Choosing your name is a fine art in rap music. Just ask Chingy, who disposed of the less huggable "Thugsy," or Ol' Dirty Bastard, who for a while there asked that we call him "Big Baby Jesus." Self-reinvention is the game of naming in hip hop, something as old as graffiti. So why, in Snoop's green heavens, would a rapper ever call himself Piece of Shit?
The MC born Stefon Leron Alexander will tell you that P.O.S. actually began as an abbreviation for something else. Back when he was a 13-year-old punk rocker, in a basement scene not exactly bustling with other African Americans, he was known as "Pissed Off Stef." When he stopped taking speed at age 14 and picked up the mic to start rapping, he became "Promise of Skills." Now, with an upstart hip-hop crew and label, Doomtree, and a new album of punk-inspired rap, Ipecac Neat, he still goes by "Product of Society" and "Promise of Stress."
As I learned while spending the day with him two weeks ago, on February 19, the biggest name you haven't heard in Minnesota hip hop stands for all the above--and probably more.
1) P.O.S. = Piece of Shit
12:20 p.m., Doomtree house, 31st Street and Garfield Avenue South
"I had a dream last night," P.O.S. tells me. "I was at the Triple Rock, at the Dr. Dre birthday, and you were there. You were following me around asking questions. And somebody was walking behind you, saying, 'Don't be friends,' like in Almost Famous. 'Don't be friends. He just wants to look cool.' It was really weird. Then I dreamt that I went home and you were there when I woke up. And then I actually did wake up and you really were there."
I have entered P.O.S.'s south Minneapolis house through one of two unlocked doors, and found a disaster of dishes and garbage. Three other roommates are asleep upstairs, while downstairs the noonday sun floods in through the windows. The rapper is standing there, maybe realizing what this looks like, him surrounded by chaos. He's tall in his sweatshirt, with milk-chocolate skin and dreadlocks exploding out of his head. Not quite fat, but round like the new teddy bear inexplicably sitting out on the sticky table.
"I need a T-shirt," he says, gingerly stepping over a ripped paper bag bursting with Kleenex, a Wheelo, and a VHS copy of Tick Tock. On the wall next to the door he disappears into, there's the peeled-off grip tape from a skateboard painted with these words, in red: "We kill spies. Doomtree." The gothic-sounding name belongs to the rapper's crew, to their recently formalized record label, and also to this house, where several members live, and where everyone records homemade CDs in the basement. Though not for much longer. After numerous threats of eviction, Doomtree is moving out. An orange water-shutoff notice hangs on the wall; somewhere there's one for electricity. Last time the power was cut, the Doomtreers sat around listening to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper on a shitty boombox, drinking by candlelight.
"It's a punk house, dude," P.O.S. warned me the night before. Now he has emerged from his room in blue Ipath sneakers, chuckling as he glances at the forest of Budweiser bottles. His expression says: Well, what did you expect? He steps into the wet snow behind Doomtree and shows me to his blue '93 Volkswagen Golf. P.O.S. is awake to the world and it's coffee time.
Describing his reverie from last night, he laughs again. Media attention seems new to him, this journalistic spy in his house. He's been performing in public for more than eight years, having drummed in the pop-punk band Cadillac Blindside. He currently sings and plays guitar in Building Better Bombs, his screaming hardcore band.
But P.O.S. has no experience becoming famous, or almost famous, and like Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Lester Bangs, he's skeptical of the process. The rapper is self-deprecating even when explaining the reasons fans know him by an acronym for "Piece of Shit."
"I'm not trying to make it sound any cooler than it is," he says. "It's the kind of name I wish I could change. But for me it was the same as Joe Schmoe or John Doe. It isn't self-hating; it's an everyman thing. I'm just anybody."
2) P.O.S. = Pissed Off Stef
12:45 p.m. Urban Bean, 32nd Street and Bryant Avenue South
At the coffee shop, P.O.S. receives three phone calls on his Motorola. Four people stop him to chat; one hugs him without a word. The rapper behaves warmly toward everyone he encounters, though he employs the abbreviated phonespeak of a busy man: "Hey, you want to be my DJ tonight? Cool. Bye."
Between calls, P.O.S. pulls out a cigarette, which he asks my permission to light. It's hard to imagine how this guy ever got the nickname Pissed Off Stef.
"The most important thing to know about my background," he says, "is that I was brought up from the sixth grade on punk rock. My first tape was Black Flag, Damaged. I basically listened to what Mom listened to, which was Motown, and what my friends listened to, which was Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat. Minor Threat was like my favorite band forever."
A bit more awake now, and with a coconut mocha steaming into his face, he opens his impossibly big brown eyes a little wider. There's a stud in his lower lip, with a few tiny hairs curling around it. He says he used to spend 25 minutes a day straightening his kinky hair into a Mohawk before deciding one day that maybe punk means not caring about what you look like.
The guy friends know as Stef is 22 now and has been hitting basement shows for half his life. He worked at the Foxfire Coffee Lounge, the storied downtown all-ages club, and was there nearly every night until it closed. Sean Tillman (Har Mar Superstar) met him as a hyperactive, pot-smoking 11-year-old. The rapper's oldest friend in Doomtree, Kai (DJ name: Marshall Larada), met him as a steel-toed-boot in the face at Edgefest--Stef had bodysurfed into him. Then Stef kicked him in the face again when the two of them were slam-dancing at a party in somebody's garage. Stef ended up following Kai home afterward, and stayed at his place for days playing guitar. ("I was like, shit, who's this weird black kid in my house?" Kai recalls. "I didn't have the social wherewithal to tell him to leave.") Today they create a squall of noise together in Building Better Bombs.
Half of P.O.S.'s remaining friends from his punk-rock days are in Doomtree now. "Either we grew up together skateboarding or we grew up together making music," he says. And punk's sense of solidarity and outrage--what his girlfriend calls "constructive anger"--is obvious throughout Ipecac Neat, the rap label's first official release. Calling out George Bush by name on "Live," P.O.S. lifts a chorus from the Nas classic "The World Is Yours," but inverts its nihilism to attack an unnamed overclass: "Whose world is this/The world is theirs/Too many of you think it's fine/It's fine/It's fine."
"People tell us to quit bitching," P.O.S. says. "But I'm not some angry, pissed-off guy. One of the things I always loved about Minor Threat was that they'd present a problem, and then by the end of the song they'd have an answer for that problem. Aside from Public Enemy, a lot of times even the most intense and forward-thinking hip hop doesn't present answers."
P.O.S. says punk similarly provides a lot of his samples, which, by his count, include four by Fugazi, two by Modest Mouse, three by Rancid, and one by high school friends the Plastic Constellations. (That band's Aaron Mader actually made the DJ Shadow-like beats for "Live" under his Doomtree name, Lazerbeak.) This is the "black punk rock" that Russell Simons once accused PE of promulgating.
"I was talking to Zach from Kanser," says P.O.S., "and I was like, 'Is it cool to use drum 'n' bass stuff and really loud guitars on a hip-hop record? Would you do that?'
"And he's like, 'I wouldn't do that, dude. But it's like 2001 now, you can do whatever you want. You're already screaming at your shows.'"
3) P.O.S. = Product of Society
1:30 p.m. Volkswagen Golf, 28th Street and Stevens Avenue South, heading south
P.O.S. addresses racism with humor in concert, turning to the right, showing off his physique, and quipping, "My racial profile is beautiful."
So it occurs to me to ask him, back in the car, whether he has seen the documentary Afro-Punk: The Rock N' Roll Nigger Experience? Without missing a beat, he responds, "Yeah, and I wept my little eyes out."
One of the black punk musicians interviewed for the picture was Matt Davis, singer of the Iowa City band Ten Grand, who died of an aneurysm last August while on tour, before the film was completed.
"I don't really want to talk about it except that I wish he was around," says P.O.S. "He was a really important person to me. We had very few--but very long and meaningful--conversations about being black in a scene like this."
It strikes me that P.O.S. implicitly reaches across color lines in his songs in the search for allies and like-minded souls. Which only makes sense, given his integrated crew: Except for one or two other MCs and their friends, Doomtree seems to be made up of white folks, who mostly display the collective fashion sense of a Brainerd muffler repairman. As Doomtree member Cecil Otter raps, "I'm looking Minneapolis, but I'm feeling North Dakota."
