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.
The funny thing is, after we broke up, I told her, "I'll come down and see you. I'll come down to Texas rapping."
Dessa: I have this thing where I get really wrapped up in guys, and tend to really invest myself in what they're doing. So I remember dating this guy, and we broke up, and I was like, "I'll show you!" And I think at first I wanted to be successful in the least attractive way, just to spite him. You know what I mean? I think I just wanted to have that moment from the stage where I was like, "I did it." Okay, let's move on, this is making me depressed.
Cecil Otter: No, it's funny, because spite really drives you. A lot of people in this world work off spite. For somebody who didn't have the best dad or mom, or whatever, spite is a great driver.
Dessa: Some of the biggest things I've done, I've done from spite. But I feel like I want to do better than spite. I feel like at some point, I'd like to be moving toward something instead of running away as fast as I can.
Cecil Otter: That'll happen, but you need something to get you there.
Dessa: What are you finding most satisfying or least satisfying about rap?
Cecil Otter: The things that make me really happy now are the songs I can hear over and over again and relate to. Slug does that a lot for me. So does Sage [Francis]. They allow you to come in and feel what they're feeling. Some people may think it's emo or this or that, but hearing that stuff makes me feel really good.
Dessa: We were talking about this, about bravado. Think of all the human feelings that are going to have some real longevity. The "I'm better than you" sentiment is not one of them.
Cecil Otter: It means nothing to me at all. I mean there's a million ways you can go about it, but you're still walking up to somebody and being like, "I'm better than you." Oh. Good for you.
Dessa: So why do you think you and I have come together to collaborate?
Cecil Otter: I don't know. It fits. We both think about every single word.
Dessa: We're both heavy editors. We have differences, but we're both very writerly.
Cecil Otter: You went from being in spoken word, where people weren't putting their hands up while you were doing it. I've always felt weird about making people put their hands up, because I've spent so much time with the writing, making sure I'm getting this feeling out right. The type of person I am, I don't enjoy a lot of attention, but I enjoy writing. I was looking for an almost Beatnik vibe. So what was important about you releasing your first False Hopes?
Dessa: Although it was not part of my objective, I was very conscious of the fact that there are not many female rappers in this scene. I was a little bit conscious about representing. My personality is a little bit academic, considerably depressive, goofy, and full of some serious anger. I had to try to find a way to get across some of those impulses without affectation. I think if you're not angry at something, living in America right now, then you're not paying enough attention. Anger, and sometimes hurt, is an appropriate response to the world in which we live.