It’s been a tremendous year for Twin Cities hip-hop. While the heavyweights (P.O.S. and Brother Ali) received a much-deserved spotlight, fans looking to dig a little deeper into the scene were rewarded with even richer dividends; acts like Guante and Big Cats!, The Chalice, Sean Anonymous, and Ecid were all serious contenders for my own year-end list, and represent just a small slice of the quality releases to come out of the hip-hop community this year.
The bar was set so high that the question posed by reigning local hip-hop king Slug of Atmosphere earlier this year—“Is the Twin Cities scene oversaturated?”—seems ridiculous at this point. If anything, the large pool of artists making waves here with rap and soul projects has helped to introduce a wider variety of voices and styles to the general listening public. Some of my favorite acts stood out because they didn’t simply xerox the “socially conscious, hyperliterate” brand of hip-hop that has come to define the area in recent years. Which isn’t to say that they failed to come across as smart or socially aware, but that they were willing to pull in more diverse influences (spoken word, Southern rap, mainstream, electro) to give their music a more distinctive flavor.
Breakout artist Greg Grease, who snuck onto the scene in 2011 with his modestly distributed debut The Giving Tree, is one such artist. Grease is an active participant in the tight-knit South Minneapolis scene, but his new Cornbread, Pearl and G doesn’t sound like anything else that’s been released in that neighborhood or anywhere else in Minnesota this year. Some tracks are reminiscent of OutKast’s Big Boi—which may partly be a result of the early years Grease spent growing up in Atlanta—while others might appeal to fans of A Tribe Called Quest or Common.
Grease posits that the Twin Cities have always been home to a wide variety of hip-hop artists, but not everyone enjoyed the access to recording equipment, studio time, and label support that were previously required to create and distribute high-quality records.
“I think it’s crazy, because it’s a lot of kids that have been around always, but are just now gaining access. Because I know even for me and my guys, we’ve been doing music for years, but we couldn’t record and make it sound the way we wanted to until the last few years,” he says. “Really, the technology is really helping everybody to show what they’ve been working on, because even since back in the Dinkytowner days and stuff like that, it’s really been a lot of the same people. And I feel like that’s why everybody’s probably so close-knit, because we’ve been seeing each other build their styles and everything for years.”
Cornbread, Pearl and G was largely a collaboration between Grease and producer Mike Frey, who he says would trade skeletons of beats with him and then join him to flesh out the songs out together. Musicians in Disguise also produced one track, as did Mike Swoop, who arranged the beat for one of the album’s most powerful tracks, “Death Ballad,” which takes a hard look at the violence that plagues lower-income and neglected neighborhoods.
“This life is never gon’ change / as long there’s cash that’s made to be spent / cash for the hash cash for the coke / cash for the politician or pimp / we all getting played like a banjo,” he raps with a dizzying cadence. “Death ballad to the tune of a sad note / the song goes on and on till the day you’re dead / on repeat in the back if your head.”
Grease says his new album is a reflection on the lifelong struggle between right and wrong, and borrows its name from the 1975 Laurence Fishburne movie Cornbread, Earl and Me. “One of the biggest influences growing up was my dad, he’s mad influential, and one of his favorite movies was Cornbread, Earl and Me,” he told an audience of friends and fans at a recent listening party. “It’s a reflection on my life and internal battle: Do I want to continue down the straight path, doing what I know is right, being broke—or doing what I know is wrong and thriving? Cornbread [the character] is the idea of what’s right.”
“My mom’s an educator and my dad’s a blue-collar worker, so we’ve always been in middle class, lower middle class neighborhoods,” he elaborated later. “I wouldn’t say necessarily it was a super bad neighborhood, but definitely an environment with a lot of poverty. Mostly, growing up for me, a lot of my friends wouldn’t have parents—like, we would go over to their house and do bad stuff, and then they would come over to my house and eat dinner. Stuff like that. And that actually happened a lot, where a lot of kids in the neighborhood would end up coming over to my house to eat dinner because they didn’t have anything to eat, and my parents tried to always have food.”
When faced with difficult choices, Grease says it’s his love for art and especially his newfound love of rhymes that have kept him on a positive path. “I know that I’ve had the opportunity to make bad decisions, and really more recently it’s been a thing of like, ‘oh, well if I do that then I probably won’t get to make music. I like my art, so that’s probably not the best situation to follow.’ And my parents have been super supportive, they’ve always been super supportive of art and being 100 percent behind me, whether it was filmmaking or music or whatever it was.”
Grease first entered the music scene as a member of hip-hop group the Usual Suspects, and says that the MCs in that group are responsible for encouraging him to write his own rhymes—especially the late Abdulle Elmi (a.k.a. MC Free One), who died tragically this year. “I’ve always kind of wanted to rhyme, but I never had the full confidence in myself,” he says. “And really, my guy Free One, rest in peace, he’s the one that really got me rhyming. Originally I just made beats and he would rhyme, and AKRITE also would rhyme, and they would always just tell me you need to rhyme with us, you need to rhyme with us. And I’d be like, nah. Really, I think it started because I used to just hype-man, even when I was a producer I just loved being on the stage and holding the mic, so I think that’s how I started it.”
It’s astounding to think that Grease only made his first foray into rapping four years ago, especially given the vivid lyrics and deep grooves present on Cornbread, Pearl and G. And though some of the tracks on his new album explore dark territories, Grease’s music is ultimately uplifting—a reflection of his warm and laid-back demeanor—while offering up complex enough ideas to stay satisfying after repeated listens. One gets the sense that Cornbread is just the beginning of a bright career ahead for this gifted young artist.
“I’m a dreamer, plain and simple,” Grease told the crowd at his listening party last month, shrugging and beaming from ear to ear. “The only reason I do anything I do is because I’m a dreamer.”
Greg Grease plays a release show tonight, Friday, December 14, at the 7th St. Entry with Meta, Mike the Martyr, BdotCroc, and DJ Just Nine.