Dessa, Sims and Lazerbeak: An Interview With Doomtree
The Hollywood Sunset strip is alive with a rich musical history recanted in tales from the likes of Motley Crue, Guns ‘n’ Roses and countless other immortal rockers and rappers alike. Today, up and coming names in modern music like Midwestern intelligent hip-hip collective Doomtree, who have been avalanching in popularity over the last couple years, continue to grace the same stages as the legends before them: the Viper Room, Whiskey-a-go-go, and of course, The Roxy.
Opening for Doomtree were LA locals, Audible Mainframe and Omni. While few patrons knew of either opener, both did well at warming up the crowd. Audible Mainframe, a hip-hop ensemble characterized by an instrumentally sexy funk feel, rapped through a very stylish performance. Afterwards, Omni did a short set, playing their original rap songs with several synthesizers and laptops onstage, making heavy use of samples while producing a very Rage-esque sound.
We patiently waited in the decadently decorated green room at The Roxy while the performers fulfilled their rockstar obligations. Dessa, a bit flustered at the difficulty of setting up, grabbed a Red Bull uand sat down to chat.
DESSA INTERVIEW – Literary Lyricist Leviathan
How are you enjoying LA?
It’s been good for the whole 2 hours I’ve been here. I think I’ve walked around the Roxy 5 times already.
Let’s talk about your book that came out a couple years ago. Can you tell me what it’s about?
I wrote a book of creative non-fiction that came out in 2009. They are mostly true stories and they’re told with all of the devices of fiction. They use dialogue as best as I can remember it, plot development, character development, all true stories.
Very cool. How long are these stories?
I’d say a page and a half to two pages. It’s mostly prose and a little poetry.
That was done for Doomtree?
Yeah, that was done for Doomtree.
Do you plan on doing something like that again in the future?
I am. I’m working slowly on another project called “A Perfect Bird,” about a trip I took to India. I had the opportunity to talk to one of the members of the untouchables class who keeps the funeral pyres burning.
What were you doing in India?
Is this book just one long story?
It’s like a titular essay, but there will be other stories in that collection as well.
What sort of work did you do with McNally Smith Music College?
I taught the poetics of hip-hop and now I’m an artist in residence.
Is hip-hop always what you wanted to do with your songwriting?
I started with an interest in language, then an interest in literature, and I think what attracted me to hip-hop was the fact that you get such a high word count.
As the only female member of Doomtree, do you feel a certain amount of pressure on you?
A little, but the pressure to write good songs is the primary one as an artist. I worry less about gender issues than I do of meeting the quality of my songs.
Why do you think there are so little female rappers?
I don’t know, I can’t speak for women in general.
Do you have a favorite female rapper?
I think I’m a bigger fan of individual songs than I am of individual artists. That being said, Lauryn Hill would be hard to beat.
Lyrically, you are all over the place. What inspires you to write these this type of literary, intelligent hip-hop?
The writing just reflects on my adult life and teenage years. I’m not sure where it comes from. I often have a moment of inspiration when riding the bus. I’ll jot it down and try to build from it later.
Will you and P.O.S be doing work with violinist Jessy Greene in the future? Perhaps as a member of Doomtree?
She can hear us – she will be playing tonight. She is a friend from, gosh, eight years ago. I love her stuff and ability to play complicated parts rhythmically, which is awesome because I don’t know strings. So when I get to play with her I do. She has an amazing trajectory, having toured with the Foo Fighters and Pink.
These other guys in your backup band, are they not affiliated with Doomtree?
For the past year or so I’ve tried to book most of my shows in Minneapolis with a live band. They are part of the Dessa ensemble live.
Do they play on the records as well?
They haven’t played on any of the albums so far but we’re recording in June with them.
What else can you tell me about the next Dessa solo album?
We’re recording in June and trying to capture most of the arrangements from my most recent record, Badly Broken Code. Many of these guys have classical training, jazz pedigrees, and have been working on a multitude of genres for a very long time. We want to reinterpret the material from the last album. I’m happy with the work we’ve done. They have great ears and are very imaginative composers.
