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."

One of Balance's three employees, Larson is the creator of DUNation.com, 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."

"I'm sorry," he says. "I was up till five last night in the studio with Dtekh. We were supposed to record this radio show yesterday, but he didn't call me until 11:00, and even then we couldn't do it because he was driving down Lake Street in his underwear."

Larson has been on the phone all afternoon trying to get a hold of Dtekh, who runs Supreme Beats studio. Tonight, he and Larson will use the studio to pre-record the first installment of Beats and Rhymes, a new weekly hip-hop show featured on the all-local Internet radio site MisplacedMusic.org. As Balance nears closing time, Larson gets restless. He picks up the phone again, and learns that Dtekh is eating dinner with onetime KMOJ DJ Travis "Travitron" Lee.

"You know where Soul City Supper Club is?" Larson asks. "We'll just meet him over there, then go to the studio. Maybe you'll get to meet Kandis."

Kandis Knight writes most of the news and interviews for DUNation and contributes a short news spot to Beats and Rhymes. Larson's also got a hunch that she is the reason Dtekh was driving around in his skivvies last night.

 

As he makes his way into Supreme Beats, Larson is thinking about the DU message board. He rubs his lips, shakes his head, and sighs, reluctantly admitting that the board's gossip and in-group fighting is one of the reasons his site gets so much traffic.

"I should moderate it more, I guess," he says. "I don't want to censor it--y'know, free speech and stuff--but it's just insanity. They're a bunch of haters. It's like a reality show for the whole scene."

Like any good reality television show, the message board counters its disagreements with a dose of romance. Two babies have already been born as a result of hook-ups made on the board. And the content runs deep: DJ Aaron Money regularly posts essayistic threads with titles like "The Cost of Poverty." But in the end, it's the beef that keeps people reading.

"Everybody reads it," says Larson. "I ran into Brother Ali the other day at Davanni's, and he told me about how [Rhymesayers rapper] Siddiq had called him up just to tell him about a thread."

That's when it strikes me that Larson knows everybody. His website isn't just a resource for the underground; it is the underground. He's gelling an entire scene--which makes it hard to blame him for mixing up a name or two once in a while.

That's why, when he does it again an hour later, I don't hold it against him. "What's up everyone, we got Derek in the house!" shouts Larson into the microphone as he glances over at me. Sitting on a red velvet couch in the production booth at Supreme Beats, I don't remind him that my name is Chuck. Instead, I check the song list that Larson and Dtekh have already laid down. It's a solid hour of local hip hop: Los Nativos, Musab, Traditional Methods. "That's the best album of the year," Dtekh tells me, pointing to the Traditional Methods track. Even off the air, Dtekh speaks like a radio DJ: fast, articulate, and purposeful. When he tells you something, you buy it.

While Dtekh and Larson continue working, I find Kandis Knight sitting by a computer in an adjacent room. A colorful paint job runs up the high walls to the ceiling, and Knight researches her news spot by scouring the DU message board. She looks at some announcements for the local hip-hop festival "Yo! The Movement" and DUNation's birthday party before giggling at a post titled "Unknown Prophets and Big Quarters, July 22." Three pages into the thread, the discussion gets reduced to a verbal sparring match between a local amateur MC named A-lib and Jay Bee, the baritoned co-host of Radio K's The Beat Box. In the post that Knight is reading, A-lib says that his adversary is "whiter than baby powder" and makes highly dubious claims about Jay Bee's sexuality.

"You little twerp," Jay Bee writes. "Anus-stabber. Stop giving me your white friend's celly, queer. Pussy bitch." Knight giggles again as Larson walks up and reads the post. "This is getting out of hand," he says.

But there's no time to read the rest of the message. He has a radio show to record, and after he returns to the mic, it comes off without a hitch. Dtekh is such a hyperactive co-host that the program sounds a little like a B-96 house party without the commercials. And the tracks the two DJs play make for a fine capsule of the local music scene. Listening to the show, it's tempting to believe that with someone like Lars Larson at its helm, local hip hop just might snuff out local rock 'n' roll after all. But I've got my doubts. So does Larson.

"When Sun's closed, they threw away a bunch of their leftover stuff, and people were lined up to dig through the garbage for that shit," he tells me. "People keep coming into Balance thinking it's still Sun's. Three kids came in today looking for Motörhead T-shirts."

He laughs. Maybe he'll carry a couple in the store, he says, just in case the kids come back. There's symbolism for you: Motörhead shirts and Triple 5 Soul under one roof. Maybe there really is some balance in this music scene after all.

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