Big Quarters: Change is Gonna Come

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

Before the show I asked Zach if he was nervous. He said no. I was a bit nervous for him, because it is my longstanding contention that Americans stand against opening bands from out of town and generally wish them the worst. Onstage Zach is smiley and self-deprecating, which harmonizes with his slightly chunky frame, short beard, glasses, and unassuming stage name, Medium Zach (in deference to "Big" Zach Combs of Kanser and Traditional Methods).

"That's our pseudo banner," he says from the stage, pointing to the new sign draped over Noam's DJ table. "It's not really a banner, it's more like a nice piece of paper."

Brandon, laid-back in real life, is just animated enough to project excitement without indulging in a lot of bogus I'm crazy lost in the music histrionics. He stalks the stage in baggy denim shorts and an oversized golf shirt, commanding people to put their hands up. His voice is deep and soft in person, stentorian onstage and on record. Listen to him on CD and you might think, That is the voice of a fat man who's been around a bit, but in fact he's a thin 23-year-old, two years Zach's senior. He keeps his hair cropped short and wears a goatee. Like Karl Marx, with whom he shares some political views, he has a large forehead, which accentuates his big, puffy eyes. In photographs his eyes are often closed, which frankly makes him look stoned, though he never touches drugs or alcohol.

Brandon took a lot of Chicano Studies classes at the U of M and says that one of his chief artistic objectives is to "reach out to brown people" and inspire them with his verses. He raps about racism of the institutional and scene-specific varieties ("Whitey love us/Still headline above us"); and against "missiles over kids that got nothing to eat"; and about the trap of materialism ("Don't this chain look nice?/Don't this cage look nice?").

His and Zach's Minneapolis-bred mother is of Mexican origin. Their father, raised in tiny Clearbrook, Minnesota, comes from Norwegian stock. Their maternal grandparents, in keeping with common practice of the era, didn't speak Spanish in front of their kids, except when they needed a cipher. Brandon raps about these roots in one of his internal-rhyme-loaded verses from "Lou Diamond":

"Live from the back 40/Westside accordions, my origins/Uncle play Carlos, mother play Prince/Lake side of Marshall my coordinates/Good karma come with good armor, yes it does/Circa '81 birth of a son/Now we stand up gentlemen/Our hands up in everything."

By the time the last act wraps up at the Hot House, I'm tired and I'm hoping that the Big Quarters crew will blow off the hip-hop open mic they were thinking about heading to next.

They don't. We get there around 2:00 a.m. and things are pretty buzzing. Brandon and Zach immediately start passing out CDs, delivering a quick pitch, moving onto the next potential fan, which again is anyone. This mini-tour clearly wasn't set up by the William Morris Agency. They played a house party in Madison Saturday night. They were scheduled to play two shows in Chicago, but the first, on Sunday night, turned out to be more of a cameo during a low-key and sparsely attended DJ night.

But the guy who set it up turned them on to some good Chicago contacts--rappers, radio DJs, etc.--and Brandon and Zach called them all up. They gave away CDs (surprise), talked to performers about trading shows, encouraged people to drive seven hours to the upcoming Twin Cities Celebration of Hip Hop, asked folks to look out for their forthcoming CD, Cost of Living, due in the spring of '06. People at the open mic seem receptive to Brandon and Zach's gifts. Big Quarters are successful salesman because they believe deeply in the product and because in this case there's no charge.

I flew in to Chicago but I'm driving back with the group tomorrow. Now it is tomorrow--well past 3:00 a.m. And so I'm not disappointed when the group decides to call it a night.

As the trio watches its musical earnings disappear into the city's toll baskets, Big Quarters can boast that they're ever so slightly more famous in Chicago than they were a week before. Which is not insignificant when you're in it for the long haul.

"How'd you think it went?" Brandon asks Zach the next day.

"Great," he answers. I ask if he's being sarcastic, because he doesn't seem to be sarcastic by nature and because things seemed to go pretty well, all things considered. "I'm only being, like, five percent sarcastic," he says.

That's how these guys win you over: 95 percent sincerity.

 

This is not a van tour; it's a Noam's dad's Ford Taurus tour. All three artist-DJ-producers have been vigorously shopping for records throughout the trip. "All we really did during the day was go to record stores," Noam says.

One little-known fact about records is that it doesn't take a lot of them to crowd up a Ford Taurus. But Big Quarters have bought a lot of them. On our way out of town we drive by Hoffman Estates, Illinois, where Brandon and Zach were born. The Bagaasons moved to Minnesota in 1993 so they could be close to Brandon and Zach's paternal grandmother, who was suffering from Parkinson's disease. They settled into the Clearbrook, Minnesota, home where their dad grew up. Clearbrook, conveniently located just over 40 miles west of Bemidji and its bubbling hip-hop scene, is a town of about 500 people. This was a dramatic change from Chicagoland. The boys were greeted as The City Kids Who Are Into Rap, a reputation that didn't really work in their favor.

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