One Nation, Under Ground

Lars Larson and the subterranean network of the local hip-hop

Could it be that, after years of tussling over our stages, radio waves, and speaker boxes, the battle between local rock and hip hop has finally been settled in a downtown Minneapolis storefront? It's definitely possible. Despite its deceptive moniker, Balance, the new Hennepin Avenue hip-hop shop that recently took over the building where Sun's Rock 'N' Roll Items once was, may represent the decisive tipping of the scales in the long and bloody bout over the title of the Twin Cities' favorite music. The sweat and grime of Sun's has been scraped from the walls; the vintage KISS T-shirts, AC/DC posters, and assorted rock 'n' roll bric-a-brac have disappeared; and everything save the store's own support beams has been flushed from the building's bowels in one colossal hip-hop enema. Where musty butt-rock memorabilia once were, there are now sparkling displays of fashions by Zoo York, Triple 5 Soul, Drunken Monkey, and a new local brand called UM&F (which stands for "underground music and fashion"). On the whitewashed walls, someone has painted a series of teary, graffiti-style eyes, as if to ask, If these walls, which have so long sheltered rock monuments, could see, would they be crying?

Okay, probably not. But they'd certainly be eyeing Lars Larson.

Sitting in a cozy little chair in the rear of the store, right in front of a T-shirt display that reads "Money Makin'," Larson kicks back with a hat on his blond head, a grin on his jovial face, and a raspberry blush in his cheeks. "This is the first day we're open--the real grand opening isn't for a couple weeks," the 25-year-old Robbinsdale native explains with a quiet assertiveness. "But it's been okay. We made three sales, and lot of people have walked by and stopped in."

Out of Balance: Lars Larson in Hennepin Avenue's premier hip-hop shop
Sean Smuda
Out of Balance: Lars Larson in Hennepin Avenue's premier hip-hop shop

One of Balance's three employees, Larson is the creator of, a plucky local hip-hop site which he updates regularly with breaking news, show listings, MP3s, video feeds of concerts and MC battles, photos of local graffiti, and a lively message board that's visited by nearly every MC and DJ in town--and which is also prone to bouts of endlessly creative (if cringingly homophobic) shit-talking (sample closing signature from a message poster: "True fact--you're wack, with beads in your anus"). As DUNation celebrates its three-year anniversary this week with a concert at the Cabooze, its traffic is peaking, making its dutiful warden a principal soldier in the great hip-hop takeover of Sun's.

Outside of Balance, there isn't really a major cultural tug-of-war going on, at least not musically. While the closing of Sun's is certainly the end of something, it's not the end of rock 'n' roll. Genres aren't like buildings: They don't get renovated, remodeled, or torn down and rebuilt. They tend to evolve. Just ask local rapper Brother Ali, who performed at the Texas indie rock orgy known as South by Southwest this year to find legions of fans singing along to all of his songs. Or ask Minnesota freestyle champ Eyedea, who, in the past three years, went from winning an HBO battle contest to signing with Epitaph, a punk rock record label. The underground just keeps branching out, like trees, or human beings. Like websites.

"It's really amazing how popular DUNation has become," Larson says, noting that the site began as a collaboration with his high school friend, Clayton Chelmo. In the summer of 2001, the duo created Division Underground, a double-edged web community devoted, on Larson's side, to hip hop, and on Chelmo's side, to techno. (This is where DUNation gets its mysterious initials. It is not, as some have ventured, a French pronoun or a reference to Digital Underground, nor is it pronounced "doo.") Larson eventually broke from Chelmo's site, and today he co-owns DUNation with his cousin, John Palm.

Today, the part-time Balance employee is dressed for work: nice slacks, black shoes, and a blue buttoned-down shirt with prominent vertical stripes--a fashion that south Minneapolis producer Dtekh will later describe as "his Kanyes," a reference to rapper Kanye West, whose debut album, The College Dropout, is one of the hottest hip-hop releases of the year. Larson is himself a college dropout, having attended Hennepin Tech and the College of Visual Art in St. Paul before opting to spend more time working on his ever-growing website. "It's all been word-of-mouth," he says. "We've never advertised or anything, and now we're getting 36,000 hits a day. It's insane."

Actually, it makes sense. Larson's cool demeanor never quite gets in the way of his ability to network, and he carries on in the manner of a man who's used to getting what he needs by making sure everyone else gets what they want. That drive to continue the unpaid responsibility of maintaining DUNation is the reason the site has become so successful. As a consequence, Larson sleeps little, he doesn't have a girlfriend (he blames an abundance of hot male friends), and he's awful with names. During the course of the evening, he occasionally forgets my name is Chuck and calls me "Derek," and he later e-mails me messages addressed to "Chris."

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