Empire Status: We rap about the 1920s and modern-day Benghazi too
Photo by Tony Nelson
Muja Messiah and Audio Perm's Bobby Raps have vastly different pedigrees and influences, but the Minneapolis rappers found creative common ground on HBO. Steered by a shared love of the prohibition-era gangster drama Boardwalk Empire, their collaboration Empire Status found its narrative and visual direction.
"This is the kind of music you can see. Close your eyes and be there, be in the moment that we're in," says Bobby. References to python-skin gun holsters, Al Capone tuxedos, and oxtail soup add ﬂourish to the already dynamic lyrics. "People need to smell it, touch it, taste it, feel it."
Synced with the premiere of the show's fourth season, and built to loosely weave themes from its plots into their own personal narratives, the result is a simultaneously candid and embellished self-titled album. Songs rooted in period details of the 1920s criminal underbelly of Atlantic City also allude to the modern day.
"We talked about the '20s [and] alcohol, [but also] Benghazi; somehow we tied in current world events," says Muja. " We tried to make it as theatrical and cinematic as possible, but still somewhat realistic. But when we was recording, I kept telling him, go far. Twenty-four karat gold guns, you know what I mean? Go far with it."
Produced entirely by Bobby, the beats are as lush as the imagery, sprinkled throughout with samples from the show. Doc McKinney, best known for his work producing for the Weeknd, acted as the album's executive producer and creative consultant. "He mastered it for us, that's his specialty," says Muja, who has maintained ties to the Minneapolis-bred producer since his early work with label Black Corners. "All the ﬁlters and vocals, he helped make our shit sound real sharp."
Both rappers are embroiled in creating solo albums, so they took a more relaxed approach to this project. For how loosely the record came together, there's a strong rapport that makes it feel tightly constructed. "When you have another brilliant mind working with you, you're instantly inspired," says Bobby. "Especially since he's almost twice my age, he has a lot of game and knowledge that I would never have on my own, and you can hear that in the music."
Muja Messiah ﬁrst made noise locally as a member of Raw Villa in the late '90s, while Bobby Raps is just beginning to make his name. Age aside, the duo also hit different stylistic marks: Muja's "B-Boy D-Boy" convergence relates tales of a street hustler with a mellow yet menacing aplomb, while Bobby displays his young crew's hyper-energetic credo with the help of aggressive fast-raps and internal rhymes. After meeting through mutual friends and bonding over the show, the two developed a shared work ethic.
"[We thought] it'd be dope if we took [that concept] and tied it to our lives, made a project around it," says Bobby. "After a couple songs, we recognized the chemistry we had. Ten tracks later we had a little album." Just as Boardwalk Empire is rooted in historical events but takes liberties for dramatic purposes, Empire Status is a blend of real experiences with the lavish and sensational. "That's really what I would encourage other artists to do," says Bobby. "You're not pressured to be yourself, you can be someone else."
The latter half of the album is more explicitly ﬁctionalized, and one of the strongest examples is "The Ritz-Carlton." Told in alternating four-bar pieces, it details a criminal transaction gone violently awry. The quick burst of money, gunplay, and murder clocks in at just under two minutes. Elsewhere, the rappers detail Bobby being taken to detox after mouthing off to a cop, but also detour from reality to torch cars and congregate with mob bosses.
"Never so much as held a pistol to keep it real, now I'm openly exposed to the life that I've seen in ﬁlms," he raps in "Overwhelmed," both admitting the album's exaggerations and rooting the ﬁctive as inspired by reality. As Muja is known to say, this is art imitating life, life imitating art.
EMPIRE STATUS will play a record-release show with AUDIO PERM and VANDAAM on Saturday, September 28, at First Avenue; 612-332-1775. Info here.
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