Underground Rapper of the Week: Desdamona

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

With the exception of my full-group profile of Solillaquists of Sound a few weeks ago, women have been noticeably absent from this column, which points to a larger problem in Hip-Hop culture and society at large. No female emcee is more important to the community than the Minneapolis-based poet and emcee Desdamona, who has worked tirelessly to make Hip-Hop a better place for women. Her 365 Days of Female MCs blog helps to shed light on many unheralded contributors to the art form of rap, and her annual multimedia festival, B-Girl Be, brings together women from around the world who practice all four original elements of Hip-Hop: graffiti, breakdancing, deejaying and emceeing. She also hosts the long-running Poet’s Groove open mic, one of the very most respected and enduring shows in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

In addition to such community work and activism, Desdamona is herself a powerful emcee and spoken word artist, having won five Minnesota Music Awards for Best Spoken Word Artist in 2000, and then consecutively in 2003-2006, inclusive. She has also toured extensively, bringing her sound to audiences all over the U.S., as well as Germany and France, where she has built a very respectable following with beatboxing partner Carnage in their group Ill Chemistry. Desdamona has opened for legendary artists such as KRS-One; the late, great Guru; Saul Williams; and Wyclef Jean, among others, and is a frequent collaborator with the equally legendary Sly & Robbie, who produced her 2005 debut album, The Ledge. In addition to her strong, poetic abilities as a rapper, Desdamona is also a skilled singer, and has joined Ursus Minor in both capacities on their third album, I Will Not Take “But” for an Answer, and joining them on their subsequent tour along with The Coup‘s Boots Riley.

Desdamona’s lyrics are thoughtful, personal and resonant with themes of identity, equality and body image, and for this reason it is often best to hear her words over sparse beats or no beat at all. For an example of her emotionally moving poetry, look no further than “Too Big for My Skin,” a poem that has since expanded into a campaign aimed at rethinking societal beauty standards and giving a voice to repressed women all over the world. However, this is not to say she can’t murder beats with the best of them, and her live performances – whether solo or with Carnage as Ill Chemistry – are electrifying, and she wisely used live instrumentation to create her 2007 album, The Source, which features Carnage, as well as remixed tracks by Sly & Robbie. Male or female, Desdamona is one of the Midwest’s most vital talents, and her continued work with Ursus Minor and Ill Chemistry, who just released their first full-length album in France, definitely deserves your attention.

Underground Rapper of the Week: Madd Illz

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

Orlando’s Madd Illz is the definition of a beast – an insanely ferocious emcee who spits intricate but accessible, rapid-fire, multisyllabic rhymes that absolutely demand you press rewind over and over again. He could undoubtedly hold his own up against cats like Twista and Tech N9ne for the title of fastest rapper alive, and he boasts an extremely versatile flow with an impeccably crisp, clean cadence and perfect rhythmic timing. He’s also one of the kindest, most supportive rappers the global Hip-Hop community has to offer.

Illz was born to do this; in fact, his birth name, Matt Hills, practically is his stage name. He’s also the living embodiment of the idea that battle rapping, however mean-spirited, is really about building community, not just tearing another emcee down. For evidence of this, look no further than GrindTimeNow, the world’s largest Hip-Hop battle league, which he created and owns. With divisions ranging from Orlando to Chicago, Atlanta, New York, California and more, GrindTime challenges emcees to bring their best, most intricate and cleverly constructed punchlines to the table. Written verses are openly accepted and expected, but the best GrindTime rappers stay on their toes with sharp freestyles as well, flipping their opponents’ punchlines back at them. Though few of them are nationally famous, one of GrindTime’s best battlers, Dizaster, recently beat the legendary Canibus in an instantly infamous battle, and battle rap phenom Jin has also participated in the league.

Speaking of freestyle rap, Madd Illz is one of the sharpest you’ll ever see at it, and he’s often at his best when allowed free reign to riff on any topic that comes to mind, rather than being tied down to the focus of a battle. The speed of his delivery isn’t weakened by the lack of pre-written material, either, as he displays a remarkably extensive rhyming vocabulary and enviable endurance for long-form flows. I’ve seen him go off for several minutes straight multiple times in any given show without repeating concepts or rhymes, and always ending his extemporaneous verses strongly, rather than just trailing off when he runs out of ideas, as so many freestyles end.

In addition to freestyle and battle rap, however, Madd Illz is also an excellent songwriter, with diverse topics ranging from the personal (“If I Get Famous”) to the political (“Be A Patriot,” “Sick of the Lies,” “Katrina”) to his love of the art form itself (“Music”), as well as songs simply showcasing how sick he is as a rapper (“His Name’s ILLZ,” “Put on By the Spit”). His sharp, autobiographical anthem, “Underground Hip-Hop” could also serve as a statement of purpose not only for this column, but for any up-and-coming emcee, as well as veterans who may have lost their way. Fierce, uncompromising and wise, Madd Illz is at least as deserving of mainstream success as any underground rapper out there, but he would never sell out his vision to get it.

Underground Rapper of the Week: Carnage the Executioner

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

Making rap music is often as simple as one guy behind the turntables and one guy on the mic, but Minneapolis-based musician Carnage the Executioner has simplified things a step further than most. Using various loop pedals and often more than one microphone, Carnage (also known as Terrell Woods) is known to create entire musical symphonies in his live performances, one layer at a time, usually with nothing more than his mouth. In addition to his incomparable human beatboxing skills, Carnage is also a ridiculously talented emcee, spitting unpredictable, machine gun fire flows with incredible speed and versatility. The man is a true virtuoso on the microphone, and undoubtedly one of the most deadly emcees in the Twin Cities.

