Piracy, Hip-Hop Style

In hip-hop, size usually matters. Consider "Work It," a new single in which Missy Elliott declares, "If you got a big [elephant], let me search ya/To find out how hard I gotta work ya."

Sometimes, though, a rapper can make a large impact with small equipment, as Denver's Bass Ghost found out firsthand. Along with fellow emcees Panda, Scrap Dog and Vin¢ (pronounced "Vin Cent"), Bass Ghost created Skyjack Radio, a thoroughly illegal FM station that blared hardcore hip-hop for about a month before coming to the attention of the Federal Communications Commission, which pulled the plug in mid-November. During its life span, Skyjack was the talk of Denver's hip-hop community, yet the gear that sent its signal across much of the metro area is incredibly modest: two black boxes the size of many toasters, and a simple, six-foot antenna.

"People can't believe it when they see it," Bass Ghost says. "They can't believe how little it is."

Skyjack's mother ship is just as unimposing. Bass Ghost and his comrades ran their enterprise from a southeast Denver apartment marked by the most basic accoutrements: a couch, a TV, a few chairs and a poster of Al Pacino from the movie Scarface. The broadcasting boxes, surrounded by a scattering of CDs, fit on a coffee table with plenty of room to spare, while the antenna points toward a balcony on which it was mounted before the FCC visited. In a nearby corner is a satellite dish still in its cardboard shipping container. "I didn't want to put that up with the antenna out there," Bass Ghost explains. "I didn't want anyone to think something was going on."

There might not have been if Bass Ghost had found more support for his own music. A native of New Jersey who was raised in West Palm Beach, Florida, he came to Denver in 1990 and instantly tried to stake his place in the local rap scene, which was then in its germinal stages: "There were only three groups, and I was one of them," he says. To make matters worse, Bass Ghost notes, few area venues booked local hip-hop acts -- "Skate City was about it for a long time" -- and the majority of media outlets were even stingier. Boulder public-radio station KGNU offered a Sunday-night rap show, Eclipse, and TV programs such as Rhythm Visions, seen on Channel 12, and Hip-Hop Madness, available to those with the Denver Community Television system, did what they could, but KS-104 (now KS-107.5), the city's most powerful urban-music purveyor, essentially ignored any hip-hopper with a Colorado background.

"We gave them ten, twenty CDs over the years, and they never played them once," Bass Ghost says. "We did everything to get our music played. We even offered to pay them to play it and they wouldn't do it."

"Frustrating," mutters Panda, who came to Denver in 1994 from the Louisville, Kentucky, neighborhood that spawned Muhammad Ali. "That's what it was -- frustrating."

But Bass Ghost and Panda refused to move, even if other locations were friendlier to hip-hop. "We're trying to pioneer hip-hop in Colorado," says Panda, who calls his form of hip-hop "Mountainous Music."

"We don't want to follow trends," Bass Ghost emphasizes. "We want people to follow our trends."

Getting their voices heard wasn't easy. Bass Ghost and Panda sold CDs on the street (thousands of them, they claim) and gave them away to those they thought might assist them, including A.J. McLean of the Backstreet Boys, whom they buttonholed outside one of the group's Denver appearances. "He's from West Palm Beach, so we thought that would help," Bass Ghost notes. "He said he liked our stuff and promised to call us, but he never did."

After exchanges such as these, Bass Ghost and Panda found themselves fantasizing about having their own radio station, so they could get airplay without relying on boy-band members for help. But the dream took on a more tangible form in April, when they traveled to Miami and hooked up with a friend who runs two pirate-radio stations in the city. Outlets like these are fairly common in Florida: As documented by Miami New Times, one of Westword's sister papers, there are often a dozen or more pirate outfits on the air in the city at any given time. The result is a wild atmosphere that turned nasty in September 2001, when an amateur jock known as "Uncle Al" Moss was murdered, possibly by rival broadcasters upset about signal interference.

Bass Ghost admits that Miami pirates can be ruthless: "Out there, they cut into stations, going over their signals. They don't care." But for the most part, he says, they co-exist peacefully. "They're everywhere -- and when the FCC sends them a letter to shut down, they just move to another place on the dial and keep on doing it."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts