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: 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: 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.

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