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.

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.

"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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