Muja Messiah’s rap career began when—well, actually, the veteran Minneapolis rapper has a couple different answers to that question.
His crew Raw Villa came on the scene way back in 2000, and while sitting down with me at his St. Paul studio space, Muja says that if he finds himself arguing with a younger rapper, “I might be like, ‘Young buck, shut up—I’ve been doing this for 20 years.” Really, though, he says he didn’t properly start pursuing his music career until around the time of his 2014 album, God Kissed It, the Devil Missed It, which features what still might be his most essential song, “Northside Nightmares.”
“That’s where I had a plan of attack,” Muja says. “I had a focus. I had a team around me. Prior to then, it was just, ‘Let me go in, look at my notebook, and spit a verse over the beat.’”
Now 40, Muja is working as hard as ever and, with a pair of new EPs coming out soon, produced by New York indie-rap heavyweight Roc Marciano—Saran Rap and MPLS Massacre Vol. 2—he’s making some of the best music of his career. Over the years, Muja has developed a style that distinguishes him from many of his Minneapolis peers, especially introspective rhymers like Slug and conscious MCs like Brother Ali. Muja’s songs tend to be street-oriented and focused on all manner of hustling, but he’s also incisive about race and politics—and wickedly funny too.
The styles of rap in the Twin Cities that get the most attention, especially on a national level, are rarely the traditional street rhymes that emerge from other regional scenes, and Muja has some thoughts on the matter. “I believe that Minnesota, on a national level, it’s definitely whitewashed,” he says. “People look at Minnesota as the white place. They think Brother Ali is black, they think Slug is white. There is an underlayer of whitewashing, but not just in Minnesota—in hip-hop as a whole. There’s a reason certain artists are pushed to the forefront, whether it’s Post Malone, whether it’s Cardi B, whatever it is.”
Muja says he isn’t specifically intending to change that national perception, but the new EPs should significantly add to his impact and influence, especially within the Twin Cities. That’s partly due to the beats from Roc, who first came to the attention of avid hip-hop fans as a member of Flipmode Squad, then built a cult following as a solo artist around the time of 2010’s Marcberg. Muja has nothing but love and admiration for Roc. “I meet a lot of rap dudes, and they can disappoint you with how they act,” he says. “Some dudes, not even on Roc’s level, will have an attitude or have a persona that they think they gotta maintain, where they’re just complete dickheads. Roc was a standup dude.”
Saran Rap and MPLS Massacre Vol. 2 are the latest examples of Muja’s preference for working with one producer per project. In the past, he’s also done records with St. Paul producer Tek (who handled 10 of the 12 songs on this year’s PyrExpeditioN) and Mike the Martyr, of Minneapolis (who produced 2015’s Angel Blood Soup). “I like harnessing one person’s ear,” Muja says. “Usually, working with one person does the trick for me.”
The approach did the trick for both the new EPs. On top of Roc’s beats, Muja is as smart, evocative, and funny as ever. As for guest vocalists on the projects, Saran Rap boasts verses from indie-rap mainstays including Roc, Detroit’s Guilty Simpson, and California’s Oh No, while MPLS Massacre Vol. 2 features Muja’s son Nazeem and Spencer Joles on different songs.
Muja and Roc recorded Saran Rap in Minneapolis a year ago, with a fresh batch of beats, but MPLS Massacre Vol. 2, which uses previously released Roc instrumentals, came together in just the past few weeks. “A lot of shit has happened in the world since [Saran Rap was recorded],” Muja says. “A lot of shit has happened within my life since then. I gotta talk about that shit; it’s my therapy. There’s a lot going on—the hurricanes, the orange guy, everything. I just got married in Puerto Rico, and the place I got married ain’t even there anymore. A lot of stuff going on in the world right now I’m emotionally connected to more than ever, and a lot of people are.”
Aside from his own music, Muja is also excited about the music careers of his wife, Maria Isa, and his son, Nazeem. The rapidly rising rap duo of Nazeem and Joles is set to release a new album called Years of Obscurity, and Muja says Isa, who also has an upcoming album, is making the best music of her life.
Muja is relishing it all, and he’s also taking pride in his longevity. “What I hear all the time from my peers is, ‘Man, you’re still doing it,’” he says. “I see a lot of guilt in the eyes of some artists who was doing it and ain’t doing it no more. Or I see young dudes who see me and they’re like, ‘Man, if he’s still doing it, I gotta get on my shit.’ So I’m motivating the young and the older to just get on your art. Do something that takes your mind off of things so you don’t go crazy.”
Muja is not only still doing it—he’s doing it well. And there’s no false humility when he acknowledges his recent consistency. “It’s like Vince Carter, man—why he gotta retire if he still got a 40-inch vertical?”