here will always be a part of who she is.
In the meantime, she’s confident that those who are equally passionate about the music will fill her shoes in Colorado. For them, she has this advice: “Be patient and have a thick skin. You’re talking about someone’s art, and they aren’t always going to agree. You’re also going to be blatantly wrong sometimes. You have to be tough to do it — and if you’re going to do it in hip-hop, you have to be tougher.”
Nicole Cormier Going-Away Party
With Cysko Rokwel, AWHAT, King F.O.E., Big J Beats, Stay Tuned, Diamond Boiz and more, 8 p.m. Friday, December 11, Lost Lake Lounge, 3602 East Colfax Avenue, $5, lost-lake.com.