Big Quarters: Change is Gonna Come

Yesterday they were fending off racial taunts in small-town Minnesota. Tomorrow they could be hip-hop heroes.

After the last C chord has sounded and the vocalist has dropped his mic to the floor, kicked over the piano bench, smashed a guitar, ignited a tuba, and reneged on an earlier vow to "play all night"--after all that, there are a number of ways a musician can spend the rest of his evening. Hard drugs and sexual congress with strangers are perennial favorites, or so I'm led to believe by a distant relation who claims to have acquired carnal knowledge of an amplifier technician once on the payroll of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Negotiating to get paid early and hightailing it out of the shit-hole club is another option.

A standard post-show behavior among insecure musicians (all of them) is described in Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter's memoir, So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star, in which the timekeeper often plays third fiddle to his frontline bandmates: "As Dan and John were mobbed by fans, I'd calculate how many times I could walk through the crowd in search of flattery without looking like a guy walking through the crowd in search of flattery."

So you can do all of that. Or you can attempt to, as it were, seal the deal. Steve Martin used to do a bit at the end of his standup performances. "I'd like to thank each and every one of you," he'd say in an oozing showbiz voice, "Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you...."

Brandon Bagaason of the Twin Cities hip-hop group Big Quarters has just finished a set at downtown Chicago's Hot House. And now he's going up to everyone in the club, one by one, table by table, like he's running for office. Granted, it's not a huge crowd; there are about 60 people in the boho nightclub. But he doesn't sit down until he has met and held a proper conversation with all present. One of the guys he talks to later asks me if Big Quarters is big in Minneapolis. Not really, I tell him.

"Do you think they'll be successful?" he asks.

I think I have an answer to that question, but let's get to it later.

Compared to the fairly homogenous crowd present for a recent Big Quarters show at the Dinkytowner, the Hot House audience is black, white, brown. There's a gray-haired guy who generously saves me from being the oldest person in attendance. The gig pays well in the sense that it pays somewhat better than helping a friend move a sofa. To recoup expenses, Brandon and his younger brother Zach, who make up Big Quarters along with DJ assistance from Noam "the Drummer" Feisel, have CDs to sell. But they're giving them away. The club--a nonprofit--wanted to take a cut of the merchandise, but fuck that. And, truth be told, these guys are quick to give away their music anyway. Zach works at an after-school program and he's always handing out his CDs as prizes.

"I just think of all the music that's out there for free, on the radio," he says, "and the effect it has on kids who might not be aware of other music. Often the kids that don't get this music are the ones that need it the most."

Brandon puts it like this: "Our music is good and we think people will like it if they just give it a chance."

And he's right. Tonight, a Tuesday, Big Quarters have won over a rather cool Hot House. For a more or less unknown act on the road, the only thing a Tuesday night gig has to brag about is that it's not a Monday night gig. Brandon and Zach have a few supporters on hand, including Tim Budoff, an old friend from Schaumburg, Illinois, where the brothers went to grade school. They were nine and eleven when their family moved to Minnesota, and Tim doesn't like to come into the city. Which suggests something I'm starting to feel myself: These guys inspire loyalty.

During the first act's bland performance, it seemed that Carl Sandburg had gotten it wrong, Chicago is the City of the Big Shrugging Shoulders. Fixing that torpor would be the job of a 15-man posse, which is 12 people more than Big Quarters can muster.

"We're Big Quarters from Minneapolis," Zach announces from the stage. "We make beats and we rap; it's not that impressive."

But it is! Noam, tall, bespectacled and shall we say not ungeeky behind the turntables, cues "Lou Diamond," a new song produced by Zach. The track starts with Zach playing the recorder, which I've always taken for a bush-league instrument, but he makes it sound cool, and then the beat comes in. It's hard, spare, scratchy, a monstrous horn sample dropping each time on the one. As kids, Brandon and Zach listened to a lot of Wu-Tang Clan, Cypress Hill, and Pete Rock, which shows in their lean, sample-based beats, history-minded but adventurous.

At one point, a convert starts breakdancing, which accentuates the back-to-basics sound. Another new song, "Beacons," is slow, nasty, and bluesy. "Along Came Polly" is bouncy and good-humored, with a sing-along chorus on which Brandon's performance seems indebted to the underrated vocal stylings of the Cookie Monster. Unlike some producers who also rap, Big Quarters can really flow, so maybe they're rappers who also produce.

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