Your Bad Self
Now here's something you don't see every day: A police Chevy Suburban is driving down the sidewalk on Portland Avenue near Franklin. Ahead of him is a young black man in a blue jersey, walking like he doesn't notice the truck creeping up behind him.
I watch this from across the street, my car parked with the windows open. Then a voice nearby says, "You see that?"
I Self Devine is standing on the grass, his eyes fixed on the police with a stare that's both luminescent and opaque. He's tall enough that he needs to move the passenger seat all the way back when he climbs into my Camry. Of all the rappers in the Rhymesayers hip-hop collective, this is the guy you don't want body surfing into you at a concert.
Self needs to pick up some homemade compact discs for the hip-hop class he's about to teach at Hope Community, Inc., a neighborhood nonprofit. So we leave the nearby drama and head to his apartment near Portland and 35th Street. Self says cops and dealers do their dance around here all the time.
"I'm just tired of seeing kids on the corner selling drugs, then getting picked up, going to jail, and getting out with a record, so it's harder to get a job, so then they're back on the corner," he says. "And all the while you continue building prisons, so it's an ongoing thing."
Self's apartment is neat, with two beds for his kids, a daughter who will be twelve soon and a seven-year-old son, both with their mom today. On the wall hangs a sign listing "rules for the play room": "Clean up after yourself. Turn off light when you want to leave. Be nice and no fighting." On the refrigerator there's a picture of Self, posing with his mom and brother, when he was about his son's age, his chocolate skin glowing and his brow less heavy. On the nearby sill are a bunch of old records: The Last Poets' Right On!, a Huey Newton album, Listen, Whitey! Rare shit. Self inherited a few of these from his uncle by marriage, the late African American historian John Henrik Clarke.
When I ask Self if he shops for records online, his eyes soften--his version of a smile. "I'm pretty manual," he admits. I laugh, but he doesn't. Later, he tells his students: "So many people come to me and say, 'Why are you so serious?' But with everyone else joking, they don't need me to be joking, too."
For 15 years, I Self Devine has been like the Chuck D of Minneapolis hip hop without a Flavor Flav to balance him--an utterly serious figure who is taken utterly seriously. But his new album on Rhymesayers Entertainment, the first released under his name (not those of his groups the Micranots, Semi.Official, or the Dynospectrum), brings his righteousness into focus while being more fun at the same time. The seven songs on Self Destruction produced by fellow Minneapolitan Ant (Atmosphere, Brother Ali) represent a career peak for both artists, while Seattle producers Jake One, Vitamin D, and Bean One (all associated with the Boom Bap Project) transform the remaining tracks into urgent club music.
"Getcha Money On" is an American epic told from the point of view of a hundred-dollar bill that wakes up in a register spattered with blood and surrounded by counterfeits. "All I Know" lets local rapper Mazta I sing, while "Sex Sex Sex" allows the normally stoic Self to counsel honesty in the rubbing of fuzzies: "Your G tried to tell you how she like it/You kept ignoring, fronting like you're psychic/Now you a sidekick, fucking with a side chick, and the inside joke is you both like it."
That track leads into the album's operatic core, with sex giving way to unplanned pregnancy on "Feel My Pain," and struggling womanhood on "Can't Say Nothing Wrong." Over Ant's electro-reggae beat and sampled wah-wah, a new Self emerges here--the loverman/race man. "Your energy is blindin'/You remind me of everything definin'," he sing-songs like Common. By the time he's calling for an "Overthrow," he's also "looking for conversation, good sex, and a mind that's racing." By comparison, the criminal pose of "Actions" is predictable. (Note to Self: Best not to bring up home invasions till the third date.)
After heading back to Franklin and Portland and grabbing a boom box from his office, Self walks over to a nearby house, sets up the CD player inside, and makes some Country Time lemonade.
Only two students come: twentysomething rapper Indigo and adolescent spoken-word performer Chantz. This is the second class, so word hasn't exactly gotten out yet. (If you want to attend, call Chaka Mkali at 612.435.1677. Students will record at the studio in Powderhorn Park.)
Self is a good teacher, patient and always ready with a metaphor. "Each beat has its own personality," he says. "The way you treat your homie is not the way you treat your mom."
As his students begin improvising freestyles over beats, Self writes subjects on a grease board for them to incorporate:
Who are you?
Where are you?
Chantz is halting, but up to the challenge: "I don't do crime 'cause I don't have the money, resources, or time."
"You just got to iron it out," says Self, slapping his fist into his palm encouragingly.
Leaving the students to write their own songs, Self addresses the same topics outside, from Lake Street condofication to his own life of crime in the '80s to currently getting more involved in the community as his music grows less overtly revolutionary. So I have to ask: "Where are you?"
"I'm probably, like, up the mountain, in one of them little side pockets," he says. "Just taking inventory of where I've been so far."
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