Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Dessa: Doomtree's Distinguished Diva Discusses Poetry, Prose and Performance

by Rob Callahan

On a cold December night in 2005, a line formed around the block outside of the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis. Fans huddled and shivered as they waited for the doors to open and the show to start. The sell-out crowd surprised everyone in-the-know within the local music scene at the time; from critics to the group themselves. What would become the annual tradition known as "The Doomtree Blowout" catapulted the much buzzed-about collective from the relative underground to local notoriety in an instant.

"Before doors I got a call telling me there was a line, and I asked, 'Where?'" says Dessa, a member of the Doomtree Crew along with fellow emcees Sims, Mike Mictlan, Cecil Otter and P.O.S. "They told me, 'Outside the door!' We were all so excited that at least two of us put on really big hoods to go outside and see if it was true, if there really were people waiting outside to see us."

"It was the first show that we'd ever headlined without asking a lot of our friends to join us on the bill," she recalls, "because we wanted a litmus test. We wanted to better understand our draw in Minneapolis, so we tried to make it a really special show." The uniqueness of the show revolved around personal mixtapes. Each of the emcees made one, in old-school fashion on analog cassettes, and fans entered a raffle for their chance to win a tape made by a member of the crew. "So the night before everyone was staying up and painting things, and frantically trying to find a boom box that would record cassettes. Nobody slept."

Photo by Bo Hakala

In the years that followed, the annual events became bigger and more elaborate, with half-time shows featuring choreographed performances by troupes of B-boys and B-girls, multimedia displays and a computer animated logo that towered over the stage and moved along with the music, each letter keyed to react to a specific emcee's words. "I was the D in Doomtree, and every time I talked on the mic the D would vibrate and move." With the increase in showmanship from one year to the next, word spread about the group and the Blowout, and it never failed to draw a capacity crowd.

The members the Doomtree Crew continue to write, record and tour together whenever breaks in their other projects will allow, with each of them boasting their own repertoire of creative talents, and none more so than Dessa. A rapper, poet, author, singer, songwriter and instructor teaching classes on rap music and song writing compostion at McNally Smith, she flashes a charming and disarming smile when asked to retrace some of the steps that brought her down the path to where she stands now.

Photo by Phong Tran

"I was uninformed about how big it was..."

"Some of it I always knew I had an interest in, but I wasn't sure. Like with philosophy," she remembers, having had an interest as a child, "I knew I wanted to think about things, to take a given premise and follow it up and guess at all the possible different outcomes. When I was a kid my mom was telling me to get my immunization, and that the needle was so little it wouldn't hurt, and I kept imagining what it would be like if it was half the size of the needle I had last time I went, and then half the size of that, and so on. I used to love dreaming about that stuff, but I didn't know that that had a name. I didn't know there was something called metaphysics or epistemology." As an adult she attended the University of Minnesota, where she studied philosophy as an undergraduate and began to connect with members of the local arts scene, at first by chance.

"I had a bad breakup and my roommate took me to a slam at Kieran's Irish Pub. It was a Valentine's Day theme, so we went together." After watching the performers recite their pieces, Dessa's roommate suggested that she should try writing a poem, "so I wrote one and a few weeks later, she came into my bedroom and asked if I had finished that piece I was working on, so I recited it." Little did Dessa know that her roommate had an ulterior motive, and was holding a dictaphone behind her back while Dessa spoke. "She recorded it and then kind of moonwalked out of the room," recalls Dessa, who goes on to recount that the secret recording was then shared with Yoni Reinharz, an influential figure in the spoken word scene, who brought her to the stage at her first poetry slam. Unbeknownst to Dessa, her first competition was during team selection, during which any poet who ranks, wins a spot on the slam team. She ranked.

Photo by B Fresh

In ways, her introduction to slam poetry was accidental, if not at least unwitting, and she soon became involved in something much bigger than she'd realized. "I was uninformed about how big it was," she remembers, "internationally," and from spoken word she took an otherwise unlikely step into the realm of hip-hop.

"Yoni was this crazy, extroverted, intelligent Jewish MC," says Dessa, "and he thought I was talented, so he asked if I wanted to join his rap group [Medida]. I was flattered but I couldn't rap, so I said thank you, but no. He said I should come over and read some of my poems over his beats and to see if I could, so we went over to his house." She recalls the anticlimactic end to his initial wooings: "So I read a poem over one of the beats and he was not very impressed, but he said we'd work on it. And slowly, we worked on it and I became a rapper."

Yoni inundated her with CDs to listen to, to influence and inform her own style - including A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde, The Wu-Tang Clan - and one disc among the many was of particular interest to her. "There was this one burned cd with a picture of a dead bird, and I was just starting to recognize regional signatures, East Coast and West Coast stuff, and I asked him, 'Who are these guys?' He said they were Doomtree, and I asked where they were from because I couldn't place them, and he said they were from Minneapolis." Not only were they local, but they lived two houses down from Yoni, so she knocked on their door, introduced herself and soon became friends with them.

