Carnage the Executioner comes into his own

The best rapper from Minnesota you've never heard

Growing up, he'd been exposed to records by Herbie Hancock and Patti LaBelle, but by the time he was a teenager, Carnage had immersed himself in hip hop, right down to doing graffiti and breakdancing. And, inspired by the Fat Boys member Buff Love, he'd also started beatboxing. "I would listen to those sounds that people did, and I would stop the tape, and I would actually try to imitate them," he recalls. But, he adds, "It was a hobby. You don't think you're going to be on TV or doing shit when you're nine years old."

In fact, it was to be a long time before Carnage looked at hip hop as anything more than a hobby. Part of that was because the local scene in the mid-'90s, when Carnage first started performing, was worlds apart from the one we know today. Venues were afraid that fights would break out, and refused to book rappers, which relegated them to shows at houses and at and small cafes with lousy sound systems. It was difficult to be taken seriously, much less get noticed.

Carnage had other priorities, too, though. After graduating high school — where, in spite of his troubled home life, he was an A and B student — he studied psychology at Hamline University. That led to a career in social work and a job at Minneapolis-based agency Family Alternatives, where his foster mother once worked. There, he helped develop curricula, place kids in foster care, and train foster parents to deal with emotionally disturbed children. The rapping was almost bound to take a backseat.

With Hecatomb (top) and posing with Ill Chemistry collaborator Desdamona and childhood hero KRS-One, of Boogie Down Productions
courtesy of Terrell Woods
With Hecatomb (top) and posing with Ill Chemistry collaborator Desdamona and childhood hero KRS-One, of Boogie Down Productions
courtesy of Terrell Woods

Yet, if anything ultimately held Carnage back over the years, it was Carnage himself. After all, he often kept an exhausting schedule of live shows, yet for more than a decade, there were only sporadic recordings to show for it. It wasn't until 2007 that he finally put out a proper full-length album of his own, Sense of Sound. It took four whole years to finish, and, tellingly, he shared the billing with his producer, Booka B. Simply put, he was too much of a perfectionist, and too hard on himself.

That all started to change a few years ago when, feeling that he was spreading himself too thin, Carnage decided to resign from his full-time duties at Family Alternatives and focus instead on his music. It was a gamble because he had a daughter of his own by then, but he knew he'd regret not taking it. He recalls the advice given by close friend and fellow rapper, Eyedea: "He [would be] like, 'Dude, I know what I want to say. Write the shit, go and say it, be done with it, then move on to the next thing.'"

As a result, Carnage also began seeking out new inspiration in his songwriting. With roots in the anything-goes world of rap battles, he could spin a devastating (and often obscenity-laced) series of put-downs off the top of his head — "Things that even made me say, 'Damn, how did I think of that?'" Witness his guest spot on Eyedea's "Coaches," for instance, where he freestyles so fast that it seems impossible he doesn't run out of breath, and you begin to get the picture. But he wanted to delve into his past and his identity, and that meant being more than just the swaggering shit-talker who could kill it on the mic.

The first glimpse of Carnage's new approach came with Worth the Wait, released early in 2011 — just a few months, sadly enough, after Eyedea's death. One song in particular, "Hunger," stands out. Over a slow, grinding beat, he uses the title as a metaphor for his outsized ambitions: "Music won't be the one area that I see failure in." But "Hunger" has an alternate meaning, one which hits even closer to home: For years, Carnage struggled with obesity, to the extent that he faced serious health problems. To his credit, he took it upon himself to live healthier, and he has lost about 100 pounds.

On "Hunger," he not only doesn't shy away from that fact, he even makes light of it — just the sort of honest, self-deprecating humor that adds real heft to his work.

Respect the Name — Carnage's newest album, due out this month — crystallizes all the different ingredients that he's been putting together in recent years. Appropriately enough, though, it starts at the beginning, with Carnage's hip-hop awakening.

"T-Swift Was Here" takes its title from Terrell Woods's first alter-ego, T-Swift, and even includes lines from the first rap he ever wrote. It's straight-up old school, nothing but a breakbeat and an MC, like the songs he listened to all those years ago on his tape player.

For the first half-dozen songs, you get Carnage at his shit-talking, battle-rap-seasoned best, but he's also playful, funny, and inventive. He has as many characters as a Swiss Army knife has blades, jumping from street-wise defender of the peace on "Respect the Name" to unhinged sociopath on "The Executioner" and nightmare-inducing grim reaper on "Soul Snatcher." He riffs on Star Wars, pokes fun at Sean "Diddy" Combs, and quotes Korn — yes, Korn — but they all fit.

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