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: 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: Das Racist

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

When rap music and other aspects of Hip-Hop culture originated in the 1970s, they were wrongly seen by many as a passing fad that wouldn’t last long. Now that Hip-Hop has infiltrated all of popular culture and become perhaps the most important musical and cultural movement since rock and roll, it is fitting that it has moved into its postmodern stage, and no one epitomizes this idea better than the New York duo (or trio, if you count their hype man, Dapwell) known as Das Racist. Emcees Heems and Kool A.D. named their crew after a brief but memorable moment in the brilliant sketch comedy series Wonder Showzen, just one of the staggering multitude of pop culture references that fill their lyrics. As Heems explains it, “I think being minorities at a liberal arts college and that type of environment had an impact on both the way we view race and our sense of humor, which people often use as a tool to deal with race. I always felt like Wonder Showzen was a television show that captured that type of thing perfectly.”

This balance between humor and genuine anger at racism and other social ills fills DR’s music as well, competing with jokes, allusions and references for space in their absurdly dense lyrics over club beats that allow the casual listener to just bob their heads and dance, in case they’re not inclined to decipher what DR means when they describe someone as “hard to read like Finnegan’s Wake” (in an insanely catchy song called “Coochie Dip City,” no less). The irreverence of their wordplay and the fact that they first gained notice for the almost sublimely ridiculous single, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” has led some to dismiss DR as joke rap, but this is an unfair label because they are actually extremely skilled emcees with an obviously deep knowledge and love of Hip-Hop. Heems sums their approach up quite well on “Don Dada,” from their first mixtape, Shut Up, Dude: “Is it parody, comedy, novelty or scholarly? A little bit of column A, a little bit of column B.”

With their follow-up mixtape, Sit Down, Man, Das Racist continued to gain respect as true lyricists, moving further away from both the “joke rap” label and the often equally irksome “conscious” one. However, this is not to say they don’t clearly embrace the power of humor, without sliding down the slippery slope of making actual novelty music. As Heems says in one of the most brilliant and hilarious interviews of all time, “All I wanted to do was make some jokes – mostly about race, though not necessarily consciously – over dance music that would serve to undermine it so Talib Kweli fans wouldn’t like it.” With their two mixtapes and the full-length debut album, Relax, Das Racist is proving to be no joke, even if their live show is a little bit like House Party 2.

Underground Rapper of the Week: Brother Ali

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 Brother Ali has gotten a lot of press for being an anomaly in Hip-Hop: an albino Muslim with two white parents who doesn’t drink or do drugs, in keeping with his faith. However, rap has always been the music of the outsider, so in that respect, his ascendancy to the top of the game in his home state is no surprise at all. His distinctive appearance would never be enough to make him stand out, though, if it wasn’t backed up by an almost uncanny skill on the mic. His voice and delivery instantly command attention with the ferocious soul of a great preacher, and his lyrics have more than enough substance to back it up. Having been mentioned in more than a few of these columns already, it’s about time we took a deeper look at perhaps the greatest emcee to ever come out of Southside Minneapolis.

Brother Ali exploded into the hearts and minds of Twin Cities rap fans with his 2004 debut full-length, Shadows on the Sun, featuring the beautiful and empowering hit song, “Forest Whitiker,” which touches on his unusual appearance and the ignorance behind many people’s perception of it. “To everyone out there who’s a little different,” he says, “Damn a magazine, these is god’s fingerprints / You can call me ugly, but can’t take nothing from me / I am what I am, doctor, you ain’t gotta love me.” Ali has always been about bigger concerns than the superficiality of race and appearance, though, and the multitude of amazing work he has put out in the last decade proves it. His lyrical content has ranged from the personal to the universal with no change in his passion and sincerity, and his love of everything to do with Hip-Hop culture is more than evident in songs like “Self Taught,” from his excellent follow-up EP, Champion.

On his next album, 2007′s The Undisputed Truth, Ali delivered perhaps his most potent political anthem to date with “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” and his audience grew ever wider. He followed Truth up with the beautiful Us, on which he is introduced by no less a Hip-Hop luminary than Chuck D and goes on to feature like-minded Philadelphia emcee Freeway on one of their many collaborations together. The album alternates good life anthems like “Fresh Air” with thoughtful social explorations like “Tight Rope,” which tells stories of the dispossessed and disillusioned from an insider’s perspective. Of course, lest you get it twisted, Ali is more than capable of just straight up ripping a mic with the best of them, on absolutely any subject. It’s just that his consciousness and conscience set him apart at least as much as his phenomenal skill and instantly recognizable voice. His latest album, Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, arrives from Rhymesayers Entertainment today, and if early glimpses of its content are any indication, Brother Ali has not even begun to slow down.

