It's barely afternoon on a blindingly sunny Earth Day out in Denver's Five Points neighborhood, and Kalyn Heffernan has already been busted.
Fortunately, we're not dealing with the police — although her wheelchair, as she'll later explain in our interview, has kept her out of jail on more than one occasion. Instead, a handful of environmental do-gooders are telling us about how they spent the morning cleaning up graffiti.
"Probably my stuff," says the inveterate tagger with a wily grin, prompting the volunteers to assure us they've got nothing against graffiti, just so long as it's in its proper place.
I'm still pondering where that proper place might be as we pile into Heffernan's van and I notice the near-empty spray paint cans on the passenger floorboard.
With the Wheelchair Sports Camp frontwoman at the wheel, and the two emcees from fellow Denver hip-hop group Wandering Monks in the back, we drive to Heffernan's house to talk about their music and the show they'll be playing Saturday, May 12, to benefit the family of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teen whose fatal shooting in Florida has drawn attention to the state's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law.
Heffernan's band, which will be headlining the Black Sheep benefit on a bill with the Wandering Monks and numerous local emcees, has been getting a lot of attention since the 24-year-old University of Colorado at Denver graduate landed on the cover of New York's influential Village Voice this past December. The 4,000-word story, titled "Wheelchair Sports Camp's Crip Life," covered a lot of ground, from the brittle bone disease that the 53-pound, 3½-foot-tall bandleader was born with, to a meeting at Eminem's Shady Records with A&R director Rigo "Riggs" Morales, who's interested in producing the group.
If you want to understand why, just check the video for "Where We All Live," the title track of the brilliant new Wheelchair Sports Camp EP, with its endearingly beautiful vocal from bandmate Abi Miller leading up to a typically engaging rap from Heffernan:
Never really been the type to color in the lines
But confess I've been blessed and obsessed with sunshine
The city is my canvas so I gotta bump dat
And just keep swimming with a floaty and a blunt wrap
Not quite tall enough for the big rides
Haven't grown an inch since I was 6 and I'm just fine
It's showtime and I won't anticipate perfect
But be damned if I didn't make every mistake worth it
If Heffernan and her band infuse their sound with traces of soul and jazz (Miller plays saxophone, for chrissake), Wandering Monks' McAD and Linguistory, in tandem with their live deejay, serve up lilting three-part harmonies that wouldn't sound out of place on a classic reggae album.
Influenced by groups like the Wailers and Dead Prez, the two Denver-area musicians — Linguistory grew up in Colorado Springs, McAD in Milwaukee — have a gift for devising rapid-fire rhymes that are socially conscious but never mundane. As they put it on last year's self-titled debut album:
No one wants to be a damn robot
Monday morning traffic, TV and Zoloft
My time is all I have
Caught myself wishing that away
Couldn't wait to get to Saturday
Watching my days pass me by
No more wasting my time
Back in the living room of the house Heffernan shares with her girlfriend and a pair of amusingly inquisitive hounds, the three musicians gather around a coffee table to talk shop.
Indy: When it comes to underground hip-hop, people tend to think of cities like Minneapolis, which has built up a really strong scene with collectives like Rhymesayers and Doomtree. How far would Colorado have to go to put itself on the map nationally?
McAD: I think that first it'd have to be shocked to life, start breathing, and become part of this planet. [Laughter.] It's just really far behind, you know, especially when it comes to supporting the artists and knowing what a sustainable industry looks like. Minneapolis — not just with music, but with the arts in general — they're like second to New York in funding and things like that.
Linguistory: Seattle's more like that, too, and neither one of those metropolitan areas are that much bigger than the Denver metro area.
Kalyn: Yeah, I almost feel like the capability is here. Denver is diverse, but it still feels very segregated. We don't have a defining style. Whereas in the Minneapolis scene, even though they were all doing their own things, it was all the same essence. It's like Brother Ali, [Atmosphere producer] Ant, and all those guys, they were all working together. Whereas Colorado just doesn't have that. The people who've become famous out of Colorado are so all over the place. It's like, Pretty Lights, Big Head Todd, 3OH!3, the Flobots...
