In 2012, rap music is as definitive a part of Minnesota lore as the Mall of America -- or anything else Muja Messiah name-checks in "Leech Lake" or Slug mentions in "Shhh." Names like Hip Hop High, Headshots, Rhymesayers, the Hip Hop Fest, Soundset, and more signify tangible pieces of a local culture that has been steadily growing for decades, and shows no sign of waning. A bevy of local musicians do more than their fair share to keep hip-hop alive and vital, and so they're the ones who figure into our top 20 Minnesota rappers. --Reed Fischer
Origin: Minneapolis | Active: 2003-present | Songs: "Your Body is a Sk8park" and "Camera Phone"
Michael "Ice Rod" Gaughan is the Andy Warhol of our rap generation. Before you die, you must witness an Ice Rod show. His flamboyant outfits and retro steez make him a walking art show. Ice Rod was "wag" even before the word existed, and he probably should be taking royalty credits for that shit. He currently is on the road with his "Chatroulette Dorm Room Freestyle Tour" which is even better than his days taking stage dressed like the Ultimate Warrior and rocking out on a double- or triple-neck guitar with half-naked girls dripping in gold. No one can match the creative genius that is Ice Rod, and if he ever completes that transfer to record, watch out Christian right-wingers. You might have a new enemy. --Lars Larson
"Grab a bottle of Jameson and put it in my face," is Jake "Prof" Anderson's version of pillow talk, and part of a lengthy conversation he's begun about his drinking and the partying that comes along with it. His latest solo album, King Gampo, has its share of serious moments too. Whether the versatile rapper is unloading his rapid-fire side, or taking a more soulful lean with his impressive singing voice, it's all in the spirit of engaging an audience -- even if they're likely to laugh at his expense. What they won't do is doubt his dexterity on the mic.
18> St. Paul Slim
Origin: Saint Paul | Active: 2002-present | Songs: "Shut it Down" and "Horses in the Ghetto"
It was always said that hip-hop music was the CNN of the streets, well then maybe that makes St. Paul Slim the Anderson Cooper of our rap scene. Deadly series and truthful with the subject manner alerting heads that not everything is so great in the Land O Lakes, but when it calls for a time to just let loose he can jam out with the best of them. He has already shared stages with Atmosphere, Slick Rick and MC Lyte and he is a current label mate with another rising rapper in Prof. In most circles he is known for his quiet domineer, but they always say it's the quiet ones you have to look out for. --Lars Larson
17> Big Jess
It's kinda funny now that Northeast Minneapolis is looked at like a hipster haven or the "new" Uptown with its bars, diners, and places to socialize. Back when World Premier dropped "Nordeast" was just a close knit neighborhood full of hearty drunks who loved their Grain Belt and were proud of their local boys done good, the Unknown Prophets. Big Jess rapped about life on the other side of the river, representing with lower working-class rhymes and epic production. One of the veterans of the scene, he's not getting older he's just getting wiser. --Lars Larson16> Joe Horton
The endlessly well-spoken Joe Horton used to rap under the name Eric Blair, but recently confirmed that his alter ego is dead -- or in a cabin somewhere. Combine his animated-as-fuck performance acumen with his creative writing scholarship, and you'll end up with the unique Horton-fronted project No Bird Sing. It's a three-piece band -- filled by guitarist Robert Mulrennan and drummer Graham O'Brien -- that's as punk as anything in the local hip-hop scene. Horton's also the type to oscillate quickly between comedy and serious commentary in the middle of a live set. "I don't care if you're a platypus and you're having sex with a rock," he told the 2012 Art-A-Whirl crowd at 331 Club. "If we don't have love, we don't have anything."
