“Everybody sound the same, commercialize the game // Reminiscing when it wasn’t all business // It forgot where it started // So we all gather here for the dearly departed” — Nas, from “Hip Hop is Dead”
After playing music and mentoring young adults in our community for many years, Meiko Gilliam has become increasingly disgruntled with the hip hop scene in Durango. In his six years living here, the hip hop artist (stage name: Jhan Doe) has come to believe that venues in town are not amenable to hosting hip hop, that artists like himself are not paid enough to make it here and that many musicians have left to make careers elsewhere as a result. He is also disappointed with the mainstream hip hop music being lauded by impressionable audiences.
Gilliam is no novice. Originally from St. Louis, he tours around the world playing shows. He’s made 13 records total, with two of them distributed internationally and a third forthcoming. In our interview, Gilliam assesses the local hip hop scene, discusses his upcoming Cancer Benefit at the DAC (this Friday), gives impassioned advice to aspiring musicians and suggests what we might do to improve hip hop’s trajectory.
On why hip hop isn’t thriving here We don’t have a community that’s truly embracing of that culture. I’ve gone into high schools, done stuff at the college. But in terms of making a living wage, I do that outside of Durango; Japan, Canada, Vegas, Philly, California. You need a group of people to band together to make this work, but it’s hard to do that when you’re expected to do it for nickels, and when everyone brought into the Animas City [Theatre] is foreign. Who is going to accept that, if you’re doing something you’re passionate about and that you’ve given your heart to? I’ve seen the same sort of artists flow through the Animas City; and that’s nice if you’re trying to get your start and get your feet wet. But if you’ve got your foot down and your shovel in the ground already, it’s time to move on. I’m worth my weight. All my shows at Abbey Theatre were packed at 300-plus. That speaks to my credibility. But there’s always a gatekeeper. And if the door isn’t open, people who are ignorant of the art form are going to stay ignorant. The effort isn’t being made to open up that door here.
The question is: what do we want for our community? How do we cultivate it? If and when I leave, what does that leave us with? I’m not saying I cover everything, but I know who’s here. I remember when we used to have stages at Durango Joe’s on College, people would go in and do music. Now you have people restricted to Main on the Balcony.
I empathize with the brothers who have left. I can’t make a decent buck here. The majority of artists are regional and local, that’s music business, and if you can’t do your task in the place you live, you’re going to leave. The music culture is going to die. Sure, we have music festivals during the summer. But I’ve seen a drastic departure from hip hop altogether. You don’t see those guys out there performing now. Where do you see me? Not here. I do some stuff here, but it’s under the radar. The culture in Durango is flat-lined. Although if you’re sensitive enough, you can hear a faint pulse of people still in the background, still trying to do it, still trying to push it.
On local establishment and personnel changesI’ve been doing hip hop here for a long time. It was different when Chuck Kuehn owned the Abbey Theatre, which is now the Animas City Theatre. No diss or shade on Michele [Redding, the current owner]. But ultimately, when Eugene [Salaz, former venue manager] took over ... Chuck used to pay me cash, he paid me a certain amount, and Eugene undercut me by half of that. You can’t pay people nickels and expect them to give you something great. [When reached for comment, Redding said ACT will be making some changes in the future; focusing on the pursuit of local artists and doing more in-house booking rather than outside promoting. When asked about Doe’s accusations, Salaz didn’t deny the price-cut claims, though he did explain some of the challenges he’s faced. Former owner Kuehn was able to collect door and liquor sales to pay his artists, while Salaz, as promoter, has a restrictive budget. He pays to rent the theater, and doesn’t receive a bar percentage or any financial assistance from the venue for additional costs (sound, lighting, security). Salaz says it’s thus difficult for him to hire local artists who cannot guarantee ticket sales].
At the same time, we’ve had a lot of hip hop guys branching out and moving on to other places. The community of artists I had here thinned out, when it was basically demanded that we do shows for free. You have artists doing stuff at the Durango Arts Center, and there’s nothing wrong with that – but it takes a tremendous amount of energy! I know, I have a Cancer Benefit coming up there May 13. I had to bring all my artists up from Albuquerque.
