"In the Seventies, everyone from Cat Stevens to James Brown was dealing with some form of rebellion," says Self, maintaining his orator's diction as we cross Hennepin Avenue against traffic. "I listen to today's music..." He shakes his head in exasperation. On the sidewalk we pass a newspaper stand with headlines announcing yesterday's Yugoslavian revolution, and the towering MC from the hip-hop duo Micranots frowns his agreement when I remark that something like that couldn't happen here. Stylistic revolutions are a dime a minute on American radio and in American pop culture. But if real politics is in the air this autumn, it certainly isn't on it.
Inside Baja Tortilla, the pointedly revolutionary rapper gazes out the window for minutes at a time, though hardly distant or uncomfortable talking about the political uses of music or the "mental programming" he hopes to combat. Maybe he's like Cyclops from the X-Men, I think, his watery stare too piercing to meet head on. One lyric from "Pitch Black Ark," the lead single off the Micranots' fine new album, Obelisk Movements, seems apt: "When you look in our eyes /It's like facing the sun/Dee-termination."
Watching him spit this line live, bathed in white-light sweat, you could easily peg Self (full name: I Self Divine or Asra Sifu) as that rare but needed figure in unheard hip hop: the hungry vet. He may or may not be the first Minneapolis MC to celebrate ten years with the same DJ, in his case, the Atlanta-based Kool Akiem (Akiem Allah). But he's certainly the first to mark the occasion with a debut disc that is as aesthetically bold as any D'Angelo dope opus or Radiohead monsterpiece.
"It sounds like nothing else," remarks one friend of mine, and while that's true, what's even more unusual is that none of the tracks sound alike. Released on the startup, NYC-based indie Sub Verse, Obelisk Movements conflates ancient monuments and sex, government conspiracies and personal anxiety. It's all backed by Akiem's eerily minimalist, consistently incongruous samples--for example, a space-age synth gurgle set to jazz-age cello moans. The sound seems to evoke dark, open spaces, but the lyrics feel vacuum-packed, dense with foreboding--and forbidding--metaphor play. Even Self's I've-got-a-soulmate ode to a "Queen Supreme" slips its Lena Horne name-check amid references to surveillance cameras and missile systems.
"I wanted to produce an album where you didn't get the meaning from one listen," admits Self. "So you have to sit with it, and sit with it, maybe take a break, and then come back with it. It's like a city: You don't know your way around, so you're constantly looking around."
This sentiment recalls the three key elements DJs from Kool Herc to Premier once depended on for aesthetic success: dislocation, dislocation, dislocation. Indeed, both Micranots find their roots in geographical rootlessness. Self was raised in south central Los Angeles, Akiem in San Diego. Each moved to south Minneapolis with his mom, meeting at South High School in the late Eighties. Both are old enough to remember how Dinkytown businesses pressured the Varsity Theater into abandoning live hip hop in 1990. Over the phone from Atlanta, Akiem says he was too young to get into the best rap shows at Glam Slam. "And once I got through the age thing, it was a dress-code thing," he laughs. "I was like, 'Man, I can't wear sneakers to the Jungle Brothers?!'"
Listen now to the duo's 1993 debut cassette, featuring then-third member Truth Maze, and you'll hear a surprisingly assured local Native Tongues knockoff with bouncing, chant-along choruses made for a stage. Indeed, the early Nineties Micranots are remembered most as a live phenomenon, one of the first crews to popularize the idea of hip hop in the 7th Street Entry. When the trio moved to Atlanta in the mid-Nineties, Maze bowed out within a year to return home. But the other two kept pace with tapes and gigs. "Everything that you can imagine, we've done," says Self. "We've played, we've traveled, we've fought. It's a family type of thing."
Since Self relocated to the Twin Cities last year to be close to family, Micranots have been in the odd position of keeping one foot in the black mecca of the South while once again making noise in the passively prejudiced Midwest. Fittingly, Buddah Tye, of the local hardcore crew the Sure Shot Brothers, appears on "Balance Control" to chant, "Killah, Cali, Money, Murderapolis/Dirty Down South be the reason that I mastered this."
"Thing is, if you can survive here, you can survive anywhere," says Self of the Twin Cities. "But we had gone as far as we could here. We left at the top of our game, coming down to Atlanta to be at the bottom. And we worked our way up again."
Now the Sub Verse deal has brought them national distribution and a slot touring with Common and Bahamadiain in Africa this winter. The crew is even considering another move--perhaps to New York--to work on the next album. All of which finds the embattled preacher of Obelisk maintaining his uncommonly soft-spoken and even-keeled demeanor.
On a particularly easy roll, Self offers the most succinct definition of hip hop this side of Kris "I am hip hop" Parker, a.k.a. KRS-One: "Use what you got to get what you want," he starts. "Turntables weren't intended to be used for scratching. Adidas from Germany, they didn't think little cats were gonna put fat laces through them. Now they're making 'hip hop' clothes."
He glances down at his army fatigues and work boots, both spattered with white paint from a mural he's working on, and smiles. "Everything I wear is hip hop. Hip hop was destined to go through this phase of being excessively fashionable. If people think, 'How can I be hip hop?'--you'll never be hip hop if you're running after it. You just stop. It is you. And then you just walk. You don't even run any more, chasing after a flow. You just walk."