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Minneapolis Underground

by Lindsay Susla on January 20, 2014, no comments

Minneapolis Underground: A look into the Minnesota Hip Hop scene

In a parking lot in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, rapper P.O.S. stands on a stage and asks a crowd of people to circle up and join hands. After a little hesitation, they comply, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, palm locked in palm. Next, P.O.S. directs everyone to shout harambee—a word that means “pull together” in Swahili. When the crowd dies down, people turn to each other and introduce themselves, laughing and swapping stories about the acts they came to see.

It’s a moment of unity that would be hard to come by at most hip-hop festivals. In Minnesota, though, it’s representative of the underground music scene—particularly when it comes to hip-hop. There’s no beef here, no rivalries. Just people pulling together.

“We just wanted to create an event where we could bring as many different peoples together to celebrate one thing, which is our culture and our life,” says Manny Phesto, hip-hop artist and co-host of the Hip Hop Harambee, the official name of the day’s events.

And that culture—one defined by collaboration and community—is worth celebrating. Artists in the Twin Cities hip-hop scene thrive by creating together: They make something more dynamic as a whole than they could have alone. One example: Doomtree. The hip-hop collective—which includes P.O.S. and other musicians championing the Minneapolis scene—helps up-and-comers throughout the city. Then there’s Rhymesayers Entertainment, the label co-founded by Twin Cities royalty Atmosphere, that has worked to unify and promote Minnesota music for the last two decades. And local radio stations like The Current (89.3 KCMP FM) support the scene, spinning local hip-hop records during regular rotation, giving the music exposure and legitimacy.

The result of all that harambee is a scene that embodies Midwest values without compromising an edgy, hard-hitting sound. The output is purely authentic: a wealth of intelligent lyrics, a variety of voices and a slew of powerful beats. Urban Plains caught up with four Minneapolis-based rappers who give their insights on this refreshingly creative and collaborative scene, below.

Photo by Lindsay Susla

Photo by Lindsay Susla

NAME: P.O.S. / Stefon Alexander
AGE: 32
MOST RECENT ALBUM: We Don’t Even Live Here (2012)

Minneapolis has always been home for P.O.S. Born and raised in the Twin Cities, the rapper transitioned from punk-band guitarist to one of Minneapolis’s biggest hip-hop names, co-founding the Doomtree collective and expanding the scope of the city’s underground scene along the way. He spits of big issues like the contradictions of consumerism and political disenfranchisement but never shies away from everyday struggles. Either way, he isn’t afraid to tell you to listen. One thing is clear: This homegrown boy isn’t leaving his hometown anytime soon.

“It’s been a strong music community since before I was born. There’s no major label here, which makes the spirit of independence and collaboration really strong. You have to work hard to make a splash—but it’s not so small that your splash goes unnoticed throughout the rest of the country. If you’re from here or you work here, you work for your community and yourself, as opposed to working for the labels and the hits. Minneapolis is perfect for that.”

“I never really thought of myself as a rapper until I was a rapper for a living. I think people that are down to challenge themselves are gonna find me and gonna be into it, but I don’t think Minneapolis hip-hop could become mainstream because a vast majority of people aren’t necessarily interested in thinking. Our media shows that that’s how it’s been, that’s how it works. But I don’t think that thinking is ever gonna be the mainstream. I would love it if it was, but I don’t really see it.”

“There’s no reason to leave except to go and play shows. You have to get out of here and go see the world, but this is definitely home.”


Photo by Lindsay Susla

NAME: Lizzo / Melissa Jefferson
AGE: 25
MOST RECENT ALBUM: Lizzobangers (2013)
TWITTER: @lizzo

Vocal and verse powerhouse Lizzo left the Houston scene two years ago to travel north, finding a new home in the Twin Cities. In those two years, she’s left an impression on both Minneapolis audiences and critics, winning local alternative newsweekly City Pages’s “Picked to Click” award two years in a row (last year with her group The Chalice) and collaborating with some of the scene’s biggest names. Lizzo figured it out pretty quickly: Collaboration and support are what the Midwest hip-hop community does best.

