Until last year, no rap act had ever won Picked to Click, City Pages' yearly poll of the best new local artists. Not Atmosphere (23rd in 1997), not Heiruspecs (24th in 2001), not Dessa (26th in 2007), and definitely not Prof (31st in 2006). A few who came closer include Brother Ali (4th in 2003), Kill the Vultures (3rd in 2005), and Maria Isa (5th in 2006), but only in 2004 did rap make the top two when P.O.S/Doomtree finished behind the Olympic Hopefuls. Finally in 2012, the Chalice edged out Pony Trash for the win.
Proving that hip-hop's enhanced Picked to Click presence wasn't an anomaly, Lizzo, Greg Grease, and GRRRL PRTY lead this year's group. (And yes, we know that some of that awareness stems from ties to the Chalice.) Sure, plenty of rappers have thrived here without a Picked to Click bump. But right now, Twin Cities hip-hop itself is on the podium. —Reed Fischer
"I'm so glad you ain't asked a question about being a woman in hip-hop," says Lizzo midway through a conversation with City Pages. That makes a whole music scene of us.
Everything you need to know on that topic is addressed on her debut full-length, Lizzobangers. "I ain't your hook girl, boo, I'm your feature/And I don't need your attention because of my features," she spits on the menacing "Hot Dish," one of several tracks that interweave autobiography with her brash artistic stance. Far from just another "rapper with a womb," Lizzo has an allure that's far more rarefied. This daughter of Detroit and Houston needed to be in Minneapolis for only about a split second before she started rebuilding it in her likeness.
A year ago, she, Sophia Eris, and Claire de Lune were only a few months into their existence as the bombastic party clan the Chalice, and barely had any songs to their name. Still, they became the first hip-hop group to win Picked to Click since it began in 1991. Now she's the only rapper to repeat that feat.
It's hard to imagine that Lizzo doesn't know that this is why she'll be photographed again at the City Pages offices in a few minutes. With her many wigs stowed in her silver Toyota, she's taking a break from opening for Har Mar Superstar on his fall tour to do several Twin Cities appearances. As we talk at a coffee shop, she's confident and expansive. Her gesticulating digits have nails that are white with pointy red tips — much like the foam hand Miley Cyrus thumped into Robin Thicke's crotch during the 2013 MTV VMAs. She says she didn't realize the similarity, but admits enduring some overlap with the rebel ex-Disney star. Miley's new album is called Bangerz, but then Lizzobangers is the one that actually bangs.
"I'm like, this isn't trap. This isn't boom-bap," she says, describing the beats she raps over with myriad cadences at her pointy fingertips. "What is it? It's dope. I call it superhero music. I think he makes superhero music."
The "he" of this scenario is Lazerbeak, a.k.a. Twin Cities rap collective Doomtree's beat architect and a spastic drummer on his MPC. Last year, they met at Fifth Element on Record Store Day after a performance of his instrumental beat tape Lava Bangers with Plain Ole Bill. "She was in the crowd and jumped onstage after and hugged us both and said she loved that record," he recalls. By a few tweets later, she, 'Beak, producer Ryan Olson, and hypeman Cliff Rhymes had decided convene in "a sweaty, smoky room."
When Lizzo tells stories, she imitates the voices of her characters and adds sounds effects. A whoosh escapes her lips to encapsulate what listening to Lava Bangers did for her writing. In the midst of the Chalice blowing up and the crumbling of another group, Lizzo & Larva Ink, she was creatively blocked.
"His chord progressions moved me a lot," she says, getting serious and displaying an accomplished flutist's knowledge of music theory. "This is so overused, but the Beatles have this thing where they go [hums a few bars]. It's a half-step down and a jump down to a minor third or something. It's so pretty to me. You can easily make someone cry. They're like [dramatic voice], 'Oh my god' like Jurassic Park. Music can literally, scientifically bring on emotions."
