Four local artists discuss collaboration, creative barriers, and the future of rap in the North Star State.
Sean McPherson: I’m Sean McPherson and I’ve been playing bass in Twin Cities hip-hop groups for 20+ years now. I went to St. Paul Central, and I started a band that’s still active today called Heiruspecs, and I met a whole lot of rappers coming up at that point. Today, I’m joined by four Minnesota-based artists, a few of whom are newer to the scene and one who has been around for 20 years. Do you mind sharing a little bit about your world?
Student 1: I’ve been writing and making music for about six years now under the name Student 1 because my last name starts with “A” and it’s super African, so I was always at the top of like every attendance list, and that’s the only reason why. But then I really liked learning more and more about music, just to see myself progress, so I ran with the Student idea, and probably about three years into me starting to do that I started to pick up producing. Now I’m here and I still have no idea how to mix, but I’ll figure it out soon enough. It’s part of the journey.
booboo: My name is Miles Jamison. I go by booboo in the music world, and I’ve been making music since I was a freshman in high school, and then toward the end of high school started getting a little more serious about it. I’ve just been making music with friends like Kamilla and Izell Pyramid, and trying to explore everything that I can do in the scene and make as many connections as I can.
Kamilla Love: My family is very musically inclined, and a lot of people in my family make music. But I can’t lie: Putting yourself out there and sharing your art is a big deal. But living in New York, living here for five years — I put my different experiences in my music. And the music was better than I thought it was going to be, so I shared it. I met people like booboo and Destiny Spike, who inspired me to continue to push myself.
Medium Zach: I go by Medium Zach. I moved to the Twin Cities from a small Minnesota town in 2000. I was 16 and just jumped into going to whatever shows that I could. This is a similar era to you, Sean, just a few years later.
Fifth Element was open for about a year, so I’d go right there and give people there my beats on tape. After a few years, me and my brother started a group called Big Quarters, and we were self-produced. We produced and rapped within our group and learned how to do everything ourselves, whether it was booking, promotion, design, studio work and music videos, and all of that. And so we very much modeled our DIY approach after the DIY approach of Rhymesayers and the people before us. Interlock and such.
I think for a lot of us there’s probably a distinct moment after you discovered you might love music or you might love hip-hop that you realized, “Oh, where I go to be at night is inside a scene — […] there’s an infrastructure here to create a career or to be a fan.” Bring me back, Student 1, to the first time you realized that there was a hip-hop scene in the Twin Cities, and what were your impressions of it.
Student 1: I think I was in ninth grade when I would walk down the hallways of South High and I’d hear a lot about shows that Doomtree was having, or just P.O.S. I’d never heard the name Doomtree before, and I didn’t want to be like, “Hey guys, what’s a Doomtree.” That’s when I started to look into Minnesota hip-hop, because the minute I started listening to P.O.S and [Atmosphere album] Overcast! and all that stuff, I really started to get motivated to listen to what was going on in the hip-hop scene.
I think it was senior year, I had a friend of mine named Henry, and he and I would always talk about old hip-hop stuff. […] One day I went to his Facebook, and there was a video. It was this kid freestyling off the top — just over like a Madlib beat, and I was like, “We can do that? Tight.” Ever since then, I’ve been writing, and at the same time I’ve been having regular talks with my friend about theories of hip-hop.
Miles, I know that for a time you two were sharing the same halls of this high school whether or not you knew each other at the time. How did you discover the Twin Cities hip-hop scene?
booboo: When I first started making music, I was listening to music all the time, and I was like, I want to make something. I was a very emotional high school student, so I was trying to explore that world with myself, and I’d play guitar in my room with my looping pedal and sing. I wasn’t really recording anything for a long time, just messing around. But then I saw other people putting stuff out there, like Psymun and Corbin and them. It inspired me to put myself out there, like Kamilla was saying. I like seeing where it’s all going.
Medium Zach: It’s funny, Student 1, that you had that moment where you saw a kid that you know rapping, and you were like, hold up — we could do that? That was a moment that I had with my brother. I came home from school one day, and he had War — “Low Rider” — on the turntable, and I was walking up the stairs, and he was scratching it. That was the moment of: Yeah, that makes sense. We grew up through the ’80s and ’90s and grew up listening to hip-hop and R&B, and it was very much a part of our identity, but we weren’t talking about making it, ever. So I was like, that’s the next thing.
So I followed him very closely, and as he was moving through the stages of getting beatmaking programs and buying DJ equipment, I was in lockstep with him doing the same things. […] My favorite album was Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), but also Pete Rock’s Soul Survivor; DJ Premier. Any time I made something that sounded like them, I felt like I was progressing and I’d be excited.
