Underground Rapper of the Week: Muja Messiah

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

Minnesota’s Hip-Hop scene has a reputation for being “all backpackin’ and hippie,” in the words of Minneapolis’ own Muja Messiah, who embodies the opposite of this stereotyped emo / conscious vibe. However, Muja also can’t be pigeonholed into the gangsta stereotype, either, transcending expectations with the revolutionary but gangsta style of Dead Prez mixed with the raw, hardcore energy of M.O.P. Muja has been consistently one of the very best guest verse assassins in Twin Cities Hip-Hop for over a decade before releasing his back-to-back masterpieces, the MPLS Massacre mixtape and Thee Adventures of a B-Boy D-Boy, his full-length solo debut, in 2008.

Muja Messiah has been a local hero for a long time, but started gaining wider attention with his song “Patriot Act,” a politically minded collaboration with fellow Minneapolis legend I Self Devine. Muja balances his socially conscious wordplay with intensely gritty and personal tales of his life running the streets on tracks like “The Madness,” as well as stories of the good life like “Get Fresh,” on which he indulges his love of clean, new clothing and the triumph over poverty it represents. in other words, Muja’s music covers many of the tropes for which Hip-Hop is known; what sets him apart from so many other rappers covering the same ground is his ridiculous flow, sporting an enviable vocabulary without ever coming across as a know-it-all dictionary rapper. The way he mixes obvious intelligence with hardcore street smarts makes him one of the very most exciting rappers in Minnesota.

Though he remains decidedly underground and unafraid to stay that way rather than compromise his integrity, Muja has made some big moves since he began rapping over a decade ago. The most famous rapper in Minnesota, Slug of Atmosphere, appears on both MPLS Massacre and B-Boy D-Boy, and Black Thought of the world-famous group The Roots appears on “Give It Up,” from the latter album. Muja’s take on the M.I.A. song “Paper Planes,” featuring Minnesota by way of Ghana rapper M.anifest, also made big waves when his mixtape dropped, as did the internet favorite “Amy Winehouse,” which has nothing to do with the late singer other than a brief cocaine reference early in the song: “You know I got that white girl, that Amy Winehouse / Give it to the right girl and she gon’ dyke out.” With his new collaborative project, Villa Rosa, featuring fellow Twin Cities rapper and singer Maria Isa, Muja Messiah is definitely an emcee to watch out for.

Underground Rapper of the Week: Guante

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

Photo credit: Jon Behm

Sitting down to write a few hundred words about one of Minneapolis’s best and most important rappers, I was unexpectedly led down an hour-long rabbit hole of procrastination, or “research.” That is because Guante (aka Kyle Tran Myhre), in addition to being a stellar emcee and spoken-word poet, is also a prolific and essential writer on the state of Hip-Hop and many other aspects of pop culture, and I was overdue for a perusal of his latest blog posts. Just to give you a good starting point on those, and some good talking points with which to pick apart this very article you’re reading now, check out his satirical, insightful and very funny looks at “How to Write About Hip-Hop,” “How to Read About Hip-Hop” and the exceptionally hilarious “Hip-Hop: A Panel Discussion.”

Done? Good. Let’s get on to the man and his music. Guante originally hailed from Madison, Wisconsin, where he was a formidable figure in their poetry and Hip-Hop scene, spitting fierce, politically charged poems and raps with uncommon artistry and humor. It was upon moving to the Twin Cities of Minnesota in 2007, however, that he really started to make his presence known. After signing to Tru Ruts/Speakeasy Records, he dropped his debut album, El Guante’s Haunted Studio Apartment, a massive, 27-track manifesto that showcased his talents both over beats and a capella, including the wildly original love poem, “Love in the Time of Zombies” (in my opinion, he actually topped this one for creative brilliance with “The Last Words of a Roach, Underfoot”). That same year, he helped lead the St. Paul National Poetry Slam Team to 13th place, out of approximately 75 teams; teams from St. Paul, both also including Guante, then proceeded to take the #1 slot the next two years in a row.

Lest you think Guante some kind of coffeehouse, hipster, “conscious” rapper, though, witness the ferocity of his free mixtape, Conscious Is Not Enough 2011. On this record, which served as my introduction to his music, Guante takes aim at “music writers [who] love political emcees, conspiracy theories, pandering and rhetoric that’s empty,” while retaining the dry, satirical humor of tracks like “Your Boyfriend’s a Republican,” which first appeared in a different form on Studio Apartment, but appears here over the wonderfully buoyant instrumental from Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.” Even on self-professed “super-serious” work like 2010′s collaboration with producer Big Cats!, An Unwelcome Guest, Guante’s deadpan humor can be found, especially in his frequent employment of superhero imagery and references to the cult sci-fi series Firefly. Some of this might not be caught on a single listen, but that’s fine because Guest, a dense and complex concept album about no less ambitious a topic than the end of the world, demands repeat listens. A free companion mixtape to that album, Don’t Be Nice, is also highly recommended. Until next time, I’ll leave you with this, a live performance of “Dragons,” which is quite possibly my favorite love song ever written.

