[An L.A. native, L.A. Weekly columnist Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com, follow him on Twitter and also check out his archives.]
There are only so many things to do in Denver when you’re alive — especially when you’re rapping. Despite a greater metro population of 2.7 million, the Mile High City has never produced a nationally lauded rapper or group. By contrast, such comparative backwaters as Shreveport, Louisiana, and Greenville, North Carolina, are one up on Colorado’s capital.
“Niggas all think we ski and shit,” sneers King F.O.E., one-third of the BLKHRTS alongside Yonnas Abraham and Karma. “There’s a perception that there’s no black people in Denver. There’s a huge black community, and it’s not all weed dispensaries and hippies, either. I spent most of my life gangbanging and selling dope.”
Denver has long been a locus for Blood and Crips sets started by L.A. transplants. DJ Quik famously chronicled a violent incident with Colorado Crips on “Jus Lyke Compton.” F.O.E. even remembers his older cousin’s friends telling him about the infamous encounter.
You can see that same desire to show and prove in the BLKHRTS’ sociopathic intensity. When they emerged in 2011, they automatically became frontrunners for all-time greatest from Denver. Granted, their principal competition was the Flobots. But the praise also spoke volumes about their half-Panzer, half-panther attack.
Their tagline accurately described them as M.O.P. meets Morrissey. They flipped industrial and guttural samples from The Stooges, The Misfits, and Joy Division and recontextualized them as grimy, gravel-voiced rap music.
Well established within the 720 area code from previous musical endeavors, the semi-super-group quickly became local legends. L.A. Weekly sister publication Westword named them Denver’s best new band in 2011 and best rap group in 2014. National blogs offered praise. They even earned a record deal on Warner imprint ORG, with the promise that Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio would executive produce. But after their A&R person left the company, the deal dissipated.
When that happened early last year, the group found itself at a crossroads: Stay in a city with a glass ceiling, or move to L.A. and essentially start from scratch. Yonnas and F.O.E. opted for the latter, moving into a spacious exposed-brick and concrete loft in the warehouse district, filled with posters, drums, keyboards and enough blunt wraps to last through several apocalypses.
“It’s a growing scene but there just isn’t a huge market for hip-hop in Denver. And we got to the point where we felt capable of bringing something unique to L.A.,” Yonnas says. “People always say, ‘Oh, I’m tired of hearing the same shit all the time.’ We’re legitimately doing something new.”
It’s not hyperbole. There is something singular in the BLKRTS’ frenetic combination of hardcore punk aggression, tongue-twisting raps and damaged, art-school goth aesthetic. (Check this new track “Trillex,” an L.A. Weekly premiere, for a taste.)
“It’s like a cross between Robert Smith [The Cure] and Robert Diggs [RZA],” Yonnas says, savvy enough to offer his own comparisons before people start lobbing erroneous Death Grips analogies.
Their arrival in L.A. makes them one of the city’s most formidable groups. Go see them live if you disagree. I caught them a few years ago at Low End Theory and it gave me the same feeling as when the raptors broke into the kitchen in Jurassic Park. All three are covered head-to-toe in tattoos. Both F.O.E., who has an art school degree in graphic design, and Karma look like Broncos defensive ends.
Released May 5, their first effort as full-time L.A. residents is a beautiful 12-inch single shaped like a black heart. Issued by local experimental imprint Deathbomb Arc and featuring “Trillex” and one other new track, it’s a welcome fusillade from Colorado’s best export that you can’t smoke.
“We want to do shit that people are afraid of … music that strikes an emotional nerve,” F.O.E. says. “You have to bring out that fear.”