And then I grew up coming to Minneapolis a lot. Our mother is from South Minneapolis, and so I spent a lot of time here for holidays and such. We would dig for records when we would be in town, and my brother bought the Overcast! EP on vinyl. […] I remember the exact moment on my brother’s turntable, listening to it — and I’m not even sure which song it was, but when I heard the rapping and the beat, it was like I understood it. The beat itself was stripped-down and raw, so it was like the stuff that I liked, but I also felt like I could make that.
That was the moment that made me realize […] I could live in Minneapolis and make rap music, because at that point, I wasn’t so sure what I was going to do with my life, but my brother was getting ready to go to college. But once I realized you could make rap music in Minneapolis I was like no, that’s what I’m going to do. I went to Perpich for my junior year and senior year of high school studying visual art, and that was my ticket out of the small town.
There’s some common themes here. I’m hearing about a lot of times somebody has either a record they hear or a person they speak to, and they go, “I can be a part of this,” or, “This can exist.” And that’s such a beautiful part of the scene. In the Twin Cities hip-hop scene, has anybody hit stop signs; red lights; moments where you go, “I don’t feel invited to this party,” for whatever reason?
Medium Zach: I got you on that. The scene has grown so much in almost 20 years, and you guys are starting to experience it being more open. But I think part of [the problem], specifically in Minneapolis, is spaces haven’t always been safe for people of color and for queer and trans communities. My group — me and my brother — identifies as Mexican-American, and when we started that was a strong part of our identity. There was one other [Mexican-American rap] group, Los Nativos, and they were at Rhymesayers. But we don’t sound like what is typical of Chicano rap, and so I think we were trying to find our audience, and it [was] difficult to find your audience in Minnesota.
Atmosphere is — 2000, 2001, you know they were popping. They were selling out First Ave Mainroom pretty frequently. And I was going to those shows, because I was a fan. But those audiences were majority white, and [white people at hip-hop shows] was sort of the Minnesota thing. It felt difficult at times just to find our audience.
Now, there’s more artists of color rising to prominence, and that has also affected the audiences. Where now we go to an Astralblak show, and it’s mostly people of color in the audience — a lot of black folks in the audience. It’s super beautiful to me to have experienced that change over almost 20 years.
Student 1: I feel like one big stop sign for me is the relationship between the consumer and the creator when it comes to constructive criticism on stuff that you do. You know how people brand Minnesota as the nice state. That can make for very not productive criticisms.
Medium Zach: People just saying, “That’s cool.”
Student 1: Yeah, and I appreciate that, but when it comes to criticism being constructive, that doesn’t really do much for discussion. When I started making music early on, I was trying really hard to seek out what people were really thinking. After I got to the fifth or sixth general comment about something, I’m like, how deep are we digging?
Kamilla Love: I feel like a lot of people here are doing the same thing, as far as being an artist or being in music. So a lot of people don’t genuinely want to show you support or love, because nine times out of 10, they want to be where you are.
I share my art because it’s a piece of me, and it’s not there for you to be like, “I think you should do this or you should do that.” […] If I ask for advice or anything, then that’s what it is. But I feel like when we put out our art, it’s from a genuine place. So another stop sign is people giving unnecessary advice, or telling me what they feel my artistry should be, and that’s not okay when it comes to just being an artist in general.
I’m trying to process, because what Student 1 and Kamilla Love said partially feels like two sides of the coin. Correct me if I’m wrong: Student 1, are you saying you didn’t get enough criticism that was gritty? And then Kamilla Love, are you saying you get too much of people micromanaging your work?
Kamilla Love: It’s not even what you say; it’s how you say it. A lot of people mean well. It’s different when you’re coming from a genuine place, from your heart, when you’re like, “I love your music. You’re talented, but if you just did this and that you would go so much further.” That’s from a place of love. But it’s another thing to be like, “That s— was whack.”
booboo: I feel like in Minnesota, or Minneapolis, it can feel very isolating sometimes, especially in the winter. And it can get very competitive. It feels like sometimes people think that there’s just one spot, and only one person can have that spot. That’s been a roadblock for me just in my head. But it really doesn’t need to be like that. That’s just a capitalist way of thinking of it, and I’m here to make art for myself and for my community, to share myself with my community and to express myself.
This is part one of a two-part conversation with three up-and-coming Minnesota-based hip-hop artists — Kamilla Love, booboo, and Student 1 — and Medium Zach, an artist with two decades of experience, about Minnesota’s hip-hop scene. Here’s part two.
This article was produced by Cecilia Johnson as a part of a collaboration between The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the December 2018 edition of The Growler.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.