How will that look like in terms of length.
I’m not sure about how many minutes but I would guess 12 songs.
Any idea on a release date?
This year. Late 2011.
How would you describe the Doomtree style?
I think as the years have gone by our styles have become more divergent and Doomtree, rather than a genre of musical style, is about an ethic of friendship and uncompromising commitment to quality. I want people to see the Doomtree logo and know that it is well made. In the ten years we’ve known each other I’ve been into this live ensemble, P.O.S. is getting dancier, Mike is on a whole other level of progressive rap patterns, so we want to give ourselves room to grow and not staple out wings to any one style of sound.
What do you think the future of hip-hop, as influenced by Doomtree, will look like?
To be honest, I don’t like discussions of genre. Not because I’m trying to be snooty, but because I’m always wrong. Someone will play a song for me and I can tell them, I like that one and I don’t like that one, and people always want to know that if the music is good, where it will be shelved if I were a retailer. I get it though; you want to know what you’re listening to. Is this a man or woman singing or is this a dude shredding guitar with an orchestra behind him? It helps to have the handle, like this is folk or this is metal, but I just don’t have the ear for it because I cannot, for the life of me, pick shit up. I am reading the reviews and I’m like, “Oh, is it? Experimental pop? What is experimental pop?”
People will always have the compulsion to label things.
And it’s very hip to have a label, or a narrower lane that distinguishes you from what other people are making. This is chillwave and this is surf punk and this is vinyl metal.
There are so many different subgenres invented every day. Not important. Have you heard of Odd future?
Yes. I think the criticism that they were doing calls to the wu-tang type of material were accurate and at the same time I think it was pretty fucking fresh. I don’t know how damning such a criticism would be received.
The parallels between Wu-tree –
Doom-tang and Wu-tree?
[We both burst into laughter]
Do you feel directly influence by them?
I would say some members of the collective, absolutely and proudly, but they weren’t in my rotation as a teenager.
And what was?
Angst? I wasn’t very social back then.
Hey, we all went to middle school at one point.
Tracy Chapman, Offspring, and Everclear and stuff like that.
MC’s always have such interesting childhoods. What was it like growing up for you?
[mockingly] Fascinating! My dad was a classical guitar player and a loot player. And my mom was an academic, so language was very important in my house, which is probably the stem of my interest in the language arts. Conversation was very important, so at the table you need the ability to express precisely your ideas in a persuasive fashion to the highest skill you could demonstrate. That’s where a lot of verbal interest comes from.
Fantastic. Thank you for speaking with me, Dessa, and break a leg out there tonight.
The curtain lowered and anticipation built as Dessa, the headliner, set up. As soon as the curtain rose, her plot was revealed – Dessa was sporting a four piece band! They launched into a song off of her latest album, A Badly Broken Code, and the crowd approved by swaying their bodies back and forth to the beat. Dessa’s clever and introspective rap lyrics and feminine voice complimented the live music provided by her backing band well. A shocker to all was when Dessa stepped down to the bar to take a shot as Lazerbeak jumped onstage and into a guitar solo. Leaping back on stage, Dessa finished out her set with range of fan favorite songs.
LAZERBEAK INTERVIEW – Beats for the Bros
I know you do so much production, Lazerbeak, but is it solely you who makes beats for all of Doomtree or does Paper Tiger have a hand in it as well?
Yes, Paper Tiger has his hand in it as well. Also P.O.S. and Cecil Otter produces beats on their own records, but a majority of everything else is me as of late.
What is your favorite music production software for making beats?
Good question. I don’t know much about any of that shit to be honest. Up until now I’ve made everything on an MP3 200, which is a box sequencer that I use my hands to hit samples. The only knowledge I have of Pro Tools is to track the beat. I’m learning this thing called Machine, so if I had to pick one it would be that.
