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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dessa’s Advanced Course on Hip-Hop

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Aspiring rappers could learn a few things from Dessa, and not just in the abstract sense. The Twin Cities emcee teaches hip-hop studies for a diploma program at a St. Paul school called the McNally Smith College of Music.

“I teach a course on music composition that focuses on lyrics,” says the 28-year-old rapper, born Maggie Wander. “It focuses on a lot of the same principles you might find in a creative writing course, like starting with a focused idea and adhering to the rule ‘show, don’t tell.’”

For those who aren’t literally seeking a diploma, though, Dessa’s debut full-length A Badly Broken Code serves as a fine textbook on its own. Released this January, the album draws from Dessa’s background as a poet and spoken-word artist, collecting her vivid narratives while eschewing hip-hop’s more exhausted tropes and traditional song structures. In a sweet, jazzy voice, Dessa sings nearly as much as she raps, weaving fluid melodies into her verses.

Produced by her peers in Doomtree—a Minneapolis rap collective that has emerged as one of the city’s pre-eminent crews, perhaps second only to the Rhymesayers collective—the album’s beats are equally distinguished, complementing Dessa’s shape-shifting flow with minor keys and moody strings.

Dessa’s softer approach makes her stand out in a crew whose best-known artist, P.O.S., fuses punk and hip-hop, but she says Doomtree is too broad to be defined by any one sound.

“When we first all linked together to make this thing called Doomtree, none of us would have been able to predict the stylistic avenues that the others would pursue,” she says. “That’s still true: I don’t have any idea what P.O.S.’s album in 2013 will sound like. That’s one of the upshots of working in an independent collective. We’re not asked to follow very narrow lanes.”

Dessa is the only woman in the nine-member Doomtree collective, a fact that dominates her press coverage but not her music. Only one song on A Badly Broken Code dwells on gender at length, a combative track called “The Bullpen.” Tellingly it’s one of the album’s more obvious moments, a by-the-numbers, “I can hang with the boys” battle rap from a singer who usually has much more profound things to say.

“On tour I probably do three phone interviews a day, and probably spend half of that time talking about my gender,” Dessa says. “It’s really the only time I talk about gender. Otherwise, it’s something I never talk about, the same way that I don’t talk about my bipedalism, or I don’t talk about the fact that I have 10 fingers.

“Gender is something that’s so basic, so interwoven into the fabric of who I am, that it almost seems odd to discuss sometimes,” she continues. “It doesn’t matter to Doomtree nearly as much as it seems to matter to everyone else, but I get it: It’s weird. I’m a woman in a genre dominated by men. In hip-hop, you probably have 30 men for every woman. In Doomtree that ratio is eight to one. If anything, women are actually overrepresented in Doomtree.”

P.O.S. and Dessa perform at Turner Hall Ballroom on Saturday, March 20, at 8 p.m. with Astronautalis and Kid Millions.