Doomtree's No Kings spurs week-long rap party at First Avenue
Doomtree circa 2011 is a study in contrast. For their seventh year, the seven-member crew are commandeering First Avenue for their annual Blowout, this time for seven consecutive shows—five nights curated by each of their five MCs, followed by two marathon full-crew performances in the Mainroom. They are, by all accounts, dominating the dialog and the ticket sales of the Twin Cities this week. And yet they are simultaneously broadcasting their new mantra and album title, No Kings, across every social media platform and radio wave, loudly bucking against the idea that anyone, themselves included, should have access to unchecked power.
It's an interesting line to toe: What happens when you take an authoritative, aggressive approach to creating an equal-opportunity community? Is it possible, as Sims raps on No Kings' opening track, "No Way," that "We can take it all and split it/Give it to the village," while taking hold of the local hip-hop scene and bending it to their will with an onslaught of critically lauded releases?
In many ways, Doomtree's grassroots, continuous growth is another example of the music industry's ongoing favoring of a choose-your-own-adventure approach. From a business standpoint alone, their savvy is unparalleled. But the real beauty of the crew is that they've also applied that democratic, self-empowering tactic to their artistic endeavors. After two years of taking turns in the spotlight, pooling resources to issue solo efforts and boost one another onto gradually higher rungs on the artistic ladder, they have regrouped to push out a collaborative work of art that is exhilarating, bold, and triumphant.
As the air turned colder and their week of Blowout shows loomed on the horizon, the six Twin Cities-based members of the Doomtree crew—MCs P.O.S, Sims, Dessa, Mike Mictlan, Cecil Otter, and producer Lazerbeak—gathered to reflect further on the statement they intend to make with No Kings.
"Personally, for me, I'm trying to live with a constant reminder that I didn't pick or decide on any of the rules of the world. I didn't pick 'em and I wasn't even here for any of the decision-making at all," P.O.S. offers with a quiet confidence. "So as I get older, I'm really interested in reexamining what of those things actually fit with my personal humanity and kind of picking and choosing from there. With respect to everybody around me, I just don't like the idea of being ruled by anybody who believes that they're better. I think very simply, No Kings means everybody's on the same, equal plane."
"It's pretty bold," Mictlan interjects, pointing out the defiant nature of the album's cover art. "We're crossing out a crown. It's not just like hey, passive aggressive, we're just here doin' our thing. It's like, no, we're doin' our thing, and it's really loud and we're wearing on the outside. It's totally like a little kids' thing, like 'no adults.'"
Though the No Kings thesis would dovetail nicely with the overall "we are the 99 percent" message of the Occupy Wall Street movement and make for some pleasing political symmetry, the members insist they're more interested in exploring the concept of personal empowerment than they are in latching onto a national movement.
"It's not political, and it's not about Jay-Z and Kanye West," Sims laughs.
"It's not at all about politics for me anymore," agrees P.O.S. "It's about how to figure out how to make this world a place where I can actually exist comfortably."
"To me," Sims adds, "it's about acknowledging sovereignty, that you are your own and you accept no rulers over you. It's acknowledgement that you already have all the things that you need—it's all yours, you just have to access it. You don't have to go through channels to find happiness or to find enlightenment. You already have it. It's just a matter of tapping into it and finding it within yourself. You don't have to achieve it through other people. You don't have to ask anybody for permission."
Propelling themselves forward with an indefatigable work ethic, No Kings is not only Doomtree's most cohesive effort to date, it's also their most efficient. From conceptualization to release, No Kings came together over a mere seven months.
"We had a deadline," says Lazerbeak. "We knew we wanted to put it out within this year. So we're like, 'Wow, we gotta really get moving.' We knew the only way we'd get all of us together was to probably get outside of the city. So we booked five days at Sims's wife's parents' cabin." Over those five days, the MCs churned out enough verses to fill all 12 of No Kings' tracks, assembling themselves around a table think-tank-style to throw out themes, scribble down lines, and review one another's work.
"It was like a sequestered-jury vibe," Dessa remembers. "It was very limited cell phone access and internet, so you were kind of on rap party/rap time-out until your music was done."
"We'd put the beat on and sit and stew it for a little bit and then someone would have an idea," adds Sims. "Like, 'Oh, this song's about the rapture,' or, 'This song's about my girl giving me a bolt cutter, it's about reclaiming spaces.'"
"I think one of the hardest ones, and the most fun, was the idea you had for 'Grand Experiment,'" Cecil Otter says, turning to Dessa, "where you're, like, 'How about this: It's from the beginning of time. It's about human nature.'"
Dessa covers her face with her hand and shakes her head. "I remember, as soon as it came out of my mouth, I was like, 'What the fuck am I talking about?'"
"I just remember feeling really stupid," Otter says, laughing. "But that was really fun because it was really difficult at first, and then you'd finally start to get it. Okay, now I got it. Now I know I'm going with my view of it."
That game of lyrical round-robin is one of No Kings' defining strengths. Rather than have each MC take a turn at the helm, most of the tracks feature rotating verses from three or four writers, each expounding on a theme with their own interpretation. On "Bolt Cutter," one of the album's standout tracks, for example, P.O.S. kicks off the song by laying down a very literal narrative about urban exploration and reclaiming abandoned spaces while Sims offers a metaphor about emotional ownership, Dessa zooms out to offer a big-picture look at the resiliency of humanity, and Mictlan completes the circle by bringing it back to a real-time story. Like a relay race through the writers' individual styles and turns of phrase, No Kings is the first all-hands-on-deck release from the crew that rivals the frenetic and bombastic energy of their Blowout shows.
No Kings' beats, too, speak to the collaborative and free-flowing nature of the group, with contributions coming not only from the crew's producers Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger (who would send beats from his home in New York City) but also bearing the fingerprints of Cecil Otter, who has been flexing his production muscles in his blog-buzzy mash-up project Wugazi, and the four other MCs. The album lunges forward with an incredible momentum, each track playing hot potato with a variety of beats, moods, and personalities.
"Everybody has developed really different voices, and voices that maybe weren't as clearly defined—at least, speaking for me, on our last crew record [2008's Doomtree]," Dessa says. "Finding a place where those five circles overlap on the Venn diagram is a much different endeavor now."
"We wanted it to be a real crew album, like a real posse record," adds Lazerbeak. "That's why we went into this one making the beats together, too—it was like, we should make a real fucking posse album."
"I think playing so many shows together is what really brought our styles together," Mictlan summarizes nonchalantly, embodying the crew's self-assured humility. "You have everybody doing solo songs and you have everybody backing up each other's songs on the road; you're also learning each other's style and each other's raps, and they just kind of came together when we put this together."
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