Local Current Blog

Minnesota Weird: 10 players who pushed boundaries in 2014

Tickle Torture. Photo by Nate Ryan/MPR.

Earlier this month, Minneapolis expat Paul Thompson took to Pitchfork’s blog The Pitch to sum up our hyperactive hip-hop community, declaring that, “Minnesota Nice is well established, but 2014 was the year for Minnesota Weird in the Minneapolis-St. Paul hip-hop scene.”

His assessment—and the artists he chose to highlight—got a lot of people talking here in the Twin Cities, and it also got me thinking about how much our scene benefits from the players who intentionally swim against the tide and challenge our preconceived notions about what music should sound like and what should happen when an artist steps on stage.

Although some may disagree on the finer points of Thompson’s article, I think his overview did highlight one fundamental truth about Minnesota’s musical ecosystem: although the lion’s share of our press and accolades tend to get heaped on our most polished, poised, and let’s be honest, most business-savvy players, what really makes our community so vibrant is that it’s actually made up of a collection numerous smaller communities, some overlapping and some completely separate, that foster their own talent and amplify their own unique voices. And though there is still plenty of progress to be made, I think we’ve gotten a lot better at creating space for and listening to a much wider variety of voices this year than we have in the past, thanks in no small part to the work of some of the artists listed below.

If the increasing popularity of avant R&B quartet thestand4rd and the noticeable scene-wide gravitation toward the underworld warbles and alien moans of futuristic electro music have taught us anything, it’s that experimental sounds—weird sounds—are quickly becoming the norm here in Minnesota.

So yeah, we will take that Minnesota Weird label as a compliment, thankyouverymuch. Here’s to all the freaks, the weirdos, the malcontents and contrarians, the warriors for justice, the seekers of hard truths, the beatniks with bass beats. Here’s to the artists who question everything and in turn force us to question our world and ourselves.

This list surely doesn’t dig deep enough, but it I couldn’t let the door close on 2014 without paying tribute to some of the brightest, oddest stars who were bending our minds and rubbing right up against the status quo this year. Shine on, you crazy diamonds. Shine on.

1. Tickle Torture

Armed with gold body paint, elaborate headdresses, confetti canons, leather leggings, and some of the funkiest electro-pop beats in town, Tickle Torture’s Elliott Kozel is a flashy, sexually charged, and subversive presence. Not only have his no-holds-barred live shows been a wake-up call to the staid indie rock scene, but his beautifully shot music videos raise a whole slew of questions about sexuality and identity. All that style wouldn’t mean half as much if it wasn’t backed up by so much substance, and dude is one of the most skillful pop songwriters around.

Read my interview with Elliott. And watch him freak out the squares on the set of TPT:

2. Allan Kingdom

No one else in Minnesota raps like Allan Kingdom—and for a state filled with so many rappers, that’s an impressive feat. The St. Paul MC hit the road this fall and got a bit of national buzz with thestand4rd, but some of his best work has been recorded alone in his bedroom and in the studio with producer Plain Pat, who helped him create his most recent full-length Future Memoirs. Kingdom is the rare MC who can not only sing but croon his heart out, and it lends a lyrical, lilting quality to his arrhythmic rhyming patterns and staccato punctuation to create a flow that’s simply hypnotic.

Watch Allan Kingdom perform in the Current studios:

3. Psymun

But wait, you’re thinking, isn’t Psymun ALSO in thestand4rd? Indeed he is—along with the artist formerly known as Spooky Black (Corbin) and Bobby Raps. But much like Kingdom, Psymun’s best work extends far beyond the album thestand4rd released this fall. And much like Kingdom, Psymun has crafted an aesthetic and sound that is peerless in the local scene. Psymun first caught my attention as the producer behind the beguiling album LucidDreamingSkylines, a collaboration with vocalist K.Raydio, and the duo’s smoky, vibey, chilled-out soul somehow managed to come off as both retro and futuristic. Ever the prolific craftsman, Psymun wasn’t content to end the year with only the masterful K.Raydio and stand4rd projects under his belt; he also slipped in a compelling solo LP this spring that further showcases his unique ear for texture and rhythm.

