Big Quarters: Change is Gonna Come

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

"I was the darkest person in the tri-county area," says Brandon, who has a darker complexion than Zach. "And people liked to remind me of that often. They thought we were in gangs." The brothers aligned themselves with the town's outcasts, the few kids into hip hop and, later, the skater punks. Some of these misfits would later turn Brandon and Zach onto Atmosphere and other Twin Cities hip hop.

"In middle school I had trouble getting along with any of my friends," says Zach. "They picked on me a lot. I always had problems hanging out with my friends because they would make fun of me for being Mexican. Basically, in middle school my best friend was my mom, because she was the only one looking out for me. And then kids kind of made fun of me for that, too.

"We listened to hip hop at home, loud, and my moms, she didn't approve of it," Brandon says. "But she always encouraged us to be creative and be entrepreneurs. So she said, 'Why don't you write your own rap songs?' And we laughed at her, like, How are we going to write a rap song? But that was kind of it."

Brandon saved money to buy turntables, and he and Zach started DJing high school parties. By 2000, they were both in Minneapolis, Brandon at the U, Zach attending an arts high school, where he stayed in the dorm and developed his beat-making skills. They were constantly passing out tapes, giving away beats to rappers.

Eventually they started performing as EPL ("We were always the smallest name on the fliers," they now complain), and then in collaboration with MC and graphic artist Adam "Snakebird" Garcia as EPL & Snakebird. Last year, EPL & Snakebird put out a good, if overlooked, album, but then split with Garcia and regrouped as Big Quarters.

On the way home we listen to the Pharcyde and some Chicago CDs acquired during networking exchanges, and to TACT, a hip-hop group from Israel, where Noam was born. When we stop at Subway, Zach buys everyone's lunch. One should pause for a moment to appreciate the not uncommon generosity of people without a lot of money. One should pause further to appreciate the generosity of a 21-year-old returning from a tour in which performance earnings were exceeded by the cost of a tow truck the band had to hire when a flat tire came with the added bonus of a stripped lug nut.

A few days later in his St. Louis Park apartment, Zach plays me some of his new beats. "I often sit here all day like a hermit making beats," Zach says. "I could play you 300 beats." The offer appears to be sincere and he's clearly disappointed when I tell him I have to get going pretty soon.

Zach's two roommates, Ben "Benzillion" Haarsager and Luke "DJ Elex" Rusch, are also hip-hop producers. All, along with Brandon, Noam, King Karnov, and Todda, are members of Famfeud, a seven-man beat-maker's collective that recently put out an instrumental CD called Measures. Zach's bedroom is also a tiny recording studio, or rather it is a tiny recording studio that also pretends to be a bedroom. He plays me a track from the forthcoming album by Aphrill, the new group featuring Toki Wright of the C.O.R.E. and Nomi of Kill the Vultures. Zach produced the whole album, which--if the rough mix he loaned me is any indication--will be one of the best local releases of '05. He has also made beats for Kanser and Illuminous 3, and he and Benzillion cooked up one of the interludes on I Self Devine's new album, Self Destruction.

Listening to the new stuff I realize that Big Quarters are better than I thought they were, and I thought they were good. They were better at the Hot House than they were two weeks before at the Dinkytowner. They're much better today than they were two years ago. So far, they're also better in concert than they are on record, but the stuff likely to be on next year's album will be harder to top.

It's then that it occurs to me that these guys might be on the verge of something.

"Do you think you guys are on the verge of something?" I ask Zach.

"That was something I wanted to talk about," he says, "because...I don't know." His voice rises and intensifies at these last three words, because uncertainty is both exciting and painful. "When Brandon told me that you wanted to do a story on us and put us on the cover," he goes on, "I thought, Do we deserve that?"

He goes on to say that perhaps his group is not entirely undeserving, but surely they wouldn't be where they are without Big Jess, Mesh, Musab, Kanser, I Self Devine, Big Zach, Doomtree--the list of local hip-hop notables goes on. And as he's talking I realize that what we have here is genuine humility!

After the Chicago show, when that guy in the audience asked me if I thought Big Quarters would be successful, I didn't really know what to say. I don't see Big Quarters trading manicure tips with Jay-Z and selling out the Target Center (although I wouldn't be surprised if they filled the First Avenue mainroom a year from now.) Most musicians, of course, don't make it, most don't wind up playing music for a living or make good on their pledges to play music till they die any more than bandleaders make good on their onstage pledges to "play all night." If they did, the service at Guitar Center would be terrible and the restaurant and child-care industries would be crippled. There are always trade-offs. Still, one can dream, and certain dreamers are on to something; their dreams are infectious.

"Yeah, I think they're going to do really well," I said, and meant it.

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