The MN Hip-Hop Scene is Full of Geeks Making Really Cool Music

After I wrote about a certain Star Wars boom-bap joint on some other blog, I got to talking with an editor here at Twin Cities Geek about writing it up here as well. Then I got the notion that we could go further, and look not just at this lone song but at the greater sphere of geek culture within the Twin Cities’ hip-hop community. My editor asked something along the lines of, “How many hip-hop artists are geeks?”

Collage of images of MN Hip Hop Artists performing

Twin Cities hip-hop artists Megatron, See More Perspective, Dessa, and Guante. Featured images courtesy of Megatron, Nic McPhee, Diane Bezucha, and Guante

I answered something along the lines of, “Pretty much all of them.”

To illustrate that positive intersectionality via a Venn diagram is practically just to draw one big circle. That’s because the kind of passion, imagination, intellect, and focus it takes to write rhymes and produce beats are the same as it takes to know off the top of your head which issue of Uncanny X-Men had a cameo by UNIT. (It was issue #218, June 1987. I didn’t look it up.)

The Twin Cities hip-hop scene is rife with performers who’ve taken names like Frank Castle, $kywalker, and Megatron. Guante and See More Perspective initially bonded over which Star Wars characters they admired most. Dessa has a BA in philosophy, and she isn’t above slipping a phrase like “Lorem Ipsum” into her lyrics. Astronautalis is . . . well, he’s Astronautalis. ’Nuff said. I even recently chatted with Manny Phesto about fellow geeks in the scene and personally learned which Twin Cities rappers play Magic: The Gathering.

Listen to just about anything by Toussaint Morrison, or spot Simone Steppa DuJour performing in a Batgirl cowl. Talk to AbhiNav Laghias about his A/V equipment, or ask T-LaShawn about skateboarding. You get the idea. At any given event taking place within and around the hip-hop community, you can likely throw a rock in the air and hit a geek. (Don’t, though. Throwing rocks isn’t cool.)

In essence, there are a lot of real dorks out there making real cool music—so many that we can barely scratch the surface in the space we’ve got here. (In fact, we may need to consider this a Part One.) But scratch we have, reaching out to four of the innumerable intellectuals inundating the Twin Cities hip-hop scene and talking about just where on the geek spectrum they fall, and how, and why.

And while Slug may have been the first to out us nationally back in 2003—“Swear to God, hip-hop and comic books was my genesis”—the crossover between Twin Cities hip-hop and Twin Cities geek culture was already well established in the underground. Ask Megatron, who notes that comics and sci fi already permeated the genre when he first came to the art in the mid-1990s . . .

Megatron

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Courtesy of Megatron

When he isn’t on a stage, you can probably find Megatron engaged in heated debates over whether or not Cletus Kasady beats Otto Octavius or how the X-Men are an ongoing, ever-evolving metaphor for society’s most pressing social concerns. Onstage he’s fierce, but when he’s off-stage he may very well be one of the nerdiest nerds who ever nerded. So it’s almost like a secret identity, as if he jumps into a phone booth or holds aloft his magic sword before stepping from one space to the other.

When he talks about his fantasy role models as a kid, he immediately mentions the Jedi and He-Man, but he doesn’t shy away from admitting that he sometimes identified with Cobra Commander—as well as his own namesake, the cold and calculating Decepticon leader.

“I especially feel, as a person of color, that being able to identify with those totems in that time is empowering,” he says. The heroes and the villains he felt drawn to most were icons who stood both as reflections of and retorts to what society said a hero should be. “I think that that’s very powerful imagery for a kid that is coming up trying to identify with something,” he adds, “and the lore involved is huge. I mean, what kid can’t identify with a world that isn’t readily accepting of who you are?” He’s quick to admit that he found as much power in the imagery of those sci-fi bad guys as he did in the real-life heroism of civil-rights leaders.

“Your music’s too loud, it’s too violent,” he quotes, recalling times when he’s felt like an unwitting villain in someone else’s personal epic. “It’s too this, you’re too that.”

For Megatron, the blending of geek and hip-hop culture is natural, even inevitable. Both genres have historically tackled social issues through metaphor and allegory; both address race, class, and gender disparity; both try to envision a way to a better world, one in which these problems are no longer humanity’s, but history’s.

“It’s like a subliminal approach to a skewed social platform,” he says. “Like people may not be ready to hear how hegemony affects them in their own back yard, but they can see it in a galaxy far, far away.”

