Minneapolis-based emcee Dessa first fell in love with slam poetry on an otherwise unremarkable February night a few years ago. “I’d had this really lousy breakup and I was living with a woman named Jaclyn at the time, and it was Valentine’s Day, and she was like, 'Get some fucking clothes on, we’re going out. We’re not sulking today,'” she remembers. “And so she put me in her Saturn and we drove to a poetry slam. So she introduced me to it and at the end of the evening she said, 'You know, I think you could do this.'” Dessa tried her hand at writing poems at home and shared some with Jaclyn, who secretly recorded her reading and got the tapes in the hands of a local slam organizer.
Soon, Dessa was performing around Minneapolis and even landed a spot on the state slam poetry team, all before hooking up with local hip-hop collective Doomtree. With them and on her own songs (like "Mineshaft," from her debut, False Hopes, and "Dixon's Girl," from her 2010 LP A Badly Broken Code) she further fused her interest in spoken-word poetry and literature into verses and rhymes that combine an in-your-face defiance with an effortless femininity. Before heading out on the road throughout the U.S. and Canada with Doomtree on their Wings + Teeth fall tour, she took time to talk with Paste about language, public faces and how a dead bird brought her to Doomtree.
How did growing up in Minneapolis influence you? Is there a big arts community there?
Dessa: As I was thinking about a vocation in the arts I did connect with a lot of the arts community here, which has been primarily Doomtree, but in the beginning I was kind of a loner and I wasn’t aware that there were a lot of other people making independent art in Minnesota. I was a kid who’d go home and work by herself, at least in the early years of high school ... so it was really exciting to start to connect with the art scene here, and my first reference connection was to the slam scene, which is how I transitioned into hip-hop.
Being a white, female emcee, would you say that you’re in the minority?
Dessa: Being a woman, yes, there are very few women who participate in hip-hop as a career. And that is true in mainstream hip-hop and it’s also true in what we still call independent or underground hip-hop. And that makes you different, that presents its own sets of hurdles and challenges, but being different, in a lot of ways, when you’re struggling to get attention, is good. Because novelty attracts attention, and attention’s the first step towards receiving some acclaim or interest. And I’m half-white and I’m half Puerto Rican, not that that’s hugely important, but I’d say that there’s a good number of Caucasian artists. There are black rappers, too, and Latin cats. The people who put Minneapolis hip-hop on the map were the Rhymesayers Collective, and their flagship artists are Atmosphere and Brother Ali. So they really broke a lot of ways for establishing a small business here, and Doomtree, several years later, established our own independent label here as well.
Tell me a little bit about Doomtree. How has being a part of it been?
Dessa: It’s been amazing, and I think because they were my first introduction to local, organically grown rap music, they’ve influenced my understanding of that genre probably disproportionately. Rap and Doomtree are inextricable to me. But I met them shortly after I started slamming—I think I was 21 or 22, and I was in a live hip-hop group at the time called Medida. One of the emcees in that group would hand me underground CDs that’d acquaint me with the genre, and one of the CDs had this line drawing of a dead bird with x’s for eyes on it on a CD-r and I really liked that disc, so I asked, “Who are these guys? Are they Pacific Northwest? Where are they from?” And he was like, “Oh, they live next door. That’s Doomtree.” So I met them that way and I was a fan of Doomtree long before I was asked to become a contributing member. I had their first recordings. It just sounded more genuine than a lot of the stuff with which I was already familiar. You could hear giggling—sometimes you could hear the studio door slamming, you could hear little bits of performance and conversation that obviously wasn’t scripted as a skit, it was just the authentic experience of these guys making their work in this independent, subversive way. And so now, fast forward six years and we became a small business, an independent label, and we just do it all ourselves. We don’t have an office or a fax line or anything, we just meet at one of the rapper’s houses every Wednesday night and figure out what has to be done to release our own record.
Is the authenticity you heard in their records something you strive for, too?
Dessa: Yes and no. I think I like their music so much that I had to be careful not to be unduly influenced by it. But it has been really exciting to become a part of something and to help shape something that I had admired for so long from the outside.
If you weren’t doing rap and slamming, what else would you be doing?