The emotions spilling out of Lizzobangers — using 'Beak beats from Lava Bangers as well as more recent creations — are varied. There are plenty of boasts and playful hooks, including one declaring, "I've got my batches and cookies." That one is a product of stream-of-consciousness talks with Eris, her tour DJ. "Things'll just come out of my mouth," she says. "She'll be like, 'Save that!'" As for "Go," Lizzo instructed Lazerbeak to slow it down to 60 bpm so that she could sing over it in a soulful, vulnerable fashion.
"She's naturally, insanely gifted," Olson says. "And is so gripped. Her natural musical grip is unfuckwithable. She knows what she wants to do and she's super good at it."
Part of this grip is an attention to what works onstage for more obvious "women in music" heroes like Beyonce and Tina Turner, but also Har Mar, Prof, and especially Mars Volta/At the Drive-In frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala. "That's my biggest example of controlled chaos," she says, alluding to her prog-rock(!) past. "'He didn't mean to scream like that, he didn't mean to throw the mic like that.' Yes he did."
Lizzo uses the metaphor of going off into the woods to describe the discordant place she was at during this time last year. The difference now, as she sees it, is that she's got a knapsack and a compass.
"I have been making ugly music for a long time," she says. "My rock band, you can look it up. I'm not ashamed of it. It's not the prettiest music. It was chaotic, it was rough, and I was rough. My whole thing has been about refining myself. I'm going to make beautiful music."
Over the past 12months, we've gotten to know a lot about Greg Grease, but this could be just the jump-off. The rapper, producer, storyteller, and musical collaborator won't let himself be confined to any one thing.
"I really just want to show people that there's more than one way of doing anything," Grease says. And then, as though to play down the importance of such a claim, he adds with a laugh, "I think I'm just trying to impress my friends a lot. And I have a lot of really good artist friends, so that probably plays into it."
One thing he's grown especially adept at, through recent records like 2012'sCornbread, Pearl, and Gand especially last spring'sBlack King Cole EP, is conjuring the reality of being young and black in this country. "There's so many different levels of life," he says. "I really just think I try to show the perspective of people who don't have their perspectives shown." He may not exactly be a "conscious" rapper, but there's no doubting the compassion of his work. "I was raised where actions speak louder than words, so I'm the type of person who wants to lead by example."
Grease spent a half-dozen years of his childhood living in Atlanta, Georgia, and those years played a crucial role in the other half of his musical equation, that of a producer. It was in Atlanta that he got his first taste of playing live music, first as a singer in the church choir ("Before I hit puberty," he jokes) and then as the drummer. Today, that southern-fried gospel flavor is still deeply ingrained in the thick, luxurious grooves of his music.
But in truth, Grease — an avid reader, a lover of films, and a would-be visual artist — draws on more than just music for his inspiration, even if it remains his central creative outlet. Thus, when he springs a surprise like jumping onstage with Marijuana Deathsquads for a set in New York, or remixing a Poliça song, it's all a piece of the same creative puzzle.
"Something I've always tried to do is make it so people can visualize it, to take them to a different place, you know," says Grease. As a rapper, he uses his words as though the songs are his canvas, tools to bring characters and scenarios to life with rich, crisp details. "My father raised me to be observant and just kind of sit back and watch what's going on. I try to just observe and then portray what I've seen."
The three entertaining ladies of GRRRL PRTY are captivating enough to host their own hip-hop version of The View. Instead, these friends' in-jokes and convivial banter color one of the area's most exciting new rap acts.
You already know Lizzo from the cover of this issue. Here, she's joined by Sophia Eris, her cohort from 2012's Picked to Click champs the Chalice. And then there is Manchita, who also collaborated with Lizzo in Tha Clerb, and has returned to Minneapolis after an extended sojourn to Chicago. Got it straight?
Conversations about the formation of GRRRL PRTY took place well before the Chalice came together and blew up on the scene. "These are the types of musical projects that people like to get into, you know what I mean," explains Lizzo. "It's not like one group or another; this is Minneapolis. So every time somebody wants to create something new it's completely acceptable. GRRRL PRTY is so fun, and so hip-hop, and fulfills so much of my N.W.A. tendencies."
A lot of ground gets covered in first single "Wegula," a song that evolved from a late-night run to White Castle. It's a sassy introduction, and showcases each rapper's unique power on the mic. Live, they're accompanied by the duo of DJ Lanae & the Hot Pants, and DJ Clean Drop.