Amy Winehouse found dead

R.I.P. She was 27.

British singer Amy Winehouse performs at the Glastonbury Festival 2008 in Somerset in south west England in this June 28, 2008 file photo. Winehouse, whose career has been blighted by alcohol and drug abuse, on June 21, 2011 has cancelled all her scheduled concerts after she was jeered by fans in Serbia recently for a shambolic performance. Picture taken June 28, 2008. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor/Files (BRITAIN – Tags: SOCIETY ENTERTAINMENT)

Quincy Jones: Q – Soul Bossa Nostra


RIYL: unexpected collaborations, the R&B Top 40, hitting “shuffle”

He’s more of an elder statesman than a hitmaker these days – his last album came out 15 years ago, and his influence has been on the wane since the ’80s – but the term “living legend” may as well have been coined to describe Quincy Jones, and he proves it all over again with the ridiculous number of superstar guests assembled for Q: Soul Bossa Nostra.

Like anyone who’s ever been successful in the music business, Jones isn’t shy about his own accomplishments, and Bossa Nostra functions essentially as an album-length tribute to himself, with modern hip-hop and R&B artists making cameo appearances on a rundown of Q-affiliated classics like “Strawberry Letter 23″ (featuring Akon), “You Put a Move on My Heart” (a show-stopping Jennifer Hudson), the “Sanford and Son” theme (walking acronym factory T.I. and B.O.B.), and the title track (Ludacris). Generally speaking, it’s all a lot better than it has any right to be; for one thing, Jones has to have a marvelous sense of humor to invite, say, Talib Kweli to turn “Ironside” into a hip-hop showcase, or ask Snoop Dogg to add his verses to “Get the Funk Out of My Face.” More importantly, most of the artists sound like they have genuine affection for the material, and they produce some genuine highlights, including John Legend’s lovely “Tomorrow,” Mary J. Blige and Q-Tip’s “Betcha Wouldn’t Hurt Me,” and the Wyclef-led “Many Rains Ago (Oluwa).”

Like most compilations, Bossa Nostra has the occasional bald spot; for instance, it’s easy to assume that Jones tucked Amy Winehouse’s disastrous take on “It’s My Party” late in the album because he listened to the tapes long enough to wonder why it sounds like Winehouse lost her teeth on the way to the studio, and not a few listeners will blanch at the notion of T-Pain lending his Auto-Tune croon to a new version of “P.Y.T.” But these are minor complaints, given the overall strength of the rest of the record – and how much quibbling is really necessary when you’re talking about an album that concludes with a rap-a-riffic version of the “Sanford and Son” theme song? It won’t light up the charts the way Quincy did with The Dude in 1981 – or even 1989′s Back on the Block – but it’s a helluva lot of fun, and proof that the living legend hasn’t lost his touch. (Interscope/Qwest 2010)

Quincy Jones MySpace page

The Noisettes: Wild Young Hearts

In an age where people equate melisma with talent, Shingai Shoniwa is a godsend. Of course, she’d be a godsend at any point in time, but she’s particularly welcome now. The lead singer for the UK indie rock group the Noisettes is a force of nature, but she’s no showoff; she does what’s best for the song (a lost art, to be sure), and the batch of songs she and her bandmates have brewed up for Wild Young Hearts, the band’s sophomore effort, are exceptional. (“Saturday Night Live” will surely come a-calling soon.) The label is shrewdly playing the Amy Winehouse card by releasing the Motown-ish “Never Forget You” as the first single – and that’s a good call, as it’s one of the album’s finest moments – but don’t write the Noisettes off as Back to Black imitators. They’re a guitar-driven pop band at their core, as the title track and “Beat of My Heart” will attest, but if we’re being honest, the ballads rule the roost. “24 Hours” is a wistful tale about a very recent fling, “Every Now and Then” has one of those unforgettable descending chord sequences in the chorus, and the Bacharach-cribbing album closer “Cheap Kicks” is an instant classic. All bands should be blessed to have a singer with the versatility that Shoniwa shows here. (Mercury 2009)

The Noisettes MySpace page

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