Twin Cities rap scene offers anonymity through community

Local hip-hop powerhouse Ernie Rhodes
Alexa Jones

My mission seemed impractical, if not downright quixotic: get down with five shows over four days in a whirlwind effort to synthesize a neat little encapsulation of the Twin Cities' rap scene. The journey would take me from the unconventional (a show in the hip-hop no-man's-land of St. Paul) to the corporate (shows sponsored by Scion and Camel), and from halogen-lit nostalgia (two early-'90s East Coast favorites) to the locally grown present.

Wednesday found me at the Turf Club, where local mover-and-shaker Twinkie Jiggles of Heiruspecs puts on his semi-regular Re-Loaded Wednesdays series, nobly bringing all things funky to the quiet side of the Mississippi. The crowd was sparse but receptive, and Ernie Rhodes and his producer/DJ Last Word flew through a gang of material with wicked precision and manic energy.

Thursday I was off to Scion's presentation of Black Sheep (or at least half the duo), along with another favorite of the 30+ crowd, Nice & Smooth, part of a regular series of free concerts. Underwhelming as a national tour featuring non-local artists past their prime, it was still fun to see an older (and classier) crowd show and prove how they did it a decade ago, matching the Varsity's air-conditioned swank with plenty of their own cool freshness. The fact that openers Nice & Smooth haven't aged well was offset by proof that Dres of Black Sheep is still nice on the mic.

The Cabooze show on Friday was a welcome contrast to Thursday's posh Varsity gig, with its biker-bar aesthetic and more laidback crowd. Frugalis McSpiteful popped up as a pleasant little surprise, spitting some truly lewd hilarity, while fellow openers Megatron and J. Gatz held it down with assured deliveries and plenty of agreeable anti-establishment sentiments. The ethos espoused here—that of scrappy, down-to-earth dudes with real talent—could be indicative of much of the scene, summed up nicely by Megatron: "Nose to the grindstone/Head to the stars." The mood was quietly enjoyable until hired ringers Prof and Rahzwell (with DJ Fundo riding shotgun) absolutely blew up the joint in purportedly their last performance here before bouncing down to Atlanta in search of bigger and better. Gampos represent. Headliner Parallax, with their live-band format and heavy riffs, seemed an afterthought.

Saturday found me at the anemically attended Asphalt Showdown, which despite the delicious performances by Abilities ("aw shucks" dopeness) and Dessa (Renaissance [wo]man skill), and delicious complimentary pulled-pork sandwiches, was mostly good for spotting local luminaries like Eyedea and DJs JimmyIITimes and Plain Ole Bill of Cryphy (semi)fame while waiting for something to happen. Then it was off to the last leg, a motley billing at the Nomad, where we once again saw Mr. Rhodes and his partner Last Word do their thing. E.R. excels through his engaging and multifaceted subject matter, and by eschewing the standard ABAB rhyme structure in favor of more complex mathematics, while sole producer Word blends dynamic beats with an ear for propulsive melodies and seamless craftsmanship. It also doesn't hurt that Rhodes's intensity onstage rivals a UFC competitor on meth—go see him soon.

Insights, in short form: the corporatization of hip hop, whether subtle (Scion's use of a live band felt not revelatory but rather a veiled attempt at co-opted indie cool) or blatant (Camel's shameless shilling of death in a box at $3 a pop), should be tolerated but distrusted (free shows are cool, brand loyalty is not); a certain laidback patience is a prerequisite for attending rap shows; no matter how Minnesota nice 99 percent of the scenesters are, the adage is true that certain soundmen are still assholes; and ultimately, despite widespread media disregard, passive concertgoers, and bullshit acoustics, TC rap survives and thrives solely through tenacious positivity built on an "I got your back" foundation.

In the end, my sleep-deprived self was both exhausted and inspired. Steeped in the scene like tea brewed too long, the unique flavor of everyone I encountered began to set in, where extreme diversity of styles and influences is surpassed by the commonality of trying to win. Artists who I assumed would be at least a little big-headed revealed themselves to be alarmingly modest, friendly, and, well, normal. Fans who I thought would be ice-grilling and fashion-showing were instead jovial and low-key. The sense of community among artists and fans was palpable, as if included in the second-hand smoke and fog machines.

An anthropologist might describe the intense reciprocity and willingness to lend a hand ("Got not a lick to do with money/This is for the game, man!") as being merely a function of tough economic times and a need to band together for survival; while technically true, this explanation fails to capture the very real camaraderie amongst artists. This is a community that's incredibly tenuous, yet extremely strong. The predictable DIY tab is both an understatement and a misnomer—more like DIO (Do It Ourselves). Quickly, the question of whether the TC rap scene is dead or thriving becomes irrelevant. Complex beyond common sense, absolutely soul-nurturing to the small community in the know, and undiscovered by the ignorant masses, it welcomes with open arms but could give two fucks what you think. Enjoy your Lil Wayne CD, I'ma go write some lyrics.

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