I ask him what it felt like being black at punk concerts, where he was often the only one.
"I was at some show at the Mainroom," he says, "and I remember getting glared at for being the black kid. Like, 'What the hell is this guy doing here?' And actually getting elbows! Then, I'd go to school and get same fucking elbows and punches and shit for not looking like every other black kid."
We pull into an alleyway, park behind a brick building, and wait for whomever we're picking up.
"There was a long time growing up as a kid when I just assumed that everybody hated me," he says. "That there was no place for me."
He laughs. "I just wish Pharrell was around when I was 14, so people could just be like, 'Oh, he's like Pharrell.' I'm proud to be black, that's my people. But bottom line, my family, my culture, is the people I'm related to through blood and Doomtree."
When the back door opens, a pale guy named Josh Syx comes out. He's Doomtree's photographer and he plays guitar in Kai Benson's other punk band, the Swiss Army. SA recently became the first group to be signed by Women Records, a new rock label launched by Atmosphere's Slug. Hip hop and punk, never strangers in Minneapolis, are more incestuous than ever.
"I like how you have a bottle of rum in your car," says Syx, climbing in back next to a box full of posters and pulling out a half-empty container of rotgut rum. "Are you a pirate?"
A black skull dangles from the mirror.
"Yeah, I am," says P.O.S.
4) P.O.S. = Promise of Skills
5:15 p.m. Volkswagen Golf, 6th Street and Second Avenue South, heading south
The rapper makes seven stops with his vehicle during the course of our interview, picking up and dropping off various members of Doomtree for a photo shoot. Normally, the red moptop named Bobby Gorgeous--a sort of leader and cheerleader for the crew--would be doing this stuff. But as the sun starts to drop for the day, he's still asleep from the night before. So is DJ Tom Servo (Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans will get the name).
"Every day I wake up, hang out, go get some coffee at Urban Bean, usually go to Cheapo, look at records for a minute, go to St. Sabrina's and hang out with Billy for a minute," P.O.S. says. "Billy is my tattoo artist and the cover model for my record. Then I go home and I hang out for a while. And then I usually either go to work"--parking cars at Rick's Cabaret three days a week--"or go to the liquor store."
He shops for the group, he says, but doesn't drink to excess. "I like being in control," he says, "and I want to be able to answer the phone if somebody like you calls." Besides, he's already gone down that Drew Barrymore road, discovering nicotine and speed before he was a teenager, and joining Alcoholics Anonymous seven years before he reached the legal drinking age. It was in AA that he first met the mother of his now four-year-old son, Jacob. His sponsor was the guy who got him into hip hop, playing him Company Flow for the first time--"It was pretty much punk to me," P.O.S. says--and even forming a group with him, Room 237.
Promise of Skills' first show rapping in public was a festival at the queer youth center District 202 on Nicollet Avenue.
"It was all punk bands and lesbian folk singers," he says. "And I was a little kid with a Mohawk rapping. Right after I got done, my punk band played."
The last stop P.O.S. makes is to pick up Doomtree's only female MC, Dessa. She, too, notices the bottle in back. "Nice," she says, smiling.
Dessa is tall and striking, with long brown hair. For press photos, P.O.S. says she can look like a "Puerto Rican thugstress" or a "slam poet," depending on whether she's wearing her glasses.
She has enough pull with the rapper to tell him to do things like show me his tattoos: hummingbirds stabbing each other on his right arm, "Antarctica" on his chest. It's telling, I think, that this guy would carve the loneliest continent across his breast in three-inch letters. It's also telling that he says he loves Dessa, whose intelligence can be intimidating and whom the group invited to join Doomtree behind his back, in order to avoid the Yoko thing.
On the ride back to the Doomtree mansion, the couple has the easy rapport of kids who wake up in each other's underwear.
"You wanna play chicken?" P.O.S. says, doing his best Charles Bronson. He's talking to an oncoming car now on a narrowing street. The opposing vehicle swerves to avoid us. "All right then. I ween."
"Stef 17, world 0," says Dessa.