Underground Rapper of the Week: Gift of Gab

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

Few underground rappers are more innovative and influential than California’s Gift of Gab, best known as the emcee half of the great Hip-Hop duo Blackalicious, complemented by DJ Chief Xcel. Gab is well-known by heads everywhere for his amazing verbal dexterity and immediately recognizable style, as well as his uncommon intelligence and careful enunciation on the mic. “Alphabet Aerobics,” from Blackalicious’ 1999 A2G EP, is a perfect example of his showy, technical side, as he flips a continuous stream of lyrics that only speeds up and gets more complex as he cycles through the entire alphabet, devoting approximately two bars to each letter.

However, Gab is not just a gimmicky, smarter-than-thou rapper’s rapper. What really sets him apart is his insightful, positive and elevating lyrical content, as heard on songs like “Shallow Days,” from Blackalicious’ 1999 debut full-length, Nia, where he laments the superficiality of consciousness in Hip-Hop culture: “The word ‘peace’ is just an expression / Used to say ‘bye’ when it’s time to jet and / Them red, black and green medallions / Was all just part of a trend, I guess / Hardly ever see them around brothers’ necks no more.” Tracks like this and the storytelling anthem, “Deception,” on which he chants the mantra, “Don’t let money change you,” show Gab to be relentlessly positive and forward-thinking, though he is quick to remind listeners he is not judging anyone for how they might be forced to live. As he says on “My Pen and Pad,” from Blackalicious’ 2005 album, The Craft, he is “never an anti-gangster – the ghetto is still in the mind.”

As great as A2G, Nia and The Craft are, Blackalicious’ indisputable masterpiece is 2002′s Blazing Arrow, a truly epic collection that feels like a culmination of everything the Xcel and Gab had done up to that point. It also features stellar work from a variety of other artists affiliated with Blackalicious and the Quannum Projects, including Nikki Giovanni, Gil Scott-Heron, DJ Shadow, Lyrics Born, Saul Williams, Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine, and Chali 2na of Jurassic 5, among others. My introduction to the wonders of Blackalicious began with the apocalyptic “Sky Is Falling,” on which Gab paints a dark picture of a world in which “juveniles is losing trials, catching a bid of murder one / And mothers is drinking and drugging, hoeing, searching for their sons.” Blazing Arrow is full of gems like that song, as is Blackalicious’ entire catalogue.

Since The Craft, Gift of Gab has been pursuing a solo career, releasing three albums in the past eight years, beginning with 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up in 2004. His 2009 follow-up, Escape 2 Mars, features the excellent song, “Dreamin,” featuring Del the Funky Homosapien and Brother Ali, and his latest, The Next Logical Progression, was released earlier this year. Whether blowing your mind with his technical prowess, making you think about the troubles of the world, or just bringing a smile to your face, Gift of Gab is all about making listeners feel something.

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.

Underground Rapper of the Week: Rheteric Ramirez

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

There are few emcees alive grimier and more underground than Los Angeles’ Rheteric Ramirez. One of the most respected battle rappers in GrindTimeNow, Rheteric spits creative punchlines in battles and fluent, rugged flows on gutter tracks like “Dear Diary,” a single from his upcoming, as yet untitled LP from Hellfyre Club Records, on which he breaks down his deadly battle abilities: “I hit the head on the nail, they laughin’ loud as hell / Things I say about you, wouldn’t say about yourself / This is your brain on Rheteric and I’m scramblin’ the yolk / You’ll always be on the outside of my inside joke / Dear diary, got me feelin’ I’m in the wrong genre / ‘Cause my lyrics aren’t somethin’ they’d introduce to their mama.”

Too true. Rheteric’s lyrics and subject matter are far from family-friendly, and he has no patience for soft, suburbanite hipsters and poseurs, as is evident in these lines: “You’re a productive member of society and a name-dropping social retard / With a members-only jacket and a designer flannel green scarf.” A lot of Rhet’s lyrical content involves his frustration with this gentrification of his beloved L.A., which he makes a point to warn y’all is not for everyone, but he also digs deep into his past and present feelings on tracks like “The Loneliest One” and “Tender Loving (Nothing),” and unleashes a blistering, all-encompassing rage on tracks like “Reverse Engineering.”

On the other hand, in his battles Rheteric often has a playful, humorous approach that incorporates strange, unexpected concepts like his Stephen Hawking-channeling verse in the second round of his hilarious battle against Tiger Ty, which also includes ridiculous punchlines like “You’re what happens when you do too much nitrous oxide / You’re what happens when you punch yourself when you’re cross-eyed,” and “You’re what morning breath looks like.” He is an uncompromising artist capable of jokes, vicious battle raps and pure poetry, like this gem from the second verse of “Skyscraper Cemetery”: “God named this city after angels, but did not reveal their names / To protect the identity of the demons who run this city into the grave.” In other words, Rheteric Ramirez is hard to pigeonhole, and y’all should probably give him some money while he’s young enough to enjoy it.