What is the starting point for when you first develop a beat?
I get up in the morning, that’s my most productive time of the day, and usually I’ll sit down and listen to our original music. Sometimes I’ll build off a keyboard line from that, sometimes I chop up old records and see if I can find even a note that sounds good and build from there.
You see what works and what doesn’t work?
Yeah, basically it’s a guessing game until something sounds good, and when it does you keep rolling with it. It’s like a 9 to 5 thing with me. Then my wife comes home and we have dinner.
Sounds nice. So, you played guitar for the Plastic Constellations. Do you ever have the desire to hop onto guitar with Doomtree?
I’ll be playing guitar with Dessa for one song tonight. My band went in permanent hiatus in 2008, so I did straight beats for awhile. The reason I did my solo album is because I was missing writing songs on guitar. With that album I was able to scratch that itch and got it out of my system, and now I’m back to making beats.
So guitar was the inspiration for your solo album?
Guitar and keyboard and singing as well. I used to sing in the band and when I’m making beats I’m just writing the music and not rapping or anything. It just so happened that I was making beats that didn’t fit any other the guy’s style so I figured it was worth a shot [to put them in an album].
Your solo album was made up of leftover beats?
Pretty much, yeah. And that got me into this creative process when I made it, and now I’m sick of it.
Can we expect any more from the Plastic Constellations?
We were all still great friends but I think it ran its course. Every once in awhile we will get together and do a show but as for new stuff, I just don’t see it.
What projects are you working on right now?
We just put out the Sims record and we’re wrapping up the new P.O.S. record. He has a lot of people working on that. We’re halfway into a new Doomtree crew record, so for the first time all of the producers are making beats together. It’s different. I hate the term energy, but I like the energy. It’s a new thing for everybody and we’re getting a lot of great stuff. We’re working on Dessa’s record and I’m doing an instrumental record that is all rap beats in a 40 minute seamless mix called Lava Bangers. It’s just more of me flexing on the rap production side without actually rapping. Normally I would never do that but I’m changing my mind a little.
How this new Doomtree album different?
Right now we’re just on the production aspect, so we kick the rappers some beats and they sit on them, thinking about stuff. It’s different because the last one was a representation of what everyone was bringing to the table but this is completely collaborative. I don’t want to have any solo songs, I want everyone to be on every song. And not only the rappers on every song but the producers working on every song so it will literally be rap by these guys and beats by these guys and we don’t have to have credit for every song. If we’re going to do a crew album that is the next logical step.
How would you describe the Doomtree style?
I feel like it comes from this great appreciation and respect of hip-hop at its core, even though it might not sound like a lot of other [rap]. I have 15 years playing guitar and we all come from different musical background, we all have our own specialties . So we are able to take a little different spin on [hip-hop]. But at the end of the day I think it is still all hip-hop. We’re just trying to push the boundaries a little more. Now at this point we’ve all made music around each other for so long I think we influence each other more than anything. I’ll hear a beat by Paper [Tiger] and be like, oh shit! There is a lot of friendly competition.
Then you are internally influenced?
And yet you make beats for other local artists?
Yeah, I cut my feet working with whoever I can find in Minneapolis. That was when Doomtree was first forming. I’ve worked with a lot of different in the city, Yeah.
Are there any particular artists in the city you enjoyed working with that you might want to include in future Doomtree projects?
It’s hard to say. Out label right now has only put out stuff by our seven artists. Down the line that would make sense since we have a lot of friends who are talented artists. We might put their stuff out, not that they would be in the crew. It’s tricky, but there are definitely great artists out there. This guy, Stokes from Chicago who I made an EP with is pretty good. We have a lot of affiliations and stuff like that, but there is always the wish list of bigger artists you’d love to get at.
As the founder of Doomtree, is P.O.S. still regarded as your General and leader or just one of the crew?
