Homecoming Kings

Hip hop invades Dinkytown; Semisonic slips into the Target Center; the Cows head for the punk-rock pasture

Hip Hop Hurray: Headspin, Sundays at Bon Appetit

"Peace to all ya kids for comin' down every week, doing this like it's s'posed to be done," toasted rapper Beyond, surveying the packed house at Bon Appetit on December 13. "Wasn't like this five years ago."

With that, Beyond and crew went into a set of would-be local hip-hop classics, including a new one, "South Minneapolis," that pay tribute to the various scenes up and down Lake Street, despite the fact that the night's performance was taking place on the other side of the river. Every Sunday since last August, the Dinkytown subs-and-juice joint has hosted Headspin, a showcase for the best developing basement MCs and DJs you've (probably) never heard--Ali, Pee Wee Dread, and Justice League--presented by Zacharia Combs of the rap group Kanser. Most featured crews are so new that the appearance of a scene-sage like Beyond has the cachet of an address by a weathered elder statesman. Bon Appetit (421 14th Ave. SE) was previously little more than one of the few spots in Dinkytown where students could grab a relatively healthy lunch between classes. But in past months the restaurant's owners have capitalized on an intriguingly cozy rec room at the end of its rear corridor that has always screamed music venue.

Excepting a few short-lived dance clubs, attempts at live music in Dinkytown have been few and far between. In the late '80s, hip-hop parties at the Varsity Theater around the corner from Bon Appetit were shut down, legend has it, because area business owners didn't like the "element" rap events brought into the neighborhood. A decade later, things couldn't be more different. Hip hop is the dominant sound on the adjacent University of Minnesota campus. (Take a walk down any dorm hallway if you doubt me.) Yet despite an ongoing struggle to move local hip hop out of the basements and into the clubs, there remains a paucity of venues for upstart crews who aren't aligned with the locally established collectives such as Minneapolis's Rhyme Sayers or St. Paul's Abstract Pack.

"A lot of kids can make rap songs and shit, but they all can't set up shows. That's not their deal," says the 21-year-old Combs. "So we made something where you don't have to be that professional yet. We have this one group called Midwest Alliance. The first time they performed was their first show, but by the last time they performed, they got their stuff together, real down."

In effect, local hip hop finally has its equivalent of First Avenue's long-standing average-white-band showcase, New Band Night. The downside is that much of the talent appearing is too raw. Yet, as a rookie proving-ground, Headspin is at least twice as vital as Tuesdays at the 7th Street Entry. And a multiracial crowd of city scenesters and campus clubrats flocks there weekly to take in the warm, smoky vibe. Beyond said it best: This is how it's supposed to be.

Still, a paranoid Combs reports that Headspin has been subjected to a high level of scrutiny from The System--you know, the kind ordinarily reserved for "dangerous" youth culture movements like rap. Combs says a taxation of the restaurant's door charge has been enforced, leading Bon Appetit to raise the cover from two bucks to three. Concurrently, he has been barred from using the term "hip hop" on fliers, forcing him to advertise the event as a "dance." There have also been concerns about graffiti (which Combs has taken active measures to discourage), and police complaints about people "blocking traffic." (The four times I've been to Headspin, kids have hung out on the sidewalk, but never in the street.)

The seeming fear surrounding the venue is ironic, considering that the biggest knuckleheads in this hood are probably the frat boys(excuse me, fraternity brothers), whose often unpoliced houses stand just a couple of blocks away. But forget that--on 14th Avenue, Dinkytown has its first music scene in years.

 

Headspin on Sunday, January 10 will include the F.W.U.A.S. (featuring Truth Maze), Jabril, Ex-Kon, and DJ Benny Bianco; (612) 379-3002.

Semi-ironic: Semisonic at Zone 105's "Zone for the Holidays," Target Center, December 19

I witnessed Semisonic's first-ever Target Center gig from the perspective that thousands of future fans are destined to share--off to the side of the stage and hundreds of feet up in what sports fans refer to as the nosebleed section. From there I saw singer-guitarist Dan Wilson greet the crowd with the salvo, "I don't think you guys realize what an achievement this is for us. It's a great Christmas present." Very sweet, indeed. And though I'm speaking for the minority in believing that the simplistic "Closing Time" is Semisonic's least impressive single, I have to admit that it was hard not to be swept up in the glorious mass sing-along that met the most obvious set-closer since Bon Jovi's "Never Say Goodbye." That said, has anyone else noticed that rock-star-era Semisonic seems more like the Dan Wilson Sex God Experience than a democratic unit? Back in the day, half of the band's female fans preferred bassist John Munson. Maybe the masses will come around.

Pet peeve of the night: A tiny Zone staffer introduced the band, saying, "We can hardly call them local, but we'd like to," offering yet another illustration of the Minnesota Music Inferiority Complex, which dictates that "local" and "popular," or even "local" and "good," are obviously mutually exclusive. This attitude certainly shows up in the Zone local-music policy.

Milking the Moment: the Cows, First Avenue, December 21

"We're the Cows," snarled singer Shannon Selberg, for the thousandth time in 13 years. Actually, he said it in a demented slur--"Wethecow!"--that capped every demented Cows song. But on this night, the stunted salutation left his mouth for the last time.

OK, so this wasn't officially the farewell Cows show. But with guitarist Thor Eisentrager(he of the mooing guitar sound) leaving the band, and Shannon and bassist Kevin Rutmanis now living out of town, what else could it be? Whatever the case, the show affirmed several long-held theories: 1) The Cows are/were one of the last local "punk" bands worth their weight in dung; 2) the Cows can/could vibrate the Mainroom concrete under your feet like few others; and 3) the end of the Cows would mean the end of an era.

On the bright side, sometimes it's best to leave past glories where they belong: in the past. But if this night's performance wasn't the greatest show of the band's 12-year career, the band is still in prime form. They plowed through a string of greatest hits--"Heave Ho," "Hitting the Wall," "Chow," "Big Mickey"--as if the lean, mean noise-rock days of 1991 had never ended. Shannon dedicated "Sexy Pee Story" to his mother, as fans flicked lit cigs at his shins. The Cows' fourth (or is it their fifth?) drummer, Freddy Votel of T.V.B.C., proved himself fluid enough to navigate the band's deceptively slippery landslidelike song structures. And, in a display of self-conscious sincerity, Shannon actually addressed the audience with a few complete, albeit obscure, sentences about how he finally felt like a man, despite having a girl's name. By Cows standards, it was downright confessional.

The overimaginative observer might have detected a sentimental finality in closing songs like "Cabin Man" (with its scowling coda "I don't want to go"), the low and mournful "Theme from Midnight Cowboy," or their set-ending cover of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Yet the band maintained its screwy, poker-faced detachment to the bitter end. Almost. As the curtain fell for the last time, Shannon was the last man standing. His final words: "Wethecow."

Again: "Wethecow." (Lights out.)

"We were the Cows." He surrendered.

"Indeed we were..." (Curtain.)

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