(P.O.S. at Soundset; photo from Rhymesayers)
DISCLAIMER: Remember, this was written in May of 2012, so shouts to Dem Atlas, Lizzo, Allan Kingdom, Haphduzn and all the other artists who have made big waves since then. This write-up is a starting point, nothing more.)
Is the Twin Cities hip hop scene oversaturated (as this recent Slug-by-way-of-the-City-Pages article said)? I don't think so. There are a ton of hip hop acts here, but there are also a ton of hip hop acts doing radically different, interesting, creative things. I've been wanting to post something like this for a while now, and this seems like as good an opportunity as any.
One note, though. The TC hip hop scene is DEEP. In this post, I'm going to talk very briefly about the artists I know, but there are MANY more that I don't. Basically, this is how I see the scene right now, in 2012-- and I'm one person who occupies a specific space within that scene, so my view is going to be skewed, naturally. This is NOT meant to be a comprehensive overview of every single person making hip hop music in the Twin Cities-- just a place to start. So if you don't see yourself, or your homies, just leave a comment-- it wasn't an intentional omission.
In the interest of space, I'm also not including singers (big ups to Alicia Steele, K.Raydio, Claire de Lune and others), DJs, b-boys/b-girls, poets, producers, promoters and the like, though all are instrumental in creating the scene that we have here. And in the interest of not getting punched in the face, I'm going to save the criticism (constructive or otherwise) for another post. I may not love every artist below, but I do believe that every artist below has qualities someone could love. So I'm focusing on the positive here.
I wanted to write this so I'd have somewhere to point all those people who say "I had no idea MN had a hip hop scene, " or the people who love Atmosphere and Doomtree but don't know what else is going on here. Because there's a LOT going on here.
1. The Big Names: Rhymesayers and Doomtree
I won't spend much time here, since if you're on my blog, the odds are good that you already know these names. Rhymesayers is a record label-- Atmosphere, Brother Ali, P.O.S., Eyedea (RIP), Los Nativos and more. Doomtree is a crew-- P.O.S., Dessa, Lazerbeak and more (we could maybe throw Astronautalis in there too, a bigger name who just moved here and is down with Doomtree). They've each paved some important paths and put out lots of good music. Again, I won't dwell on them; peep the links for more info.
I will point out, however, two artists associated with Rhymesayers who don't get as much attention-- Toki Wright and I Self Devine. Both have made names for themselves as smart, politically-conscious MC's MCs, and both have put out some great material. I Self has been around forever and is really one of the most important figures in TC rap; he also just released a new album. Toki is one of the best pure MCs in the country, in my opinion, and he also just released a new project.
2. The Trailblazers
It's important to point out that TC hip hop didn't start with Atmosphere. There are some classic tracks out there by groups like the Micranots, the Abstract Pack (who are still making good music), Truthmaze (ditto), Phull Surkle, Headshots crew, Musab and many others; again, I'm not mentioning everyone, just a few. For a more comprehensive look at the history of hip hop in the TC, check out this piece and read Big Zach's book.
I'll also mention Heiruspecs here. They're a hip hop band that has been going strong since the early '00s and have worked with tons of other TC rap artists. And they're still one of the tightest collectives in the scene. Kanser is also a group that's been making noise for over a decade. Big Zach and Unicus have built so much as artists and as organizers, and we're all kind of in their debt. And Zach also has one of my favorite TC rap albums in his solo joint "White Jesus," which is funny, down-to-earth and heartfelt.
3. The Avant-Garde
I know that's kind of a charged phrase-- I'm just referring to the acts who are breaking boundaries and making hip hop that's a little left-of-center. No Bird Sing, for example, is a hip hop band featuring dense, claustrophobic rhymes and some beautifully-crafted drum and guitar work. Kristoff Krane is one of the most skilled pure rhyme technicians I've ever seen, but he'll pick up an acoustic guitar and sing a folk song in the middle of a monster hip hop set. Kill the Vultures have an incredibly distinct sonic identity-- Crescent Moon's rhymes are darkly poetic and evocative and Anatomy's beats are unlike anything else in the scene-- cracked jazz samples, bone-crunching drums and some really dynamic arrangements. Many of these acts are also involved in Coloring Time, an improv crew, as well as the FIX collective. Joe from No Bird Sing, Crescent Moon from Kill the Vultures and Lazerbeak from Doomtree also form the supergroup Mixed Blood Majority.
I'll also mention in this section MC/poet Desdamona and MC/beatboxer Carnage, two accomplished solo acts who also form the duo Ill Chemistry.