Amazingly, despite his unparalleled ability to rock a stage all by himself without even the normally required presence of a deejay – not to mention his aggressive, battle-ready sound – Carnage is known at least as well for his work with other emcees and musicians. Perhaps his most famous collaborative endeavors are his works both live and on record with the late, great Twin Cities Hip-Hop hero Eyedea, who was always one of Carnage’s most vocal and respected champions. Their back and forth beat-murder on tracks like “Coaches” and “Star Destroyer” (not to mention Carnage’s posthumous tribute remix of the latter) are among the finest rap music ever to come out of Minneapolis.

More recently, Carnage has toured internationally as half of the uniquely funky duo Ill Chemistry, for which fellow Twin Cities veteran Desdamona rhymes and sings, while Carnage and his loop pedals provide the beats. Having performed together for years on stages all around the Twin Cities, the duo have now been official for quite some time, amassing a respectable following in France as well as the United States. You can also hear them rapping together on Carnage’s latest album, Worth the Wait, where they explain to you why “You Should Not Emcee.”

Over the years, Carnage the Executioner has been affiliated with numerous crews, including Hecatomb and Fill in the Breaks, and once famously battled one of Minnesota’s most revered emcees, Brother Ali. He was recently chosen as one of City Pages’ Top 10 Best Minnesota Rappers, and is widely known, loved, and still more than a little feared by up-and-coming emcees in the Land of Lakes and beyond. He is premiering a new music video, “Respect the Name,” on June 15th at the Triple Rock Social Club in Minneapolis, and has a brand-new album dropping in September.

Underground Rapper of the Week: Solillaquists of Sound

Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: ezra.stead@gmail.com

Normally this column is devoted to a single rapper that deserves your attention, but Orlando’s powerhouse group Solillaquists of Sound are so completely unified that it often feels as though the four-person collective is a single artist, albeit one capable of incredible feats no one human being could manage. Though emcees Swamburger and Alexandrah are each among the best underground rappers I could possibly profile (though Alexandrah is really more of a jazz and soul singer, who nonetheless spits rhymes with the best of them), it is their unique collaboration with poet Tonya Combs and one-man-band DiViNCi that really makes them stand out as one of the most original and vital forces in music today.

Solilla began in 2002 as a collaboration between Swamburger and producer DiViNCi, before incorporating fellow Orlando artist Combs and Alexandrah, who originally hailed from Chicago. The nascent group spent a great deal of time together in the studio, quickly recording their first full-length album, 4 Student Counsol (Running from Precedence), before ever performing together in front of an audience. 4 Student Counsol is a wonderfully warm and welcoming musical experience, full of laughter and the sort of endearing mistakes most artists would leave on the cutting room floor. Though the lyrics and production are tight, there is a loose feeling to the recording that gives the listener a feeling of being a part of the creative process itself.

This immersive feeling is very much a part of Solilla’s ethos, which is amply evident in their live show, an experience that simply can’t be reproduced. However, until you get the chance to see them live, their 2005 follow-up album, Solillaquists Live (The Truth Don’t Need Support), is a great appetizer, and their live DVD, Fam Glorious, comes even closer. Solilla’s live show is truly amazing, a galvanizing event filled with laughter, tears and joy. Unlike the average Hip-Hop show, where emcees and deejays generally stand posted and deliver sound, Solilla really make use of the whole stage, and Swamburger is often known to jump off it for an impromptu breakdancing session amidst the audience. However, more than anyone else in the crew, DiViNCi is a maniac live, playing two to four MPC drum machines in lieu of the traditional deejay’s two turntables. He often plays them with his feet or even his face, generating unparalleled enthusiasm from the crowd.

After catching the ear of kindred artist Sage Francis, Solilla signed to Anti-/Epitaph in 2006, touring with him behind their first major label release, As If We Existed, which shows an admirable maturation without sacrificing any of the emotion or vitality of their previous independent releases or their live show. Witness the way they blend Swamburger’s ferocious, rapid-fire rapping with the swelling beauty of Alexandrah’s vocals and DiViNCi’s production on tracks like “Ask Me If I Care,” or the highly thoughtful message mixed with satirical humor of tracks like “Black Guy Peace.” For a deeper look at DiViNCi’s stellar musicianship, this video documenting his creation of the synthesized “guitar” solo at the end of “Berlin” is also a must.

Solillaquists of Sound have been gaining in popularity ever since, garnering a great deal of attention for their stellar single, “Death of the Muse,” featuring J-Live, Chali 2na of Jurassic 5, and the mother of the late, great producer J Dilla, to whom the track is dedicated. With the release of their second Anti-/Epitaph release, No More Heroes, they have also branched out into the field of music videos such as “Gotham City Chase Scene” and “Marvel” while continuing to represent at live shows all over the world, and they are from slowing down. Part one of their new two-part album, 4th Wall, is now available in a limited edition.

Bruce Springsteen live: When I Leave Berlin

Here’s Bruce’s cover of When I Leave Berlin by British Folk musician Wizz Jones.

Related Posts