“Immediately when I got here, I felt a rush of support. When you’re an artist, you’re really respected in the Midwest—especially in the Twin Cities. You’re almost as important as a doctor. It’s kind of hidden, and you don’t really know what’s going on until you’re in it. It’s something that you discover after you arrive. For the first time in my adult life, I feel like I’m home.”

“I’ve worked with all my favorite artists in the city—Greg Grease, Ryan Olson, Caroline Smith. They’ll come through and say, ‘You wanna be on this song?’ Everyone’s friends here, and when you’re good at what you do, you want to make more of that with people who are good at what they do. There are so many people and opportunities to create something new. We’ve all taken advantage of it.”

“I feel like Rhymesayers has a lot to do with the way that people feel proud of the Minneapolis scene. They felt proud of having a large indie label. They felt proud of having Atmosphere. It created a whole movement and a new generation that was very hip-hop-centric. Before you had Prince and The Replacements, and it was extremely punk in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Atmosphere and Rhymesayers were leaders in many ways, and people just culturally gravitated toward it. Now, the hip-hop scene seems to be the leader in the art world here. Everyone gets the opportunity to rap. No one gets shut down, no matter what they look or sound like. There’s all different kinds of rap here, and everyone celebrates it.”


Photo by  Joe Abbruscato

Photo courtesy of Joe Abbruscato

NAME: Dessa / Margret Wander
AGE: 32
MOST RECENT ALBUM: Parts of Speech (2013)
TWITTER: @DessaDarling

In a male-dominated genre, Dessa has learned to hold her own in Minneapolis’s inner circles. The only woman in the seven-member Doomtree collective, Dessa’s witty and melodic rhymes are a stark contrast to the rest of the scene but maintain the aggressive and intelligent delivery Minneapolitan artists are known for.

“At the beginning, it was often disappointing because people I admired would invite you over to work on music and that felt really exciting, and then it turned out that maybe they just wanted to make out. As silly as it sounds, it was really heartbreaking because it meant that after a while, if somebody complimented your technique, product, output, your live show, the first thing you do is become skeptical of them. That is a lousy lens to look at the world through. But I also had some advantages in being a woman. At that point, it was still very novel. So if I’m in a club and I start rapping and somebody quiets their friend because they’re surprised by the sound of a female voice, that works to my advantage.”

“We’ve got a show-going culture. When people have a night to go out and drink, a lot of times they’ll consider going to a concert as part of the social options that are available to them. And that’s not true in every city. We happen to have a city that supports its live musicians really enthusiastically. They buy merch, they pay cover charges at the door—both of those things allow musicians to spend more time on their craft because they don’t have to spend as many hours at their day job. If I were in a town where painters were flourishing and talking enthusiastically at cafés and great exhibitions, I would probably be much more knowledgeable about painting. I think that’s just kind of the tipping point where the excitement for a form is in the air.”

“I think it’s interesting that people move here from L.A. and Chicago to be a part of the underground scene. I think in some ways it feels like there’s enough to go around. If Brother Ali puts out a really good record, does that make me motivated to up my game? Sure. But does that make me think, ‘OK, now there’s not going to be any money to buy my record’? Not really. I think the biggest nexus of support has been Minneapolis, hands down. Although I’ve sometimes thought about traveling to New York, Minneapolis has proven to be a really tough place to leave.”

Photo courtesy of Meredith Westin

Photo courtesy of Meredith Westin

NAME: Toki Wright, The Professor
MOST RECENT ALBUM: Pangea (upcoming)
TWITTER: @mrwrighttc

In his classroom at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Minn., Toki Wright teaches young musicians about the history, theory and performance of hip-hop, introducing them to new sounds and perspectives. As the Department of Hip-Hop Studies program coordinator, Wright has carved a reputation for being the smartest emcee in Minneapolis, involving the community in his arts education and opening doors for the next generation of rappers. On the side, Wright produces music of his own through Rhymesayers, pushing the intellectual limits of Minneapolis’s creative conscience.

“There are so many young people who grow up in this community and feel like nobody cares about them. I was one of those people. I knew when I looked up on the stage and saw these people performing and the way the crowds reacted to them that that was what I was meant to do. I wanted people to think that what I had to say was important and to feel the way I felt when I heard their songs. Once I got past that threshold of being accepted, I wanted to make it more accessible for people like me to be able to get on stage and develop their craft. That’s all I ever wanted—a space to be and be valid.”