An essayist and a poet, she raps and sings in the hip-hop trio Medida, sharing another band house and studio two doors down from Doomtree, the old Wookiefoot headquarters. That stoop is where she met P.O.S., who always would stop to share a smoke with whoever was there.
"Stef was driving by, this big black man in a very small green car," she says. "He was in a Festiva and it said 'Doomtree' on the side. I thought, 'Who the fuck is that?'"
He came over to talk to a friend of hers, but P.O.S began trading barbs with Dessa so quickly that her friends assumed they knew each other. For their first date, he invited her to split a bottle of whiskey under a highway overpass. "You know, my mom was right to warn me about you," she says.
When we reach the house, P.O.S. follows her through the unlocked front door and we head down into the basement studio, a series of tiny, record-clogged rooms. These chambers sometimes get so hot that the rappers have stripped down to their skivvies to record. "It smells like boy," says Dessa.
Sims, the youngest Doomtree MC, is here--fully clothed, by the way--nodding his close-shaven head to a massive, wall-rattling bass sample. He's watching a scruffy Cecil Otter run through a song for tonight's gig at the Dinkytowner. "She smells like Mocha foam and showbiz while I pull my own weight," raps Otter. "That's broken home aerobics and she pulls the wool great."
When the music goes silent, P.O.S. claps Otter around the shoulder, his smile as wide as I've seen it all day. "That's really fucking hot, dude," he says.
Dessa asks, "That's so good, what is that?"
"I just wrote it on the bus and tried to get something done for the show, for the beginning tonight," says Otter.
"You've been looking to do the 'broken-home aerobics' line a while," laughs Dessa.
No pieces of shit in this room.
5) P.O.S. = Promise of Stress
12:30 a.m., the Dinkytowner, Fourth Street and 14th Avenue Southeast
Nothing goes smoothly at the club that night. The show has been slackly promoted, one Doomtreer tells me, and the room is half full. Performing with Medida, Dessa bashes her mouth with the microphone. ("I've been bleeding into each one of my poems," she says later.) Sims forgets a line. ("Couldn't finish the verse, it's all good," he says. "I'm fucking hungry!") And Cecil Otter blanks out on the rap he wrote at the bus station, letting the beat play out as Tom Servo scratches over the freshly burned CD.
Only a few minutes into his set, P.O.S. finds himself out of breath. "So are you guys having trouble dealing with the fat, sweaty smoker onstage right now?" he says between songs. "I'm joining Bally's, motherfuckers. I'll come back and kill you all."
He's already been onstage tonight, having played hype man for Sims earlier, fist in the air, screaming: "It's the war against drugs/And it's the war against terrorists/No fuck that, it's the war against us!" Now Sims will play hype man to him, yelling, "Promise of Stress" at a moment's pause.
For a few bars, P.O.S. is rapping faster than Twista: "I'm on some killer beginner shit/I'm a killer beginner/Feeling the winter is cold/I got sold a sinner." His husky flow is as rich as MF Doom's, but more precise, and the beat is rare--a hectic combination of Missy-style stop/start and jump-up drum 'n' bass.
"I'm just a killer beginner breaking the mold."
When the track gives way to an a capella coda, though, P.O.S. loses his rhythm. "You don't want to act like it's been done--pluh bah duh, fuck!" he says.
But he isn't alone up there. "My boy Sims is gonna help me," he shouts, "and you guys will, too."
6. P.O.S. = Putting off Sleep
4:15 a.m. Doomtree house, 31st Street and Garfield Avenue South
P.O.S., Dessa, and Kai return home, exhausted but elated. The show was good, they say, despite the snags. Over the next few hours, several important facts come out:
- Everything from White Castle smells exactly the same.
- Kai has the irrational fear that one day he'll walk into the living room and see somebody in the chair in the corner, waiting for him with a gun.
- Kai doesn't like to be hugged, though both Dessa and P.O.S. often want to hug him.
- P.O.S. didn't get any numbers from girls tonight.
- This is a first.
Either P.O.S. is going to be the biggest name in Minnesota hip hop since Atmosphere, or he isn't. Either way, I kind of wish he would never move out of this house.
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