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: Homeless

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

Sincerity has seemingly gone out of fashion in the past several years, but the upside of this unfortunate trend is that when an artist breaks through the veil of detachment and irony, their impact can be doubly forceful. Emcees like Guante and the now Los Angeles-based Homeless are perfect examples of this phenomenon, rappers with a sense of urgency about the things they want to fix in the world and a healthy humility about how they’re going to do it. Originally from Minneapolis, Homeless has branched out to the West Coast, along with his frequent rhyming partner Just Riley, and since the move he has only gotten more love from his hometown, as evidenced by his recent shout-out on the blog of the beloved Twin Cities radios station The Current.

Self-described on Homeless and Just Riley’s wonderfully titled track, “Trill Cozby,” as “dirt poor, nerdy fresh,” the rapper known to his friends and family as Ryan Kopperud began getting on the radar of local word junkies as a spoken word artist. Work such as the aching, imagery-filled “Manifesto from the Tinman” and the heartbreakingly emotional “For Joseph” brought him to the National Poetry Slam for the first time in 2006, when he was still under legal drinking age, but it was clear even then, in poems like “Run Like Hell (Numb It Down to None),” that Homeless had an insatiable love for the rhyme. As one of the few artists to ever have success in both poetry slam and GrindTime battles, it was clear Homeless was meant to be a rapper, and when he released his debut EP, Patient Makes Lighter, in 2009, that promise was fulfilled.

Using “beats begged, borrowed and stolen,” Homeless fills Patient Makes Lighter with the same gorgeous poetic imagery found in his slam work, mixing childhood nostalgia with grown-up worries on tracks like “Mischief, Mischief,” which evokes a grittier Shel Silverstein when he spits, “Sit fireside at night, hold my skeletons and shiver / Playgrounds gangway to fully grown settlers / Word-junkies, monsters, magic bean peddlers.” Throughout the entire record, Homeless manages to walk a fine line, speaking on social and political issues on tracks like “An Open Letter to Asher Roth” and “The Box” without being too preachy, and digging deep emotionally on “Preoccupied” and “Somniphobia” without being whiny.

Homeless has continued to stay on his grind and up his cachet with a series of raw online cypher videos, before making a major breakthrough with an official music video for the lovely, laid back “Rest in Peace.” As he says in that song, “How easily relaxing turns into procrastination / And you wake up years later, just wondering where your days went.” This is a problem Homeless clearly aims to avoid, and since then he has continued to move forward, releasing a live EP, Right As Rain: Live at 7th Street Entry, and another strikingly original music video for his song “Epic Meal Time.” With a beautiful new track produced by Big Cats! recently released, Homeless is an up-and-coming emcee to watch out for, in Minneapolis, L.A. or anywhere else.

Underground Rapper of the Week: Desdamona

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

With the exception of my full-group profile of Solillaquists of Sound a few weeks ago, women have been noticeably absent from this column, which points to a larger problem in Hip-Hop culture and society at large. No female emcee is more important to the community than the Minneapolis-based poet and emcee Desdamona, who has worked tirelessly to make Hip-Hop a better place for women. Her 365 Days of Female MCs blog helps to shed light on many unheralded contributors to the art form of rap, and her annual multimedia festival, B-Girl Be, brings together women from around the world who practice all four original elements of Hip-Hop: graffiti, breakdancing, deejaying and emceeing. She also hosts the long-running Poet’s Groove open mic, one of the very most respected and enduring shows in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

In addition to such community work and activism, Desdamona is herself a powerful emcee and spoken word artist, having won five Minnesota Music Awards for Best Spoken Word Artist in 2000, and then consecutively in 2003-2006, inclusive. She has also toured extensively, bringing her sound to audiences all over the U.S., as well as Germany and France, where she has built a very respectable following with beatboxing partner Carnage in their group Ill Chemistry. Desdamona has opened for legendary artists such as KRS-One; the late, great Guru; Saul Williams; and Wyclef Jean, among others, and is a frequent collaborator with the equally legendary Sly & Robbie, who produced her 2005 debut album, The Ledge. In addition to her strong, poetic abilities as a rapper, Desdamona is also a skilled singer, and has joined Ursus Minor in both capacities on their third album, I Will Not Take “But” for an Answer, and joining them on their subsequent tour along with The Coup‘s Boots Riley.

Desdamona’s lyrics are thoughtful, personal and resonant with themes of identity, equality and body image, and for this reason it is often best to hear her words over sparse beats or no beat at all. For an example of her emotionally moving poetry, look no further than “Too Big for My Skin,” a poem that has since expanded into a campaign aimed at rethinking societal beauty standards and giving a voice to repressed women all over the world. However, this is not to say she can’t murder beats with the best of them, and her live performances – whether solo or with Carnage as Ill Chemistry – are electrifying, and she wisely used live instrumentation to create her 2007 album, The Source, which features Carnage, as well as remixed tracks by Sly & Robbie. Male or female, Desdamona is one of the Midwest’s most vital talents, and her continued work with Ursus Minor and Ill Chemistry, who just released their first full-length album in France, definitely deserves your attention.

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