Underground Rapper of the Week: Dessa

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

“The list of things I used to be / Is longer than the list  of things I am / Ex-lover, ex-friend / Excommunicated atheist / Ex-patriot living in the heartland / Living on the small chance luck would save the last dance / For an underrated writer, overrated rapper / Undecided major on an unrelated matter.” This is how Minneapolis emcee, poet, writer, teacher – let’s just simplify things and say “artist” – Dessa describes herself on “Mineshaft,” the first track of her debut solo EP, False Hopes. I agree with everything but the “overrated rapper” part. She goes on to say, “Prose is close as I’ve ever been to feeling like I found it / I’m not a writer, I just drink a lot about it.” This is also somewhat disingenuous of her, as Dessa is one of the very best writers in Hip-Hop today.

After earning her B.A. in Philosophy at the University of Minnesota, Dessa began writing and performing spoken word poetry, performing in slams and at open mics before forming the group Medida with fellow emcees Yoni and Omaur Bliss, and producer Ronin. Soon after this short-lived but always compelling group disbanded, she joined another Minneapolis-based collective, Doomtree, and the rest is history. Dessa’s intelligent, often quick-tongued flow, gorgeous singing voice and commanding stage presence adds something unique to the otherwise all male group, his other best known member is probably P.O.S. Though she is capable of spitting raps with the best emcees in Minnesota and beyond, she is also not afraid to just sing a beautiful song without rapping, as she does a on both False Hopes and her full-length debut, A Badly Broken Code.

The Chaconne” and “Into the Spin” are two great examples of Dessa’s singing prowess from Code, and she has expanded upon this aspect of her artistry with her vocal trio, the Boy Sopranos. However, it is when Dessa elegantly incorporates her singing voice into her rap songs that she is at her best, whether she is telling poignant stories of family relationships on songs like “Alibi” or tackling the male-dominated music industry on songs like “The Bullpen,” where she spits: “It’s been assumed I’m soft or irrelevant / ‘Cause I refuse to downplay my intelligence / But in a room with thugs and rap veterans / Why am I the only one who’s acting like a gentleman?” With the release of a non-fiction book, Spiral Bound, in 2008, and her current stint as a teacher at the McNally Smith College of Music, Dessa continues to show her formidable intelligence and skill as an underrated writer, rapper, teacher and artist.

Underground Rapper of the Week: Big Zach (New MC)

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

Among the pioneers and still active pillars of the Twin Cities Hip-Hop scene, one that often goes unsung is Big Zach (aka New MC) of the beloved underground crew Kanser. Though not as well-known nationally as Atmosphere, Brother Ali, Doomtree or the late, great Eyedea, Kanser is nonetheless one of the most historically important and influential groups in Minnesota, and Zach is likely second only to Eyedea as the most successful battle rapper in the state’s history. Now retired from the battle scene, Zach continues to make beautiful, thoughtful music with Kanser and his more organic “hippie-hop” group More Than Lights, as well as on his own as a solo artist.

Kanser first formed all the way back in the mid-90s, when Zach was still in high school, and though the crew began with a shifting cast of several other members, only Zach and Haitian-American rapper Unicus have remained constant from then until now. While many two emcee crews, from Outkast to Wide Eyes, function because of how closely they resemble each other vocally, Zach and Unicus complement each other’s voices in precisely the opposite way. Though they couldn’t sound much more different from one another, these is exactly what works so well about their sound, with each emcee offering his own unique perspective and experience. One of the best examples of this smooth interplay is the live favorite “Legacy” from their stellar 2008 album Future Retro Legacy, which may be their best work together.

Zach’s old side project from before More Than Lights, Traditional Methods, is also some of his best work, and having a live band behind him gives his lyrical delivery an even more organic feel. The group’s one album, Falling Forward, reflects a more political side of Zach’s lyricism, complemented by fellow emcees Sarah White and Big Shiz and backed by members of the live Hip-Hop group Heiruspecs on bass and guitar. However, Zach’s first solo album, White Jesus, remains his very best work to date. A smooth, relatable record that alternates between funny and tragic and never seems less than heartfelt, White Jesus gives the listener that rare feeling of really getting to know an artist’s life. On “Reality Rap,” Zach shows his incredible skill as a storyteller as he documents the worst year of his life: “In ’03, my summer never set in / My brother went to prison and Denny, he went to heaven.” “Sub Shop,” produced by Atmosphere’s Ant, shows a lighter side of Zach’s storytelling abilities, as he tells humorous tales of working as “the fastest sandwich maker in the world,” while “Meet the Parents” tells a slightly sweeter (but still funny) story of a past girlfriend whose parents “voted for Bush, they think Jesus was white / Probably won’t relate to his life.”

Of all the great songs on this album (and they’re all great songs), the one line that stands out the most for me is from the final song, “Emo Rap,” when he says, “Life is always up and down steadily / I just romanticize the memories.” A lot of these romanticized memories made their way into his book, Headspin, Headshots & History: Growing Up in Twin Cities Hip Hop, published late last year. A thorough, authentic document of the rise of a vital cultural movement, mixed with a strikingly honest and engaging memoir of Zach’s own life as part of that movement, this book is essential reading for Hip-Hop heads in the Twin Cities and beyond. More Than Lights releases a new album on October 5th, with a release party weekend on the 5th and 6th, so keep an eye out for Big Zach and his friends as they continue to deliver positive punchlines.

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