Underground Rapper of the Week: Prof

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

Undoubtedly one of the most consistently entertaining underground rappers out right now, Southside Minneapolis’ Prof is a powerhouse of energy and skill wrapped up in an intentionally goofy exterior. Recently named one of City Pages’ Top 20 Best Minnesota Rappers, Prof has been on his grind in the Twin Cities for over a decade, and is now beginning to see some serious national exposure through his collaborations with the Alabama emcee Yelawolf and the Atlanta production duo Beat Chefs, who produced the stellar “Cold Outside” from Raekwon‘s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … Pt. II, as well as fellow hometown heroes like Atmosphere and Brother Ali. Though his lyrics, stage presence and videos are mostly hilarious, Prof’s skill as an emcee is no joke, and his ability to engage an audience is extraordinary.

Prof released his first full-length with his rapping partner Rahzwell, the self-titled Prof & Rahzwell, in 2006, before breaking out with his Beat Chefs-produced solo debut, Project Gampo, in 2007. Like so many great emcees before him, Prof has invented a new slang term, “Gampo,” and it fits his hard-partying aesthetic perfectly. The hit single from that album, “Rocketman,” showcases his rapid-fire lyricism and playful swagger, as when he raps, “I keep ill, I eat skills / I climb mountains, I need thrills / Keep a couple dollar bills under my collar / So when I pop, know that I don’t mean pills.” Another standout track from that album is the hangover anthem “I Dry Heave,” which features great storytelling like these bars in which he describes barely getting to work and throwing up once more on the way in: “Rode on my niece’s handlebars all the way to work / My drunk ass might have been her training wheels, sure / And pull the trigger in the bushes before I walk in / My sweet niece left me gum in my pocket.”

Prof has stayed busy ever since, releasing two mixtapes under the title Kaiser von Powderhorn in 2008 and 2010, with a third on the way this summer. He also released the free album Recession Music, with fellow Minnesota rapper St. Paul Slim, in 2009; part of the ad campaign for that album, which includes the excellent “Horses in the Ghetto,” included old-fashioned “Wanted” posters of Prof and Slim illegally hung around the Twin Cities. This is a prime example of what sets Prof apart from a lot of other rappers: he has a unique way of making himself known, including some of the funniest promotional videos you’ll likely ever see. He also has a strong singing voice, which lends itself well to monster hooks such as the hilarious “Need Your Love” and “Animal,” as well as the straight-up blues jam “Whiskey.” Prof’s latest full-length, King Gampo, is available for free download now from Stophouse Music Group, so click that link and get Gampo!

Underground Rapper of the Week: Phillip Morris

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

Chicago-based international emcee Phillip Morris is in a league of his own in so many ways. He celebrates his nerdiness on tracks like “Must Be a Nerd” and “Get Your Nerd On,” but he is not to be pegged as “nerdcore” by any means, and he goes harder than most gangsta rappers on tracks like “Words Are Gunshots” and “True Calligraphy.” He’s an undeniably charming ladies man who actively cautions women to stay away from himself and any other performers on tracks like “Trouble is My Middle Name,” while acknowledging that “I got no swag, so I understand that it must be the words.” He is an unapologetically party-oriented rapper who is also a well-informed activist – see “Pass Me a Light” for the former and “Revolution Knows No Compromise” for the latter.

By the way, that “international emcee” moniker is no joke. Morris has played all over the United States, as well as various parts of Spain and the Dominican Republic. In addition, his excellent 2010 album, The Truth Campaign, was entirely produced by French beatsmith Tha Truth Tella. Morris has shared stages with the likes of Dead Prez, Souls of Mischief, Kool Keith, Devin the Dude and Guante, among many others. He has also performed and led workshops at a number of schools in the U.S., from Columbia College on down to Ella Flagg Young Elementary School, where he presumably focused on his less raunchy verses. This activity points to his efforts to bring his unique style to everyone from inveterate Hip-Hop-heads to folks who normally don’t even like rap. As Morris himself says of rap, “I’m further than that, creatin’ snuff music with the way I’m murderin’ tracks.”

As innovative and complex as Morris’ rhymes are, perhaps the best way to experience his work is a live performance, where he blends his consummate rapping skill with a wildly expressive and idiosyncratic stage show. He is often known to engage the crowd directly, which may or may not include crowd-surfing while wearing a kilt, which he did at a recent show with Minneapolis-based “Hippie-Hop” collective Wookiefoot. His next live show is in Holyoke, Massachusetts, which he informs me is where volleyball was invented, and he has a new album in the works with Minneapolis-based Hip-Hop crew Wide Eyes (Morris has almost as big a fan base in Minneapolis s he does in his hometown of Chicago). In the meantime, I highly recommend picking up any or all of his four albums, especially The Truth Campaign and his latest full-length, Lady Liberty is Wasted, which is available on a sliding scale from free to whatever you want to contribute.

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