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
"Nah, I'm gonna be Mu Ferrigno this time," insists the not particularly hulking artist who began our interview just an hour ago earlier as Muja Messiah. He announces this while leaning over the couch armrest to my left, peering at my notes. From my right, Mu's friend Naes is looking to see that I've scribbled the names of each Raw Villa MC correctly in my notebook. He shakes his head. "Don't start with that again."
The four members of Raw Villa are gathered this blustery Father's Day in the Supreme Beats studio, a multiroom work in progress tucked above Roberts Shoes on the corner of Lake and Chicago. For a year now, this studio has been the lair of Minneapolis superproducer Detekh. He has been in this building for three years, moving down the hall last summer to his current digs, an old theater expanded to a snazzy gray-trimmed suite. Today Detekh keeps mostly quiet, slipping around the room, snapping pics of the crew.
Raw Villa, Minnesota natives all in their mid-20s, is just back in from Toronto, where they've been recording with Twin Cities promoter/scenester/musician JonJon Scott and his partner in Black Corners promotions, Doc. Voicing their amazement at the cohesion of the Toronto community, Villa bemoan the lack of same here.
"You've always had to blow up everywhere else before you get accepted here," Rico says.
"Nobody wants to hear your shit," complains Muja. "All they wanna do is play you their shit."
"There's a whole lot of MCs and too few producers," Gaza says.
"We're in a town full of promoters, barbers, and MCs," Naes insists with mysterious finality.
"Cats is still acting like crabs in a bucket." His right hand scurries into the shape of a scuttling set of claws. "As soon as you start to get out--[his left hand leaps and seizes the imitation crab by the wrist] pow!--you ain't going nowhere.'"
Take in a Villa live show, though, and you'd think they suffered from too much support. The stage is habitually crammed with friends swigging Champagne, lounging and shouting unqualified assent to whatever the MCs have to say--it's a shock to learn there are only four members of Raw Villa. But it's partly that confusion that lends a Villa show its vitality.
As I ponder the meaning behind this latest set of names, I notice that Muja--or I should say, Mu--has won the earlier debate. Naes has commandeered my pen to write his crew's new names properly in my book. It reads:
Shionaes Villantro (Naes)
Mu Ferrigno (formerly Muja Messiah)
Mu glances at the list, silent and stoic. After a pensive moment, he nods his approval.
Hip hop has always been a medium of rechristening, starting with the earliest MCs who shrugged off musty Christian names for chilled-out designations of flash and power. But stakes were raised in 1994, when the nine-man Staten Island crew Wu-Tang Clan hit big with a dense cryptomythology inherited from Black Muslim Five Percenter lore and Channel 5 kung fu flicks. The Wu's multiple names and titles weren't just show-biz glitz: They were comic-book alter egos. Suddenly, the wackest MCs had at least two regular recording names and three additional aliases, and hip hop embraced the re-creation of self for every occasion.
When Wu dropped, Naes and Gaza had been performing for at least two years around town as Faculty of Speech (a name their extended family of associates still goes by). "Wu came tight," Naes admits, stroking a thin goatee. "Nobody ever threw me off as much as them." Still, Villa rightfully resent lazy comparisons from critics who, upon seeing a bunch of brothers onstage, have scribbled "Midwest Wu-Tang" in their notebooks. In fact, the Wu influence isn't so much apparent in rhyme styles--each of the MCs has his own distinctive attack--as in their bent for global conquest. "We consolidated to figure out how to take over the world," Naes says of the moment when he and Gaza joined forces with Mu and Rico. And how exactly will they accomplish that feat? "I can't give you the full plan, but the last man standing, you'll see, it will be Raw Villa."
After the pause that usually greets such apocalyptic pronouncements from Naes, Muja laughs. "What is that? Your prediction for the fight?"
Well, maybe so. Listening to Raw Villa talk among themselves can be like hearing a blow-by-blow recounting of a prizefight. In fact, when I arrived, the crew were simultaneously recalling the final round of last night's Mosley-De La Hoya fight and responding to each line of a new, unexpectedly streetwise LL Cool J joint (off an underground mix tape by NYC's DJ Juice), like it was a traded punch to be cheered or ducked. And their conversations about culture are cast in the form of showdowns: newcomer MC Ali Vegas vs. Nas. Martin Lawrence vs. Eddie Murphy.
It's appropriate, then, that Rebellion (Black Corners) is a full-fledged knockout expletive of an EP, crammed with punky roundhouses intent on offending liberal sensitivities. I've never subscribed to any variation of the Villa street credo, "Money first, pussy come last" (which may be why I've always had a hard time accumulating a good share of either). And while some of the sentiments voiced in "Psychotic Logic" sound dead-on ("Nine out of ten serial killers lack melanin"), other distinctions ("Brothers kill for the dollar bill/Crackers kill for the mere thrill") might be lost on me if I had a 9 shoved in my maw. Yet that wily, unabashed aggression lends Villa their unique charm.