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Road-Tested Dem Atlas Is Poised to Make His Mark in the Twin Cities

"I totally and intentionally don't want to be myself."

"I totally and intentionally don't want to be myself."

Dem Atlas | 7th St. Entry | Saturday, January 17
While cohorts pushed costumed crowds to the limit around the Twin Cities, St. Paul rapper Dem Atlas spent this past Halloween working in near solitude. It was then that he personally illustrated covers for 1,000 copies of his latest EP, DWNR.

The dreadlocked, mild-mannered 22-year-old says most of the black marker-adorned covers are "sad, distraught, melancholy faces," but there's also cartoonish playfulness in his artwork. Similar contrasts are found at heart of the EP's sound, a combination of early-'90s grunge's dreary harmonies and wistful pop sensibilities, and the jazz-influenced joyousness of West Coast alternative rap from the same time period. He refers to this synthesis of styles as "droan."

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"What the music back then said to me is, 'I don't have it all together in my head. I look around my surroundings and everything's in disarray sort of. Confused,'" he says, citing the vulnerability of Nirvana. "The feelings of sadness or depression, things not working out your way or in your favor, being overlooked, being invisible. Those are the kinds of themes I touch upon on DWNR."

Playing off similar explorations of paranoia and anxiety that ran through his debut EP, Charle Brwn, DWNR cuts the pensive vibe of his scattered inner thoughts with free-spiritedness and a nostalgic sheen.

Finding a sort of peace and contentment within strife, songs like "Watabout" and "All We Got" turn the feeling of invisibility and loneliness into positive-vibe ditties by lacing them with major-chord beats and earworm melodic choruses. "Down in the Low" and "Candy (Know Wat Can Be)" cut pop aspirations with a somewhat dreary sonic template, but maintain a spirited hip-hop vibe that elevates the material. Expertly juggling genres and emotions, DWNR hints at the strength of an eventual full-length.

Building off the expressiveness of his past creative endeavors — which include painting, acting, and leading the rock band the Argonauts — his rap work decidedly focuses less on specificity and more on evoking a feeling. "You can interpret it any way you want," he says. "I don't really like writing songs about a specific thing, I'd rather it be a collage of different ideas."

There's dark material swimming just beneath the anthemic sing-along choruses, and Atlas pointedly lets both sides play out simultaneously. It's a genuine summation of the man himself, whose humble and soft-spoken demeanor in person offsets his manic energy onstage. Distancing himself from rap braggadocio, he instead draws from the pent-up frustrations and angst embedded in his lyrics to exude confidence. His aggressive concert persona often includes brandishing a baseball bat and flailing wildly on the ground. It's a transformation that happens almost immediately when he takes the stage.

"I totally and intentionally don't want to be myself," he says. "I am myself, but it's almost an exaggeration of myself or another half of myself. It feels very liberating."

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Prior to this interview with City Pages at Spyhouse on Hennepin, Atlas was across the street at Rhymesayers' record store and label hub Fifth Element with the marker in his hand again. This time, the task was designing a poster for Saturday's show at 7th St. Entry — his very first as a headliner.

"I'm a little nervous," he admits.

This show follows a whirlwind 2014 that included performances at Soundset and Odd Future's Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, a short run of shows with New York throwback rapper Joey Bada$$, and an opening slot for his Rhymesayers labelmate Atmosphere on the North of Hell tour. After a year's worth of playing to huge crowds internationally, a stint at the Entry hardly seems like nerve-racking territory, but Atlas understands the weight of being the main draw.

"One of the humbling things about [the North of Hell tour] is the fact that we're playing to Atmosphere's crowd," he says. "He built this crowd over time by touring extensively. They're loyal. I studied Prof and Atmosphere every night and how they handled the crowd, the energy they exude. They're masters at engaging the crowd and making everybody feel like they're a part of the whole experience."

Additionally, the Rhymesayers family gave Dem Atlas insights regarding how the business side operates, and how much of the job requires tirelessly working day and night. He seems well-suited for the prestigious indie roster — adding both a young vibrancy and a classically minded niche sound to its storied discography. He's already poised to sweep local audiences, but the label seemed to want to road test him before unveiling a big headlining show.

"From what I understand, I'm going to be touring a lot," says Atlas of his future plans. "It has to survive, it has to grow. The only way it can grow is by getting in people's faces."

DEM ATLAS plays a show onSaturday, January 17, at 7th St. Entry; 612-332-1775

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