When Cost of Living, the debut album by Big Quarters, was released in 2007, Brandon Allday and Medium Zach created a Twin Cities hip-hop classic. To commemorate the anniversary, Big Quarters will reissue Cost of Living on 180-gram vinyl — complete with newly remastered audio — on Record Store Day, April 22.
Brandon Bagaason and Zach Bagaason, siblings raised in the Midwest with roots in the Southside of Minneapolis and Northern Minnesota, make hip-hop music that focuses on community, family, and how both relate and evolve. Think OutKast merged with strains of DNA from great duos like Pete Rock & CL Smooth and Gang Starr. The two landed on Big Quarters as a name while sitting in their parents’ car during Cinco De Mayo on the West Side of St. Paul.
“Brandon said it, we laughed, but we both saw it had some layers. Years later, around the time we first released Cost of Living, it meant creating our own space for change,” said Zach. “Once we had the name for the group, I moved into figuring out the sound. By 2004, we’d been making beats for five years, so our skills were maturing, and after coming off the boot camp of making songs just for live shows, we were really aiming to start putting together our best work.“
Brandon lays out the mission statement on Cost of Living’s “Intro.” It’s an abbreviated shout-out cut, but as Brandon says, Cost of Living is all about: “My family, where I live, where I come from, and where I’m going.” Without wasting any time, you’re hit with “Sign of the Time,” with producer Benzilla’s almost skeletal rhythm structure slapping over light, yet ominous bass notes, and a quick guitar stab.
“Part of my history with rapping was battling, so my writing was focused on wordplay and jokes,” said Zach. “Brandon really pushed me to get personal — to not go for the rhyme, but to go for content.” If “Sign of the Time” was any sign of things to come, it proved the brothers were well on their way to writing songs that had a neighborhood narrative on the front lines.
This was especially evident on “Lou Diamond,” the lead-off single. Both members admit that it definitely took some time to craft and formulate the messages laced throughout the album. Zach mentions, “We pieced together ‘Lou Diamond’ in August of 2005, and from there, we found the level that we wanted to be on for our official debut.”
Zach’s battle-tested approach, paired with Brandon’s deep, rich, sometimes daft delivery, provided a perfect yin-and-yang for a tour-de-force of pure skill, helping give the jams on Cost of Living the feel of instant classics.
The songs “Beacons 2.0” and “Everyday” inspired lyrics that became the next chapters of their discography. Brandon’s utterance of “party like a young commie” would provide the title for the group’s third album. On “Everyday,” he shouted, “Home of brown babies and white mothers,” over an emphatic horn break, this line would not only serve as the title for the group’s sophomore album, From the Home of Brown Babies & White Mothers, it would also take on a life of its own.
Brandon said that pivotal line “was just something that I felt and saw in friends and family around me. The story of multiracial couples and families have been silenced for a long time, and we were starved for representation. So, we made shirts, and sold out of them everywhere we went because people that had never even heard of Big Quarters, identified so strongly with the message.”
Near the tail end of Cost of Living, the song “Painkillers” strongly relates to the times we’re living in. Brandon says his verse tackles the topic of “family and the things you can’t unsee,” while Zach said, “Sometimes I’ll write from multiple experiences, and tie them together as if it’s one story. We see alcoholism take different shapes in our friends/family. Sometimes I see these experiences vividly because I’m drawing off my own history with my vices.”
However, the apex of the song is delivered by spoken-word artist Emmanuel Ortiz. “Zach sent me the song as an audio file,” Ortiz remembered. “Listening to the verses Zach and Brandon contributed, it really spoke to me, as alcohol and addiction have impacted my family, certainly. I felt they were already speaking to personal experiences of pain and addiction, so I focused more on a broader view of human hurt: numbness and the ways government, corporations, and the mainstream media manufacture addiction and violence while obscuring our suffering and our stories.”
Ortiz said the piece he provided Big Quarters with was originally longer. “Zach and Brandon flew me out to Minneapolis — I was living in Oakland at the time — and Zach and I spent a day or so paring down and smoothing out some piecemeal text I had written, until we had something concise and cohesive to record. The rest I credit to Zach’s magic. He sutured it into the song more seamlessly than I thought, and it stands as a powerful track.”
“Song for Brown Babies,” which is the lone Brandon Allday solo song, proves to be the most poignant and straightforward number on Cost of Living. Medium Zach provides a bright yet somber production, while Brandon weaves a narrative about the extenuating circumstances that led to the tragedy that occurred in Red Lake in March of 2005. Student Jeffrey Wiese killed his grandfather and his grandfather’s girlfriend at home, then came into Red Lake Senior High, killing seven students and injuring five more, before turning the gun on himself. Brandon goes into vivid detail about the conditions that allowed such a situation to fester, from the troubled past of the shooter, to the victims that perished, and the community it affected.
Just as important as the music on Cost of Living is the artwork. The photos were taken by Andrew MacDonald, however the front cover artwork was created with the help of Adam Garcia, also known as Snakebird, who came together with Zach and Brandon to form a trio from ‘02 – ’04. The artwork features hands duplicated multiple times over, stretched out, and strewn across across the front cover, and inside are photos of Zach & Brandon together with their own family.
“The Bagaason brothers are some of my favorite people, so to have been able to collaborate with these two for those years was really amazing,” said Garcia. “What always surprised me was how different they are, but there were a few things they shared. Intense focus, relentless drive, incredibly high standards, loyalty, and love of family.” Garcia created artwork that spoke to Big Quarters and the message surrounding Cost of Living.
“I wanted to find this visual relationship between family, hard work, and quality, and do something a bit unexpected from what many other hip-hop albums of their ilk were doing as album covers,” said Garcia. “A collage of the hard-working, lined hands of Brandon and Zach’s grandparents seemed like an ideal solution.”
Following the release of Cost of Living, Brandon Allday and Medium Zach teamed up for full length albums: From the Home of Brown Babies & White Mothers, and Party Like A Young Commie. The latter of the two releases highlights the tune “Never Leave a Crumb,” which is featured on the HBO documentary Rock and a Hard Place, executive produced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. They also self-released their own instrumental series known as Zip Disks Break, and their most recent EP, Somos No Joke, a multicultural twist on the Eric B. & Rakim song of a similar name. Medium Zach engineered, mixed, and mastered both of ZULUZULUU’s efforts, What’s the Price? and The Cover Up mixtape. In addition, Medium Zach has been making his own waves across social networking with #Beatstory, where Zach outlines and creates a new beat every Wednesday on the spot.
Brandon and Zach host and curate Last of the Record Buyers, one of the longest running hip-hop producer showcases – bringing up-and-coming beatmakers to the stage. Big Quarters will also be hosting a Last of the Record Buyers showcase at Soundset on Sunday, May 28th at the State Fairgrounds in Saint Paul. Brandon and Zach have been teaching artists since 2004, developing curriculum, running workshops, and classes on music production with young people at Beacons, Hope Community, Kulture Klub Collaborative, Intermedia Arts & McNally Smith College of Music.
Cost of Living stands as one of the best debuts in Minnesota music history. “It’s an amazing thing to come back to a project we did at a completely different time in our lives and still be proud of it,” said Zach. “My takeaway is that the preparation was necessary. Taking our time, making it through trial and error, releasing it on our own, was all necessary.”