By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
What if the turning point in Twin Cities hip hop turned out to be the introduction of the 651 area code? I mean, is it simply a coincidence that just as St. Paul seceded from the 612, the countless crews scattered throughout our capital--the ones who'd been bumping up against each other at house parties and open mics for the better part of a decade--suddenly realized the strength in their numbers?
It's not so far-fetched. Recall how seminal New York City MCs called for separate segments of the crowd to shout out the digits Ma Bell had assigned their hoods. Unity may be a fuzzy buzzword MCs drop when it comes time to front social responsibility, but rap is first and foremost an art of war, and it thrives on microregionalism. Not violent enforcement of same--that's mostly a creature of media paranoia encouraged by a few willing, overhyped knuckleheads--but genuine hometown pride.
The emergent "Shots Paul" hip-hop community championed by Los Nativos and Abstract Pack hasn't let that spirit degenerate into chauvinism. "After all, you could throw a rock and hit Minneapolis from here," shrugs MC Paizon, who heads the crew Stereo Type Click. He must have a hell of an arm, considering how deep within the East Side we are, sitting in the Click's home studio near Harding High School. ("Is that still St. Paul?" asked a friend--Minneapolitan, of course--when I told him where I was going.) But Paizon's point is well taken. From the seats of major-label power in New York or L.A., both cities look nigh on identical, and these MCs aren't going to discourage that delusion.
"We're just waiting for one group to blow up out here," Paizon insists. "Then Twin Cities hip hop will be on the map." He shifts in his seat. "I wish somebody would just blow the hell up already. Damn. This is starting to piss me off," he fumes with playful but visible impatience.
Then again, all of Paizon's emotions are just this visible. Raised in the Boogie Down Bronx, John DeRosa migrated westward with his family in his early teens, and he has retained his ingratiating outer borough candor. Though he stayed in the frozen North when his retired parents wisely swooped down to thaw out in Florida, Paizon says he's a family man. He's got cousins peddling the Click's discs throughout New York, and he glows when he mentions his three-year-old son Vincenzo. ("He's a little badass.") And as he fingers a prominent gold chain, he commands me, "You gotta mention my mom in this story." I laugh. Paizon ain't even smiling.
Stereo Type Click--Paizon, fellow MC Shawnski, and MC/producer D-Mil--first caught the attention of those of us on the opposite side of the river with last year's Underground Embargo, a slow boil of a debut album recorded out of P Family studios in east St. Paul. The disc is stronger on flow and mood and detail than dazzling wordplay or hookcraft. Waxing icily thuggish at one moment, staggering with smoked-out determination the next, the crew is still staking out its own stylistic turf. But their skills are immediately apparent, and so is their emotional range. On "High Stakes," Paizon threatens, "I'll be leavin' 10,000 body parts in 10,000 lakes." Three tracks later, on "Dreams," he's detailing the birth of his son, and the resulting emotional troubles with the baby's mother, with nuanced empathy.
K.B. is sifting through a recently acquired stack of vinyl. "You didn't buy a Lawrence Welk record," the crew's graphics mastermind and co-producer scoffs across the room at D-Mil. "Now this I can use," he says, setting aside a Mantovani platter. The underground has finicky tastes, occasionally baffling to the rest of us.
We're in the East Side house D-Mil and his brother Eddie bought last June. I'm surrounded by the crew's extended production family--Paizon, MC and producer D-Mil, graphics mastermind and co-producer K.B., and singer Jozi. The crew's third MC, Shawnski, couldn't be there. "He's taking care of some personal business," D Mil offers obliquely.
Carpeted wall-to-wall and crammed with more furniture than occupants, this is the sort of basement where you might have spent high school making fun of UHF-broadcast kung fu flicks, lying about girls, and making indefinite plans. They started work on the studio in November; by mid-January it was provisionally operable, complete with a reel-to-reel, a PC for digital mixing, a soundproofed booth, and, of course, scattered stacks of vinyl.
If Paizon converses in broad swaths of narrative and hyperbole, D-Mil lives for details--dates, names, numbers. The softspoken but intent hip-hop head born David Miller, sitting across from me in a Twins cap and a hooded sweatshirt, was introduced to hip hop back in 1985. D-Mil was in second grade when his brother James, who has since passed, was a member of the seminal St. Paul Wild Style crew, who were battling the St. Paul West Side crew back when what most of us knew about that new rap fad came from Blondie and "Rappin' Rodney."
By the mid-Nineties, D-Mil was making the scene at East Side house parties. "Me and this other guy, Grand C, started performing around town," D-Mil recalls. "J.D. [Paizon] always came up and flowed separate, so we knew him."
"So me and Juice Box got together," Paizon says, flicking a thumb in D-Mil's direction. "I call him Juice Box 'cause he's so little. Look at him--he looks like a little juice box, don't he?" K.B. and Jozi crack up. D-Mil smiles generously. "And Ski would always be around," laughs Paizon. "He wasn't afraid to grab the mic."
Shawnski was slower to get his act together than the savvy D-Mil. "He got sick of it, 'cause we always had a show ready," says D-Mil. "And he'd just show up and do whatever because he didn't have anything prepared. So one night he was like, 'Hey, D-Mil, fuck this already. I'm comin' to your house. I'm gonna put it down--my rhymes, your beats, so I got something for the next party."
Turns out Shawnski's "personal business" is legal in nature: He's keeping an involuntary 60-day appointment with the State of Minnesota. He sketches similar scrapes in his rhymes. "My past has affected my present," Shawnski muses on "Dreams." On "Gambles," Ski skates on a hectic edge, balancing career, thrill-seeking, and love while pondering his future. Similarly, Paizon makes no bones about his past legal entanglements, while insisting that he, Shawnski, and many of their friends and acquaintances are just clearing their slate as they broach maturity. "It's cool to see all your boys--instead of running the streets getting into something crazy, they're putting their energy into setting goals," Paizon adds.
Of course, while said slates are being cleared, the Click's plans--particularly Shawnski's solo joint--have been set on the back burner. But this is a crew that more than knows how to make do, scavenging for any available venue while others have bitched about the lack of performance spaces. They've held it down at Schwietz Saloon, a neighborhood tavern on Payne Avenue, organized riverboat shows in Stillwater, celebrated a CD release at Banana Joe's, and even saturated Acapulco last spring with their sensuous single "Money Remix." (D-Mil returns to Mexico this spring break, to DJ for three weeks in Mazatlán.)
Even as they make plans ("very long-term") for an East Side St. Paul club, the STC still hold out hope that downtown Minneapolis might make room for live hip-hop shows in clubs that don't pander solely to a vanilla temperament with jiggy, smiling, tip-your-bartenders jams. Of course, club owners tend to be suspicious of the patrons those shows draw--you know, the "element" euphemistically railed against in the news. The lines drawn are almost as much generational as they are racial. (The crew itself is interracial.)
"Downtown people are scared of a bunch of kids with baggy pants showing up in their place," K.B. says.
"Yeah, well they gotta get used to it," Paizon interjects. "Hip hop ain't goin' nowhere. It's all anyone listens to in the schools, except for those Manson kids with the painted fingernails and fake eyes and shit. I mean, damn."