Photo by Zoe Prinds-Flash

After months of rapping with Medida and hanging out socially with Doomtree, Dessa was invited to open a set for Sage Francis with one of her poems. "That poem was probably two minutes long, but I was so nervous, I probably did it in about a minute ten." After her recital, she went backstage where surprised members of the Doomtree Crew were waiting in awe, having not known that she could rap. "I realized that I had been so shy up to that point that I just hadn't mentioned that I rapped in this other group. Some months after that, the Doomtree guys sat me down in their living room and said, 'We've been thinking a lot about it and we were wondering if you wanted to be part of...' what was essentially their tree house gang at the time. It was pretty informal. We weren't an LLC, we didn't have t-shirts. They were just a bunch of dudes who called themselves Doomtree. And I said 'Yessssssss!' After that, I performed both with Medida and Doomtree."

"I was so excited, I called my mom," says Dessa, joking that the words, 'Mom, I'm in Doomtree!' - said over the phone and late on a weeknight - might have easily prompted a concerned parent to ask if she needed them to come and get her out. "It's a funny sounding word, and first she asked me what a Doomtree was. I said the guys I told you about next door, and then I told her it was hip-hop and she said, 'Well, be careful.' I asked what she meant, and she said something about cocaine, and I told her none of the guys in this house has enough money to purchase even the smallest amount of cocaine.”

"So she was not excited," says Dessa, "but she came around in a couple years, and dad ended up coming around just a hair ahead of my mom because they had exactly the same ideas about hip-hop that would concern any parent with a daughter. If you're only informed by pop culture, there's a lot of reasons not to like it."

"I'm not interested in portraying myself as some sort of goddess."

At first, Dessa didn't encounter those reasons, and she attributes initial freedom from them to the insulation of the Minneapolis hip-hop scene. "There were some great guys in Doomtree and Medida, who were - I don't want to say respectful, cause that sounds like there was some sort of formality - but we were just friends. Then, as we slowly but consistently ascended in the underground scene, I started to meet people who weren't necessarily sexist in a confrontational or adversarial way, but in those sly, suave ways. Like you're getting hugs that last too long, or men are calling you cute names, or you're in a serious setting and you're going over line five on the contract and he says, 'Alright babe, by the way, nice sweater!' And I'm like, 'To whom are you speaking?'"

"There have been some occasions where there are some really violently, outrageously sexual lyrics," she says of the styles and prose archetypal of mainstream rap, "and I've had the opportunity to just walk away from those stages and say, 'Screw you. That's just whack and personally offensive.' I think a lot of the time there is an expectation that female MCs will tolerate a lot of foul language to prove they're as tough as the dudes or say, 'I'm as much of a thug cause I hate women even more than you do.'"

Photo by Steve Cohen

"On the other end of the spectrum," she notes, examining a movement within hip-hop that she hesitates to call feminism, "I guess you'd call it fem-centric, glorifying women - and I'm about celebrating being a woman, but being a woman sucks for the same reasons that being a man or being human sucks: I'm broke, I'm lonely, I don't know why I'm here, I'm existentially bummed out, I'm bored, I'm hungry. All the same things that are human concerns are female concerns - and I'm also not interested in portraying myself as some sort of goddess. Anything that ends in E-S-S is not for me. E-S-S is okay in DESSA, but that's it."

Gender relations are an all-too-prominent part of the hip-hop lifestyle in other ways as well, as Dessa recalls the extent to which the creepy factor manifests in the occasional overzealous fan, "but the guys who are creepy to me are not as creepy as the girls who are creepy to the boys. I think everybody knows what a creepy guy is like. Right away, you have a personality type in your head. But generally, sexual advances from women are welcome, so there's no line of conduct that the girls won't cross. The guys in Doomtree are polite enough that they'll just retreat into the green room and hide from the groupies, or just very politely send them back to their pack of girlfriends."

"It sort of feels like visiting someone else's life."

"It's a weird job and I get it," she says of the hours and unusual expectations. "Every night that you're at work, the other people are partying. You go to work, you're sober late at night, and everybody's been drinking for three hours on their off night, so right away it's a pretty pronounced difference."

Nowhere is the difference more pronounced than at the big shows, where the scale is grander and the expectations higher than at other times. "On the road it's exciting if fifty people come out in Denver, but we're working hard for every step. Whereas the blowout is the best that we know how to do every year, and it's a show full of spectacle," she says emphatically. "And it's one of the few that has all of us on stage at one time so it's kind of a gestalt thing. It shows that we've been friends for ten years. It's goofy. We mess up and drop and catch microphones and all sorts of nonsense on stage, which I think is part of it, because we're not pitch-perfect every show. We never have been, so it's all about the show itself."

