Doomtree's No Kings spurs week-long rap party at First Avenue

Crew making winter more fun this year

Doomtree's <em>No Kings</em> spurs week-long rap party at First Avenue
Emily Utne
This week's issue with Doomtree features two alternate covers! Read about that here, read some of their holiday memories, and see outtakes from our cover photo shoot.

Doomtree circa 2011 is a study in contrast. For their seventh year, the seven-member crew are commandeering First Avenue for their annual Blowout, this time for seven consecutive shows—five nights curated by each of their five MCs, followed by two marathon full-crew performances in the Mainroom. They are, by all accounts, dominating the dialog and the ticket sales of the Twin Cities this week. And yet they are simultaneously broadcasting their new mantra and album title, No Kings, across every social media platform and radio wave, loudly bucking against the idea that anyone, themselves included, should have access to unchecked power.

It's an interesting line to toe: What happens when you take an authoritative, aggressive approach to creating an equal-opportunity community? Is it possible, as Sims raps on No Kings' opening track, "No Way," that "We can take it all and split it/Give it to the village," while taking hold of the local hip-hop scene and bending it to their will with an onslaught of critically lauded releases?

In many ways, Doomtree's grassroots, continuous growth is another example of the music industry's ongoing favoring of a choose-your-own-adventure approach. From a business standpoint alone, their savvy is unparalleled. But the real beauty of the crew is that they've also applied that democratic, self-empowering tactic to their artistic endeavors. After two years of taking turns in the spotlight, pooling resources to issue solo efforts and boost one another onto gradually higher rungs on the artistic ladder, they have regrouped to push out a collaborative work of art that is exhilarating, bold, and triumphant.

P.O.S., Mictlan, Sims, Cecil Otter, and Dessa at SXSW 2009
Tony Nelson
P.O.S., Mictlan, Sims, Cecil Otter, and Dessa at SXSW 2009

As the air turned colder and their week of Blowout shows loomed on the horizon, the six Twin Cities-based members of the Doomtree crew—MCs P.O.S, Sims, Dessa, Mike Mictlan, Cecil Otter, and producer Lazerbeak—gathered to reflect further on the statement they intend to make with No Kings.

"Personally, for me, I'm trying to live with a constant reminder that I didn't pick or decide on any of the rules of the world. I didn't pick 'em and I wasn't even here for any of the decision-making at all," P.O.S. offers with a quiet confidence. "So as I get older, I'm really interested in reexamining what of those things actually fit with my personal humanity and kind of picking and choosing from there. With respect to everybody around me, I just don't like the idea of being ruled by anybody who believes that they're better. I think very simply, No Kings means everybody's on the same, equal plane."

"It's pretty bold," Mictlan interjects, pointing out the defiant nature of the album's cover art. "We're crossing out a crown. It's not just like hey, passive aggressive, we're just here doin' our thing. It's like, no, we're doin' our thing, and it's really loud and we're wearing on the outside. It's totally like a little kids' thing, like 'no adults.'"

Though the No Kings thesis would dovetail nicely with the overall "we are the 99 percent" message of the Occupy Wall Street movement and make for some pleasing political symmetry, the members insist they're more interested in exploring the concept of personal empowerment than they are in latching onto a national movement.

"It's not political, and it's not about Jay-Z and Kanye West," Sims laughs.

"It's not at all about politics for me anymore," agrees P.O.S. "It's about how to figure out how to make this world a place where I can actually exist comfortably."

"To me," Sims adds, "it's about acknowledging sovereignty, that you are your own and you accept no rulers over you. It's acknowledgement that you already have all the things that you need—it's all yours, you just have to access it. You don't have to go through channels to find happiness or to find enlightenment. You already have it. It's just a matter of tapping into it and finding it within yourself. You don't have to achieve it through other people. You don't have to ask anybody for permission."

Propelling themselves  forward with an indefatigable work ethic, No Kings is not only Doomtree's most cohesive effort to date, it's also their most efficient. From conceptualization to release, No Kings came together over a mere seven months.

"We had a deadline," says Lazerbeak. "We knew we wanted to put it out within this year. So we're like, 'Wow, we gotta really get moving.' We knew the only way we'd get all of us together was to probably get outside of the city. So we booked five days at Sims's wife's parents' cabin." Over those five days, the MCs churned out enough verses to fill all 12 of No Kings' tracks, assembling themselves around a table think-tank-style to throw out themes, scribble down lines, and review one another's work.

"It was like a sequestered-jury vibe," Dessa remembers. "It was very limited cell phone access and internet, so you were kind of on rap party/rap time-out until your music was done."

"We'd put the beat on and sit and stew it for a little bit and then someone would have an idea," adds Sims. "Like, 'Oh, this song's about the rapture,' or, 'This song's about my girl giving me a bolt cutter, it's about reclaiming spaces.'"

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