"Hip-Hop Means" might be the most relaxed rap duet ever recorded in Minnesota—a conversation about the Big Questions that feels like two friends just kicking it. Träma, the male voice, isn't trying to get over or prove anything. He says hip hop "brings out the boy in me," and you believe him because his cadence is so easy. "Hip hop's something you can't fathom/It's the way I flip my whiteboy accent at work, and switch it off when I get a call from my homies"—he pauses for a prerecorded "What up, dun?" in the background—"Hip hop, yo, it ain't phony. It's lonely."
Over the same Quiet Storm beat, spoken-word artist Desdamona takes a deeper breath. "It be a slap in the face for those who try to erase, for those who made it illegal for people to read and write," she raps. "Some try to play it off like it's just talkin' shit/But it be the soul breaking shackles and chains, freely walking." There's a feather-light call-and-response chorus, but what you remember is the closing banter, the natural chemistry between the black man who admits to talking "white," and the white woman who claims hip hop as mental emancipation for blacks.
"Yo, you killed me on that verse," says Träma.
"That was the plan," says Desdamona.
And they both laugh. "Cheap Cologne need to put a cup-holder in this booth," Träma adds, referring to his engineer, and to the balmy closet where they recorded the full-length release featuring this song, Träma Dusa: The Ugly Album (K.E.P. Inc.).
But on the next track, "Into It," we get an entirely different Träma:
"Heads is always asking why I fuck with white bitches/I do it for the brothas and I do it for the sistas/I had to make them pay for 400 years of slavery/My dick deserves the Purple Heart for its display of bravery/Träma never eat 'em/I beat 'em and take they money/I use 'em and abuse 'em/My game is out the country/You know they like the way the kid floss/I can tell 'cause they praise my cock like the cross."
It's a shocking juxtaposition, to say the least, even if you think rap should encompass fiction and pornography, and even if you allow for a double meaning behind the words "abuse" (to use in excess) and "beat" (to fuck). Has a James Baldwin character stepped into Träma's kicks? Or is it a version of the butter-voiced rapper himself who admits, on subsequent verses, that he treats chicks of other races the same way? With Mazta I's chorus daring you to press stop—"You know that you love this 'cause you listening to it"—the song is a riddle rapped in a mystery: Is Träma playing it off like he's just talkin' shit? Or is he a creative soul breaking shackles and chains, freely walking?
What I know about the real-life Bertram Cambridge, 31, is that he's charming and ambitious without laying it on. During the Ugly Album sessions, he told me he hoped to make "a Minnesota version of The Chronic." Fellow Pratt Institute alum Prize had already dropped by Cheap Cologne's Golden Valley studio the day before to record her crunky reggae party track "Hoez Up" for the album ("get down and lick my Tims," the dominatrix taunts), with Desdamona and Mazta I coming through the same day, along with Sandman, Fiction (a.k.a. FIC), Xplosive, Moochy C, and Contac. Träma had obviously made friends since moving here from Queens in 1999 to take a video-editing job (he cut Incubus's "Drive" for Harder Fuller Films). The MC papered Minneapolis with posters and independently released three hustler-rap CDs without much press or radio play—though his live DJ, Special Dark, hosts KFAI-FM's The Session late Friday nights (90.3/106.7). Last year's Trämagnum: The Album (K.E.P. Inc.) featured "Praise God," a freestyle that sounded trapped in a video game (it was produced by his frequent local beat-maker Megha Maan), with Träma railing, "You ain't hardcore 'cause you sell crack/In fact, you only killing the black." But Träma ended up pushing a more conventional track, "Pack It Up," with a video he directed showing him laughing while fleeing a club shooting.
Rappers often finesse the divorce between reality and their version of it with a change of tense—I used to do these things. But in person and surrounded by beautiful paintings he's done of A Tribe Called Quest and others in his south Minneapolis home, Träma says he never was a gangster. "It's all me," he says of his songs, a toothpick in his mouth. "But it's real life for my homeboys. I could have easily gone down that route. But my pops, he put the fear of God in me. He wasn't on that time-out shit, he took out a belt. I feared him more than I feared the streets."
The first American-born child of a Trinidadian family, Träma grew up in "the Hurst," or East Elmhurst in Queens, where his graffiti tags were MASTER and DEVELOPE, joining his first cipher at age 13. Today he has an eight-month-old son of his own (whom he celebrates in "Havin a Seed") with his fiancée of Ethiopian descent (her favorite songs, he says, are "Hip-Hop Means" and the Stetsasonic-quoting "Africa"). Träma recorded The Ugly Album shortly before moving to Chicago for four months to edit a new documentary about New York guerrilla artist Stuart Ross, The Survival of the Wildebeest, and he says he could sit on his editing money.
But there's more at stake than his own comfort when it comes to the success of his lyrical fantasies, and of the new release he celebrates on Friday with Sadat X at the Fine Line. Träma's dreams extend to those around him. He says he's seen two friends go to federal prison, and two others die. "I'm not just doing this for me," he says. "I have my whole crew. I can give my friends some jobs so they can stop selling crack, and get off that corner."
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