She's a slam poet who writes copy for a medical manufacturer. He's a whiskery rapper who waits on tables at the Egg & I. She sounds like Ladybug from Digable Planets--until she breaks out her silky R&B sing-song. He's forever searching for the perfect obscure sample. Both Dessa, the spoken-word champion, and Cecil Otter, the drifter, belong to the local hip-hop group Doomtree. Each has a new release in the crew's three-year-old series of home-burned CDs, False Hopes. Both are stepping out from the shadow of P.O.S., Doomtree's best-known rapper, with a strident mixture of the personal and the political.
"He puts his hand on my knee/sometimes that's what it takes," raps Dessa. "He doesn't make me happy but he helps to still the shakes." (She's updating her ex-files.)
"You're the shoulder I'll always cry on," chants Cecil Otter. (He's rapping about his mom.)
We decided to hand these two friends a tape recorder and have them interview each other on Valentine's Day, over two-for-one vodka-tonics at Mortimer's. Here's what happened:
Dessa: So do you get nervous before shows?
Cecil Otter: When I first started I was scared, because Stef [P.O.S.] had brought me in to record songs at a friend's house. [Producer] Kai and Stef had an idea to make an album called Doomtree. It wasn't going to be a label. They just wanted to bring on a lot of other acts, national acts, and do all the production for it. So I was really nervous. I definitely had a few drinks, because when I would get scared, my stomach would hurt, and I'd almost puke. The first two shows I couldn't play at all.
Dessa: When I first started performing spoken word, before I was asked to join Doomtree, I used to get teased by the other poets because I just wore the same thing every night. Then I just stopped hanging out with poets, and I still wear the same thing every night. But I used to wear these shiny black pants and a red shirt. I stopped wearing those pants, because I realized that in the stage lights, you could see how bad my knees were shaking.
Cecil Otter: I had the shaky-knee thing for a while, too.
Dessa: What would you do with your life if the following career paths were blocked off: visual art, skateboarding, and writing?
Cecil Otter: Oh God. I think about that sometimes, and it's kind of like watching a scary movie with a bad ending. I did a lot of assembly stuff. I'm a hard worker. I don't know, I guess I'd probably work a little closer with my dad on his old cars. Maybe move to Seattle and work on a big fishing boat. What's your favorite thing to do if you're not writing songs or writing pacemaker-installation directions? I couldn't see you watching TV.
Dessa: My favorite thing? That's appropriate for publication?
My family has been a really unexpected source of security and comfort. I felt stupid when I went to college and didn't leave the state like everybody else did, because I thought I was living my life on a smaller scale than my classmates. My brother has turned out to be my favorite person in the world. The thing that I miss the most is academia. And I know that's not very hip hop. So I read a lot of textbooks. What's the weirdest word you've ever used in a rhyme?
Cecil Otter: Expel. I think it has to do with advanced Dungeons and Dragons: "I will expel your powers with my 20-sided die."
Dessa: Are you seeing anyone? And
do you prefer blondes, redheads, or brunettes? Cecil looks uncomfortable.
Cecil is examining the thumbnail of his right hand. Let's move on. What was the worst part of your day, today?
Cecil Otter: Waking up at 11:00 [a.m.] and being like, shit, I was going to call Dessa at 9:00. But I was up all night. I drank a few cups of coffee really quick, over the recommended dose. I was trying to write, and I was kind of nervous about this whole thing, to be honest. You're good at asking questions.
Dessa: When I get nervous, I don't give people enough time to respond to things. I just immediately begin talking.
Cecil Otter: Yeah, and--
Dessa: My turn! The worst part of my day.... I had kind of anticipated a rough Valentine's Day, but it hasn't been that bad. I went to Kinko's and I made my mom a Valentine, four-year-old style, because I have the means of a four-year-old child, which involves stealing red-colored paper and a pen that later exploded in my pocket.
Cecil Otter: What's your favorite liquor? Ron Diaz?
Dessa: Basing it off what I drink most, Ron Diaz. Imported from exotic and faraway Princeton, Minnesota. What's your favorite smoke?
Cecil Otter: Marlboro Red.
Dessa: Does your first love know that you rap?
Cecil Otter: My first long relationship.... She's in Texas right now. She knows I wanted to do it. Every night I was writing or drawing. She knew I was painting trains. That's what we did during our relationship: We'd both sit at tables at the same place. She wasn't like, "I'll go out with you and graf." That isn't a date thing.