"We just started making more and more songs, and we were like, 'Why don't we just do this?,'" Manchita says. "When you work well with someone you hold on, and you're like, 'This feels good, this feels right.' It was like when you've got a crush on someone, or when you're courting someone, and you get to hold hands or kiss on the cheek for the first time. I've always wanted to be on stage with a bunch of bad-ass chicks, so this is my dream right here."
Before any clever Kathleen Hanna comments figure in, know that any direct correlation with riot grrrl, the DIY '90s feminist punk movement, is purely coincidental. "Our manager said to us, 'Hey, do you know what riot grrrl is? You guys should look them up," admits Sophia Eris. "And when we looked it up, we were like, 'That's awesome.' And we feel like we do embody that new wave of feminist movement, but in the hip-hop realm."
GRRRL PRTY have an ongoing residency at Icehouse. The nights have incorporated other local female rappers, including BdotCroc and the Lioness, but they're also teasing clues about their forthcoming debut full-length. The latest is a single called "Night Watch." Get into the GRRRLs now before the PRTY gets a lot bigger.
Thousands of bands form at colleges every year, but only a scant few are serious enough to grow up to be MGMT (Wesleyan) or Vampire Weekend (Columbia). But the indie-rock foursome Carroll, named after the street they lived on while studying at Macalester, made a solid first step with their debut EP,Needs. With their tightly constructed hooks, reflective synths, and Brian Hurlow's sensitive yet elusive missives, these five songs were a precocious introduction.
"For all the smart and talented people who go to that school, there are a lot of people who talk about the things they want to do and don't do them," says guitarist Max Kulicke, while relaxing on an outdoor patio with his bandmates. "What was so appealing about this project was it was three people who I knew had talent and skill, but who were also trying to actually go out and execute."
Judging by the mariachi wafting gently in the background and the tacos and beers everywhere, Carroll must be having a band meeting. Every Tuesday evening, recent Mac grads Kulicke ('11), vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Brian Hurlow, drummer Charlie Rudoy, and bassist Charles McClung (all '12) organize at El Paraiso on Nicollet to talk shop. "Shop" can be a pretty loose term, however. In less than an hour, tangents jump to Stevie Wonder, Lorde, Michael Jackson, Sharon Van Etten, Radiohead, Rush, Mac DeMarco, and Benjamin Britton, but usually back to Carroll.
At the moment, there's a split at the table regarding the virtues of pop songwriting. Hurlow says he never shied from it, but Kulicke admits a heavy blues past.
"Part of writing a really good pop song, an attribute of someone who does that — let's take Carroll for example — our EP is like shimmery pop compared to the darkness of what's coming out now," chatty Rudoy says in between laughs and sips of his beer. "But because at the end of the day we are guys who create pop music, we bring that element even when we're writing Deerhunter-inspired shoegazey mud. We can't help but craft it in the most deliberate way."
Nearly everything about these guys feels deliberate. They booked their first tour themselves and recently demoed new songs at a cabin in Wisconsin. About 10 tracks are in the works, and they're mum regarding the respected producer they're working with. "Definitely not Rick Rubin," says Kulicke. But they insist they just don't want to jinx it until it's set in stone.
What Carroll can't hold in is a palpable, four-headed excitement for their next deliberate move. Rudoy volunteers, "These songs are the sound of the four of us living together, eating together, traveling together, and crying together." They all laugh again, but nod in agreement.
Frankie Lee comes offa lot like a drifter and a wanderer in the mold of Woody Guthrie — riding the rails with the clothes on his back and a guitar in hand. He sure looks the part, with his cowboy hat, scraggly blond beard, worn jean jacket, and work boots. But the truth is altogether different. For Lee and his music, it's all about finding a real and permanent place in the world.
"My first memories," says Lee, "are of being outside, and of farms." He grew up mostly in Stillwater but spent his earliest years on a dairy farm in Prescott, Wisconsin. "There was a big front porch and you had a beehive and the food was homemade," he recalls. "My mom still has a piano, and every time I go out there, we play music."
