By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
The Road Less Traveled
Local rappers, raise your hands if you've released more music than Big Jess and Mad Son of Unknown Prophets. Since 1998 the MC-producer and MC-guitarist have issued, by my count, four albums as Unknown Prophets, three solo CDs, three EPs, and a two-disc compilation of themselves and friends--never mind what Jess has produced separately for others (Musab, Gamble) or his 2004 remix of Jay-Z's The Black Album.
So who could blame Unknown Prophets--still widely unknown--for making non-success their great subject? The crew's bona fide hip-hop classic remains 2000's "Never" from the independently released World Premier, a track that dropped the title adverb into every line, turning the word on its head. "I'll never be on top, never be the cream of the crop, and no matter what they say, I'll never stop," rapped Big Jess over a melancholy classical-guitar loop.
"Years ago we probably wanted to be the best rappers out there, period," says Jess now, sitting in his Camden basement studio with Mad Son (a.k.a. MaD SoN) and their DJ, Willy Lose. "We used to hang around Eyedea, and we got into the battle scene with that. We saw everybody else with all this success, and we wanted that, too."
Jess is long of limb, bright of eye, and so soft-spoken that my tape-recorder barely picks up his voice.
"I think we've come to realize that there's a place for us," he continues. "And if we just find that role, and be as good as we possibly can be, then we'll be successful."
Unknown Prophets are easy to root for. Jesse Semanko and Mike Madison still rep their Polish heritage and Nordeast Minneapolis roots, though both now live on the North Side. In some ways their music remains a neighborhood project: Jess's father has sometimes joined the rappers onstage with buddies for a live backing band, while Mad Son's dad hawks his son's CDs at the VA clinic where he works.
"Our Time Now," from the group's bracing new independent album, The Road Less Traveled, samples Kurt Russell in the 2004 film Miracle, giving a pep talk in an impeccable Minnesota accent as Herb Brooks--the real-life St. Paul native who coached the U.S. Olympic hockey team to victory against the Soviets in 1980. That hope for an eventual underdog win is religion to Unknown Prophets, who express their ambition in prayer ("Lord Please") and salesmanship. "Mr. Mainstream" addresses the commercial rap industry as if it were a person, with Jess pleading, "All we want is just a chance to be heard/With the hard work, we feel like it's a chance we deserve."
There's obvious resentment here. Unknown Prophets blame Mr. Mainstream for ignoring them--in their view, because they don't rap about prostitutes, jewelry, or firearms. Their moral syllogism (that vice sells and virtue starves) is a little too neat. But like all good moralists, Unknown Prophets at least preach in the first-person plural. "Seems as though we only rap about ass and dough, stones and gold," spits Mad Son on "Move Mountains." "Underground cats that finally got the chance to blow switch they flow/Now every song's a fashion show." (Mint Condition's Stokley Williams croons the song's refrain, "I've got your back.")
The Road Less Traveled is hip-hop music by guys who love Dr. Dre but understand the unease felt by parents of young 50 Cent fans. Both Jess and Mad Son work with kids, Mad Son as the director of a childcare program, Jess as a school bus driver and girls' basketball coach. (When he raps, "Just because I'm almost 30 doesn't mean/That I can't hear every word that's uttered by your teen," he speaks from experience.)
"My daughter, she's 11," says Jess. "And when she's with her mom, she wants to listen to B96 all day long. But I won't let her when she's here. There's a place for club music, and it's in the club."
The new Unknown Prophets disc isn't club music, but it's more pleasurable than most pop. The rappers neglect choruses, but adore singers (Joia Senser, Craig D., Samahra of Black Blondie) and scratching (Willy Lose, mattering more than any local DJ next to Abilities). And, man, Jess sure loves to sample: Screamin' Jay Hawkins on "Let It Loose"; Mad Son himself, fingerpicking on "Lost in Time"; classical music everywhere.
"We'll be the first rap group to work with the Minnesota Orchestra," says Jess, adding that he was hooked on 89.3 FM back when it was still classical.
"I play opera in my car," says Mad Son. "I bump opera."
The lyrics on Road hold you with their sincerity, even when a flow goes into a holding pattern. And sometimes the pattern becomes hypnotic. "Imagination" is Unknown Prophets at their most moving, with Jess conjuring a utopia free of crime, gangsters, storms, or disease. He flits from the fantastic ("Nobody's obese or overweight here/We eat whatever we want and still look great here") to the just-sad-when-you-think-about-it (in this impossible alternate reality, "When you ask me how I am, it's always 'Very well'").
Jess isn't happy. But you gotta dream.