Dessa: I write creative nonfiction, which are essays, but told with all the informality and the craft of a fiction work. I wrote a book called Spiral Bound that came out in 2009 on Doomtree Press, which we made up about three weeks before the book came out, and if I weren’t rapping I would probably be writing more. I really love language, so in whatever field I chose to involve myself my role would probably involve the language arts.
There are literary references in your music. Are you a big reader? Do you have certain literary influences or favorite poets?
Dessa: I do. You know, I am a literary kid [but] I think at the same time I’m disinclined to oversell myself, because I think for someone who loves writing so much, I read less than most people. Ah, that’s embarrassing! (Laughs) ... I would say I’m a practitioner before I’m a scholar of literature, but yeah, I definitely have pieces that move me. When I first read Dave Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that, to me, really expanded what I understood the scope of literature to be. It was different, it was informal, it was funny, it was quirky and I didn’t know that you could do those things and still be well-respected as a serious writer. And then I like Mary Oliver, who’s a poet. She writes a lot about nature, which doesn’t move me, the topic—I’m not a student of the natural world. But I really like her wordsmithing. I like C.S. Lewis, and I’m not a Christian, but again, I really like his acuity of mind. And he comes up with really clever analogies and turns of phrases to express his ideas exactly and with a lot of craft. I think I’m a sucker for someone who can be really precise in their expression and still maintain some lyricism, some artistry, and I think he does that really well.
Any favorite slam poets?
Dessa: Good question. I like the guy who’s named Reeves. I’m not sure if he slams anymore, but he was one of the relatively few poets who I saw who was able to combine a moving stage performance with a real literary composition. A lot of times it seems like a difficult blend just to achieve and I think he did that pretty well.
One of my favorites is Taylor Mali—have you heard of him?
Dessa: Yeah. He beat me. (Laughs) I thought I was such hot shit, you know—this new kid on the Minnesota slam team at Nationals—and I was like, “Oh no, some of these people are way, way better.” ... It was a good and sudden education.
How do you go about writing?
Dessa: Well, there’s a few different ways that songs get done. One of the ways involves capturing ideas as they come throughout the day in a Moleskin. But I find that if I develop the ideas too fully in that notebook before I have some music in mind that I’ll write lyrics that don’t fit very well with the tempo and particular percussive pattern of the beat. So if I try to fit it over it sounds like I’m rushing or it sounds like the accentuated syllables are falling in funny and inelegant places. I’ll try to capture ideas or a turn of phrase or I hear someone say something really clever or moving or heartbreaking behind me on the bus and I’ll just write it down and don’t try to take it past maybe a rhyming couplet. Also, if I write too long without a beat then I find that there’s a nursery rhyme quality, where I’m all of a sudden rapping in 1987 and it’s only the last word in rhymes that rhyme instead of the complicated rhyme schemes that are preferable now. So there’s that way—the seeds of ideas are captured in that fashion, and then this morning I was working on a song that I wrote on piano with a friend, a collaborator of mine named Jessy Greene, and it’s been really frustrating because it’s the first song I’ve recorded on piano—it’s a thrill, it’s really exciting, but I’ve been having a really hard time putting words to it. And I started to think, “Well, shit, maybe you can’t do this.” I mean maybe it’s like, “You’ve got one melody line in you per song and you spent it on a fucking piano.” (Laughs) But I was listening to my iPod on shuffle and a particular melody of the song that played right before this instrumental came on worked over that song ... So sometimes I’ll try to write while listening to other songs that move me, just to see if there’s a phrasing pattern or a melody that can then be reworked into something original.
There are a lot of different sounds in the songs you have. There are samba beats, there’s a French cabaret style. Do you have a hand in that? Are you creatively involved in that aspect of the music too?
Dessa: For the last record, A Badly Broken Code, I would say that my role in the production is probably most accurately described as a curator, which is to say I knew the kind of sounds that move me. I talked to the producers in Doomtree—“I like pianos but I don’t really like organs very much.” So I’d try to describe the sound path that moved me, but I would say by and large that the sound of the last album is to be credited 100% to the producers who made it. Paper Tiger made about half of it. Lazerbeak made a couple of tracks. MK Larada made a really good share. And then there were two guest producers—one of them was Meeker from Chicago and one of them was Big Jess from Minneapolis. And then I did a couple of arrangements on the disc, the a cappella and one with Jessy Greene doing plucked violin.
