By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
"I met Chris [Wilbourn, a.k.a. Felix] in 1996, when I had just moved to Minnesota from Massachusetts, and I was a St. Paul Central sophomore," explains McPherson. A new kid at the school, McPherson dove headfirst into the recording program, begging his teacher to place him in the advanced class. He got an opportunity to play with Felix on his first day.
"I started playing, and one of the first people that started rapping when I was playing bass was Chris," he says. "He was a lot more nerdy and outgoing than the other rappers. There wasn't a lot of rapper-ly type attitude.... And I remember thinking, 'That was kind of fun, I wonder if I'll play music with him.' He seemed nicer and more outgoing than these other dudes."
Felix and McPherson started meeting outside of class to play together, with McPherson constructing bass parts and Felix freestyling. After a year of toying around with beats and lyrics, the duo recruited a drummer and another MC and played their first show under the moniker Live Hip Hop in September 1997.
Like the name suggests, the initial goal for the band was to find a way to combine live instrumentation with rap. They played with a revolving cast of drummers and a two-piece horn section, including Martin Devaney on saxophone, with Felix freestyling over the band's beats.
"It was, for 16- or 17-year-old kids, very adventurous," recalls Devaney, who still occasionally plays with the group and employs many Heiruspecs musicians in his own alt-country band. "But it was very bare-bones. This version of the band was bass, drum, two horns, and one MC."
"It was definitely very minimalist on the drums and very minimalist on the arrangements," says McPherson. "But the actual foundation of the music was very happy and wide-eyed and funky."
The group changed its name to Heiruspecs at the suggestion of McPherson, who had learned of the word haruspex, which refers to a type of ancient Roman priest, in his Latin class. "But when Chris sounded that out and wrote it on his hat, he wrote it out the way it is currently spelled, Heiruspecs," McPherson explains. "We all agreed that that spelling did look cooler."
Heiruspecs quickly gained a fan base at their school, selling their first album, Live from the Studio, on cassette tape and playing gigs at Central's Black Box theater and the St. Paul coffee shops Swede Hollow and Cahoot's.
"What happened, gradually, is that Heiruspecs started to take over," says Red Freeberg, who still teaches audio tech at Central. "By the time they were seniors, they pretty much were it in the high school."
"They were like the local celebrities of the school," says Leggett, who was a freshman at Central when Live from the Studio was released. "It was a big deal."
Almost instinctively, Heiruspecs started to nestle itself into the burgeoning local hip-hop community, playing with other groups at Central and expanding to play shows with Minneapolis-based acts like Kanser, then called Kanser Troop, befriending everyone they met along the way. After being invited to play a show with Kanser by MC Zach Combs, the groups realized that they shared many of the same goals and would benefit from working together. By 1998, Heiruspecs and Kanser had teamed up with a handful of other local hip-hop acts to form the collective Interlock Records.
"The beginning of Interlock Records was really Twisted Linguistics—which is Muad'dib from Heiruspecs and Noah Brandau—Kanser, Heiruspecs, and CMI, which contained Oddjobs," explains McPherson. "I remember meeting some of these people for the first time, and you've got kids from Central, South, Southwest, and I was just like, this is so cool. Really quickly, it became clear that our personal motivations were going to be supportive of each other."
WITH A STRONG FOOTING IN the local hip-hop scene, Heiruspecs were in a good position to focus on the band full-time when its members started to graduate from high school. After a short period of post-secondary floundering, the core members decided to knuckle down and make a serious studio recording.
"We got a little bit loose for a little while. Some of us flirted with college but didn't really do the whole college thing," says Felix. Their lineup changed significantly at this point, as the band brought in their Interlock labelmate and Twisted Linguistics MC Muad'dib (born John Harrison II) to join the group as a secondary vocalist, adding yet another new element to their ever-evolving sound. After working with Felix, who produced the Twisted Linguistics album Project Astral, Muad'dib says the decision to join Heiruspecs came easily. "The way [Felix] explained it to me is that he never really envisioned Heiruspecs to be a one-MC group," he says. "And it had been at that point for a number of years, so he wanted to try having someone else in the group."
The two MCs complemented each other well, with Muad'dib adding beatboxing and singing in addition to his backup vocals and secondary verses. The horn section was swapped out for keyboard player Tasha Baron, who now performs in Black Blondie, and Peter Leggett was hired on as a permanent drummer.