Lee — who performs under his middle name rather his last name, Peterson — has spent most of his adult life working to rediscover, and keep connected with, those experiences. When he was 20, he moved to Austin, Texas, a place that reassured him such a life was still possible. "It was like going to music school for free — or for five bucks a night," he says. "Everybody plays, everybody sings [there]. There's no separation between a mom at a piano and a band in a bar."
After spending seven years in Austin and another two in Los Angeles, playing mostly as a sideman, Lee returned to Minnesota in 2010. Last spring, when he released his first EP, a collection of weathered, country-tinged folk songs, he called it Middle West — an ode to John Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie. Even then, he was intent on playing music and living life on his own terms. Lee waited more than a year to release the songs after they'd been recorded. "The way those songs were played, and the way I'd written them, they seemed like songs that would last. I said, 'Let's live with it a little bit.'"
Indeed, there's a timeless quality to the songs that Lee writes, songs that aim to break through any given moment to hit at the heart of something that's both larger and more intimate in our lives. "Everything to me is a story. Wherever you're coming from, you're trying to connect that story to people," Lee insists, motioning with his hands as though pushing a toy train. "Everybody knows what it's like to be lonely, everybody knows what it's like to be in love or to want to be in love," he adds. "I want to be a link in that chain, I don't want to be outside of it."
A Picked to Click honoree who's already "clicked" plenty, Ginkgo's Josh Grier rocked the likes of Letterman and Coachella with his blog-buzzed rock band Tapes 'n' Tapes during the late 2000s. That level of success typically leads to music-career tunnel vision, but appears to have had the opposite effect on Grier. Growing dissatisfaction with the touring grind led him to put Tapes 'n' Tapes on ice and make Manopause, his one-man band debut as Ginkgo.
A warped and woozy delight, Manopause irreverently blends disparate sounds and styles and is defined by gleeful experimentation. There's room at the table for both rinky-dink synth-pop goofs like "Casiotiones" and the buoyant tropcialia of "Moped Song." These new sounds have Grier feeling liberated and energized.
"To grow in life you have to challenge yourself to do new things," he explains. "I've always written pop songs with tightly defined arrangements and melodies. I really wanted to push myself away from that and just see where the songs could go if I allowed for more fluctuation. I had no idea what anyone else would think of it, so the only criteria was really 'Does this feel right to me?'"
By Grier's own admission taking that line of thinking "to the extreme," Manopause at times makes for jarring listening, as when overdubbed stacks of stinging guitar lines jostle for pole position on "Line Dancing With the Stars." For Grier, the intentional chaos ultimately proved creatively rewarding.
"I wanted to recreate that feeling of seeing a band live that doesn't quite know the songs completely," recalls Grier. "There's that scary element of 'Is this all going to fall apart?' That out-on-the-edge feeling has always given me a rush."
Grier sounds like a man at peace with his past and firmly in control of his future, which for now means focusing on friends, family, and a stable day job over his music career.
"The people that I've met who are really successful in the music business have made a lot of personal sacrifices," he says. "They're working really hard all the time and want it really bad. If you decide that's not what you want out of life then why would you want to commit your whole existence to doing just that one thing?"
"I don't think we've ever made a song in the daytime," says Pony Bwoy vocalist Jeremy Nutzman. "We weren't looking for product, we were just hanging out and having fun."
The experimental R&B duo of Nutzman, who raps under the name Spyder Baybie Raw Dog, and producer Hunter Morley mostly work together in an after-after-party haze, melding sporadic sounds and ideas into tightly realized end results. Simultaneously free-form and intensely mulled-over, the lyrics feel stream-of-consciousness, while sonic structures meander through electronica, soul, hip-hop, funk, and "sappy-ass love ballads," as Morley put it.
"We pick over it very harshly," Morley says. "We argue every little point. Every little word, every little note, we sit there and go back and forth and eventually settle on something. It's completely collaborative."
