Unknown Prophets make heartfelt rock-rap

MaD SoN and Big Jess of Unknown Prophets

MaD SoN and Big Jess of Unknown Prophets

Nine years ago, two guys from northeast Minneapolis released a rap song called "Never," with a guest appearance by Slug of Atmosphere, one of the best-known rappers in town. The track was about how they would never be the best, might never be the biggest, but would never give up. Resignation and resilience were just flipsides of the same word in the title.

It says a lot about Unknown Prophets that they began with this uneasy mixture, that quiet rally for flyover hip hop appearing on a debut CD, World Premier. Today, Jesse Semanko and Mike Madison are still unsigned, still unknown even to most Atmosphere fans, yet they've released at least an album a year, on average, either separately as Big Jess and MaD SoN or together with DJ Willy Lose (Jesse Wiskochil) as Unknown Prophets. A school-bus driver and daycare provider with families and shared Polish-American heritage, these friends from Edison High never seriously considered leaving town.

"When World Premier came out, I had just bought our first house," says Madison, unpacking gear with Semanko one night in their Minneapolis warehouse space, waiting for members of their new backing band to show. "I had a car payment, and then kids in the picture. And it's like: Do we get in a van and go tour the country? Or do I stay on my healthcare from my job, and try to balance work and music?"

Unknown Prophets chose Plan B, but never relinquished the dream. As recently as their last album, 2006's The Road Less Traveled, they begged "Mr. Mainstream" for shine, announcing it was "Our Time Now." But then came a deeply moving track off Big Jess's High Rule album of last year, "The Ride of Your Life," from an idea provided by Madison, which suggested that adult life might yet turn out to be Unknown Prophets' great subject. "I got my wife riding shotgun, kids in the back seat," rapped Jess, tricking out his metaphor like a fantasy muscle car. "Forget the freeway, I navigate the back streets."

The new Unknown Prophets album, Le System D, shows how rich this vein can be—maybe because adulthood, unlike youth or dreams of being 2Pac, lasts a while. The record enlists Zach "New MC" Combs of Kanser, on his best Eddie Haskell behavior, for "Fresh," a date song-cum-Twin Cities pastoral with Alicia Steele singing, "Uptown is beautiful." The music vents a fear of ordinariness couched in life-coach advice on the pat but musically irresistible "Explore," and writes a broken-hearted fuck-you in "Hate Face," a song Madison says was inspired by what his wife would tell him if she ever wised up and left his lucky ass.

There's even a nine-years-later answer song to "Never": "Forever" similarly turns its title on its head, this time at the expense of optimism rather than pessimism (and with Sweden's Promoe in place of Slug). Instead of contemplating endless love or heaven, the song is about youthful invincibility from the standpoint of older guys who realize how fleeting it is—and how brief your extended blip can be. "Do you remember when you first said 'forever,'" raps MaD SoN, "and thought you knew just exactly what it meant?"

If this sounds like stock-taking after a brush with mortality, it is. A week before his first son was born, Madison wound up in the emergency room with an irregular heartbeat clocking at over 170 beats per minute: He now monitors the condition, which persists. To write Le System D—chef lingo for flow amid chaos—he did something he hadn't done since middle-school metal bands: He picked up a guitar. Most of the album he wrote strumming in his basement, with his first child playing nearby.

So every song on Le System D is built around a guitar riff, often subtle, sometimes crunching, always lyrical—a happy surprise given Madison's relative inexperience. With production by Big Jess and furious scratches by Willy Lose, the album comes free of lifted samples, relying more heavily than before on sung melodies, which are processed like vocoder R&B or tracked like pop-punk, often at the same time.

Which means you have an album about old-guy anxiety, apparently geared to young ears, about putting aside pop delusions with a sound that's Top 40 distilled, a rap-rock as ambitious as the latest from Eyedea & Abilities or P.O.S. (whose Doomtree pal Lazerbeak collaborates on "Tap Dance"), but that Madison hopes will pay for a house on a better block. And it might just do that: "What I Live For" could be something out of The Hills, and it's not hard to imagine why Semanko balked at the new material at first—yet he was seduced.

The new sound clicks into place more forcefully when the band shows up and begins rehearsing songs live, with Bill Mike on second guitar beside Madison, Maps of Norway's Matt Helgeson on bass, Kentucky Gag Order's Greg Schaal on drums, and Semanko himself on MPC. These guys have somehow found a way to extend their blip into the present, and it feels like a long time coming.

UNKNOWN PROPHETS perform a CD-release show with CunninLynguists, Grieves with Budo, Looptroop Rockers, Tunji with DJ Espada, and DJ Anton on THURSDAY, DECEMBER 3, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.1775