More so in the beginning, but now we’ve all just eased into our roles. The big decisions have to be agreed upon by all seven of us. Certain people do certain things, like Dessa is really good at writing press releases, and I was in charge of the cash box.
Is there a time frame that we can expect for the next Doomtree album?
It’s too early to tell but 2012 is going to be a good year for us.
And the last year of the world, so you have got to go big!
[Lazerbeak and I burst into laughter]
Last question. Who are your favorite music producers right now? And if you tell me Paper Tiger I’m going to slug you.
I’m actually into R&B recently. There is this group from Canada called The Weekend that I’m really into as well as this R&B group called the Dream. Their kind of production is a little dark, so I like listening to that kind of stuff. What else? The Timberlands and shit like that.
Why not? Would you ever consider doing an R&B record?
R&B is my dream. I don’t know anything about it except that I respect it. From the60s to now, I like all of it. Part of me likes it because I don’t know how it’s made. I’m into the mystery. I don’t know if I’ll ever go that direction, but I would love to play a part in that genre in a meaningful way.
Great. Thanks again for speaking with me. Good luck at the show!
As the venue flooded with excitement, Lazerbeak tooks the stage and the crowd exploded into cheer. He first took the mic and explained what he was about to do; an atypical act at an atypical rap show.
“I’m going to play some beats for you all for about twenty minutes and then Sims is going to come out and perform some songs from his new album, Bad Time Zoo.”
Another eruption of cheering prompted Lazerbeak to begin his set. Utilizing a laptop and sample multi -pad, Lazerbeak dropped some original and improvised bass heavy beats. Fat rap beats with chopped up breaks peppered in blast through the speakers at the Roxy, moving many feet on the dance floor. 808s, snares, and bass saturated the Roxy during the course of Lazerbeak’s set.
SIMS INTERVIEW – The Existential Rapper
How did the sound check go, Sims?
It went totally fine! We usually take two minutes to sound check. Sometimes three. We have so many moving pieces. We’re real static.
I imagine Dessa’s band has an abundance of gear.
I have a band. It’s Lazerbeak!
Bad Time Zoo just came out. It’s great stuff. What was the inspiration for the album? Something specific or a collection of songs strung together?
Thank you. We made 30 songs and picked the 14 or 15 that fit best together. There were loose inspiration as the record started to take shape, themes popping up, and metaphors extending track to track. We just tried to make it about people.
Lyrically it’s very introspective and clever. How long does it take you to create the lyrics for any given song?
It depends. Burn it down I made in like three hours. Some of them take three days. Sometimes it takes me forever.
Do you find yourself with a lot of unfinished ones?
I have a ton of them. That’s okay though, right? I’m sure you have a lot of pieces you haven’t finished.
Man, don’t get me started…
Yeah! It’s like, I don’t really know how to cap this one off, or I didn’t really like the beginning of this one, where is this going and what am I trying to do with this one? You make enough stuff and you have to be cool with letting some of those things die. You have to hit for average at some point. Not everything you do can be a homerun.
I think that’s true in all forms of art.
You need to be more prepared to let stuff die. You have to kill your baby.
Kill your baby?
I had a creative writing teacher who told me that once. Even your favorite line in a piece might not fit.
Obviously all of your stuff is original, but how do you go about memorizing all of those verses?
Old records I don’t remember that well. I haven’t played any songs from my first record in a long time, so I forget most of those songs. Most of the time I’m pretty good at remembering lyrics, more than the average person I think, so usually by the time I’m done writing it I’ll have it memorized. I don’t know why, I just have the mind for it.
When you’re writing it down, does that help lock it into your memory?
When I write I rap at the same time. I try to write vocally. I think about them, I read them, and I say them, so I have all three processes of taking in the information.
Tell me, what the fuck is a Bad Time Zoo?
