It's a little unusual to find an impossibly long line wrapped around two city blocks for a show in Minneapolis featuring local headliners. Especially in Dinkytown in December, on a night when the wind chill is a spiteful 10 below. The crowd anticipating entry is one giant, shivering blur of hip-hop hipsters, somewhat unconvincing gutter punks, guys in fur-hooded Northface jackets, and apparently coat-check-shy ladies with bare arms bracing themselves against anything warm. Everyone's here for the "Doomtree Blowout" showcase that'll put the entire assortment of misfit MCs and DJs on the same stage for the first time in two years.
A small group near the back of the line, probably realizing they're going to be there until next Tuesday, is spitting lyrics from MC Sims's summer debut, Lights Out Paris: "Watchin' pools of clay turn into a pool of mud/Tryin' to stay afloat in today's latest flood/Please take me back to the way that it was/Ten nineteen eighty-two and I'm done!
It's safe to say you're headed in the right direction when people are waiting in a line that's a quarter-mile long and yelling your birth date. It's also safe to say those kids won't get in to see Sims perform. The club hits capacity at 600, turning the rest of the line away.
"I remember being 15 waiting in a line like that outside an Atmosphere show," says the 23-year-old rapper/carpenter. "But this time, it's my show and it was so surreal. By the time I was into the second set, the whole thing was over. I was like, 'Nooooo! Let's do mooooore!'"
To the dismay of the Doomtree crew (P.O.S., Dessa, Paper Tiger, Tom Servo, Marshall Larada, Mike Mictlan, Turbo Nemesis, Lazerbeak), the smoke settles and the performing b-boys and -girls, graffiti artists, and lingering fans leave for home. Ask any of them and they'd tell you without reserve that it was the best gig of the group's three-year career. Sims says it was the best night of his entire life--even though unpaid parking tickets resulted in an off-duty cop swiping his car during sound check. It's hard to dull someone's shine when he's just months into independently releasing the best local underground rap record of the year. Lights Out Paris has unexpectedly shoved Sims to headliner status within Doomtree and in the local hip-hop scene as a whole.
Sometime between 1982 and 2001--when he started rapping with Agitated Seeds--Andrew William Sims found his passion. The Minnesota native pens vivid rhymes, ripe with tales of his own experiences as a college dropout (University of Iowa, one month), child of an alcoholic father, and a young man who is politically disillusioned. His frustrated, on-time lyrics highlight universal aches, and are backed by catchy yet uncompromising beats created by his two studio-genius best friends--Marshal Larada (a.k.a. Kai Benson) and Lazerbeak (a.k.a. Aaron Mader of the Plastic Constellations).
The MC--with shaved head and an eight o'clock shadow cast across his sharp chin--often jumps right into jaded mode during conversation. But Sims's bright, hopeful eyes refute his slightly hoarse tone, which is something like Eminem meets Lyrics Born.
"No one cares anymore," Sims says. "They're kept under an umbrella of false info, and when real info is spoken, it's all distorted and twisted to make a point. I could sit here and stand on a soapbox and rave and rant for an hour, or do some call-and-response style, like, 'I'm the mic dominata, muhfucka what!' Or I could get up there and show you how I really am."
Turf Club, December 31, 2005
Three weeks after the Blowout, Sims plays a New Year's Eve set at the Turf Club with Malachi Constant and the Birthday Suits. A rock-dominated bill at the not typically beat-happy club isn't a sure winner for a rapper accustomed to taking the stage at the Triple Rock or Dinkytowner, two sanctuaries for local rap. But Sims needs the money. You know, for parking tickets.
The lot behind the Turf is empty, and Sims is convinced that only his crewmembers and the usual Doomtree diehards will drop in. But walking into the beloved yet begrimed University Avenue bar is akin to watching the The Apprentice finale when they swivel the boardroom set around to reveal--surprise!--a live audience. The place is jam-packed.
Couples in their mid-30s linger in the back, while the bar's college-kid contingent sucks down Pabst like pros. Neighborhood regulars--including a 60-year-old George Carlin look-alike--sully up to the club's fancy, out-of-place new bar. There isn't an empty table in the house when Sims hoists himself onstage. Backed by DJ Paper Tiger (a.k.a. John *Samels, who is never seen wearing the same pair of Nikes twice), Sims toasts his diverse audience before taking them right up to the New Year. He performs new material and works in his most-wanted jams, jumping down into the crowd to initiate a mosh pit during the drum 'n' bass-infused favorite "Key Grip (The Fax)". Though the speakers crackle like a Marlboro lifer, everyone's dancing and got their grins on.
When Sims ends the set--with wet circles on the knees of his jeans from kneeling on the stage's beer-soaked carpet--he's sweating as much as his champagne glass. The clock hits midnight. The most exciting year of his life is behind him, and he doesn't look a bit nervous about the one on deck.
Kitty Cat Klub, January 7, 2006
It isn't often Sims has time for beers and chatting. He spends eight hours "doing construction work all damn day. I'm usually late because I'm always up all night working on music," he says, running his rough, smallish hands over tired eyes. "I never change out of my work clothes anymore. I'm too busy."
You can feel his exasperation for the nine-to-five schedule and for the general state of the nation in almost every lyric on Lights Out Paris. On his favorite track, "15 Blocks": "Death meets my breath in a wide-mouthed yawn while the prez meets the press on the White House lawn/I spend my days depressed, my nights tryin' to shake it off/They say we're lost/And I'd say 'You're right.'"
But in addition to the fans, the album has its share of haters, who've come out of the woodwork to air their complaints on DUNation.com. Some of Sims's own friends have said the album is too angry. Others have accused him of being soft (to which I respond that we live in Minneapolis). And some have called him an amateur.
"Maybe that's why a label hasn't put it out," Sims laughs. "Right or wrong, these are my experiences, and I'm reaching out to my peers for a life preserver. It's conveyed through a more universal format; we can [say] 'us' and 'we' all the time and it makes sense."
Getting people to relate means accepting some moments of vulnerability. On "Osmosis," Sims raps about struggling with an alcoholic father, and how that has led him to realize his own shortcomings. A hidden track deals with being comfortably stuck in a cyclical relationship, and "Key Grip" touches on having big dreams while getting caught in a routine: "It took a year and a half to make these fuckin' minutes/For every second of breath in it, there's a piece of me left in it/Changin' lanes, awake at 8:30/Some way today my legs are less sturdy/I prayed for rain and came and left early/I shoulda stayed but change is just a wave in a drain."
In all probability, most Sims fans have a similar distaste for the president, his policies, and the state of affairs in America. But rather than go for a more obvious album title, Sims uses the symbolism of Paris. "When the lights are out in Paris, what's left? Where are you really standing now?" he asks. "There's a Parisian sample on the album about society falling. It keeps telling itself floor by floor as it falls, So far so good. So far so good, and then it gets to the bottom and--boom!--crashes. We are in a political freefall and many of us don't even know it."
In some advice that came too late, several of Sims's crewmates warned me not to talk about politics with him, because he invariably gets too heated.
"I wanted to move on November 3, 2004. I was freaking out [over Bush's reelection] and was like, 'Sorry, Doomtree, I'm moving to Canada," he says. "But people need to hear this shit. I like it here, and I just don't see anyone stopping us right now. There's too many of us and we're too good."