Sage Francis and Yoni Wolf popped my MN indie-rap bubble


I moved to Minneapolis for the music.

Well, that wasn't exactly the case, but when, a year ago, my girlfriend was offered a job in Red Wing, MN, and she asked me whether I'd ever relocate to the Twin Cities, I leapt. 

The first time I'd conceived of Minneapolis, I was probably 16. At the time, I was spending weekends schlepping salmon fillets at a local grocery store, mainlining Atmosphere’s blue-collar hymnals on break and whenever I could get away with headphones. The fantasy spiderwebbed out from there — I dreamed of Doomtree Blowouts at First Avenue, Astronautalis freestyles at Soundset, and Record Store Day deals at Fifth Element. Ten years later, all these things have become a very immediate reality. I live in a city where I see Cecil Otter smoking a cigarette on the way to the coffee shop and listen to Lizzo chumming it up on the Current on my drive to the grocery store.

In the Twin Cities, you're never more than a city block from a prodigal rap talent. It's a fact that's as nurturing as it is insular.

Every city wants to hear that it is the greatest. Minneapolis wants to hear it louder and more often than most cities, but the Twin Cities have an undeniable claim to the top spot as a hip-hop mecca in the United States. Because of Minneapolis' unfuckwitable reputation among hip-hop fans, it's easy to be seduced into thinking the indie-rap world begins and ends between the branches of 494. It's a mindset I found myself sucked into after only 11 months of residency. 

Saturday night at First Avenue and the 7th St. Entry, Rhode Island despot Sage Francis headlines the Mainroom with B.Dolan and Ecid while WHY? frontman Yoni Wolf took up the stage at the Entry with Illinois oddity Serengeti. With so many indie-rap luminaries under one roof, it was the perfect opportunity for my indie-rap re-education.

B.Dolan's performed with a Northeastern discontent alien to the Midwest.

B.Dolan's performed with a Northeastern discontent alien to the Midwest.

The night began with Ecid, the only Minnesota native on the bill, taking the stage in the Mainroom. It was the feverish rapper's first time playing the iconic hometown stage, and he gleamed with all the expectant joy of a local boy reaching the pinnacle of his stomping ground. Ecid's mother was even among the half-full room's attendees — a warming note that felt more Minnesotan than anything else that'd transpire in the evening. For all its circular back-patting, the Twin Cities really does nourish its own, and it was uplifting to see another homebrewed talent scaling the ladder.

In the Entry, a show of another stripe was transpiring. The darkly sardonic Serengeti manned the smaller stage around the same time as Ecid. Serengeti — who exists in shades as his alter ego Kenny Dennis, a trumped-up caricature of a Midwestern everyman — stoically rapped about brats and Ditka. Though the Minneapolis music scene  prides itself on being obscure and weird, Serengeti brings a mocking chide that isn't so well received by the onion-skinned denizens of the Land of 10,000 Lakes. It would've been a complete out-of-state experience if P.O.S, one of the local scene's prime torchbearers, wasn't posted up at the merch table chatting with Yoni Wolf. 

In the big room, B.Dolan, bearded understudy of Sage Francis, exploded from behind the screen. With a chip on his shoulder deep enough to serve potato salad in, he ripped through selections from his new album, Kill the Wolf, and mixtape, House of Bees 3, as well as his anti-authoritarian opus "Film the Police." The song, which features local rabble rouser Toki Wright on the studio version, was thrown down with a discontent that even his Midwest analog couldn't muster, exemplifying a founding principle of indie rap that's rarely championed in these parts — righteous indignation.Wolf's solo set at the Entry was mostly fan service. As the Anticon founder and burgeoning podcast host took up the mic, he immediately praised Minneapolis for being a stronghold of his chosen artform, but his set was also at odds with the city's legacy of hip-hop stewardship. The Cincinnati-born emcee was in town performing solo, returning to his roots as a mush-mouthed, acrobatic lyricist. Throughout the entirety of his Ginsburg-gone-hip-hop set, wherein he revisited cLOUDDEAD rarities and reworked WHY? standards like "Waterlines" and "Torpedo or Crohn's" over bizarro, hastened beats, Wolf explored a discography that stretches back a decade while rarely crisscrossing with the Twin Cities' own mythos.

Though Wolf may hold Minneapolis in a special place in his heart, his music mostly ignores this fact, opting instead to glorify Cleveland, London, and Nashville over his host city Saturday night.

With one genre legend knocking off for the night, it was time for the ultimate headliner, Sage Francis, to preside.

For the first time in the night, the Mainroom was packed. There were fans who'd been channeling Francis since before his Sick of... series began anticipating the indie touchstone they'd first encountered in Scribble Jam opposite Slug. Minneapolis may possess a shameless attaboy culture, but the people here know how to treat an icon who makes the trip through town. As the reclusive East Coast emcee took the stage in a robe, cape, and head scarf, the room went apoplectic.

Francis' set traced the arc of his career, visiting many fan favorites from A Healthy Distrust, the Rhode Island rapper's breakout album, which celebrates its 10-year anniversary in 2015, as well as highlights from 2014's Copper Gone. Francis, who has been touring in constant isolation since his June 2014 show in the same room, was at ease in front of the crowd of Minneapolitans. So much of Francis' career is anchored in the Twin Cities — he began his freestyling alongside fellow believer Eyedea and often works off beats provided by Strange Famous signee Cecil Otter — to the point where First Ave is a second home to the lyrical hermit. His performance was goofy, jovial, and characteristically odd. But still, we could never make a claim to Sage Francis.

"It's not like this everywhere else," Francis said, addressing the faithful while he caught his breath. "I talk about hip-hop in Minneapolis like people in the 1800s talked about gold in California."

He went on to claim that he could never live here because there's too much love. It'd make him soft, he rationalizes. This isn't to say that artists in the Twin Cities are spoiled by having a loving, supportive network beneath them, but Francis is a guy who had to sweat and toil to build a scene. Nothing was inherited in his rise to pre-eminate indie-rap personality, so Francis and Dolan share a kindred curmudgeonly nature that makes them alien to Minneapolis/St. Paul. Strange Famous' thumbprint is forever emblazoned on the pulse of Twin Cities hip-hop, but ideological diametrics will always make Francis and his cohort others.

We live in a region that is musically important. That is an immutable fact, especially when working within the boundaries of independent hip-hop. Living here is a irreproducible experience, but it's easy to become overly intoxicated with hometown love. Every once in a while, you need to totally re-contextualize by overloading on a sampler of the country's unaffiliated talents. Bubbles are fun, but every once in a while, they need to be popped. 

Otherwise, it's too easy to get lost at the junction of fantasy and reality.

Critic's bias: As a Massachusetts native, Strange Famous was the closest thing I got to Rhymesayers before I moved here. I'm a big admirer of Francis and have written about him twice (here and here) before. Beyond that, I'm remiss to define indie rap as mostly white, mostly male, but that was the situation in this case, which I regret.

The crowd: It's amazing how much B.Dolan and Sage Francis fans look exactly like B.Dolan and Sage Francis. 

Random notebook dump: Going back and forth between the Entry and the Mainroom, it's amazing that the two venues are even attached. The sound and experience are demonstrably different. While we're speaking of how lucky Minneapolis is, it's pretty incredible that two venues as drastically opposed as the Entry and First Ave share a singular roof.