Dessa

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Nic McPhee (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Having been a slam poet, a trivia writer, an author, a singer, an emcee, and just generally drawn to many matters of the intellect, Dessa was pursuing geeky endeavors from the start. As her success skyrocketed—both through her work with the Doomtree Collective and her solo career—she found herself more publicly and more deeply immersed in the greater geek cultures of the world. An invitation to open for the Welcome to Night Vale podcast came her way in New York. That led to a further invitation to join them on tour, an invitation to which she readily said yes, and from that sprang a guest spot at NerdCon in 2015. Although her nerdery may only have reached a higher profile more recently, Dessa’s formative years yielded a decidedly geeky emcee.

“I was a late bloomer and an academic,” she recalls. “So yes, I had my share of middle-school embarrassments. I don’t think too many of us get through those years unscathed, however.” A propensity to retreat into thought helped define her young life, and it still plays a large part in who she is today. “To be honest, I still sometimes struggle to balance intellectualism with rap with femininity. Real life isn’t as partitioned as I imagined it would be.”

Dessa first delved into philosophy after a high-school class called “The Theory of Knowledge” provided her first exposure, connecting several of her interests in a manner of interplay that she hadn’t known existed before. It tied a lot of things together: “My daydreaming about the nature of infinity, wondering about reliability of intuition, my love of argument.” It was also one of her early exposures to the craft of creative writing. “Complicated new ideas often require well crafted metaphor,” she notes, “and I loved reading the writers who could wrestle with one another in plain language.”

“I’m not into sci fi,” she says, “but conversations at the merch booth do often turn towards food politics—a topic that evokes a level of enthusiasm and detail obsessiveness that’s definitely compatible with standard understandings of geekiness.”

The inherent occasional loneliness that comes with being a geek in the greater mundane world may be a more consistent force in Dessa’s life due to the way her global touring schedule keeps her moving from place to place, day after day, without a whole lot of time to settle down or settle in. “I spend more time alone than I used to,” she says. “And yes, much of it I spend in my own head.”

“I’m lucky, though, to have the extended family of the Doomtree guys,” she says. “If I’m feeling lonely, restless, or looking for someone to help toast a recent win, Sims would be one of the first people I’d call. Also, after so many years of so much travel, many of my friendships are maintained with messages from around the world. A few texts from friends in Wales, Berlin, and South Africa make me feel connected to the wider world, even if I’m working by myself in my apartment.”

See More Perspective

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Diane Bezucha

He first came on Twin Cities Geek’s radar last month when he teamed up with Nye and Guante to create “Land of the Sandpeople” on the brink of Star Wars: Episode VII’s theatrical release, but See More Perspective and nerd culture go back much further than that. As long as he can remember, really.

He’s quick to note, “Emcees are nerds! We sit by ourselves and think and write and talk about knowledge and superheroes, and everything that nerds love, really.”

“And the better you are at it,” he adds, “the more interesting relics of culture you dig up to reference. You don’t know those things because you’re out in the world being a poser, you learn them because you’re a nerd, which is awesome.”

His übergeek enthusiasm has never known boundaries. It informed his upbringing as he poured himself as wholeheartedly into comic books, video games, role-playing games, and reading—he fondly remembers Time-Life Books’ Mysteries of the Unknown series, not to mention countless fantasy novels—as he did into listening to records and tapes, learning to break-dance, singing, writing lyrics, and developing his technique.

“Wow, I guess that all sounds super nerdy, actually,” he admits. “Somehow that never seemed geeky to me. I guess I was kind of an outsider, or rebel, or whatever, since . . . forever. So I just did my thing.” He looks back on geekdom’s influence over his development as an emcee and thinks the two were just a natural match. The music, the details, the production, the vocab, and the references getting dropped were all the end result of geeking out.

In “Land of the Sandpeople,” he layers reference after reference over biting social commentary about indigenous peoples’ struggles to survive within their conquerors’ society. He hints that further marriage between nerd culture and social justice is as much on the horizon as Tatooine’s setting suns—he’s working with sound designer Dameun Strange on an album called Diary of a Droid, and he’s rapping over beats by Brooklyn-based DJ Itchie Fingers on Birth of the Brown Recluse, a superhero concept album. He also cites X-Men as an influence, noting that it’s a comic that speaks to anyone who’s ever been seen as “the Other,” and fondly remembers his old studio, dubbed the Danger Room.

