Rising Ojibwe rapper Baby Shel wants to be a 'voice for the voiceless'

Baby Shel

Baby Shel

Baby Shel leaves a trail of the galvanized behind him.

The Red Lake emcee's percussive baritone and metered flow make him an imposing presence on record, but in the live setting, the 26-year-old rapper is hypnotic. It's this immutable stage presence that won Shel the 2015 Are You Local? best new band competition, but Shel's charisma does have an off switch. Even when discussing his monumental 2015, the towering Sheldon Cook Jr. is humble and taciturn.

"It feels beautiful," he says. "When I first started doing this, I never would've thought I'd be as far as I am right now." He tries to swallow his smile and maintain his earnest, businesslike facade, but he only partially succeeds. "I'm not saying that I'm where I wanna be, but I'm real happy about it."

Winning Are You Local? earned Shel a spot in First Avenue's Mainroom, $1,000 cash, and a trip to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas — his first real venture out of the Upper Midwest as a performer. He never sat on that success, instead using it as a catalyst for a yearlong grind that saw him open shows for Twista, Yelawolf, Mya, and Beanie Sigel, among others.

He also ventured out to Denver to play a cannabis convention, and nabbed the attention of alt-news giant VICE. This Friday, he'll celebrate a calendar year's worth of success on stage at First Avenue's Best New Bands of 2015 showcase.

For anyone who's never witnessed the Ojibwe rhymer shred a verse live, the year he enjoyed might seem unexpected. For First Ave booker Sonia Grover, Shel's triumph at AYL? was enough to convince her that he had to come back for Best New Bands.

"The energy and vibe at his performance that night was pretty awesome," she says. "It made an effect on everyone that was in the crowd, and that's part of the reason we picked him."

Success comes with its sycophants, and Shel hasn't seen a word of bad press since his AYL? victory, but he can feel that the positivity is coming from a real place. That's why he's planning to double down on his good karma by releasing a free five-song EP titled Baby Shel's World.

"For everybody who came out and supported along the way on my come up, I feel like I should give them something for free," he says, noting that this will be the first physical album he's ever produced. "I wanna be able to give them something official they can have in their hands, something tangible."

Tangibility is something Shel's still getting used to. When he was growing up on the Red Lake Indian Reservation five hours north of the Twin Cities, hip-hop was an unwelcome art form. Community elders demonized rap for perpetuating stereotypes about violence and drug use on reservation lands. If it wasn't for his own parents' love of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac, he would've never discovered the musical kinship between the inner city and his life on the rez.

"It's the struggle," Shel says of life on the reservation. "We go through a lot of the same struggles the urban communities go through. You see a lot of poverty, you see a lot of gangbanging. We got a high suicide rate for young kids. We've had a school shooting. It's a depressing place when you're there — you feel stuck there."

The daily struggle of life on the rez meant that Shel, his mentor Wardog, and his partners in his band 100 Souls didn't have a scene to inherit. Instead, they had to bootstrap their own. In 2010, they founded Rez Rap Records and began promoting hip-hop as a positive outlet for the disenfranchised in Red Lake.

"I just wanna be the voice for the voiceless," Shel says. "Coming from where I'm from, none of my people had chances with something like that. If they see me doing it, maybe I can spark something on my rez."

Since starting his music career, Shel has become a leader in the Minnesota Native American hip-hop scene. In July of 2015, a team from HBO documentary series VICE came to Red Lake to interview Shel about the community he's working to establish. Tall Paul, a Native rapper from Minneapolis, is also featured in the forthcoming episode, and he knows the reason the film crew chose to focus on Shel.

"The first time I seen him perform, I was like, 'This dude's got talent, he's got the potential to go places,'" Paul says. "And that's beneficial to all other Native emcees, especially from this area."

Long Doe Records' BiG WiZ saw that breakthrough potential in Shel when he first met the fiery emcee back in 2010.

"Everything he did was pure talent," WiZ remembers. "Everything was good, and I haven't heard a whack version from Shel yet."

Alongside his partner Tony Bones, WiZ — who also works under the name Nic Swisher — has been a fully galvanized pusher for Shel for about a year. Together, the two worked to produce Baby Shel's World as well as an upcoming LP at their recording studio in Minneapolis.

"We're all in this together, it's all about Baby Shel, and there are no egos," WiZ says. "He's a special artist, and he has an opportunity to go reach beyond this Minnesota demographic and touch the world."

The still-unnamed album is set to feature guest verses from Muja Messiah, I Self Devine, and Twista, as well as production courtesy of Bobby Raps, Nicodemus, and possibly Big Jess. Their team has lofty goals — one of which includes securing a spot at Rhymesayers fest Soundset in May — but the ultimate goal is to have Shel blow up outside of Minnesota.

"I feel like I did all I could in 2015 in Minnesota and around Minnesota," Shel says. "I really wanna get out to L.A. and New York City, all these big markets and see how I swim there. It's gonna be a big year for us."

Between all the good news and flattery, it'd be easy for a freshman artist to get their perspective warped, but Shel remains measured in his approach. Positivity is like gunpowder to Baby Shel: The more of it he collects, the more people he can convert with his explosive live shows.

"I like to soak in game — I like to listen and learn, improve," he says. "The vibes people give me, I just bottle them up, and when I get on stage, I just go."

First Avenue's Best New Bands of 2015
With: Areo Flynn, Baby Shel, Bruise Violet, Eric Mayson, Lexii Alijai, Murder Shoes, and Perfume Monster.
When: 8 p.m. Fri., Jan. 15
Where: First Avenue.
Tickets: $7-$10; more info here.