They stress that their songwriting is not evenly divided along lines of producer and vocalist, as both parties develop the song's live instrumentation, chord progressions, and lyrics. The music retains some of the standard Spyder Baybie grit but is also hauntingly beautiful, utilizing moody minor-key melodies to create some powerful compositions. Their self-titled debut album's lead single, "Ævum (time crawls)", accompanied by a slow-motion video of Nutzman being covered in black liquid, is a prime example of how affecting the stark dark-pop soundscapes can get.
"We were more surprised than anybody with how pretty-sounding it was," Morley recalls. But this is still party-driven music, built from impromptu late-night studio sessions and chemically enhanced creative spurts that aimed to make it sound like a different vocalist was singing on almost every song. "I imagine throwing a pile of mud at a plate glass window and a rainbow comes out the other side," says Nutzman. "It was concentrated, but it's a dirty style."
Within, you'll hear Nutzman rapping, crooning, and pitch-warped warbling as the underlying texture shifts subtly in multiple directions. Morley's past work with electro-pop act Enola Gay made him initially hesitant to begin a full-fledged new band, but after quickly amassing three albums' worth of material in the past year, it was clear Pony Bwoy was a beast of its own.
"There's definitely a workaholic attitude. If we died next year, we'd both be happy with the stuff we wrote this year," says Morley. "It's actually kind of serious and reflects where we were mentally and physically during the making of it."
Southwire have emerged out of the fertile music scene in Duluth with a blend of plaintive folk and a vibrant backbeat rooted in hip-hop. Songs that were born modestly around the elegiac strains of frontwoman Jerree Small's piano blossomed in the studio under the deft, gritty touch of Crew Jones bandmates Sean Elmquist and Ben Larson. Along with bassist Matt Mobley, the group gives the gospel-tinged numbers a stylish, pulsating rhythm.
Originally a side project, Southwire truly began to blossom once it got the members' full attention, and they set their sights on the concert stages in the Twin Cities area and beyond. In a live setting, Small's soaring, weathered vocals mix elegantly with Larson's gravelly spoken word, and the band's rhythmic churn swells far beyond the diminutive, piano-laden studio versions of this year's self-titled debut.
"It's been a good test to see how the songs live outside of a familiar environment," Small explains. "I think it's made our songs stronger and tighter. Playing more regularly has also allowed us to relax more and let the songs change and expand with the mood of each show."
That exploratory nature within the music of Southwire is due to the different band members searching for new ways to express themselves. So the shift from hip-hop to a Southern spiritual type of folk music for Elmquist and Larson is less drastic than it seems.
"After doing hip-hop for six or seven years, you're naturally searching for different kinds of music," explains drummer/producer Elmquist. "And for us, that meant getting into the music that forms the underpinings of rap music, the history of it — which led us towards the deeper roots of American music, which includes folk music. And we began exploring actually playing that type of music."
A DIY streak sure can speed up the recording process — just ask Fury Things. In one productive day last fall, the Minneapolis garage-rock three-piece recorded the five raw, guitar-driven numbers on their self-titled debut EP at their practice space at the Acrylic Fabricators warehouse./p>
"It was all recorded on a Sunday, and then mixed on a Tuesday," explains bassist Devon Bryant. "We fixed something on Thursday, and then had it up online by Friday. It was cool. I've been in bands for a long time, but it was my first experience with Bandcamp, and that level of speed in getting something out. And we got really good responses back right away." "Yeah, it was really quick and dirty," lead singer/guitarist Kyle Werstein chimes in proudly.
Werstein grew up in Germany as the son of a military man, and moved to Minneapolis three years ago. He eventually hooked up with a couple of scene vets in Chicago-bred Bryant and Kansas City native Andy Carson on drums. The three gelled immediately.
"You'd be surprised how many people don't get the Dinosaur Jr. reference in our name," jokes Werstein. One listen and the connection is easy to follow. The songs employ an untamed aesthetic that is guitar-fueled, and mixes '90s-tinged angst with some subtle pop sensibilities smoothing the rough edges.
They returned to the practice space in early 2013 for another of-the-moment session formingEP 2. "It's a mixture of economy, both mental and monetary," Werstein explains. "We can go into our practice space on a Sunday and say, 'We have these hours, should we just record some songs?' It's a totally no-pressure environment."
