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.


Street Sweeper Social Club: The Ghetto Blaster EP

RIYL: Rage Against the Machine, The Coup, System of a Down

Whether or not the world will ever receive a new Rage Against the Machine album remains a mystery. But in the meantime, Rage guitarist Tom Morello is giving us the next best thing by continuing his incendiary work with Boots Riley in their group Street Sweeper Social Club. Morello has thankfully put his Night Watchman acoustic folk project, a noble experiment, on the shelf and gone back to what he does best – laying down “revolutionary party jams,” a kick-ass blend of rock and hip-hop with a socially conscious vibe. This follow-up to 2009’s eponymous debut keeps the fire burning by kicking out the jams with block-rocking beats, heavy riffs, smoking guitar solos, and in-your-face vocals from Boots Riley.

The title track comes out guns blazing with a heavy Rage vibe. Riley takes no prisoners with lines like “We’re canon fodder for dollars / Both under Bush and Obama.” Riley continues to deliver venom on “Everythang,” slamming bankers, sellout mayors and the like. Morello gets his whammy bar going at the end, conjuring his trademark sound of guitar pyrotechnics with anti-establishmentt flavor over another heavy groove.

The band strikes sonic gold on “The New Fuck You,” a song of the year contender with its infectious groove, smoldering riffs and killer lyrics including the instant classic chorus of “Fuckin’ is the new ‘Hey, how do ya do?’ / And revolution is the new fuck you.” Morello throws down one of his best solos in recent memory, while every line from Riley resonates with the zeitgeist of an MC lamenting his ride on the Titanic through the decline of Western civilization.

“Scars” continues in a similar vein with another high-energy track about hard living, showing the band hasn’t forgotten their roots. The disc wraps up with “Promenade (Guitar Fury Remix),” a reprise of a monster groove from the band’s debut album with Morello adding some extra guitar tricks to elevate the song higher.

The EP also includes two covers with mixed results. The first is of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” which seems an odd selection that doesn’t really fit in musically with the rest of the disc. But the cover of LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” is a barnburner, a track that seems tailor-made for this crew to crank out with maximum style and energy (as they did at Stubbs BBQ in Austin during this year’s SXSW festival, where the crowd was literally bouncing in response.)

Morello produced the EP himself for the band’s own SSSC independent label, so this is an anti-corporate joint all the way. Is musical revolution still alive in 2010? Street Sweeper Social Club answers affirmative with resounding solidarity. (Street Sweeper Social Club 2010)


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