When someone mentions the Midwest in a longstanding debate between whose better in hip-hop, the West or the East, what is the first group they name? The person to sound off about Rhymesayers Entertainment is a stance that spices up any Biggie versus ‘Pac debate. A decade ago the independent label based in Minneapolis was just a critical underground scene for other grassroots and DIY artists to follow the spark that inspired a new standard.
In 2011, Rhymesayers is one of the premier indie labels for indie rap. The label has amassed a large fanbase who continue supporting a roster that projects mood and pours their heart into every pen and notepad. Atmosphere is considered their flagship talent and viewed as role models in Twin Cities hip-hop. But with such big shoes to fill, artists have begun to use the same core values of Rhymesayers to help write their success stories. Keeping relationships with other artists and creative types have supported their efforts in team building. In the Midwest, it’s all about rising up together.
So it’s not surprising that another set of MCs have just as much notoriety as their Rhymesayers family. Their early days were a gradual process from solo artists putting out massive amounts of content to being drawn together by simply making music – first as friends, now as labelmates. The seven-person and independent label Doomtree have managed to find time between touring and recording new material to sit down for another full-crew album. Five MCs (P.O.S., Dessa, Mike Mictlan, Cecil Otter, Sims) and two producers/DJs (Lazerbeak, Paper Tiger) might sound like a disastrous recipe for creative dominance. However, that’s not how Doomtree rolls. “We sort of make our brand the only way we know how to do it,” Sims says. “I feel like if anybody stays honest to themselves and tries to make music that represents them, I feel like you are going to succeed. As far as making our own sound, we just had to because we couldn’t make anything else but our own sound.” For Doomtree, its members bring a different musical element (P.O.S. with his punk-rock background and Dessa who is an accomplished spoken poet, for example) that produces genre-spanning hip-hop. It’s neither punk nor alternative hip-hop, but a mold that forms perfectly into one.
On their third album, No Kings (due out on November 22), Doomtree has added a lot more notches under their belts since 2008’s Doomtree. One notable accomplishment was a first all-crew appearance during this year’s CMJ Music and Film Festival. “New York is really good to us and has been and hopefully continues to be. It was a really fun time,” Sims says. “It was strange to have a midnight show on a Wednesday night but if anybody can do that, it’s New York.” Previewing a few tracks off No Kings (“Bangarang,” “Bolt Cutter,” “No Way,” “Punch-Out”) during their show at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, it was met with the same positive response from fans that appreciate a fresh fusion. “Our fanbase is definitely a motivated, supported fanbase. If we put out a disappointing album, they are not all going to leave,” Sims says.
Rest assured. With the mystery of No Kings unveiled in small doses before its release date, (a video for “Bangarang” is on the way and “The Grand Experiment” is the project’s first lead single) expect Doomtree’s second full-crew album to resemble the Midwest’s way of life. While Rhymesayers have become the older brother of Twin Cities hip-hop, Doomtree is the closely-knitted, gun-ho distant relatives determined to take their independent movement to the top.
This year’s 7th Doomtree Blowout is hosted at First Avenue and the 7th Street Entry. What does the venue mean for the Minneapolis’ music scene?
Sims – I feel like it’s like the most legendary venue in town. Purple Rain was shot there. It’s like a historical place. There’s like a lot of crazy energy that you can pick up on. Whether you are seeing a show or you are performing a show. We’ve played stages across the country and there is no stage that is electric to me like that one.
Dessa – I think there’s also something to be said about the size of it. It’s one of the biggest clubs in downtown. There are bigger places to play but you start leaving the club environment and venturing into a stadium or something else. For a group of grassroots, kind of DIY, most of us have done our shows in a club environment; this is the pinnacle of that experience for most of us. In proportion and also in the fact that I think most of the members of Doomtree attended shows that were very important to them for the first time. We probably spent more time looking up at the stage then looking down from it. And it means a lot to be invited to that room.
Rhymesayers has been synonymous with Minnesota and Midwest hip-hop. How has Doomtree created its own path as both a label and a hip-hop collective? And how have they kept in-tune with the city’s musical standards?
Dessa – Well, I think we’ve been really lucky. We were talking about this a little bit earlier amongst ourselves. Minneapolis is a very collaborative environment, so in growing up in a city where the work of Rhymesayers and their artists are so much of the music fabric, we have an opportunity for fans to see some cats making a name for themselves in the independent context. And that’s exciting. Being able to be in an endeavor – independently – didn’t seem impossible to any of the members of Doomtree. Its cool to be in a city where there’s so much legitimate cheerleading for one another. I live like seven blocks from the Fifth Element, which is kind of the Rhymesayers headquarters and a retail location. It’s like a big welcome anytime we walk in.
Sims – I don’t think about trying to be like anybody. None of us knew how to make rap music, we listen to rap music and we are fans of it long before we wanted to make rap music. We didn’t know how to make rap music – we still don’t – we just kind of figure it out for ourselves. We sort of make our own brand the only way we know how to do it. I feel like if anybody stays honest to themselves and tries to make music that represents them, I feel like you are going to succeed. As far as making our own sound, we just had to because we couldn’t make anything else but our own sound.
Was the group originally called False Hopes? Why change the name to Doomtree?
Lazerbeak – We were always called Doomtree. We had a series called False Hopes; it was kind of like a mixtape series. We would dump out a few songs to test the waters on CD-Rs and stuff like that. Then it came synonymous with the Doomtree name with the early years. But yeah, Doomtree stuck for whatever reason 10 years ago.