After celebrating the band's first anniversary in August, Fury Things upgraded to Ed Ackerson's Flowers Studio for a forthcoming 7-inch. They have amassed 12 new songs that are ready to be recorded at an as-yet undetermined location. But the Flowers experience was a good one.
"Ed really gets us, and I feel like that was the key element that got us out of doing it ourselves," says Werstein fondly. "It was really nice just having an unbiased opinion."
Animal Lover have a sound that hits you in the forehead and gut simultaneously. Frontman Addison Shark's guitar explodes like a dirty bomb of feedback, and the pulverizing bass and drums of Evan Bullinger and Nate Fisher add to its shrapnel spray. This is noise rock powerful enough to leave a lasting physical impression — albeit a confusing one for venues assembling punk nights.
"It does get pretty tunnel vision as far as being genre-specific," Shark elaborates. "We'll wind up on a straight hardcore bill because that's kind of just what goes on in that particular scene."
Originally hailing from the Fargo punk and metal scenes, Animal Lover met while sharing bills in a series of groups including Gumbi and Høst. After self-releasing a 7-inch and touring the Midwest a few years ago, they packed up and moved permanently to our fair cities. The connections they made in the DIY tour circuit made the Twin Cities attractive, but they're still out on the road several times a year, to places as far-removed as Washington and New York.
"We really like getting out of town and meeting people," explains Shark. "It's really fun making friends and playing with those bands again."
For now, they don't have a well-manicured Tumblr page, and almost no internet presence whatsoever. But make no mistake, this is not a bad thing. Despite their online invisibility, their three short-run EPs still have received a healthy share of accolades locally and even a Pitchfork write-up.
There's merit in shredding genre pigeonholes, and that's something Animal Lover seems to take a quiet joy in. Be it an incredibly faithful cover of the Who's "Substitute," or flashes of spiking melodicism within their noisy assault, the group's unapologetic character recalls their DIY forebears in the Minutemen. "There's the politics of doin' it yourself," says Addison. "But we don't have anybody knocking on the door to do it for us. That's the only way we can."
Vandaam give a decidedly cagey interview. A conversation with the experimental electronic three-piece — featuring producers Sloslylove and Absent and vocalist Lady Midnight — revealed more about their thoughts on movies and video games than anything about their down-tempo grooves.
"It's the same as skateboarding, really," says Absent, regarding their collaborations. He also illustrates under his given name, Andres Guzman, for the Steakmob art collective. "Someone does a trick, the other person watches and then they answer to it. Isn't that kind of how everything is?"
Sloslylove has his own comparison: "It's more like Street Fighter for me. You've been playing Ryu for years, and you just discover the Hadouken, that's like new technology. You're still using the same character, it's just different moves."
Not the most descriptive of answers, but they reflect the trio's laissez-faire music-making approach. The producers have revolved around one another socially and musically for years, releasing a string of mixes for the Steakmob website individually and collectively. Lady Midnight's role as lead singer of the traditional and acoustic Afro-Cuban band Malamanya seems like a different world from Vandaam's spacey futurism, but she shrugs off the divide and breaks all her music down to simply voicing compatible sounds.
"I think a label can be somewhat limiting," she says. "To marry yourself to one particular thing is dangerous. The moments that I've enjoyed playing with Vandaam the most have been very spiritual and connected. Unlikely circumstances, but destined outcomes."
The group's profile has risen in the past year thanks to word of mouth and an increasing number of invites from bands and venues, and with good reason. It's easy to lose yourself in Lady Midnight's reverberated vocals floating above her bandmates' knob-twiddling and bass-heavy production. Vandaam's self-titled debut album ranges from the Miami Vice slap-bass of "Fashion Week" to the stuttering drums and skeletal synth-wipes of "Loop2." It's a collection that suggests they're hesitant to define the band in terms of genre or their process.
The record makes for a powerful, subtly visceral listening experience. After several spins, the connection between Vandaam's atmospheric sound and skateboarding slowly begins to makes sense. Making the practiced seem like second nature seems to be at the core of both. "People don't give error enough credit," says Absent. "People experience one error and give up. The best things come when you wait for them."