Without saying, “I’m exactly like this artist,” is there any artist out there that you could compare yourself to in style or goal or sound?
Dessa: I feel like I understand the fact that some retailers have had a hard time figuring out where to put my album on the shelf, because they aren’t sure what genre it was in. At the same time, it’s not like I’m blowing music out of the water or something—it’s like a pop and a rap disc. That said, I feel like there are meaningful comparisons that I think could be made about me as a lyricist and about me as a singer but it’s hard to find a good comparison that wraps up the lyricism and the singing and the hip-hop-leaning nature of the disc. So if there is another kind of literary underground female emcee out there doing something pretty similar, I haven’t had the opportunity to say hello to her yet.
Who’s on your ipod right now?
Dessa: I was listening to Ani DifFanco ... Lupe Fiasco, OutKast. I was at the gym, can you write that? (Laughs) Lil Mama, a mainstream emcee. Oh, and then Paper Tiger from Doomtree just released a new disc, so I was listening to his stuff. ... My most recent favorite album was a disc called Lungs by Florence and the Machine, and she really fucked me up. I really reconsidered some basic assumptions about songwriting and recording after listening to her stuff.
Really? How so?
Dessa: Yeah, I did. I feel like a lot of art is trying to figure out what you believe fundamentally to be true about the way that you have to make art, and then deciding which of that can be discarded. But it’s really hard to do, because it’s hard sometimes to figure out what your assumptions are. Like, “things have to rhyme”—well, that’s an easy one. I know that that’s not always true. Or “all songs have to be three minutes,” so that’s easy too. ... But it’s hard to figure out, what do I believe about music that I can question? … With her stuff I’ve always been shy because I’m not an instrumentalist—I’m a vocalist—and I feel like I might be missing a little credibility on that point. So listening to the way that she made her shit, she really did decide to use her voice in this orchestral way, which I’ve done sometimes, but it ends up sounding like churchy music. But she managed to use her voice so that it represents a lot of instruments and doesn’t then adopt a tone of ecclesiastic, liturgical music. It doesn’t sound like a choir’s doing it, it sounds like a rock band’s doing it. But it’s all her voice. ... I feel like she does vocal music without sounding churchy and without sounding like schtick, and that was an exciting development to hear.
What’s your goal with your music? Is there something you want people to feel coming away from it? Do you even have a goal in mind?
Dessa: You know, I didn’t have an agenda explicitly for my last album, but in trying to answer the question that you just asked, I have tried to identify the themes and goals that seem to provide some structure towards that project. I think one of them is to write really smart rap music. Maybe that’s half the challenge of the endeavor. I like the idea of having smart pop music and maybe that’s also to serve my own vanity. ... Also, I don’t know if it comes through anymore—I started to doubt that—but I’m an atheist. And I’ve tried to be kind frank about that because I think it’s good to be public about the fact that there is a secular model of living that isn’t amoral. I have a conscience, I worry a lot and I spend a lot of energy, I think, in trying to do the right thing, and I don’t think that a lot of people imagine that that’s important to atheists. And the other part of the last [album] was about being public with some thoughts and ideas that are very often kept private. I think a lot of times we are asked to present our best faces and put our best feet forward. ... We’re worried that so-and-so is drinking too much and we don’t know how the hospital bills are going to get paid and worried secretly that we’re not very good at our job, whatever those private concerns are. And I think that creates ... the universal impression that, “Man, I have to get my shit together, because everyone else is killing it!” And I found us to be at this systemic disadvantage because we only see everybody else’s public faces and we are then asked to go home and endure our own private lives, so I didn’t want to be confessional or exhibitionistic or maudlin, which I think would be three really easy things to do with that kind of goal in mind. But I did want to be public about some private feelings and, if I could, to air out any senses of shame that were associated with it. ... I think I haven’t achieved it absolutely, but I’ve got a pretty good batting average.