I don’t know. It’s just a line I stumbled across. I was initially going to call the record The Velt. What I did was I gave four or five fri3ends mixes of 19 or 20 songs and asked them what their favorites were. Two of them came back saying they were going to get a bad time zoo tattoo. It’s just one line that popped up in one song and both of them said they were going to get Bad Time Zoo tattoos! That’s when I had a David Lynch moment where I was like “Oh, the record is called Bad Time Zoo.”
So are you performing pretty much exclusively Bad Time Zoo tonight?
I’m doing a lot of it.
What do you think separates you lyrically from other MCs?
Other animals? Opposable thumbs.
[Everyone within earshot laughs]
Nah, other MCs? I don’t know man, I don’t think about it. The music I make is based off my experience and my version of the truth and the world as I see it. Everyone has their own versions of the truth. There really is no truth, just perceptions of agreed upon reasonable expectations. Like, we all agree that we’re in this room right now, but who says that’s the truth? I could be some figment of your imagination.
How do I know your Sims? You could be some stranger Dessa pulled off the street to come talk to me.
You know, like, there is no spoon. Not schizophrenic but more metaphysical. More like, do you exist? We all agree that we exist and therefore we do. But we don’t know we exist. That’s the idea about truth - it’s not really there, but just an agreed upon thing. So I talk about my version of the truth. I just put the most skill I can into it and let the rest of it work itself out.
Do you read a lot of your album reviews?
Do you actively ignore them or just not seek them out.
Now and again someone will send me something to throw up on the website. I’ll get the most recent press releases, but I don’t want to read them. Apparently they’ve all been good. I’ve gotten one bad review and the rest were good. I don’t like reading them because I don’t feel like I need to. I also don’t really want it to affect the way I make music. I don’t want it to affect my mental state or my happiness in general. For all I know I’m making shit or I’m making the most brilliant music of all time. Either way that makes no different to me. I should continue to make what I feel like making. If I feel it’s good and enough people are supporting it that tells me it is good enough.
Keep making music. Someone will buy it.
Even if they aren’t buying and keep on downloading it, that’s good enough for me. I’m under no delusion that I have way more downloads than sales, and that’s okay. I don’t prefer it, obviously, because it doesn’t help me come up with a good recording budget, we need to make these expenses somehow.
I think it’s inevitable in this day and age.
Yeah, there is no way to avoid it. It’s not going to not happen, so you just have to roll with it.
Would you say that your music is existentially influenced?
Uh-huh. I would say that very much. I would say I am deeply rooted in reality. So much that I am constantly calling into question what I’m doing with my life, what are we doing as a people that affects each other, how do we interact with each other and why do we act that way? What are we doing to the world and why do we seem to continually defeat ourselves? Existentialism is one of the best things in the world to think about. For me, like I said, I just try to think about my version of the truth and how I see the world. I don’t pretend for a second that anything on my album is true of false; it’s just the way I view it. Being an existentialist rapper is not the easiest way to make money, but I take the hard way a lot of the time. I’m not one of those, “party boy, crazy white rapper from the hood who doesn’t give a fuck!” That’s not me. I do give a fuck, and that’s my problem as a human, but that’s what I enjoy the most. That’s a gift too, to be able to think like that.
I know you don’t read the reviews, but whatever you do seems to be working.
It’s not that I don’t care about the reviews, it’s just that I try to keep a cool head. I’m happy if people like it. I understand if people don’t. I’m just trying to be in my lane and do what I’m doing. What I want to hear is feedback from the fans, not music critics. I’m not trying to google myself.
We all do it. So, do you write your lyrics first or do you listen to one of Lazerbeak’s beats and come up with a rap to fit into that song?
I take a beat and listen to it on the headphones a couple times and start playing around and see where I get. Maybe I can get a good first line or two or a chorus and then I go from there. I get a rough draft and demo it with Beak and we’ll work through the structure of the song together and then we’ll record it and do all of the post production magic on it.
Ooh, post production magic!
Yeah! You’ve never heard of studio magic? Lazerbeak is quite the magician.
I know you just came out with an album but what are your plans post tour?
I’m getting married.
