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Doomtree Zoo: Exploring the rap crew's animal instincts

Doomtree

Doomtree

The iconic Doomtree Blowout enjoyed a decade-long run of successful First Avenue occupations from 2004 to 2014, evolving annually and redefining what a crew performance could look like.

In hopes of not turning the trailblazing tradition into an overlong slog, Doomtree rappers and producers P.O.S, Dessa, Mike Mictlan, Sims, Cecil Otter, Paper Tiger, and Lazerbeak opted to pull the plug last year, preserving the Blowout as a beautiful corpse in fans' memories.

Nixing the Blowout opened doors creatively, as Doomtree was freed up to explore new territory for big local showcases. In July, the crew announced Saturday's Doomtree Zoo, a massive, eclectic concert to be held at CHS Field in St. Paul.

"We wanted it to be more than a festival — more like a circus type of thing with a bunch of different groups coming through," Sims says.

With a stacked lineup of like-minded artists spanning the creative spectrum, Doomtree Zoo collected a menagerie of acts that channel the Blowout's collaborative spirit.

"We're going to showcase everything that we love and all the people we love," Cecil Otter says. "I think it will be zoo-esque, I guess — a bunch of captive rappers."

Glancing at the lineup, you'll see acts that immediately conjure the zoological: Aesop Rock, whose moniker evokes the animal parables of Aesop's Fables; Open Mike Eagle and Aby Wolf, who once bonded over having animal-oriented government names on Eagle's Secret Skin podcast; Koo Koo Kanga Roo, who devoted an EP entirely to cats; In the Heart of the Beast Theatre, whose nature-themed puppetry features larger-than-life creatures; Shabazz Palaces, whose promotional photos feature pythons on gold leashes.

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"Like a zoo, there are exhibits everywhere, and there's something to see at every turn," Dessa says. "I like that idea of creating an event that felt immersive."

Adds P.O.S: "I always describe chaotic and frenetic, exciting places as a zoo. So when Doomtree Zoo came up as a theme/vibe for the thing, it already seemed cool to me."

The Doomtree Zoo title also speaks to some of the thematic elements of the group's music. Delve deep enough into the Doomtree realm and you'll notice animal imagery cropping up throughout. Their iconic wings-and-teeth emblem immediately brands the group with animal features. Cecil Otter, Lazerbeak, and Paper Tiger's artist names all stem from animal origins.

"I remember choosing Paper Tiger at the time because it was with caution and respect that I wanted to enter into a scene and community I wasn't sure I would feel comfortable in," Paper Tiger says. "Within the culture there is a certain sense of posturing that is expected, and I wanted to do the opposite."

We've seen the crew pull heists in hoodies and duck masks in the video for "Gray Duck," and rock animal masks in Sims' predator-vs-prey, dystopian video for "Burn It Down." It's also a prevalent writing device for the lyricists.

"With animal metaphors you can sum up feeling, actions, and motives in just one word," P.O.S says. "You can stretch that for days in the right context."

Sims has made good use of the device, having released a pair of projects — Bad Time Zoo and its companion EP Wildlife — imbued with animal motifs. Drawing inspiration from animal references by authors Ray Bradbury, Ernest Hemingway, and Herman Melville, he finds the subject keeps coming up in his own work, often used to dissect aspects of society.

Dessa similarly draws on the animal kingdom for symbolic reference and poetic effect, frequently titling songs after animals.

"It can do a lot of heavy lifting, because there are a lot of associations that you can tap into," she says. "In the song 'The Lamb,' I not only get to use those animals as characters, but I benefit from the association of their biblical roles."

It's affecting imagery, from the mythological references of "The Beekeeper" to the juxtaposition of animal characteristics with human traits in "Fighting Fish."

"A fighting fish is this regal looking, beautifully colored, dramatic beast," Dessa says. "But then it's equally kind of sad that we present this majestic creature in a shot glass, essentially," 

Liberation is a constant theme in Doomtree lore, and the zoo concept summons cages as well. The show's poster, illustrated by artist Emmanuel Mauleón, features a tiger in motion, beset with ropes that drag the severed hands of its captors. Escape from captivity is a theme P.O.S touches on throughout his album We Don't Even Live Here.

"Who doesn't wanna escape sometimes?" he asks. "Sometimes life is not tight. What can you do about it? Get freer. Escape. Play."

Cecil Otter's recurring imagery of the romanticized drifter plays into this as well, with occasional lone wolf references, ones he says pop up mainly Portlandia-style: "I talk about wolves here and there, just cuz it's popular now — put a wolf on everything."

Mike Mictlan's HELLAFRREAL explores similar themes, and he wanted the Doomtree Zoo to be a manifestation of that liberated feeling.

"I feel like I wanted it to be more like, us letting the animals out of the cages," Mictlan says. "Kind of like putting a mirror back on society, like, this is what happens when you try to control everything."

His music touches on the strange state of human nature, comparing himself to a dog as a way to draw lines between animal instincts and the human condition.

"I joke around sometimes how humans are like contemporary slave masters, and dogs are like slaves now," he says. "You know, keep 'em on a leash and they're like our weird perversion of controlling nature, which is completely changing evolution."

Doomtree's own evolution continues with Doomtree Zoo, and it's a solid sign of the crew's strength and ability to adapt. 

Doomtree Zoo

With: Doomtree, Aesop Rock with Rob Sonic, Trash Talk, Shabazz Palaces, Open Mike Eagle, Serengeti, Aby Wolf, Koo Koo Kango Roo, Anonymous Choir.
When: 2 p.m. Oct. 3
Where: CHS Field. 
Tickets: $35-$100; more info here.