When a group of veteran Denver hip-hop MCs, producers and their families and friends assembled in front of stories-high Black Lives Matter murals for a video shoot last month, they couldn’t help but draw a crowd.
“The first day we shot in front of murals of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and people just started showing up,” said Mic Coats, who produced the song “I Can’t Breathe (Again).” “The second day it was just a few of us at the Elijah McClain mural, but these people doing a bike tour of the murals stopped to watch the amazing cello and violin players we had. Even 9News showed up.”
Like the song — a cutting, soulful protest anthem that channels the passion and pain of the Black Lives Matter movement — all of this happened “without the crazy, car-salesman push” that many group efforts require, he said.
“It was organic in the same way the song came together — emotional, tears, even goosebumps,” said Coats, who has worked with artists such as Trev Rich and Danae Simone. “And when we privately premiered it a few nights ago, people were crying when they saw it. Even the radio folks.”
Those radio folks — KS 107.5 program director Victor Starr and on-air personality Toshamakia — are two of the biggest names at Denver’s market-leading hip-hop radio station, and one that’s been playing “I Can’t Breathe (Again)” up to seven times a day, every day, since it premiered on June 12.
Now, with a video produced by Denver’s Dreamersday Productions, the team behind “I Can’t Breathe (Again)” is hoping the song will find even more fans outside of the Mile High City.
“We always planned on a video to match the power of the song,” said Denver-by-way-of-Chicago rapper A Meazy, who contributes a lacerating verse to the track. “But we wanted to make sure it wasn’t very cinematic. Just a few performance shots and some footage of the (Black Lives Matter) rallies to really tap into the emotion of everything. That’s it.”
The video may have always been in the cards, but the song nearly didn’t happen. When the group — which also includes rappers Ramond and Chy Reco, along with singer Wil Guice — gathered at Denver’s Side 3 Studios to record it on June 4, they had plenty of energy and emotion following the first few days of George Floyd protests, but no specific ideas.
“Honestly, the whole session was going to be canceled because we had a couple of artists pull away at the last minute,” said Armando Treviño, owner of Westminster’s Onyx Barbershop, who helped assemble the artists and executive produced the song under his Barbershop Uncut imprint. “We wanted to have a female vocalist on it, and (rapper) Jay Triiiple had reached out but couldn’t do it.”
“I hadn’t even heard the beat,” Chy Reco said. “Nobody had the subject matter for their verses. We were going in blind.”
The studio time had been donated by Side 3’s owner, Treviño said, and engineer Alex Kukla was at the ready. So when Guice showed up to belt out the song’s aching hook — something he crafted on the way over in his truck, which was packed to leave for Ohio that same night — the rappers took it as inspiration.
“We just started layering,” Guice said, building on a magnetic beat from Coats that morphs from tribal percussion to nimble, loping snares. “In my mind I was just there by myself. And through the grace of God, I knew the song would reveal itself to (the rappers).”
“I knew he was going to set the tone,” A Meazy said of Guice. “He busted out more than 30 tracks of backup, and all these detailed build-ups and ad-libs. He just stacked it.”
Despite not stepping into the studio with lyrics, A Meazy, Ramond and Chy Reco furiously composed their verses, spitting them out that same night and adding minor tweaks thereafter.
“You never know how it’s going to work,” singer Guice said. “But at the end, we all just looked at each other like, ‘Is this the ‘hood, civil-rights version of ‘We Are the World’? We can’t (mess) this up.”
Given the rapid, ad hoc nature of the song’s creation, the producers and artists were both pleased and a little surprised when it immediately began connecting with listeners. Kids called into KS 107.5 to request it for their birthdays. The rappers’ own children were listening to the song and learning the verses. Friends were reaching out to the artists with praise, telling them they’d heard it in their cars.
The video would have to be something special, the team realized. It would need to complement the song’s adroit balance of authenticity and mainstream accessibility — no cursing, but plenty of lines like “All them cops need to be tried to by a black judge and a black jury / because their badges come with entitlement / killing us in the street and they’re getting less time than Michael Vick” (courtesy of Ramond).
As family and friends showed up to provide background scenery, and the rappers and Guice lip-synced their parts, internationally touring Congolese dancer Brotha.E (Enock Kadima) added a liquid sheen to the kinetic shots, which were set against the aforementioned murals by Denver’s Detour and Hiero Viega.
“What I love about this big collective is that we’re constantly reminding each other the song is a small piece of this,” Coats said. “It’s a big song with great meaning, but in the grander scheme, it isn’t about us.
“The conversation, and the work to be done, has to be with all of us. And our job is to try to help as many people find their voices as possible, whether in music or protests or however they show up.”
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