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"[Sampling] is the aesthetic I like," explains Spencer "Big Cats!" Wirth-Davis, who has produced some of the Twin Cities' most distinctive beats for over five years. "It's inherently part of hip hop. Not necessarily the act of sampling, but the sound that results."
Big Cats! plays a For My Mother release show with K.Raydio and the Chalice on Thursday, October 11, at Cedar Cultural Center; 612.338.2674
So when Wirth-Davis received a composers' fellowship grant from the McKnight Foundation last year — the first ever given to a hip-hop producer — he did something extraordinary: He wrote and recorded his own music to then chop up and sample for beats.
For My Mother, the third Big Cats! solo album, is not a stylistic departure. Even though it eschews the soul-jazz samples essential to Space, the latest album recorded with rapper TruthBeTold as the Tribe and Big Cats!, his expansive signature sound is as evocative and lush as ever. Each new track is composed of sampled segments from sessions with Wirth-Davis leading a nine-piece band featuring artists borrowed from rock, jazz, and hip-hop backgrounds.
"I demoed the whole thing out and sent it to the guys so they could know the changes and stuff," he explains. "We'd play with the demo once then record a couple takes and move on.... They knew it was going to be chopped up and rearranged, so there was a lot of improv."
"We had a pretty easy time of it because it was all collaborative and natural," says drummer Graham O'Brien, who put in an extra day recording clean tracks.
Of the 13 or 14 originals recorded, each take was eight or ten minutes long, and each got a rough mix — even though they were never going to be heard. "I think I pulled something from every song," Wirth-Davis recalls. "I didn't want to be able to just grab a single part, because when you're sampling from a record you don't have that option."
The finished result, O'Brien observes, retains the variety of live playing within the hypnotic feel of sampling and looping — except for one thing: There's no record noise. "If somebody's chopping up a snare sample and there's some grit in that second of sound, it gets repeated too and becomes part of the beat," Wirth-Davis explains. "Some producers record noise and put it in the beginning of a track or layer it in.... I thought it would be cool with For My Mother, being a vinyl release, to let it occur naturally."
As the title indicates, the project is a tribute to his mother, Christi, who listened to classical music during sessions of chemotherapy as she battled ovarian cancer. When the cancer won, Wirth-Davis lost his first and truest fan, who'd supported his classical training and was the first person to hear each new project.
"I kept it in mind through the writing process," he says. "My first album, which came out in 2007, she listened to a lot." That year he sold his first Big Cats! beat, a brooding track for rapper Sage Francis, and left behind classical and jazz to pursue hip hop full-time.
"I never started making music for money," he adds. "I need to create things. So long as I'm not losing money, I'm going to keep doing that. Everybody has different goals. Minneapolis is cool because if you want to play a couple times a week you can do that. For me, that's not the goal. I'd like to get into scoring films and working with artists outside of Minneapolis that fit the direction I'm moving."
One such artist moving in that direction is BJ the Chicago Kid, who just signed with Motown. "I like working with artists who are a throwback, at least in a technical or stylistic sense," he says. "He can flat-out sing his ass off, which you don't see these days."
Wirth-Davis is donating 75 percent of For My Mother's proceeds to the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance, a group he admires. "My mom did too," he says. "If what I do can help make the same situation easier for other people — and hopefully fewer people have to experience that — it's a good thing."
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