There's a video on YouTube of the rapper-singer-songwriter Dessa — a member of the Minneapolis-based hip-hop collective Doomtree — delivering a 2012 commencement address at the University of Minnesota. Watching it, you don't get the impression she was invited to rock the mic in a bid to bolster the school administrators' street cred. She genuinely seems in her element speaking to an academic crowd. The fact that she's also spoken at a Nobel Peace Prize forum and lectured on music business at the college level suggests this is no fluke.
Performing in clubs — with a whiskey in one hand and a microphone in the other — suits Dessa too. Besides contributing verses to her proudly independent and otherwise all-male rap crew, she does her own thing, so far releasing two solo albums on Doomtree's imprint this decade — the brooding, sample-based A Badly Broken Code and Castor, the Twin, which reframed many of the same songs in live, jazzily orchestrated alt-rock arrangements — with a third on the way this summer. Currently traveling in a 15-passenger van with a five-piece band, Dessa is even accustomed to holding her own when dealing directly with show promoters.
Dessa's clearly given some thought to what it is that enables her to not only inhabit such different contexts, but be taken seriously as somebody who can talk the talk, whatever that talk happens to be. Doomtree's relatively slow, DIY ascent was a skill builder on the business side, she notes. But there's more to it than that.
"I think that the common theme that runs through most of the stuff that I do is a love for the language arts," Dessa says. "And you can learn how to use words effectively with varied audiences only if you're dealing directly with varied audiences. That means everybody from the owner of the club [we're playing] in St. Louis tonight to the regents at the University of Minnesota to the teenagers who come to our shows back at home."
Before rapping entered the picture, Dessa was a philosophy student, a narrative nonfiction author and a poetry slam competitor. At one point, she paid the bills by writing excruciatingly detailed instructions for installing pacemakers. Sure, it's an unlikely background for a working musician, but in her case, it helped.
Says Dessa, "Very often, philosophy tackles complicated, nuanced issues, and to communicate those issues clearly, you really do have to have a facility with language — not only precision, but a lot of times my favorite philosophers were so artful in the way that they tackled their subject matter. They came up with really innovative metaphors and similes to be able to express otherwise really ungainly technical ideas. ... It felt like there were some real rope courses for people who love language: 'If you're so good with words, try explaining this idea in an engaging way.'"
"The Chaconne" — an original that appears on both of Dessa's albums to date — may well be the only character study of a coddled and antisocial classical musician in rap. That sort of biting, knotty, literary songwriting has been her forte up to this point; she's seldom dabbled in swaggering self-mythology, the bread and butter of contemporary hip-hop.
"If I were to brag," Dessa says, "I don't think anybody, including myself, would take me seriously if I was just crotch-grabbing and [saying], 'I would take all you MCs down in a freestyle.' I'm not even good at free-styling. So I thought, 'OK, when I get into that vein, what could I do convincingly or authentically?' I thought repping The Chicago Manual of Style would be about as close as I would get to chest-beating — more like book-beating."
It would be a stretch to make the claim that Dessa embodies a new paradigm for the postmodern indie musician, or some such thing. But it's very of-the-moment the way she balances her bold-faced artistic identity with responsiveness to her surroundings — from pop trends to her array of audiences — and doesn't find it at all unsettling to maintain a continual process of evolution and adaptation.
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