Andy "Astronautalis" Bothwell is the freshest transplant on this list. With only about one calendar year of time as a Minnesota resident, he's been an impressive addition to the home team with a blistering live performance style and songs to back it up. Last year's This Is Our Science straddles about a dozen genres, but at its core is his ever-malleable voice. Be it freestyle tales of dispair, or tightly written hooks that are as infectious as they are gloomy, is it any wonder that Justin Vernon recorded an impromptu album with Astronautalis earlier this year? --Reed Fischer
Origin: Minneapolis | Active: 2001-present | Songs: "Burn It Down"
One of the things--perhaps the thing--that works so well about the Doomtree juggernaut is how well it balances out the crew's different, but distinctive, personalities. Sims has his own unique space in that group, fitting somewhere between P.O.S.'s cerebral, skate-punk aggression and Mictlan's loose-cannon party-boy antics. There's something almost inscrutable about that mix, too: sure, there's a deep-seated anger that boils somewhere deep in Sims' raps, whether he's revealing the hypocrisy around him or his own complicit behavior. But somewhere beneath it all there's also a big soft, sappy core that just wants to love his girl. --Jeff Gage13> Muja Messiah
The stereotype that emo backpackers rule the Minnesota rap scene is challenged by one of the hardest spitters to ever ink Minneapolis on their neck. Muja Messiah's brash early days with the firebrand group Raw Villa ("Minnesota started out on some old positive vibe; Villa was like the first fuck-you group," says Muja in a 2000 interview) live on in his solo work and new group Villa Rosa, and his sense of style and blunt force have not dulled even as his profile rises. His critically-acclaimed 2008 album Thee Adventures of a B-Boy D-Boy remains a local classic, exemplary of the cocky charisma, real-talk political diatribes, and multifaceted street narratives that have set him apart in this scene and abroad. --Jack Spencer12> Toki Wright
Toki Wright began to make an imprint locally as one half of the C.O.R.E. before branching out on his own, and his time spent touring hard with Brother Ali and being involved with big festivals helped cement him as a major figure in the Minnesota rap scene. It's easy to see why: Toki's songs are powerful and his performances capture everything a rap show should be. Energetic, fun, thought-provoking and heavy-hitting, his wide range reflects the art of true MCing, aiming to both challenge your mind and move your feet. --Jack Spencer11> Desdamona
Our own floetress, Desdamona has been singing and rapping around our Cities for years. Her niche is a neo-soul kind of rhythm mixed with spoken word and some original boom bap. Our Des works a 24/7 schedule as she teaches hip-hop to students around the country and is always on tour with various projects, which include Ill Chemistry (with Carnage), Ursus Minor and Sly and Robbie. It's easy to say she's our Queen Elizabeth of the scene, she was here in the beginning, and she will be here till the end.--Lars Larson
Mictlan is the hardest, fastest, and most abstract member of the Doomtree crew, spitting mile-a-minute verses that effortlessly destroy any beat thrown his way. Doomtree have worked to maintain individual identities while still coalescing as one, and Mictlan manages this balance startlingly well, crafting legitimately heartfelt torchlight tracks with style when you know he'd rather be articulating a verbal massacre. At times he's strikingly poignant; at others he's so beyond our scope at such a pace as to be hard to follow. Either way, Mictlan is always a menace and forever a joy to see in action. --Jack Spencer
It's easy to root for the guy so intent on putting in the work. MaLLy's not only honed a consumable flow that's akin to Pharoahe Monch's intensity and lyricism, but the guy has a charisma that balances the knowledge that he's a talented guy and a lingering humility that this fact is still percolating. With the release of The Last Great... and last year's Free on the 15th, he caps a productive couple of years working with producer the Sundance Kid. Together, they answer that question, "Will the throne be mine?" It's not whether, it's when. --Reed Fischer
8> Carnage the Executioner
It's hard to know where to even begin with someone like Carnage. He's more than just a rapper; he's a one-man DJ-sampler-producer-and-MC, plus hype man, hit man, and whatever the hell else he finds time for. The most unique of those different talents is his beat-boxing, and it's plenty jaw-dropping at that: as if through slight of hand, Carnage conjures entire songs with his vocal chords (and more than a little bit of chutzpah). It's the sort of thing that not only makes him a must-see live performer, but also the most dangerous guest spot this side of the Mississippi. Of course, with all that said, it's almost possible to overlook Carnage's absurd skill as a straight-up rapper -- but not quite; he might not show it off like he used to, but no one spins a tighter, faster, deadlier rhyme than the Executioner. --Jeff Gage
7> Crescent Moon