On educating young peopleI’ve been mentoring kids for the better part of 10 years. I’ve been volunteering time at the Robert E. DeNier Youth Service Center for the past four years. Young people need an outlet. iAM MUSIC is great, but to my knowledge I’m the only hip hop artist who has taught there. Young folks are hungry, but they don’t have a lot of knowledge about hip hop. In terms of their own creativity, the skeleton and baseline is lacking.
For me, it’s about trying to cultivate something in the subculture that allows young people to see beyond their circumstance, allow them to see they can make it out of wherever they’re from. A lot of them never leave their city block. They live their entire lives in one small area.
On how hip hop has declined in recent yearsIn my opinion, modern day hip hop is garbage, in terms of what’s on the radio. Aside from Kendrick Lamar and NF. You got kids screaming out names like 2 Chainz and Drake, who I don’t feel have much depth. When I go back to hip hop, where it came from, having fun and uplifting your neighborhood – that was primarily a regional sound, coming from the lifestyle rather than popularity.
Hip hop was based on taking from other genres. Now it’s just a track beat, a whole lot of stop-and-go, everybody saying the same thing. I don’t think we should plug the holes; we gotta let the ship capsize and build something new. I look forward to seeing how the landscape of the craft and the sound changes. It needs a transformation in a way that makes sense to our community. We have a Durango Rec Center, where people can go to get physically fit. We have schools where you can go into a classroom to learn. But beyond a few greats who go get honorary degrees teaching hip hop in classrooms ... where do you see that? You don’t.
You have a culture that’s all about images. And people don’t know how to properly tie those images to our reality. Hip hop has always been about reality. Then in the Master P era, people started renting Lamborghinis and expensive mansions, owning none of it, putting it into the music, and it turned people’s minds away from their own culture. There’s a power in a regional message. People can turn their money to the community in a way that’s helpful. We have a lot of well-to-do people in Durango, and what it’s gonna take is people opening up their pocketbooks, investing in the community.
On race in hip hopPeople make hip hop a race thing. But hip hop is so powerful, it has ultimately taken in people of all races. When I go to Japan, I got Japanese brothers saying, “Rap for me!” and they can barely speak English. Race is garbage. Yes, there are still racial tensions in American and anyplace else. But what I’m trying to do is edify.
A lot of parenting nowadays is, ‘Here’s a device, let that be your parent.’ Then you have revisionist history, where they take out native struggles, the Holocaust, slavery. So you have white kids running around talking about ‘nigga this’ and ‘nigga that.’ You don’t know the history. You can’t just take this stuff and act like you know the culture, the slang, the origins. I’m not talking about a race: I’m talking about an entire group of people that’s just ignorant.
On his Cancer Benefit at the DACI have 12-plus artists coming into Durango. I don’t know if anybody has ever brought that many artists in one night. It’s a $30 ticket and all the proceeds go to a local cancer patient Marla Phillips, for her chemo bills. I’m hoping the community will support it. We’re having an after party at the Steaming Bean, where people can freestyle, do open mic poetry, that type of thing. We’re gonna cycle through these artists, hit ’em and quit ’em. No one will be singing five songs in a row. And I’m not taking home any of the funds. I’m proud to have Durango Joe’s sponsoring, and KDUR at FLC. I have relationships with those people.
Advice for young people getting into music Start now. Get yourself $3,000, a nice computer, an audio interface and a mic, a pencil and pad and start developing. When I was in college, I took half my scholarship and tuition money and put it into audio equipment. The cheapest stuff possible. Only thing stopping you is fear. Start hustling. The proof is in the authenticity – that’s the hook, not anything else. If you are genuinely YOU, even if nobody in the world likes it ... It’s better to have 500 people locally love it than five people abroad. So make yourself a local staple. And give yourself a chance to transcend your pig pen. St. Louis will always be my home, I love it; but I won’t go back there to live because I know that’s my culture, everybody will come to show me love. And I want to expand the boundaries, allow people to get out of their comfort zone. My interest is in changing the culture of young people and changing their lives. Music is a tool I use to help. Don’t lose sight of who you are and where you come from, but don’t get stuck there. Take stake in where you wanna go. Once you just start trying to please people, you lose your voice. Ultimately, culture isn’t something you write down, define, and bracket. You take it, you build it, you release it and set it free.
This interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.