When Ice Cube said to "check yourself before you wreck yourself" nearly two decades ago, he could have been offering advice to the four emcees in BullHead*ded.
Not that it was anyone's fault: The local hip-hop group was driving to Denver last month to play at the Fox Theatre when, without warning, a tire came off its rim and sent them swerving to the side of the road.
Climbing out of the car, they were relieved to see no one was injured — until a friend who'd come along with them suffered a seizure on the spot. "His eyes rolled back in his head and he just kind of passed out and fell to the ground," says emcee Che Bong.
As it happened, their friend had been in a more serious car accident days earlier. The ambulance took him to the hospital, which wound up being within walking distance of the Fox. Not knowing what else they could do, the group ended up performing that evening and were surprised to see their friend in the crowd.
"Once he got a clean bill of health, he walked over there, man!" says Che Bong in amazement. "We were like, 'Why didn't you call anybody?' And he was like, 'I didn't want to bother you guys while you were onstage.'"
Labor of love
As impressed by the group's work ethic as the show's organizers may have been, they probably weren't all that surprised. After all, by Che Bong's estimation, the group played well over 100 shows in 2010, routinely appearing on hip-hop bills at the Black Sheep, V Bar, and various Denver and Pueblo venues. This year, they slowed down some — only about 60 shows so far — to focus on a variety of recording projects for local label, Sound Powered Engine.
The brainchild of manager Gary Vanderpool, Sound Powered Engine is home to a tightly knit group of friends and collaborators. A good number of them will be making the leap en masse from mixtapes to CDs in the coming months: Made Up Minds' Of Sound Minds will be out in early 2012, followed by a second installment in the label's Coloradio sampler. In March, BullHead*ded's debut gets tossed into the ring, while albums from Too Tone Taurus and Milogic are slated for May.
But first out of the gate is Che Bong's debut album, which will be celebrated with a CD release show Sunday at the Black Sheep. (Note: "Che" is pronounced like the Chinese term for life energy, not the Marxist revolutionary.)
At a time when a lot of indie releases wear their slapdash-for-no-cash aesthetic on their sleeve, Sleeping While You're Awake shows meticulous attention to detail. It's evident in everything from the polished gate-fold sleeve to the rapper's resonant baritone and skillful flow. Through it all, there's no sense of acting or artifice, just a combination of determined optimism paired with down-to-earth realism that appears to reflect the artist's own personality.
Also impressive is local filmmaker Hussain Sola's video for the track "Okay," which finds the musician doing auto-shop and call-center work, hauling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, and dealing with enough asshole bosses to last a lifetime. The lyric sums up the dilemma: "You think by saying yes, you'll get respect, yes-man? OK, all right, you'll lose every step."
Of course, not everyone is in the best position to choose.
"That's right, you need some food in your refrigerator, you need to keep those lights on," says the artist, a former Wal-Mart employee who's spent a lot of time in the trenches. "I worked for a major chain corporation — grocery store, department store — for 10 years, my man. Non-union. And I was also a cook, and I've also detailed cars, and my wife works in a call center. So I have a pretty good insight into all of those jobs."
Another must-hear track on Sleeping While You're Awake is "The Rooster," in which Che Bong raps over the haunting whistle of an Ennio Morricone-style backing track about what he describes as "wanting a whole bunch of things, but not wanting to do anything to get them."
"Raise Your Glass," a live favorite during BullHead*ded sets, finds Che Bong trading verses with producer/emcee Nato, while a breezy track called "The Thickness" features Sound Powered Engine label-mate Milogic. The album also incorporates some decidedly old-school elements, including samples of the Coasters' "Down in Mexico" and Fats Domino's "Hello Josephine." There's even a doo-wop version of "Be Thankful for What You Got," the oft-coverered "gangsta lean" song that the artist says his mom used to sing around the house when he was a kid.
On balance, Sleeping While You're Awake is an upbeat affair, but Che Bong says there will be a darker side to its follow-up, most of which is already in the can. "The next album's going to be called When You Just Can't Win, and it's kind of a concept album, you know, kicking rocks and feeling like the world's coming down on you, that there's nowhere you can turn. Not that I personally feel that way now, but at the time I was recording it, I kind of did."
That said, the album might well lighten up between now and its eventual release. "Since it's so far out, I do plan on doing a world of things to it. I'm not trying to bring folks down, not at all. Not trying to do that."
Beat of the brat
Although Sleeping While You're Awake is his first proper CD, Che Bong has been doing this music thing for a while.
"I started rapping when I was 9 years old," recalls the artist, now 32. Asked who his rap heroes were back then, he rattles off a list of underground hip-hop innovators. "Oh, man: EPMD, Eric B. & Rakim, KRS-One. All those guys were going on then, the forefathers, you know? That's what influenced me. And, you know, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest." More recent favorites include Blueprint, Murs ("he's like the James Brown of hip-hop"), spoken-word artist Saul Williams, and the Doomtree collective.
And then there's the late Gil Scott-Heron, whose politically conscious soul, jazz and spoken-word masterpieces prefigured hip-hop long before Kool Herc, Run-DMC or Public Enemy arrived on the scene.
"He's one of my heroes as far as being a writer and being an emcee," says Che Bong. "I think hip-hop gets so pigeonholed into being this certain type of music. And of course you've got somebody spitting lyrics over a beat, but it's so much more than that. Through the sampling and the drumming — all kinds of different beats — I think that hip-hop is the one music that actually embraces all music."
To whatever degree that's true, Che Bong himself hasn't shied away from diversifying his own musical portfolio. A military brat, he lived with his mother in London, Sacramento, Calif., Albuquerque, N.M., and, finally, Great Falls, Mont. It was there that he played drums in a band called Bent Elephant, which specialized in Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots and Foo Fighters covers. He was also the frontman and lyricist for a more original group called Organic Elements.