From his beginnings as part of the pioneering group Oddjobs to his current turn as frontman for the avant-garde duo Kill the Vultures, Crescent Moon has proven himself as both a skilled traditional MC and an innovative envelope pusher. His early work was rooted in the freestyle scene he came up in, and remains engaging to this day, but his current output with abrasive producer Anatomy is striking in a way that's closer to beat poetry than breakbeats. The tight rhyming and simple cadence remains intact but everything has gotten more intense and claustrophobic. The experimentation wouldn't work half as well without Crescent Moon's veteran experience in the art of rapping. All told, Crescent Moon has been involved in some of the most forward-thinking and respected rap music our scene has ever produced. --Jack Spencer
A voice like Dessa Darling's is so important within the sameness that envelops hip-hop from coast to coast. Folk traditions and textures have been a part of rap music at least as far back as Arrested Development 20 years ago, but in an age of Auto-Tune and auto-opinion, songs that are instructional and inspirational -- and aren't just a "better" version of the bullshit already out there -- are essential. With Dessa, you get a rapper who can sing her own hooks with stirring complexity, and balance ferocity and tenderness in a performance setting that'll get even the hairs on the back of your neck thinking for themselves. --Reed Fischer5> I Self Devine
Chaka Mkali's effect on local rap cannot be overstated. Bringing elements of hip-hop culture from his native Los Angeles to the budding Twin Cities scene in the early '90s helped build what is now the Rhymesayers empire, and his groundwork as a solo artist and with the Micranots and Dynospectrum provided inspiration to nearly every major artist you can name. But beyond his powerful material on record, which spans an impressive two decades, his hand aiding the next generation's music -- via community space at Hope on Franklin, which provides equipment, tutorial and critique for aspiring rappers and producers -- ensures his continuing presence in the scene's progress. After a several-year hiatus from music, his latest slew of new tracks have amazingly both lived up to the early work and advanced his style forward to find him at perhaps the height of his career. Few rappers have succeeded in creating consistently engaging music that is as moving, politically conscious, provocative, and inspiring as his, and it's safe to say few will argue with his inclusion on this list. --Jack Spencer
Eyedea was so good at rhyming and at being an MC, that it bored him sometimes. So much so that he had to start a rock band. He had to pick up a crayon to draw something, he had to express his intelligence in other forms. His mind was always working and creating. A true musician. Not only was Eyedea an exceptional musician, poet, artist and out-the-box genius, but one of his most underrated qualities was when he asked you "How was your day?" he actually listened and cared about your answer, which then would turn into a three-hour conversation about life, music, or whatever. As much as people were enamored by his talents, he was more interested in yours, and mentoring artists was something he did on the reg. Basically, he cared about you. I hope he knew that millions cared about him also. --Lars Larson
No artist has improved as much over the years than P.O.S. Crossing over from a punk rock background into hip-hop is tough, but not since the Beastie Boys has someone pulled it off quite like Stefon has. He is easily one of our best lyrically on paper and live. And don't forget that he's punching the clock for Doomtree and the Marijuana Deathsquads in addition to his sizeable solo career. He's a road warrior constantly crossing the country with festivals and one off gigs and brings it every show. The scary thing is that he keeps getting better on record and on stage; well it's not scary for us. But maybe for his fellow rappers who will to compete. Bring it. --Lars Larson
Let's be honest: No one has been more prominent in our music scene since the days of Prince, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis than Atmosphere. They basically made independent rap cool -- when getting signed by a major was the "in" thing to do -- and planted its capital right in Uptown. Sean and Ant created a new genre of rap taking about women's issues, relationships and growing corn. But don't think Slug is soft; he can verbally bash you as well. Ant's production style has spawned millions of wannabe home producers trying to find his formula, while Slug has had the same effect with teenage boys wanting to scribble in their pads about their girlfriends. Basically, they changed the game, almost Prince-like. --Lars Larson
1> Brother Ali
As one of the earliest Rhymesayers artists, Brother Ali has grown into a goliath of rap in these parts. It's an election year, and Ali is turning his campaign trail into burning magma. Sure, he's getting ready to release Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color in August, but the guy would prefer to dish out eloquence on the level of a civic leader. When the talking head pundits talk about how our children need someone to, Brother Ali has proven himself as a guy who can translate the conversation on the streets into narratives that are as thought-provoking as they are lyrically supreme. And a lot of people are hearing and internalizing his powerful orations about race relations in this country, the foreclosure crisis, and the pillars of the local hip-hop community. He can be a gentle giant at times, and there's a wealth of positivity that mixes in, but stand back when he's ready to roar. --Reed Fischer
City Pages on Facebook | Gimme Noise on Facebook | Twitter | e-mail us