Check out Psymun’s latest video, which features vocalist Kerry Roy from Bad Bad Hats:

4. Toby Thomas Churchill

There’s a lot to be said about being part of a greater music community, collaborating with artists in different projects and feeding off the energy of other creative types in your city. But there’s also something to be said for the outsiders who lock themselves in their basements with loop pedals, toy keyboards, guitars, and the will to survive another long Duluth winter by channeling one’s stir-craziness into music. Churchill emerged from his basement this year with one of the most complex, layered, and intricately constructed psychedelic pop albums I’d heard in ages—think Night Moves and the Flaming Lips smashed together with Of Montreal and a little bit of the first artist I mentioned here, Tickle Torture. Kinda makes me want to force him back downstairs for another winter to see what else he can come up with.

Read my interview with Toby Thomas Churchill here.

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5. Toki Wright

You’ve likely seen Toki Wright’s collaboration with Big Cats, Pangaea, popping up on pretty much everyone’s year-end lists, and the record is a triumph not only sonically but also in its ability to challenge, engage, and unify the greater Twin Cities music scene(s) through music. Wright is one of the most fearless and truthful MCs out there, and he’s working tirelessly to break down boundaries and amplify marginalized voices through his music, his radio show (Soul Touls, Saturday nights on KFAI), his newspaper column (for Insight News’ arts section, Aesthetically Speaking), his teaching (at McNally Smith), his organizing work in the community, and his Twitter account, where he recently churned out dozens of thought-provoking and profound tweets under the hashtag #MinnesotaNice. Toki practices what he preaches, and it gives his words all the more impact.

Watch Toki and Big Cats perform in the Current studios:

6. Sarah White

Sarah White has a long history of creating genre-defying music here in the Twin Cities and in New York, through her work in groups like Traditional Methods, Black Blondie, and her various solo recordings and projects. This year saw White returning to the forefront in her hometown and helping to carve out a niche for a new kind of soul music with her group Shiro Dame. She calls the genre neon soul, but I’ve also heard it described as Afro-futurism (by Toki Wright, whose latest record also falls under this umbrella), avant-R&B, and incense music. It needs no labels, though. All you need to know is that it’s some of the most adventurous and exciting music coming out of the Cities at the moment.

Watch Sarah White perform with Shiro Dame at the Dakota:

7. Suzie

Mark Ritsema has been around the indie rock scene for a long time, first as the co-founder of Mouthful of Bees and more recently as a member of cosmic psych-rock band Night Moves, but one gets the sense that Suzie is the first time Ritsema has really freed himself up to explore an aesthetic that speaks to his unique personality. With Suzie, he explores the gender-bending side of glam-rock by donning wigs and dresses and singing in a high, beautiful falsetto, and his first video has already become an underground hit in furry forums, of all places. “That’s the market I want, weirdos,” he told Gimme Noise earlier this year. All freaks are welcome in Suzie’s world.

8. Manchita

Lizzo and her tourmate/hypewoman Sophia Eris have gotten a lot of attention in recent years, but don’t make the mistake of overlooking the secret weapon in their banging rap group GRRRL PRTY. Manchita, who also raps with Lizzo in the ratchet-inspired Tha Clurb, prowls on stage like a tiger and wallops the audience with hyperactive, spitfire lines about heartbreak, loss, love, and so much more. She calls her rap music “sad bangers,” and she’s blazed her own trail as an MC who can simultaneously get down and get serious—who else could write a song about her house burning down (“Ash Everywhere,” on GRRRL PRTY’s PRTY TNGHT) and convince everyone to dance and cry at the same time?

Watch Manchita perform with GRRRL PRTY in the Current studios:

9. PaviElle

I’ve written a lot this year about how smitten I am with PaviElle’s debut solo album, Fear Not, but her work this year has extended far beyond the song she sings on that wonderful release. At her show at the Pillsbury House this winter for their Naked Stages program, PaviElle bared all and brought the audience through a wide range of emotions, from grief to joy, anger to hopefulness, and pressed the audience to question their preconceived notions about race. Much like Toki Wright, PaviElle speaks fearlessly about race relations, the history of her culture, and her devotion to the past and future of soul music, and she’s established herself as an essential voice for both truth-seeking and singing.

Watch PaviElle perform at Icehouse:

10. Breakaway

The first time I saw Joe Kujawa, a.k.a. Breakaway, perform his operatic, tender folk music, the entire room hushed and hung on his every movement and word. So it was a delight to see that he’s finally captured that same power on record in his latest, Postcarious. Do yourself a favor and pick up that record immediately—it will make you question everything you thought possible about what a voice can do, what a singer-songwriter should sound like, and how far a heart can bend and fold over itself while listening to music.

Listen to Postcarious here: 

There are so many other artists that could be named here. Who are your favorite boundary-pushing local acts? I’d love to discover some new voices as we head into the New Year.