"It sort of feels like visiting someone else's life," she says of the big crowds and over-the-top performances. "I know that it looks so cool, but it's so few evenings in one's life that that's what your job looks like. So I know to my mom and dad, who of course aren't going to come to a lot of rap shows, will come to the Blowout and see this room full of people and it's a cool room and people really like us, and they must think that my entire career is evenings like that, but it's one very special night a year that still feels phenomenal and humbling."

Photo by John Behm

The Blowout may be the most prominent portion on Dessa's plate, but it's far from a complete course. It's more like a mere part of a balanced breakfast, including a new solo album, another book and an upcoming tour.

"It's easy to play up the vagabond thing, where I'm carefree and I've got sand in my bra."

A Badly Broken Code is the title of the next Dessa disc. "It's a line that I shamelessly lifted from a poem I really liked by Billy Collins. In an effort to contact him in any way, I thought I could write him and ask permission to use this title. I had hoped to open a dialogue with him," she says with an embarrassed smile, "but his receptionist got the request and was like, 'Yeah, that's fine.'" The album will traverse new and unbeaten paths for Dessa, jumping from aggressive raps to hymn-like acapella cuts -- and Dessa anticipates a hard sell due to the diversity of styles it showcases. "I think it needs most of my attention to get off the ground. It's a heavy kite."

Dessa's singing, which figures more prominently into the makeup of the new album than it has in her past work, is another dream from her youth that she's managed to make a reality. "Singing seemed like such a long shot to make a career of. I didn't like it when adults thought my aspirations were cute. It was like saying, 'I want to be a quarterback,' and everyone saying, 'That's great. Go get 'em on the sand lot, kid.'" But having proven her chops on the stage at Doomtree shows, book readings and radio appearances, she's ready to integrate it more fully into her portfolio, incorporating the many influences she's had in life. "My family was very frugal and wouldn't buy a lot of records, so we had a very small musical collection. I listened to Michael Jackson's Thriller, Whitney Houston, Joan Baez, Rod Stewart and my dad playing classical guitar. I still hear classical pieces whose names I still don't know, but I recognize it, because my dad played that one."

"Writing I wanted to do," she says when asked about her first book, Spiral Bound, "but I didn't know that it counted if you did short stories. I thought writers had to do full books. Interest, yes, but vocational aspirations less so. Initially, I'd really liked writing and wanted to get into it if I could just figure out how. So the bad breakup lead to the slam and that lead to rap music. Rap music lead to six years later, I hadn't written as much as I wanted to, and I think I just started to get salty. I wasn't as fun to hang out with because I was bummed out. I was bummed out that I hadn't done more writing, so I decided I was going to finish – even if it was a little slim volume – a collection of essays and poetry."

Faced with the prospect of being a relatively unknown author trying to sell her work in a genre where being published is nigh impossible for anyone less famous than David Sedaris, Dessa worked with Doomtree to set up a print wing of the group's ever-increasing spectrum of creative genius. The resulting book was the culmination of many years' worth of thought and consideration.

"I first started getting into creative nonfiction in college. I was probably nineteen or twenty and I had this really bad ass teacher, Thomas Haley. He introduced us to a variety of essays between five and fifteen pages. Some of them had better characters in them than they had plots, which was new to me. I liked it because it was like a conversation with one of those people who could talk about anything and you'd giggle. It could be about the most mundane experience and it's still profound, like I'm paying to get in between the writer's ears, not because they had an exceptional experience but because their mental life is so interesting. That may have appealed to me because I was twenty and I didn't have any good stories yet," she jokes, "but I still love it."

Her next book, which at this time has not been secured by a publisher, departs from the more free format of Spiral Bound and tells the longer story of her travels through India. "I think it's going to be called A Perfect Burn," she speculates, acknowledging the difference between this and her first book. "That one's harder. I think it's because the stakes are higher – It's easier to sound snotty when you're doing travel writing. Or inauthentically spiritual when you write about somewhere far away. It's like going to France and now you can't remember the word for cheese, so you just say 'fromage' all the time so you look like a poser. Finding a good gentle but honest touch is what I tried to do. For example, I went to the City of Death to watch the lowest caste, the untouchables, treat their dead in India. I really dug it, but it's hard to write about well."

"It's easy to play up the vagabond thing, where I'm carefree and I've got sand in my bra," she says, "to glorify the lifestyle of backpackers. But I knew that I really liked the travel experiences I had and I wanted to figure out a way to share those. Songs didn't seem to work, so I did this new book."

The 5th Annual Doomtree Blowout takes place in the First Avenue Mainroom on December 5th, with a 6:00pm door.

The CD Release Party for 'A Badly Broken Code' happens January 22nd at the Fine Line.

For more info on Dessa visit her myspace page HERE for more info on Doomtree click HERE.

video promo for Doomtree Blowout

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