A tangle of black cables snakes around Guante's (a.k.a. Kyle Myhre's) feet. His hands are thrust into the pockets of a black hoodie, and a black cap is pulled tightly down over his head. Head bowed, his focus is on the ground at his feet. In a few minutes he and producer Big Cats! (Spencer Wirth-Davis) will perform live on Radio K's local-music program, Off the Record, and I can't tell if Guante is nervous, shy, or just incredibly introverted. It almost seems to pain him when I walk into the eerily quiet Radio K studio (which is oddly reminiscent of a dated suburban living room) and stretch out my hand to greet him. But he is pleasant enough.
I plop down onto a scratchy, sunken loveseat and watch as they prepare to go live. Guante's head drops back down; he restlessly swivels back and forth on his heels, saying little. With 30 seconds to go, the headphones go on. After a few pleasantries with Off the Record host Andrew, Big Cats! taps his laptop and I can hear fat, muddled beats from across the room coming through their headphones.
Then it happens. Guante explodes. Eyes closed tight and fists punching into his hoodie so that it is pulled tight around his neck, Guante spits out rhymes that are angry, despondent, and frustrated, with great conviction. At one point he shouts, "You wonder why we're bleeding" over and over and over again, slowly decompressing with each repeat until he is practically muttering the words, defeated and spent.
His name, which according to Webster's is Spanish for "glove" or to "throw down the gauntlet," is actually a reference to former NBA player Gary Payton, who was known as "The Glove." "It's just one of those high school nicknames that never went away. It's not something I sat down and thought about," Guante says.
But sitting on that couch, watching this 27-year-old guy from La Crosse convulse with the intensity of his vehemently political raps, I'm thinking that Webster's definition of his name is much more apt. In a sense Guante is all about throwing down a metaphorical gauntlet. No more to mass-media manipulation. No more to Big Brother 2.0. No more to denials of environmental collapse. The debut full-length album from Guante and Big Cats! (they have both previously released albums on their own or with other collaborators), An Unwelcome Guest, is full of intelligent, literary rants. A concept album, which is somewhat of a rarity in the hip-hop world, An Unwelcome Guest (the title a reference to a song from the Billy Bragg/Wilco album Mermaid Avenue), tells the tale of a guy who makes his way from the East Coast to the West Coast, consciously spreading a disease out of vengeance for what he perceives as the government's overzealousness for killing the woman he loves. Oh, and there are even allusions to zombies thrown in. Convoluted? Yes. But it sucks you in without leaving you in a Lost-like labyrinth of cluster-fucked plot turns.
"If I had to sum up the whole album and what it means, it doesn't matter whether you are right or wrong. The idea is that when the powers that be push an individual or community, they can't control how that individual or community will push back," Guante says. "This album is much more explicitly political than most Twin Cities hip-hop artists get."
Similar in style and temperament to local hip-hop groups No Bird Sing and Kill the Vultures, Guante and Big Cats! create intelligent, political hip hop that mercifully doesn't come off as preachy or self-righteous. It's sobering, demanding your attention like a car crash, yet emotional and alarmingly intimate at times.
"I wanted to make an album that people who don't listen to hip hop would enjoy...people who just want to hear something pretty could enjoy. I like stuff that is fun to listen to, and I don't think you should feel bad about that," Guante says. "It's really written for those people who will really dig into the music and take the time to think about it. When I was a kid, I'd listen to albums like Radiohead's OK Computer, and I'd just sit at my desk with my headphones on and just listen...really listen."
To record the album, Guante and Big Cats! enlisted the help of a cast of notable local musicians, including members of Dragons Power Up!, Chastity Brown, Eric Blair, and Haley Bonar. "Haley Bonar is one of my favorite singer-songwriters in the country. I wrote that hook specifically for her," Guante says.
Guante, who claims he is "as well-known as a poet as I am a rapper," was a member of the St. Paul poetry slam team that won the national championship last year, a feat he is hoping to recreate with the team this year. He is also writing a one-man show titled "The Fist That Lives in Your Neck," a series of poems and monologues that should be completed this fall. His star clearly starting to shine, Guante has racked up numerous industry honors in the past couple of years, including one of City Pages' 2008 artists of the year, an URB Magazine "Next 1000" artist for 2008, and the Minneapolis Grand Poetry Slam champion in 2008.
An unabashed activist, Guante also found time to curate the successful "Hip Hop Against Homophobia" series, and regularly leads workshops in local schools through the MN Spoken Word Association. He seems to be defined by his convictions—his life imitating his art, and vice versa. There is simply no daylight between his beliefs and the words that pour out of him.
"On every verse I write, I want there to be one 'Oh, shit!' moment," he says.
GUANTE AND BIG CATS! play Ruts Revival with Sha Cage (Madiba), See More Perspective, Truthmaze, and Chantz Erolin on SATURDAY, MAY 1, at the FINE LINE MUSIC CAFE; 612.338.8100