“What kind of emcee would I be if I didn’t drop the occasional Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Batman reference?” he also asks. “I’m sayin’ . . . Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, almost every ’80s cartoon, Lord of the Rings, Beastmaster, Conan the Barbarian, Cowboy Bebop . . . they all get play in my rhymes.”

Although he grew up relatively unaware of his own nerdiness, See More Perspective readily acknowledges that being smart and geeky can make a kid feel ostracized, even bullied. He has advice for those kids.

“Do you, little homies! They might not know it yet, but these busters out here are gonna love you one day. You’re awesome. You’re worthwhile. You’re brilliant. Fun. After all, all the coolest people I know are huge nerds.”

Guante

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Courtesy of Guante

He’s one-third of Sifu Hotman, along with Rube and deM atlaS, who collectively named themselves after an obscure Avatar: The Last Airbender reference. He’ll compare himself lyrically to Ramsay Bolton or relate treatises on the importance of Gene Roddenberry’s vision to humanity’s future, and he’ll do it in subtle and organic ways, always taking care not to fall down the nerdcore rabbit hole. Guante calls the indie/underground space an interesting one to inhabit, noting that he exists in a medium with distinct hip-hop traditions, tropes, and values but that he’s also immersed in more.

“You’re also part of this little bubble that is consciously pushing back against those tropes,” he says. “And I mean, we could write a scholarly essay on how all that is wrapped up in questions of race, class, gender, et cetera, but I think that general dynamic is there.”

He invokes Tyrion Lannister when he speculates that indie rap artists often learn to use their perceived weaknesses as armor, and notes that he and See More Perspective often talk about the importance of embracing those aspects of their art, even though they might seem too weird or too niche. He feels that those are often the same aspects that draw people in; they’re the aspects onto which people latch and with which they fall in love. “Maybe not a mass audience,” he admits, “but who’s reaching a mass audience anyway?”

“And yes,” he adds, “it did take me a while to figure that out. These days, I have an Avatar: The Last Airbender tattoo on my right forearm and a Cowboy Bebop tattoo on my left forearm, so there isn’t a lot of room to hide.”

“I have a lot of geeky references,” he says, “and sometimes they’re very explicit, but my hope is that they are always in service to the song itself and the deeper themes and ideas being explored in them.”

“My favorite moments are the ones that most people probably miss,” he adds, noting that he’s not above the occasional up-front reference with songs like “Harry Potter” and “Winter is Coming” and the music he makes with Sifu Hotman. But he is perhaps more proud of the debut album he did with Big Cats, titled An Unwelcome Guest, which was a zombie apocalypse hip-hop album.

“This was 2009, so the idea was at least marginally more original than it sounds today,” he jokes. “I don’t think we ever use the word zombie. And because the zombie stuff was kind of background noise, it allows it to work as a metaphor to explore questions related to displacement, immigration, violence, et cetera. And the thing that I really like about it is that we play it 100 percent straight. There’s no winking at the audience or saying, ‘OMG zombies right?!’ It’s a serious artistic statement, maybe serious to a fault.”

The undead shamble their way into another of his standout works, a poem titled “Love in the Time of Zombies,” about which he says, “While it’s weird and fantastical and geeky, it’s also 100 percent the realest love poem I’ve ever written. I think the speculative/fantasy angle creates space for us—or me, at least—to be more honest than just straight up telling the truth.”

Guante doesn’t hide his serious side any more than he does his inner nerd, and that’s easily seen in the interweave between his calls for social justice and his homages to geek culture. When asked about the possibility that one might trivialize the other, he gets thoughtful and responds with a definite no. Two definite nos, actually. He answers:

I think there are two main threads here. One is the idea that there is a very real link between social justice and imagination. To create the world we want, we have to be able to think outside the box, be radical, be weird, and allow ourselves to dream. The editors of Octavia’s Brood talk about visionary fiction, which is a term and idea that I really love—how sci fi and fantasy, et cetera, can be used to challenge dominant power structures rather than reinforce them.

But I think there’s also a more down-to-earth connection: geek culture is big. And the movement for social justice has to also be big, has to cross boundaries, has to reach out to different communities and populations. So it only makes sense to cross those streams, to recognize where connections already exist, and to make new ones.

I think both ideas are important, and both are going to be part of my work going forward from here.

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