You’re kidding! You’re getting married!? Awesome, man, congratulations!
Thanks. I’m getting married on June 4th. Then I get a vacation for a week, then I’m back in the studio working on an EP I’m going to release in the fall. Then, next month, we’re making another Doomtree record. And I’ll be working on my house in the meantime. In the Fall I’m going to get back in the studio to work on my next solo album. Oh, and I’m going back on tour in September with Doomtree. So it’s a busy year.
That is so exciting.
Yeah, no sleep.
What rappers or MCs influenced you at an early age?
Well, from an early, early age it was like Public Enemy, NWA, then Outkast, and then I started listening to more underground hip-hop. Atmosphere and people like that. DJ Shadow. He was the first one I found among underground.
Shadow is a good segue for you into the underground.
Yeah! When I was 14 or 15 I think when we came out with… I think it was Endtroducing. Then I got into Hieroglyphics after that.
Biggie or Tupac?
I’d say ‘Pac, but they both spoke so well to their world. The reason I say ‘Pac is because he literally spoke well to the world. There are people in Africa who wear Tupac shirts all the time. All over Africa. People love Tupac! I think there is something universal about his language and the way he spoke. He got his message across so well that I think he’s one of the greatest musicians of all time.
Yeah, especially at the end there. What I was looking for when I asked you about your favorite MCs is something related to Wu-tang. Would you say that there are parallels?
Hmmm, so who am I?
I think you would be the GZA.
Yeah, I’ll take GZA.
Or maybe Ghost.
Wait, who would be Ghost?
Either you or Mike.
I can see that. Mike could be Ghost because he has mad slang.
Obviously Doomtree has their own unique brand of hip-hop. Where do you see the rap game headed while being influenced by Doomtree?
When Doomtree influences the rest of the world? Probably to hell. I don’t know, I can’t call that. We don’t know what we’re doing at all. We’re just figuring out how to make songs. Collectively we’ve made hundreds and hundreds of songs and individually we’ve all made hundreds of songs so I can’t call it in terms of what we’re doing. I don’t know what we’re doing, we’re just doing it. Maybe that’s the idea. Maybe that’s the future of music itself. To work on it and make it good.
Can I rephrase that? Where is the place of intelligent, literary hip-hop in modern, contemporary music?
I don’t think it has a place.
Do you think it an underground following more than anything else?
Definitely. Look at the Top 40. It’s 90s house music with someone singing for almost all of it and then a rapper for 8 bars. That’s the song nonstop. I don’t think intelligent music ever had a place in the pop world.
Sadly, I have to agree.
I think we’re totally underground but I think there are enough people who demand the music we make to keep it moving. I don’t think we’ll ever be Lady Gaga big and that’s okay. We sell something different, something less universal, and that’s cool. As long as we’re not Ke$ha.
That’s all of the questions I had for you. Is there anything else you want to add?
Thank you and check out the internet.
While the crowd was already engulfed in a head-bobbin’ trance, Sims came out and immediately began rapping along with Lazerbeak’s tunes. Performing most of Bad Time Zoo as promised, Sims displayed his lyrical diversity within the album while touching on a few fan favorites as well. While slightly reminiscent of Eminem in vocal range alone, Sims made it abundantly clear in our interview that he didn’t want to be put in that pool. His songs were wildly engaging and there was not a low point or plateau throughout his performance; every song was a climax. Together, Sims and Lazerbeak rocked the house.
Exhausted and inebriated rap fans trickled out of the venue satisfied to the fullest with the performance they just witnessed. As I watched the Roxy parking lot clear out, Sims’ words about there being no room for intelligent rap music anywhere else besides the underground resonated in my thoughts. Their demographic, I witnessed, is made up of divergent ages, races, and faces, though united under the banner of an intellectual form of music pushed into the underground. The fans aren’t in it for the popularity or trendiness of the scene, but purely for the love of music as a mentally stimulating art.
Photos by Marv Watson
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