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It's a sunny midweek afternoon and Truth Maze is hanging out in the stacks of the downtown branch of the Minneapolis Public Library. Although the dreadlocked hip-hop scenester has only been here a moment or two, he's already been recognized by a few patrons. In fact, he can't sit down for more than five minutes before someone stops by to ask how he's doing. Amid a series of brief encounters with various friends and acquaintances, Maze spies a former student of his from the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center (where he provides academic support), a teenage girl walking toward the checkout desk with a couple of books about France. "You should study the French Revolution," he advises.
Soon the girl walks away, and Maze's conversation slips casually from the challenge of building character in children to the cosmic implications of James Brown compositions. "I say he was from another planet," Maze says without a stitch of irony. "When this dude did a bridge, you felt like he was crossing a bridge, a conveyor belt, celestial bridge. Every time I talk about him, I get goose bumps, see?" he says, pointing to the excited flesh on his arm.
This shared fervor for activism and music has distinguished the 30-year-old Maze in the local hip-hop scene for more than a decade. Beatboxer, poet, drummer, and lyrical freestylist, this master of elocution is best known for his former bands the IRM crew (Immortal Rap Masters), who released three records for K-Tel, and the legendary early-'90s hip-hop crew, the Micranots. Now, with his new project, Trektah Beam Express, Maze has found a new way to fuse his passions for hip hop and politics.
"Trektah Beam Express came together as an idea for getting local bands, visual artists, and just weird folks together for a traveling show," he says. "I want to make music that's futuristic, because I don't think we can keep surviving by regurgitating the older artists' music. I'm tired of seeing people just sample and not dig within themselves and come up with new sounds."
Maze, who declined to reveal his real name for this article, first made a name for himself as a beatboxer in 1985 while still attending junior high in South Minneapolis. "I was already popular in my neighborhood, popular in North and South Minneapolis," he says. "I did a lot of battling on the streets. I would go anywhere there was a beatbox battle--St. Paul, Brooklyn Park--and let them know that I was the best in Minneapolis."
During this period he was known as B-Fresh, but by 1987, just as his band IRM was dissolving, Maze decided it was time for a reinvention. "I didn't know Truth Maze until I got out of the IRM crew," he says. "Life was bad; I lost my dad in 1985. He was shot to death in North Minneapolis. So in 1987 I was still dealing with it. I was sitting in my bedroom, mattress on the floor in a desolate place, and the group was coming to an end. And I was thinking that I need this new name. And all of a sudden I came up with--or I should say That Which is Beyond Me--came up with 'Truth Maze.' I didn't even have a philosophy about what the name meant. It just sounded dope. I stuck with it, and I resurrected."
By 1991, when Maze joined the Micranots, he was already coming into his own as a freestylist. "I had a lot of experience and knew how to work a stage and how to work a crowd, which is key to being an MC," he says. "It's not about getting up there and grabbing your genitals and screaming and being drunk." A bit like Native Tongues' philosophy, such talk is a far cry from the standard, tough-guy b-boy poses he used to strike in the Micranots. And lately his actions have been resonating as deeply as his former group's rhymes. Today Truth Maze often performs at community functions, such as the rally held this past spring for Lawrence Miles Jr., the Minneapolis 15-year-old shot in the back by police who mistook the BB-gun he was holding for a firearm.
In this spirit, Maze's current live shows should look more like boho open-mic sets than straight rap performances. A few weeks ago, headlining the Trektah Beam Express's "formal initiation" held at the 7th Street Entry, Maze played ringmaster amid what often seemed like chaos. Local spoken-word perennial J. Otis Powell! climbed onstage to sing behind Maze's poetry reading. From stage left, flutist Raja noodled through the number, so entranced in his music that he almost burned the tip of his instrument on one of the candles surrounding the stage. The performance picked up momentum once Maze began his hip-hop freestyling, which he alternated with some retro soul singing, before abruptly ending his impromptu set with a laugh. "I just made that up," he said smiling.
Still, those good vibes excepted, the crowd didn't start gyrating until Maze began a beatbox routine accompanied by a keyboardist whose P-Funky riffs suggested the mothership in mid-takeoff. As the night neared its end, Maze got behind his bongos while bassist Rufah stepped up to the mic to perform Gil Scott-Heron's "A Poem for Jose Compos Terez,"an elegy punctuated by Maze's bongo slaps and the heavy refrain, "I said I wouldn't write anymore poems like this." Bar time cut the band short just as the set was climaxing. But its success was no small feat for a hip-hop artist treading dangerous territory by dabbling in hippie lovespeak and spoken-word poetry--an art form so often debased by the '90s trend toward poetry slams that it's almost as despised as mime.