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deM atlaS talks MF Doom project, long-awaited debut ahead of Summit Backyard Bash

Dem Atlas

Dem Atlas Rhymesayers

If there’s just one thing to take away from mF deM, the latest project from Twin Cities native and Rhymesayers artist deM atlaS, it’s that there’s no stopping his originality.

The mixtape features old instrumentals from MF DOOM, one of the quirkiest rapper/producers in hip-hop history, but deM manages to make each track feel new, no matter how familiar the beats may seem. That’s thanks, in part, to his wide-ranging, animated vocal deliveries. While the project is billed as “13 previously released DOOM beats with all-new raps by deM atlaS,” deM's freewheeling knack for singing and spoken word is obvious.

Overall, the tape is a promising indication of the things to come for deM, especially his long-awaited debut album on Rhymesayers. His latest release of all original material remains 2014’s DWNR EP, which continues to resonate with deM’s fans for its melancholy introspection and impassioned vocal performances. But it's safe to say those same fans are hungry for a proper album.

The good news for them is that, while deM has yet to reveal any official details about the LP, he reports there's an estimated 20 to 30 songs in the vault. Admitting to being dissatisfied with DWNR in hindsight, he says he's confident he’ll be proud of the full-length that eventually emerges. 

City Pages spoke to deM ahead of Saturday’s Summit Backyard Bash at Summit Brewery, where he’ll perform alongside acts including Bob Mould, Bully, Bad Bad Hats, and others. 

City Pages: mF deM gives me the feeling you were focused on bringing your own unique artistry to beats that have already been out in the world, rather than just straightforwardly rapping over them. Is that something you strived for, to make it sound like you weren’t just going through the motions?

deM atlaS: I just do what I do. I just wanted to take these beats that have been rapped on before time and time again, and bring my own sound and my own style to it. Melodies are really important to me. There’s a lot of singing throughout the project, some spoken word, some rap. It’s what I like to do, it’s what I enjoy doing.

CP: Does DOOM know about the project yet?

DA: I haven’t spoken to him. Siddiq [Brent “Siddiq” Sayers, Rhymesayers CEO] is the one who thought of the idea. He’s like, “Why don’t you rap over some DOOM beats, call it mF deM, and make it a mixtape of sorts?” I’m pretty sure he notified DOOM about it, but I haven’t heard any feedback from DOOM yet.

CP: I hear he’s kind of hard to get in touch with.

DA: Yeah, a little bit [laughs].

CP: All of the different vocal styles on the project made me wonder something about your writing process: Do you deliberately go into rap-writing mode, melody-writing mode, etc.? Or do you just go with whatever comes out?

DA: I go into melody-writing mode before anything; I think of a hook. The verses take some time, but I can usually immediately find a melody or something that catches my ear when I hear the beat. The track “Sum-Mo,” over that kind of erratic piano sample, I just started [sings], “I can’t see nobody else inside.” Something long and drawn out. But yeah, I first hear the melody.

CP: Since you weren’t going back and forth with different producers about the beats, did mF deM help you focus in and grow as a writer?

DA: Yeah, it did. Absolutely. But it also felt like I wasn’t the complete architect. The painting was already half finished; I had to finish the other half, with the words and the lyrics and stuff. It taught me how to listen to the beats more, the intention of the music. With that, it was easier to paint that picture and frame it and shit [laughs].

CP: More recently than mF deM, you were featured on Atmosphere’s Fishing Blues song “Next to You.” You’ve also collaborated with them on other occasions. What’s it like to record with them?

DA: I started going over to [Atmosphere producer] Ant’s house. He showed me some music. He’s like, “What do you think of this song, what would you do over this?” I sang the hook, and that was “Finer Things.”

Apparently, they had been sitting on that beat for like five years and didn’t really know what to do with it until I put on that hook. After that, he played me more music and we collaborated several other times. The creative energy flows easy with them. I have great respect for both [Slug and Ant].

CP: As beloved as the DWNR EP is, and as solid as mF deM is, your fans are eager to hear a full album from you. What’s the latest update on the LP?

DA: It’s coming along nice. After DWNR came out, I was content at the time, but I’m completely dissatisfied when I listen to it now. I think that’s the case with most artists and their older work. They’re just so over it. I can’t wait to show people some new things that I’ve been working on for the past couple years, trying to find the right sound.

I’ve gotten into producing more, showing people my ideas, and collaborating. It’s been a process. Time is always against us, but I’m not trying to be constrained by that. I’m trying to give people the best of what my vision is, and that takes time. This album is going to be something I’m proud of. I’ve got 20, 30 songs in the vault.

CP: You’re preparing to embark on a tour with Atmosphere and Brother Ali, who have been in the game longer than you have. Are you planning on observing their performances and learning new things?

DA: Absolutely. That’s what I did with the past tours: I observed Atmosphere every night. It never got old to me, observing and watching how they handled the crowd night after night. I was with Prof at the time, comparing and contrasting how they went about things.

Now, I’m really looking forward to observing and watching Brother Ali do his thing. I’ve only seen him a couple times here and there, so it’s going to be a completely different experience from past ones.

CP: What do you consciously bring to your live performances, already?

DA: I lose myself. I don’t think. Whatever I’m feeling, whatever’s in my subconscious, I bring it to the forefront. I think, as an artist, it’s important to be vulnerable and naked onstage. It’s not about being cool. For me, it’s about being genuinely yourself. Take off the mask.

CP: How much are you looking forward to playing First Avenue in November?

DA: I always love rocking at First Ave., simply because it’s my dream to get on that wall with P.O.S and Lifter Puller and all of these great Minnesota acts. That’s Prince’s club. I love playing First Avenue. In fact, it’s one of my favorite places ever; I like it more than Red Rocks [laughs]. I really fuck with that place.

Summit Backyard Bash
With: Bob Mould, Bully, Dem Atlas, Bad Bad Hats, Apollo Cobra, Nooky Jones, Hotpants DJs
When: Noon-8 p.m. Sat., Sept. 10 
Where: Summit Brewery, 910 Montreal Cir., St. Paul
Tickets: $30; more info here