Sims – I do remember though before we stuck with Doomtree that there was a bit a back and forth if we should call the label False Hopes or if we should call the label Doomtree.
So why did everybody decide on Doomtree?
Sims – It just sounded cool. [laughs]
Lazerbeak – I hardly remember that far back.
Dessa – [laughs] I don’t remember that much discussion on it. It was like cool; let’s move on, next item.
With Doomtree having all these different artists, is it difficult balancing everyone into the overall group’s sound?
Dessa – I think there can be some challenges associated with that. But I think having a group with such diverse tastes and talents is part of the appeal. It was which drew me before I was a member of it and was a fan of their music. I remember songs from Cecil Otter and P.O.S. and thinking: “They sound so different but they’re friends.” And that would be part of the magnet. “What are these two dudes have in common?” It’s awesome and it looks really different. That’s part of what I dug about it, just this rag-tag unlikely musical street gang.
Sims – I feel like we are fortunate enough to be primarily focused on our solo endeavors. We all work together and sort of made a gang together, a support system and a crew. I feel we are so generally focused on our solo projects that it can be a refreshing break to make a Doomtree collaborative project. I feel like everyone has their strengths and we are aware what those are, so we allow each other to cue in to what those are and allow those to come to light in a collobrative process. A lot of different sounds help the identity and the brand of Doomtree because its not the same thing artist to artist and record to record.
Lazerbeak, do you share the production duties with Paper Tiger?
Lazerbeak – Me and Paper Tiger do a lot of the production and Cecil and P.O.S. do some beats as well. On this crew record, it was the first time instead of making beats and throwing them in a pile, we deliberately set out to make beats for each other. So P.O.S., Cecil, myself, Paper worked really hard on creating stuff together that hopefully gives us a new sound and speak to all of our strengths. And also allow the beats to have a lot of different moments in them that you can have five rappers on one track and not have it be boring.
So everybody gets the proper shine they deserve?
Lazerbeak – Everybody gets their shine time. It left a lot of room for us to decide how to lay the songs out. I never done anything like that. I know lot of producers will work with other people. I never. I always made them in the basement by myself. It was scary at first and then pretty instantaneously; it was like wow. This sounds different and it sounds really cool and it felt we were coming together. And it also spoke to what this album was and what we were trying to make. Which was really a collaborative and posse cut record.
Sims – I feel like this record is sort of – not only the title of it – but the whole idea behind this record is not worrying about shine. Knowing that there wasn’t going to be a solo song on the record and it didn’t matter how many people got on the song. We weren’t going to release a single that had everybody on it intentionally. I think the idea wasn’t about shine. Let’s make a collaborative identity like a band called Doomtree. We are just going to work on this together, whatever happens happens. Whoever is on it the most is on it the most. Whoever is on it the least is on it the least. The idea isn’t about who is winning or losing on it.
Listening to your last record Doomtree it sounded very genre-spanning. Do you find yourselves broadening your horizons for different fans?
Sims – I feel like so many people like so many different kinds of music. I feel like you don’t have to worry about that anymore. I feel like the Internet has leveled it. You’re not just going to the rap section at the record store anymore. You hear about bands from all of your friends, all of your friends are on different stuff and you are picking up on that. I feel like you don’t have to worry about who you are making the record for anymore. I think you just have to make the best possible thing you can make.
Dessa – And I think on the occasion, when I have worried, “Hey, man, who’s going to like this? Who does this appeal?” I’ve been wrong consistently. I’ll be at a show and somebody will show up and I want to be like, “Honey, you are in the wrong room.” You must be looking for a different event, you know? Because you will see a 52-year-old woman in a conservative pant suit.
Sims – Hillary Clinton!
Dessa – Yeah, I think there is no way this woman is trying to arrive. But she’s like, “Hey man, I totally love “Game Over.” Did I miss it?” I don’t know what the best market researcher can do but you got to make it mean it and hope they can see it.
You guys mentioned that you’re ten years in the game. Does one song off No Kings represent that accomplishment?
Sims – For me, it’s “No Way.” It’s sort of declarative statement. This is where we are at. That’s it to me. I feel like there’s no moment where you can be like, “Yeah! This is my ten-year anniversary song.” But it’s the most declarative one.
Lazerbeak – I guess I didn’t really thought of it. I probably initially say the whole album. I think I like the first one and the last one is more driven, “Yeah, Doomtree!” joint. They are two different types of songs but do kind of somehow sum up what we’ve been through in the last decade.
With this album coming in November, How will it place Doomtree as a highly regarded collective in Midwest hip-hop?
Sims – I hope it’s another notch on the belt.
Lazerbeak – Every record we put out, we hope that it gets us out there a little bit more. We continue to buld on that a little more. Every time we keep climbing, it certainly hasn’t been a fast ascension, but we try to keep it steady and moving.
Sims – Every record is a small step at a bigger goal. We keep plugging away. I don’t think anybody expects to blow up after every record they put out. You don’t have those type of expectations behind the record. What you hope for is what you saw last time you came through the city is stepped up by a good step. It’s a next step of a long series of progression.
Lazerbeak – That be awesome, I hope we do blow up.
Sims – Yeah, that’s the goal!
Lastly, wings and teeth. Can one of you explain that concept to me?
Sims – When people die, the dental record is often times how they identify you. Especially if the body is like completely unrecognizable and they can still recognize your teeth. [laughs] Its sort of a morbid idea. The idea that we are suppose to make something lasting.
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