McAD: Leftover Salmon, the Samples...
Linguistory: String Cheese Incident, jam bands.
Kalyn: Yeah, nothing sounds alike...
Indy: Let's not forget the Fray.
McAd: [Laughs.] Yeah, the Fray.
Indy: [To Linguistory] What was your Fray line? So I don't misquote it, do you remember?
Linguistory: Yes, it's "When I'm dried up with nothing left to say / I could write some pussy-ass music like the Fray."
Kalyn: Hahahahahaha, that's good.
Linguistory: But now I've changed it to "I'm GONNA" write some pussy-ass music like that.
Indy: Because you are?
Linguistory: Yeah, I mean, I'm gonna give it a run for being myself as much as I can. When I've exhausted all the options with that, just totally sell out.
Kalyn: But that's also what's kind of nice about Colorado being so segregated from everything else. You know, if we were all in New York, we'd all be hearing the same type of stuff. And we'd be like: THIS is what's gonna be big, so were all gonna jump on that train. Whereas here, we're all just on our own trains, and so it's all over the place. And that's kind of nice, to have that freedom. So I think Colorado is pretty cool for that. But yeah, there's never that feeling of really working together.
Linguistory: I actually see that more in the Springs. I don't know if it's just my perception; we've teamed up with that whole crew down there multiple times, but I'm still kind of on the outside looking in. But I do see a lot more unity with them, where they support each other and give each other shout-outs. And maybe that's because of the size, where it's just small enough and just big enough to have that sort of scene.
Kalyn: Yeah, it's like sometimes that's a benefit, but it can also be kind of a drawback. You can feel so comfortable in your crew, in your little posse, that it's hard to look outside of that. And it's so easy to get caught up in your own shenanigans.
But then once you start going out on tour, you're like: Why did I care about that? Why was I worried about the Westword, or something stupid like that, when you're out in Seattle or somewhere getting love?
Linguistory: And people in your hometown look at you differently after you've done a lot of shit out of state.
Indy: [To Kalyn] Is that why you're wearing your "South by Southwest Artist" wristband, STILL?
Kalyn: So that I get love. And RESPECT! [Laughter.] But yeah, going out to Austin last year was our first time ever leaving the state, and getting love outside of the state was just the biggest eye-opener. It's like, wow, we're all trying to tackle being "King of Denver" or something. And then you're missing out on the whole country, or the whole world even.
Indy: The Village Voice article follows you as you meet with Shady Records. Did something come out of that yet?
Kalyn: Not really yet, but we have agreed to do a song. Like just a verbal agreement, you know. The lead A&R rep saw us play by accident at South By last year, and so of course, when I got the card, I was like, "Yeah, I'll call you — in an HOUR!" You know, I'm not gonna let this slide. Plus, I grew up a Shady kid; I don't listen to any of that now, but I grew up on that.
So I kept in contact with him, and he was really responsive to our stuff. He listened to every track we had, and gave his input. I met up with him when we were in New York, and chilled in the conference room, got to see a bunch of platinum records, and cried a little bit. [Laughs.] And then, yeah, he was like, let's do a track. So he sent me some beats, but I haven't really done much because we'd been working on the EP.
Indy: I understand that you also met TLC at one point?
Kalyn: I did. [Laughs.] Well, not the whole crew, but I did a Make-A-Wish [Foundation] when I was a kid, and in my freshman year of high school I went to Atlanta and hung out with T-Boz. She was married to Mack 10 at the time. We drove around in Mack 10's Bentley. It was pretty freakin' awesome. But I'm not dead, and I probably shouldn't have really made a wish.
Indy: Really? Are you supposed to die if you make a wish?
Kalyn: Well, I think it's supposed to be like fatal things, right? I don't know ... I think it was kind of clear I wasn't dying. And maybe just, my disease is severe enough that they accepted me, but I don't really know. Either way, I'm gonna make another wish soon...
