The phrase “Denver rap scene” is a few strokes short of being an oxymoron. They simply aren’t words that are paired together. EDM, jam bands, folk music—these are the genres that have dominated the mountain state for decades. Don’t get it twisted, though—hip-hop talent is very much alive, from Federal to Alameda and Harvey Park to East Colfax. But it needs help—more specifically, a reality check, a grounding, and an emphasis on collaborative work. Kelsey O’Sullivan, founder of The Knock 303, knows this as well as anyone. It was the foundation of her vision from the get-go, and with some slight tweaks and creative planning, O’Sullivan got the wheels turning.

“My long term goal has always been to own a venue and creative workspace in Denver that offers education and funding for artists. One night, I was on YouTube watching videos by SoFar Sounds and kept thinking to myself, `Why can’t we create an atmosphere like this for hip-hop?'”

Eryk Fisher was the first person she went to—her business partner through the whole endeavor. Their first post as “The Knock” on Instagram read “this is a house party, not a club…,” a statement, Fisher explains, is beyond crucial. “When people hear ‘house party,’ they think it’s going to be an actual house party. While that’s not the furthest thing from it, it’s the vibe that we’re trying to recreate.” 

The pair got to work, constructing a setting that strayed away from the traditional rap show. Most hip-hop performances are structured like a pyramid—openers get their sliver of stage time in front of a crowd that is mostly eager for the main act. Most notable is the venue; typically a concrete square, where fans huddle like sardines in clustered unison with no social fluidity. Sure, they’re really fun, but for rappers clawing to make a name, it’s not exactly the ideal environment. Fisher knows this, and justly stresses how The Knock does things differently. 

“Think about the last time you went to a house party. You were invited, you felt welcomed, you’re around your people. And even if you aren’t, you get to know others because they’re friends of friends. We took those feelings and put them into a live show, and it became a place where fans and artists constantly cross paths and mesh.” 

Fisher goes on, speaking on how this exact philosophy opened O’Sullivan and his eyes to a clear disconnect between art and community present in Denver rap.

“We noticed how little the people that came knew the artists at each show. You’d hear things like, “never heard of that guy,” or, “didn’t even know she lived here.” We all live in the same city, but it often seems as though no one knows anybody. Kelsey’s work has begun to break down those barriers.” 

That vision has begun coming to fruition. Perhaps the biggest contributing factor is selection of venues—a process, Kelsey explains, that’s intentionally meticulous.

“When I first came up with the idea, I literally wanted to rent out AirBNBs. Obviously, the logistics of that became visibly difficult, so I turned my attention to other ideas. But we’re always careful to pick. We can’t just roll up to the Roxy and make a Knock event work, because that would defeat the atmosphere we aim to create.” 

Kelsey’s search for an ideal first show location ended when she got in contact with River Bar and Gallery. “It was perfect,” she says, “When you walk in, it feels like my grandma’s basement. Graffiti everywhere, different rooms with couches. When the artists were finished, people weren’t just standing in front of the stage waiting for the next artist.” 

Subsequently, their second location—GBL Studios—possessed a similar ambience; one of homely welcomeness.

“We actually bought couches and put them in their basement. So there was a lounge area, then an upstairs area where the event was. We just try our best to collaborate with venues that have the space to accommodate what we’re working towards.” 

Assembling any show—especially as independents—is a two-headed dragon marked by location and artist. In The Knock’s case, both are equally vital. “We don’t just throw fifteen artists on a lineup and give them five minutes apiece,” O’Sullivan makes clear. Fisher wholeheartedly agrees, and delves in further.

“It’s a specific curation process. We go through their catalog and find out what we can about them. Grabbing a person from here, a person from there… eventually it all comes together and makes sense. The sound isn’t sporadic.” 

Another common denominator O’Sullivan has kept constant is the popularity of the artists she enlists. The Knock is a genuine chance for emcees of similar exposure to share a space with consumers, producers, and anyone eager to celebrate musical community—a facet of any scene required for growth. “The talent in Denver is undeniable. And it’s so vast. None of them sound alike. Collaboration is what could actually get these artists off the mat,” O’Sullivan explains. 

When we begin talking through the “before, during and after” of a show by The Knock, O’Sullivan gets particularly passionate, and rightfully so. Every crack and crevice in and outside of her events is built on the simple premise of getting to know one another, and it’s seriously paid off. 

“One thing we started doing was a studio night—all the artists on the lineup, prior to the event, would get together with us and have the opportunity to meet each other. Not only do we want them to be excited about being on the lineup, but we want them to be excited about everybody else that’s performing too!”

When they did this at GBL Studios ahead of their second show, a hangout organically turned into a full-blown cipher. Following their shows, the lasting effects are even more amazing. Six of the artists that have performed at their events have gone on to work with each other on studio releases. Willingness to work together, despite creative differences, is paramount. Fisher believes that the city's diversity in approach is exactly the sort of thing that makes Denver special.

“Everyone is trying to find their sound. If everyone were to just come together, they would realize that is in fact the ‘Denver sound’—a melting pot of influence. Understand that we are in the middle of the nation, so it’s okay to take influence from Florida or LA or New York or wherever.”

Taking that first step internally is a must. Letting your guard down and realizing that the artist to your left and your right is working towards a common goal, regardless of streaming numbers, and eliminating ego throughout a scene in its infantile stages must happen before all else. Once a community of artists believes in their vision, Fisher knows external figures with financial support will take interest. 

“Some rap artists just don’t have any trust in their own scene here. They're trying to do everything they can to wiggle their way out of it—like go to a bigger city. Why would anyone with capital want to invest in that? Kelsey has been trying to push this the most—when a bigger picture is created through authenticity, investors will see that the hip-hop community has an ROI. And not just a small ROI, because there are countless fucking artists in this city.” 

The words community and collaboration are synonymous with inclusivity—yet another mark that O’Sullivan has paid particular mind towards. Their upcoming show in March—Women’s History Month—is composed entirely of female emcees. Erasing the divide from the jump is something O’Sullivan is particularly keen on. 

“As a female in the music industry, it’s hard out here man. It’s important for me to have a female on each lineup. I know how we’re underrepresented. So having an all-female lineup at our next show is particularly special. I’ve had to hustle to get where I’m at. A lot of being pushed into a corner and disrespected. This means a lot to me.”
The Knock has big ambitions for the future. Fisher outlines master classes they plan on hosting in off months, where musicians can learn the tools of the trade, from creation to contract negotiation. O’Sullivan’s dream is to own a brick-and-mortar where everything The Knock does can take place (a goal, she says, that’s already being worked on). They want to throw summer cookouts. They break down a hip-hop festival they’d like to put on. Based on the tone in their voices—the raw, deep-seeded passion for a scene they’re woven into—there’s little doubt these things won’t become a reality, and sooner than one may suspect.

All photos by: L8gacy 5280