Five years ago, Kyle Smith, known throughout the Twin Cities as Doomtree's MC/producer Cecil Otter, started working on a solo album. Walking through lonely Minneapolis streets, working odd jobs, eavesdropping on coffee-shop flirtations and strangers' punch lines, he slowly compiled the words and beats that would become 2008's Rebel Yellow. But before the album with the hypnotic wordplay could receive well-deserved praise, before Smith could perform his latest in front of swaying, front-row fans—two and a half years before, to be exact—his computer killed his baby.
"I had [Rebel Yellow] finished and I lost all the files for it, all the beats I made—everything on the computer," Smith explains. Roughly 16 record samples went into each beat. "I didn't get any of the beats back, so I had to re-create it all from scratch."
While most people would get drunk, buy an external hard drive, and say fuck it, Smith kept making beats. For Smith, recreating Rebel Yellow from scratch distilled the essence of the album. "It was kind of a blessing in disguise, because it gave me a chance to renew my idea of what I wanted to do with music," he says. "I always try to go somewhere different. I want to write very true songs—true to myself. Like, more romantic, very epic music."
Once unknown outside the Twin Cities, Doomtree and its nine members are building a national audience. In 2006, Doomtree MC P.O.S. released his second LP, Audition, to favorable reviews. In 2008, Orange County's OC Weekly praised Doomtree's self-titled album as "one of the most assured hip-hop efforts of 2008." Last winter, Cecil Otter signed to Sage Francis's record label, Strange Famous Records, who rereleased Rebel Yellow two weeks ago. Now, the album is available in record stores throughout the United States and Canada. "It was getting pushed in Minneapolis, we did a digital distro—like on iTunes—but this will go much further," he says. "More people will be able to hear about it and give it a listen, and it's very rewarding."
Images of boxcars, unchained wolves, and "pretty perverts" grace Rebel Yellow, a lyrical menagerie bleeding sadness that settles in your bones. Smith's music is a loner's enterprise: a whiskey-waltz, more Woody Guthrie than Eazy-E. "I always liked Kerouac and Bukowski, and reading the Woody Guthrie autobiography was really touching," Smith explains. "I like people who keep it simple and just tell the story right and highlight the pretty points—the points where they hurt, and kind of make that hurt seem beautiful somehow."
Smith is the son of a hot-rod mechanic, and he grew up repairing aged cars and listening to outdated music with his dad. "I was always really impressed by old photos and the way they looked. Whenever I see rusty old cars, I get really happy." Smith first encountered hip-hop culture when he was six years old. "I remember seeing these dudes doing graffiti onstage, someone was rapping, and it just looked like so much fun. I was listening to a lot of rock, but there was something electric about this. I started practicing head spins; I would take the zipper on my sweater and drag it up and down to make this scratching sound like I was doing a turn table scratch."
When Smith was eight, his 14-year-old sister ran away from home, leaving him a box of rap tapes. "They were all labeled something different because my dad didn't like the explicit lyrics. She had written, like, Bon Jovi and Tesla on the tapes so he didn't see that it was NWA and Eazy-E. I learned every single word and started trying to write my own stuff. Eventually my sister came back, and she'd show me off to all of her friends, like, "My little brother knows all of Eazy-E's albums! Watch!"
Earlier this year, Doomtree MC Dessa Darling published her first collection of poems and short stories, Spiral Bound, under Doomtree's printing press. The release party for her confessional, intimate debut took place at the Guthrie Theater on an ice-slick February night. Dessa shared the stage with Doomtree's Cecil Otter and DJ Paper Tiger. Later this year, Otter's second Strange Famous album, Porcelain Revolver, will be released. Smith wants to create a graphic novel based on this album.
It is perhaps unfair to call Doomtree a hip-hop crew. Doomtree is a growing enterprise: a record label, a printing press, a team of artists, writers, and musicians whose unity is explicit—never threatened by individual pursuits. In their own words, "Doomtree is a family."
"We want to do one power Doomtree set a year, all of us on stage together," Smith explains. "But we are all so individual within the crew, I think it was healthy for everyone to kind of just concentrate more on themselves for a while."
CECIL OTTER will play at the Kristoff Krane Balloon Party with Tahkid's Pilgrims Progress, the Depot Teen Showcase, and the Union Teen Showcase on SATURDAY, JUNE 13, at the 7th ST. ENTRY; 612.332.1775