Indy: Who's it gonna be this time?
Kalyn: Probably to see Biggie's hologram. [Laughter.]
Indy: Switching subjects a bit, can you all talk about what attracted you to each other's music?
Kalyn: Sure, I played with them at the D Note, and I just don't get into stuff if it's not original. But with them, it was just like, these really great melodies and this reggae kind of style. But then it had like, dope hip-hop in it. I really dig these guys' sound, especially live. I think they do a really good job at harmonizing with each other and, you know, singing AND rapping. It was refreshing for me. And I'm like a HUGE cynic, I'm a huge critic of any kind of hip-hop.
I'm like, "How come I don't know about you? I know EVERYBODY in this town!" And, you know, I got the vibe right away that they're good people. And I think both of us have this same type of motivation behind our music, which isn't just capitalism. So yeah, we're homies.
Indy: When I saw you guys live, reggae was also the first thing I thought of. I've never really heard three-part harmonies in hip-hop. How did that develop?
McAD: I just grew up doing a lot of reggae. I played a little bit of rhythm guitar, and reggae was always the easiest thing I felt like I could fake my way into. Because I'm not trained at all musically, I do everything by ear. And I do the same with all our melodies, I just sound it all out.
Indy: Any particular reggae artists whose harmonies you were into?
McAD: I mean, obviously going back to the Wailers and the I-Threes. Bob Marley, from my youth, was like the first, just as far as thinking about what you're listening to and paying attention to the positive message. And, you know, he was a role model as a strong black male, but also being a singer, a songbird, you know what I mean? He showed that you could sing and still be cool, and not be clowned by all your people for being a male who was...
Kalyn: And not be GAY. [Laughter.]
McAD: So definitely Bob Marley, and the women in the I-Threes. Just trying to mimic that, and convince myself I could do it.
Indy: And then I wanted to ask you two the same question about Kalyn's band.
Linguistory: One of the things that stood out to me about Kalyn and Wheelchair Sports Camp is, I just think it's awesome because I think most people in Kalyn's position of being in a wheelchair would never have the courage to rap or anything. And it's awesome that she does. And her craft is well-defined in itself, without taking any of that into consideration. It's got clever rhymes and it's just more artfully constructed than most other emcees on the scene.
And then the other great thing is, I just love how you guys incorporate live drums and sax, and the sax player sings.
Indy: In terms of being courageous, you do seem like a person that's never been afraid of anything. Is that true?
Kalyn: Hmmm, there's gotta be something. I'm a little bit afraid of downhill. [Laughter.] I've face-planted a couple of times from my chair, so that's a little bit of a fear of mine.
But no, I think that's the hip-hop in me. I have always had this kind of — not cocky in a BAD way, I hope — but, you know, just that rapper mentality. Like, ah, fuck that, you know, I can do that. I was raised, luckily, with crazy enough people that kind of just let me do my thing, even when it maybe wasn't like, the smartest idea or safest idea. I've always been really social, and then I always listened to, like, gangsta rap, so the rest was just like easy to me. And you know, had I not been in this chair and stuff, I'm sure I'd be, like, in jail.
Indy: So the chair has kept you out of jail?
Kalyn: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. A lot of times. Like EVERY time. But yeah, I have this rapper confidence, probably to make up for my inabilities maybe, I don't know. It just happened. It wasn't a conscious decision to be like courageous and brave or whatever. It's just, I fell in love with hip-hop and I was like, well, fuck it, if they can do it, I can do it. Right? I can talk. [Laughs.]
Indy: In terms of politics, I remember tuning into the live Ustream of Occupy Denver, and immediately seeing Kalyn talking to an interviewer. And when I saw the Wandering Monks, the politics were also pretty clear. I mean, you're not exactly super-subtle about it.
Linguistory: Not trying to be. [Laughs.]