4. The Traditionalists and the Wag Posse
While a lot of people are realizing that the TC has a great indie hip hop scene, I think most of the attention is centered around acts from point 1 and point 3. But we also have an unbelievably talented group of artists making more quote-unquote "meat and potatoes" rap music too. While not everyone goes under the "wag" umbrella, that term is something... well, you can read about what that means here. Artists of note include Audio Perm, a three-producer collective that also includes a half-a-dozen MCs (and a bunch of sub-groups), all of whom are genuinely fresh (special shouts to Yakub, who also produced a song for Ghostface, and Chantz, who is my favorite MC in the Twin Cities... but Dylan, Bobby, Ramiro, Adrian, Jake, Spencer and all of them got BARS); they also put on the most energetic live show in town. Illuminious 3 (Freez, Mavin MC and Franz Diego) have been releasing high-quality material as a group and as solo artists for years now. Similarly TUSS Music (formerly the Usual Suspects) come together as a group for monstrous live shows, but members Greg Grease and IBE have both released brilliant solo material, and Akrite has an upcoming project with Ramiro X called "Mundo Libre" that I'm really excited about.
And "traditionalists" probably isn't the best word, because these acts are all blazing trails in their own ways. I just mean it's generally less self-consciously "out-there" than the acts in the previous point. No qualitative judgment on that. Others who should be on your radar: MaLLy, whose new album has received a ton of attention from critics and fans alike; Meta, who has been releasing a song a day this May; The Tribe & Big Cats!, who have one of the wildest live shows around and make some incredibly dynamic music (they've since disbanded, and Rapper Hooks and Big Cats both have solo material on the way); Unknown Prophets, another group of vets who have been making down-to-earth reality rap for over a decade now; punchline technician St. Paul Slim, Slim's Guardians of Balance partner Mastermind, witty, elastic-voiced Sean Anon and his group Wide Eyes, intelligent firebrand the Lioness, throwback kings Wize Guys, super crew 925ve, the whole Background Noise Crew, all-female hip hop collective The Chalice... I could go on for a long time. Again, the scene is deep; everyone I've mentioned here has put out genuinely good hip hop music-- I'm not just throwing every name I can think of out here; as a matter of fact, I'm missing a ton of other talented artists.
5. The Harder-to-Classify
Big Quarters has been one of my favorite hip hop acts-- local or otherwise-- for a while. Their production bangs, and their rhyme style is unique and fun to listen to; they also do a ton of good work in Minneapolis. Prof is probably the "next big thing" coming out of this scene, at least in terms of audience acclaim. While pegged as a party rapper, he's got a unique sound and undeniable talent as a rhymer. Villa Rosa is a new group made up of two accomplished solo artists-- Muja Messiah and Maria Isa. The collaborative album is very cool, and both artists have a ton of quality solo work. M.anifest splits time between Minnesota and Ghana, and his sound reflects that; he's also collaborated with Femi Kuti, Damon Albarn and more. Another one of my favorite locals, radical-trans-rapper Heidi Barton Stink, just released a new album produced entirely by See More Perspective. See More is one of the most unjustly overlooked local artists, in my opinion; he's got a great live show, and his album is adventurous and unique and beautiful. Ecid (and the Fill in the Breaks crew) is a DIY mastermind-- rapping, producing and managing himself to the point where he has a solid career built on integrity and an unhinged, engaging rap style. There's also Long Doe, a crew including Big Wiz, Tony Bones, Mike the Martyr and more, if you're into something a little more street-level and hard.
There's also Junkyard Empire (a political jazz-rap band), Tou Saiko Lee (one of the premier Hmong hip hop artists in the country), DJ Snuggles (one of the best beatboxers you'll ever see), Culture Cry Wolf (a hip hop/ska/rock/everything band with a killer live show), Kaoz (HIV-educator and rapper), Spyder Baybie Raw Dog and 2% Muck (coked-out orgy rap) and more. One of my favorite up-and-coming MCs is Dem Atlas. I guess I'd put myself, along with all of my side-projects (Guante & Big Cats, A Loud Heart, Sifu Hotman) in this category too.
6. Tip of the Iceberg
Like I said earlier, actually sitting here and talking about EVERY Twin Cities hip hop act would take a very long time. The artists I've mentioned here are a good start. By exploring their music, you'll probably get put on to a lot of other artists, people like Just Wulf, CMJ, Paul Thompson, D'allen White, Irenic, Mammoth, PCP, KILLSTREAK, Knonam, Toussaint Morrison, Omaur Bliss, Ernie Rhodes, Matt Jarvy, Spy MC, the Level Heads, Duenday, Zac HB, I.L.I.C.I.T., Misfit, Lady Ice, Mod Sun, Vision the Kid, Danami, Manny Phesto, Gaines, Rocky Diamonds, Mike Dreams, Ice Rod, La Manchita, MC Harv, BdotCroc, Escape Artists, FDR, Moonlight Grammar and many more. Homeless just moved back too.
Also, be sure to check out Jack Spencer's Local Mixtape Roundup over at Gimme Noise, which features a wide cross-section of local talent.
I'm nervous about posting this, because I'm sure I'm missing some big ones-- again, I apologize for that. Leave a comment, post your Soundcloud page, whatever. This is a hell of a community, and it's still growing.