Rockin' our 'hood with good
Guitarist Andy Guerrero started his first band while still in high school, and he got his first taste of the rock-and-roll hustle by encouraging friends—including aspiring rappers Stephen Brackett and Jamie Laurie—to see his band’s early gigs. These days, Guerrero, Brackett and Laurie are better known by their Flobots names, Andy Rok, Brer Rabbit and Jonny 5. Along with Mackenzie Gault, Jesse Walker and Kenny Ortiz, the group has turned its musical prowess into a wildly popular hip-hop band. When they’re not onstage, they’re building a Denver nonprofit designed to channel their fame and good fortune into grassroots organizing.
Flobots.org is garnering accolades in its own right as a force for social change and musical outreach, targeting political activism and music therapy for at-risk youth and earning the 2009 Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in the process. Guerrero, BS music business ’08, credits his time at UCD with giving him the tools and experience to pull it all together. “It changed my whole world,” he says. “It taught me how to write songs and communicate with other musicians, but the bigger thing for me was networking. I learned how to get information and make connections while I was still in school. I was able to leave college working and without debt.”
Guerrero was enrolled in band and choir classes throughout his years in Denver Public Schools and had started and promoted his own bands, but in UCD’s Department of Music & Entertainment Industry Studies, he learned firsthand how to take it to the next level. While leafleting a class with concert fliers, he caught the eye of a student who worked for local music promoters Nobody In Particular Presents. “She designed posters for them, and when they needed a new poster flier guy, she suggested me,” Guerrero says. He did the same for classmate Isaac Slade, BS Music ’05, helping him get an internship at Denver’s Gothic Theater, and when Slade’s band, The Fray, was booked to play at Red Rocks Amphitheater, the Flobots were invited to open the show.
That kind of networking is just one of the skills that earned Guerrero the role of guitarist and logistical partner for the budding hip-hop band. Laurie and Brackett were writing the political protest songs for the group’s first album when Guerrero was called on to set up a Rock the Vote show in 2004. He stayed to guide the Flobots through a strategic campaign designed to leave fans excited and hungry for the next show. “We knew our friends would only come to our shows for so long,” says Laurie, the band’s agile rapper. “We had to get actual fans. My grandfather, who was in the theater, told me that the audience is like a greased pig. They’ll try to get away from you if they can. It’s your job to keep them from doing that.”
The group spaced shows six weeks apart and built a reputation as a local band with artistic and commercial punch; soon they were selling out 1,000-seat venues. When Flobots went into regular rotation on the local alternative station KTCL FM, and local sales of its independent album “Fight With Tools” outpaced “Hannah Montana,” the big time began to beckon. The Flobots were a bona fide underground sensation, and record labels took note.
“They were looking for a blip,” Laurie explained. In the Flobots, the industry found musicians with feet planted in the worlds of finance, classical music and political and social activism. Universal Republic signed them and re-released their CD “Fight With Tools” in 2008, launching the band on a national orbit. The band toured the United States and Europe and hit the late-night television circuit, including “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” In August 2008, the band attained even more national exposure as the Democratic National Convention descended on Denver. Leading up to the election, Brackett and Laurie had been busy organizing street teams for social change and registering 2,000 youth voters. During the convention, the band teamed up with Rage Against the Machine for a free concert that attracted 10,000 people and ended with 7,000 anti-war protesters marching to the convention floor. To date, “Fight With Tools” has sold 350,000 copies, and fans have downloaded another 1.3 million copies of the hit single “Handlebars.”
In March 2010, the Flobots released their second CD, “Survival Stories,” but not before launching a few personal projects. Laurie and Guerrero had spent years thinking about the power of music as an agent of change. “People would leave our shows pumped up and energetic, and we wanted to put that energy someplace,” Guerrero says. “We began to wonder if we could use our band as a platform to get people engaged.” A family friend asked if they would be interested in bringing music to the traumatized kids at the Denver Children’s Home and offered to fund the program with money from her foundation. “We built a little studio down there and it ended up being a cool thing,” he says. “The kids enjoy making music, we teach a few days a week, and we still have time to do music.” Using that program as a model, the band went on to develop a similar after-school program in six Denver middle schools, using musical education as a tool to give at-risk students a voice and the confidence to use it. “The moment you give them that opportunity, their world view changes,” says Jami Duffy, co-executive director of the nonprofit organization formed to legally separate the band from its charities.
“Andy loves feeling like he is part of a city that is coming into its own musically,” says Laura Bond, who also co-directs Flobots.org, “and we talk a lot with Mayor [now Governor] Hickenlooper about why he loves the Flobots so much. He says it’s because they could have done anything with their fame but chose to stay in Denver and promote it with their music, invest in the schools and create opportunities for other musicians.” Because the Flobots continue to perform and travel, 12 other Denver musicians have been trained and are paid to run the school programs when they’re gone.
After graduating from college, Duffy served in the Peace Corps and directed the University of Denver’s social justice program, but she was attracted to Flobots.org in 2010 because it’s working to address the root causes of social problems, not just the symptoms, she says. “This is a Colorado based band that uses its music as a tool for social change, to inspire conscious living. We are so fortunate to be a rare community of young artists and activists who get to live our passion.”
For information about how to make a difference in your community, visit www.flobots.org
Reproduced from CU on the Horizon, Spring 2011