“We’re kind of somewhere between a small town and a big city. We’re a big city with a small town attitude. And the music that we make relates to that experience. You can draw on what other people have said from other regions of the country and other places in the world, but in order for us to have a dynamic scene, you have to have people telling Minnesota stories, stories that are true to a lifestyle that is in this area. A big part of hip-hop is authenticity. Can you authentically tell a story from your own perspective and your own lived experiences? The honesty of our lived experiences is the same as the honesty of someone who grew up in New York City. People just want to hear a real story. It doesn’t matter where you’re from.”

“Minnesota gave hip-hop a chance to be on that academic level, where a lot of other places haven’t recognized the validity of the culture and its impact on the world. A lot of other big cities are behind because they are so stuck doing things the way they’ve always done them, and here we have no choice but to be innovative.”


Hear It Now: Explore 10 songs from Midwest hip hop artists.

Atmosphere “GodLovesUgly” (God Loves Ugly, 2002)
While 2000’s “Lucy Ford” EPs launched Atmosphere—and Minneapolis hip-hop, for that matter—the title track from the group’s 2002 disc sums up the duo’s formula perfectly: one part producer Ant’s crackling lo-fi beats, two parts delicate melody, and 1,000 parts rapper Slug’s cathartic, therapy-session lyrics.

Dessa “The Bullpen” (A Badly Broken Code, 2010)
After spending several years as a flagship member of Doomtree, Dessa finally released her own record, which came complete with “The Bullpen,” a theme song for every women in hip-hop patiently waiting for her chance on the mic: “Forget the bull in the china shop, there’s a china doll in the bullpen.”

P.O.S. “Get Down” (We Don’t Even Live Here, 2012)
While Bon Iver-bouyed single “How We Land” scored P.O.S.’s latest solo effort some serious airplay, “Get Down” provided the album its anti-consumerism core, the track’s mockingly plastic beats and club-taunting lyrics skewering the sorry state of both Top 40 hip-hip and America’s obsession with heading out to “da club.”

Doomtree “Kid Gloves” (Doomtree, 2008)
As soulful as it is insightful, “Kid Gloves” highlights three essentials to Doomtree’s success: Mike Mictlan’s gritty storytelling skills; Dessa’s ability to turn a metaphor into a mantra; and producer Lazerbeak’s understanding of how the perfect beat can make even the harshest message go down smoother.

Toki Wright “The Feeling feat. Brother Ali” (A Different Mirror, 2009)
An example of the collaboration that runs through the Minneapolis hip-hop scene, Prof. Wright teams up with Brother Ali to deliver a lecture on how to drop rhymes and destroy audiences, complete with brief history lesson for all would-be emcees in the classroom.

Kristoff Krane “Mouth of the Beast” (Fanfaronade, 2012)
A one-time Eyedea protégé and collaborator, the St. Paul-born Krane is as much a devious songwriter as he is bold lyricist, sneaking intellectualism odes inside of the pop candy hooks of tracks like the classic-soul tinged “Mouth of the Beast.”

Lizzo “Wat U Mean” (Lizzobangers, 2013)
Despite being a Houston transplant, Lizzo has quickly become a local favorite with tracks like “Wat U Mean,” a clever confessional about destroying assumptions that showcases both her fast-paced, snarky lyrics and velvet-smooth vocal abilities.

Eyedea & Abilities “Now” (E&A, 2004)
When battle rapper Eyedea (ne Mike Larsen) died of an apparent overdose in 2009, Minneapolis hip-hop mourned the loss of not only one of its founders, but also its innovators, Larsen continually pushing the limits of speed and style with jerking, scratch-soaked tracks like “Now.”

Brother Ali “The Preacher” (Us, 2009)
The spiritual core of Twin Cities rap, blind albino Muslim emcee Brother Ali keeps faith, family and fatherhood at the core of his lyrics, except when—like with “The Preacher”—he reminds the world what true hip-hop is all about.

Guante & BiG CATS (You Better Weaponize, 2012)
In his instructional ode to young activists, Guante’s thick, powerful voice rips through beat-maker Big Cats’s buzzing instrumentals, turning the world of empowerment and social justice on its clouded head by spelling out how exactly to cut through the bullshit.


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