2004 was an important year for Heiruspecs
The St. Paul hip-hop band had just been signed to New York City label Razor & Tie, a big-time indie with major-label distribution. With members barely into their mid-20s, the group was introduced to the wider world via their sophomore album, A Tiger Dancing.
"Can live hip-hop from the Twin Cities be dope?" asked a critic from Rap Reviews in '04, eventually concluding that Heiruspecs sound like, "the best kept secret out of the Twin Cities" and "a rap group on the beginning of a long journey, as opposed to one who finally 'made it.'"
The locally beloved crew's journey would indeed be long, but that middle-aughts window for international acclaim proved elusive. The period wasn't without career wins: single "5ves" landed on the soundtrack to eventual stoner classic Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle; the band scored opening duties on a tour with Cake and the Walkmen, and embarked on the Warped Tour with an upstart opener of their own named P.O.S.
Circa 2016, Heiruspecs are a still-hustling, charitably minded Minnesota hip-hop institution, having released two indie full-lengths since 2004, plus October's Theskyisfalling EP.
And an early Christmas present arrived this week for the jazzy and funky six-piece: Twelve years later, Razor & Tie relinquished control of A Tiger Dancing, allowing the band to make the LP widely available for fans and profit directly from it.
"This record is a really proud document for me and that moment," says bassist Sean "Twinkie Jiggles" McPherson. "Only one of us was even 25 when we started meeting folks from Razor & Tie in their office in New York, and it was an amazing feeling."
Ahead of his group's Heiruspecs Holiday Classic this Friday at St. Paul's Amsterdam Bar & Hall, McPherson took the time to reflect on the A Tiger Dancing era with City Pages by email.
On getting signed to Razor & Tie:
Funny thing about Razor & Tie. An A&R guy before Gerard Babbitts, our A&R, liked us. He was talking to our manager. He then got fired and left our demo in the office. Gerard also liked it. That's kind of a miracle.
Razor & Tie had the rights [to A Tiger Dancing] for 10 years from the release, which is pretty standard for a band that comes into the situation with little power, and we certainly didn't have much. We had a good manager, Vickie Gilmer, and a good lawyer. We tried to hand manufacture a bidding war, of which only Razor & Tie was ever really at the table.
Our "showcase" at [New York City's] Mercury Lounge was in the slot right after Keane's was -- do you remember Keane? They got really big. Our lawyer was sitting in the front room begging the A&Rs to stick around and check us out as we feverishly are setting up our shit trying to catch 'em. Most of 'em left. That's all pretty hilarious to me now.
On the release and performance of A Tiger Dancing:
[Razor & Tie] supported us with an actual advance of a modest amount of money -- and not much for us after lawyers, commission, mastering engineers. This would be pretty much unheard of for a band of our potential size by 2006.
Babbitts was incredibly awesome and super honest. He had worked with Cypress Hill, Big L, and a bunch of other greats. As our record wasn't hitting, he just kept us updated and honest about where we were at. Probably the hardest part was that on the level of folks we considered our competitors, we were doing pretty good.
I don't have SoundScan access, but I believe Tiger was at about 13,000 by 2007 and over 10,000 in 2005. In the indie-rap world you were desperate to hit 10k, that was a big sign. It bummed me out that we hit that, but it didn't mean much to our label.
On missed opportunities:
The biggest regret I have from the era: Cake offered us a European opening slot and we couldn't get the label to advance us any money, and touring Europe was a really expensive proposition. We turned it down and I really wish we had tried ourselves in that market.
We also kept on getting hit up to share a tour with a then-little-known group called Gym Class Heroes. By the time we had worked it out, they had eclipsed us in popularity and the numbers weren't really going to work.
On the post-Tiger fallout:
By the time we were supposed to submit new music for a new project to R&T, it was clear they weren't too interested in much more from us. We were also having internal struggles with plans to breakup. We were talked into continuing by our manager at the time, so that we had a good reputation as individuals, 'cause we were ready to bag a six-week tour which woulda made a lot of industry folks hate us.
Like a lot of relationships, the prospect of breaking up helped us fall in love with each other, and we had a great six-weeker co-headlining with Tre Hardson from Pharcyde. On the way back home from that tour, I totaled our van which scared the shit out of us but didn't injure anyone in a significant way. It helped us realize that we love being a band, but that the breakneck pace we were sitting on wasn't going to work in the future.
Since December '06, we've taken a serious approach to releasing music and to taking care of our fans in the Midwest, but we never pushed nationally with any significant success again.
On finally gaining ownership of A Tiger Dancing:
Our story isn't the usual story of a big bad evil record label that did us super wrong. We were treated reasonably well by Razor & Tie. Getting the record back should have been our right in May of 2015, and I think between now and then it was probably more Razor & Tie being distracted or, at worst, slightly opportunistic in holding on to it.
So, us getting it back at exactly this point related to me emailing the lawyer twice a day for the last three days 'til he had somebody confirm they were taking their versions down from the digital sites. Now I'm mainly working to make sure that everywhere that everyone is used to finding the record can still find it -- Pandora, iTunes, et cetera.
On the record's surprise cash cow:
Though in Minnesota we often think of "5ves" as our biggest song, "Heartsprings" took on a life of its own -- we vaguely believe it is significantly popular in the international Filipino community based on some mentions and tweets.
But in an era of very little digital income, that tune could rent an efficiency in Bemidji year-round and still have extra for groceries; we see about $220 per month from the song. I hope that with a control on the master recording that we will have the money to independently release the record ad infinitum, if we can keep that money up.