Indy: So what do you all think of social media's role in activism, whether it's people tweeting Iran, or posting Kony 2012 YouTube videos? Or even with Trayvon Martin, where people started wearing hoodies in their Facebook profile pictures. Is that effective, is that enough?
Kalyn: Well, I don't know if it's ENOUGH, but it's definitely effective. I remember the first time I got into Twitter was following Tunisia's uprising, and then later following Egypt's uprising. And it's like, now I'm following Occupy across the country and across the world even, just by looking at the hashtags.
And you know, we live in such a great age, like the Internet is such our thing. None of us would be doing the things we're doing in the way that we're doing them without the Internet.
Indy: Let's talk about the cause for the benefit you're playing down here. What do you remember thinking when you heard about the Trayvon shooting?
Linguistory: For me, I can say that it was an extremely sad story. But it wasn't all that surprising...
McAD: I was intrigued by the social media side of it, like what you were saying about trying to understand its effectiveness. Just think about Rodney King, you know? Like, he wasn't killed, and yet people took to the streets and burned stuff down. So it's just interesting, seeing a Facebook response of people thinking that putting hoodies on is the same as burning down a city hall or something.
I don't know, I think it's about seeing what the future determines. I would say burning down a city hall is more effective.
Kalyn: Yeah, me too. You can now get so many more people to latch on, because it's so easy. But again, it's the question of effectiveness. You know, it's like you've got more people doing less. Is that equal to less people doing more?
Indy: Moving from the political to the more personal, I wanted to ask Kalyn about the song you covered, "My Vagina Ain't Handicapped." What's the story with that? And who did that originally?
Kalyn: [Laughs.] I don't know her, but I'm now friends with her on Twitter. She's a disabled chick in a wheelchair, a power chair. She's on a respirator — you know, has a tube in her throat — and she came out with this video that went viral, that somebody posted on my page. And just from seeing the thumbnail, and the title 'My Vagina Ain't Handicapped," I was like, I'm not even clicking on that. Seriously.
Then I ended up seeing a couple other people posting it, and I had to check it out. And it's just this terrible song! [Laughs.] But it went viral, and it was funny, and I totally respected the chick for doing it.
So I said, "When it hits a million views, I'm gonna cover it." It never hit a million views, but we were playing this comedy DIY festival that started last year called Too Much Funstival, and they asked us to play. And I was like, perfect, now I can cover that retarded song.
I had to change it a little bit, so that it was more rappity, you know? And I tried to replace certain words, because she was dropping the N-bomb, and like she wasn't black. And I'm not, either. And so the video is just us in this bocce ball pit in a bar in Five Points, where we just were, and now it's our most-watched video.
Indy: So in terms of your own songs, which are you most proud of?
Kalyn: I don't even know. I hate 'em all.
Indy: OK, what about on the new EP, which one do you hate least?
Kalyn: Actually, there's two songs on there that I'm pretty stoked on. "Are You Hung Up" is probably my most favorite beat I've ever made, and maybe one of my favorite songs we've made, too. And then I like my rhyming on "Dream Up." I just rap my face off.
Indy: And finally, you mentioned at lunch that you had a run-in with the law on the way to last year's South By Southwest. What happened?
Kalyn: We were playing in Denton [Texas] with B. Dolan of Strange Famous. It was an incredible show, and some of us had paint, and some of us decided to get a little happy and stupid and reckless and painted right on the freakin' venue, or like catty-corner to the venue. And the roommate of the person who invited us to his place was very offended that we were painting all these happy faces. So we left as soon as we heard somebody'd called the cops. And then the first car got pulled over, they all had weed on them, they all went to jail.
I saw the car getting towed, and I started following the tow truck so that I could figure out what I needed to do to get our instruments back before South By. Which sure enough led us into a trap. And so five people ended up going to jail, and the two band members are in THC relapse prevention.
I only got a paraphernalia ticket, even though I had spray paint all over my chair. They pretty much knew that I'd done what I did, but the wheelchair magic, you know, it works every time.