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: Spy 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

I can personally attest that Spy MC is one of the hardest working underground rappers in the game right now. A San Antonio, Texas, native who started rapping at the age of twelve and came up as a drum & bass MC in the Texas rave scene of the early 21st century, Spy moved to the Twin Cities of Minnesota in 2006. Along with his deejay brother and two producers also hailing from San Antonio. Together they formed the group SF Wrecks, which then morphed into the huge super-group Death Ray Scientific (DRS), with members of Wide Eyes, Matching Wits, Dialogue Elevaters and other underground Minneapolis rappers, deejays and producers.

Along with his own formidable work on the mic, Spy has always been a tireless promoter of not only himself (as most rappers are), but also of other artists he considers worthy. He has proven this time and time again in various ways, such as the open mic series “Switch,” run by DRS at Minneapolis’ legendary Dinkytowner Cafe. Largely organized by Spy, Switch gave many up-and-coming Twin Cities artists their first real sets, opening for more established headlining acts like Kanser, Carnage and even the late, great Eyedea and his group Face Candy. Spy continues to help build the Twin Cities’ underground Hip-Hop community through its otherwise largely stagnant battle rap scene. Having brought GrindTimeNow to Minnesota in June of 2009, he is now the Promotional Coordinator and co-host of The Loud Mouth League, which keeps GrindTimeNow’s tradition of a capella battle rapping alive.

With so much organization and promotion on his plate, it’s amazing that Spy manages to put out his own music, let alone music as dope as the work he has done with fellow DRS alumni Sean Anonymous and Shelltoe as Bottom Feeders, and his upcoming solo EP, Unfinished Business. Produced by MoonDoctoR and debuting online by the end of the summer, Unfinished Business is the kind of self-assured but still hungry solo debut you would expect from someone who got in the game at the age of twelve and hasn’t slowed down since. As he says on the Juice-featuring grind anthem, “Twenty Four Seven,” Spy is “planning domination / Verbally, locally, most certainly globally / Heard of me? Know me? Show-murdering dope emcee.” Bottom Feeders homie Sean Anonymous and Chicago’s Phillip Morris also pop up on “Room and Space,” which finds Sean and Spy seemingly competing for the fastest, freshest flow on the second and third verses. I’ll leave it to you to decide who wins that one, but rest assured that Spy MC does what he does, and likely always will.

  

Underground Rapper of the Week: Eyedea

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

In general, the purpose of this column is to bring attention to living artists you might not have heard before, but the influence of Michael “Eyedea” Larsen on the underground rap community is simply too large not to explore here. When he died on October 16, 2010, less than a month shy of his 29th birthday, a huge and vitally important part of the Minnesota music scene was lost. Ask any young underground rapper in the Twin Cities, and they’re sure to testify that Eyedea was a major part of their decision to get into the game. His victories battling at Scribble Jam in 1999 and the Blaze Battle New York in 2000 basically put Minnesota’s Hip-Hop scene on the map, and his legacy can still be felt in the scene today.

I first encountered Eyedea as a teenager, in a high school talent show where he was breakdancing, and subsequently freestyling in the courtyard of Highland Park Senior High School in St. Paul. When he began releasing music in my senior year (he was two years ahead of me), I instantly became a fan when I heard lines like “I didn’t watch the Super Bowl, don’t drink alcohol / Don’t carry I.D., don’t go to the mall” and “I like Jimi Hendrix more than any rap shit / My favorite movie’s Dr. Strangelove – that’s a classic” from the song “Weird Side” off his 2001 concept album The Many Faces of Oliver Hart (or: How Eye One the Write Too Think). Here was a rapper I could really identify with, a self-proclaimed weirdo who didn’t fit into any of the expected boxes and, because of his strange and unique approach, was suddenly the most exciting thing happening in local music at the time.

Eyedea and his partner DJ Abilities created something new with their first two albums, 2001’s First Born and 2004’s E&A, making Hip-Hop songs that showed a respect and love for the tradition from which they came, while exploring new territory and concepts on fascinating tracks like “Birth of a Fish” and the crowd favorite “Big Shots.” Eyedea’s distinctive flow and extraordinary storytelling ability proved he was more than just a battle rapper, and he was one of the few rappers able to make songs that could bring you to tears (like the devastating “Bottle Dreams”) or reaffirm your faith in life (like the beautiful, heartfelt “Here for You”).

Don’t get it twisted – Eyedea was probably the best battle rapper in the world in his time, and his freestyle ability was practically unparalleled. It’s just that he was never content to stand still and do the same thing, which is why he continued to experiment and grow with new projects like his rock group Carbon Carousel and his freestyle/jazz group Face Candy. His final album with Abilities, By the Throat, showed the influence of this experimentation, and the result is a heavy, abrasive, and simultaneously beautiful album that more than lives up to its name. Eyedea’s ferocious unwillingness to be just another part of the status quo can be felt throughout the album, especially on tracks like the sonic assault “Junk,” where he warns the listener “Don’t push me, ’cause I’m ready to jump.” At the same time, though, he never seemed to stop loving life, despite all its frustrations and disappointments; as he says in his guest spot on Kristoff Krane‘s song, “Best Friends,” one of his last recorded releases: “Whether five, twenty-five or eighty / As long I’m alive, I’m in love and forever changing.”

  

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.

  

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