"We had a drummer, a bassist, a keyboard player, a deejay and then myself," he recalls. "We did all kinds of fun stuff together for 2½ years. And then things dissolved, as they tend to do."
As for his ability to transition from indie rock to hip-hop, Che Bong sees both as being part of something bigger.
"I feel like it's all one thing on a different level. Whether I'm playing the drums or listening to Megadeth or at a Murs concert, it's all music. We're the ones that put the labels on it, but on a different level, it's all one thing."
Once his mom retired and came to live in Colorado Springs, the musician paid annual visits before he and his wife decided to relocate here themselves back in 2006.
"When I moved here, the first thing I wanted to know about was the hip-hop scene in Colorado, and I got hold of a DVD by Accumen, which is Samir [Zamundu] and his brother back in the day, when they were doing their thing. So that was really enlightening and very inspiring. So I was like, let's dial on into this."
Samir would go on to form the ReMINDers, the husband-and-wife duo whom Snoop Dogg recently introduced to his 4 million Twitter followers after they opened for him at a gig in Vail. Che Bong, meanwhile, hooked up with another emcee named J.P.S., and began performing as Too Tone Taurus. Earlier this year, the ReMINDers and Too Tone Taurus took second and third places, respectively, in the hip-hop category of this year's inaugural Indy Music Awards, with Black P taking first place.
Too Tone Taurus got the last part of its name from the astrological sign both emcees were born under. I ask Che Bong if the first part stems from the duo's racial makeup. "Sure, that's a small element of it, as well," he says, "but it's also just the combination of our vocal tones, you know what I mean? J.P.S. is up here, I'm kind of down here, all that stuff."
In the summer of 2010, the duo made plans to tour with their friends in Made Up Minds, another local hip-hop group fronted by emcees ZETfree and Nato (who also did the beats and most of the production on Sleeping While You're Awake) — to head out on tour.
"We were gonna take Made Up Minds and Too Tone Taurus on tour," explains Che Bong, "but we were like, man, we can't take these two really obscure groups that no one's ever heard of to California and all across the West Coast."
Instead, at Vanderpool's suggestion, they opted to take one obscure group that no one had ever heard of, reasoning that it would be twice as easy to get gigs that way. With an assist from friends in Portland, Ore. hip-hop group the Chicharones, the newly minted BullHead*ded set up its itinerary, and ended up getting along so well onstage and on tour that they decided to keep it going once they got back.
Give up your day job
Less than two years and close to 200 gigs later, the four emcees' onstage chemistry is undeniable, and the audience can't help but get caught up in the enthusiasm.
"ZETFree, he's the showman," says Che Bong in regard to the emcees' complementary performance styles. "You know, he's the guy who's out there just going crazy and really getting through to the crowd. And Nato, he's the guy with the sharp lyrics and the beats, he produces all the BullHead*ded stuff. And my man J.P.S., he's a really skilled emcee and showman, too. And you know, I feel like I'm more lyrical and just — I don't know what I am — I'm just happy to be there!"
As are crowds who've seen them on their own and opening for touring artists like Dessa, Blueprint, 2Mex, Canibus and People Under the Stairs. During a recent Black Sheep show opening for Mickey Avalon, they clearly stole the show from the national headliner. Now they just have to translate that into making albums that can get their own music out to a broader audience.
"We have all these artists in our camp that need to make records, so that we all have stuff that's tangible, that people can take home with them," says Che Bong. "And doing one show after another, it's just kind of hard to get all of your writing and recording done. We normally go on around 10 or 11, we don't normally get out of the place until 2, get home at 3 after getting something to eat, and then at 7 in the morning you gotta be at work, you know?"
There's also the potential for too many gigs to result in overexposure. "Yeah, we talk about that all the time, and we're kinda conflicted," says the rapper. "My man ZETfree likes to kind of take it easy and wants to do shows that are important, that are lasting. And then, a couple of us might think that it's like buckshot; you shoot out as many shows as you can, and you're gonna hit somebody, you know? So while we generally are heavy show guys, we felt that we needed to focus on getting these projects out."
Earlier this year, Che Bong took the process a step further by leaving behind the day-job grind. "I'm still doing things, finishing garages, you know, doing odds-and-ends stuff," he says. "But now, for at least a little while, I want make myself available to really delve into this music."
Toward that end, the artist is never seen without a pen and notebook in his back pocket. Or at least that's what it says in his online bio. So naturally, I ask for proof.
"Really?" he says, before producing a well-worn notepad covered with stickers of friends' hip-hop groups. Asked to read the last thing he wrote in it, he recites part of his verse for a track BullHead*ded will be recording for Death By Thr33s, a series of EPs being put together by Maulskull, frontman of Denver hip-hop act Black Mask: "While life seems so slow, I'm going fast / Cover my tracks, with long sleeves / Huffin' the gas, I'm lightheaded."
"I carry this everywhere I go," says Che Bong, who's never taken to writing lyrics at a keyboard. "I do have plenty of buddies that type lyrics into their phone, but I like writing because it lets my thoughts flow better. I tend to do a lot of writing at shows. I'll be in these crowded bars, sitting bellied up to the bar, writing my lyrics there. [Laughs.] Yeah, people call me a weirdo all the time."
Not that he particularly minds. "It feels so much better, what I'm doing now," he says. "Just trying to focus on what I want to do. Not necessarily in terms of being selfish but, you know, Wal-Mart and all these other jobs are gonna be there. They're not going anywhere.
"But these dreams, you know, the things that you want to do with yourself, might not always be available. You have to take advantage of those situations while you still can."