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Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012

Yo-Dot: Hard-Edged Rap With a Calm State of Mind

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The clock works against players in most classic video games. Any moment they’re not collecting coins, completing levels or saving princesses is a moment wasted, and every lost second leaves them that much closer to failure. Burgeoning rappers know that feeling all too well. In the digital age, rappers are now expected to produce an almost absurd torrent of new albums, mixtapes, guest verses, singles and videos if they hope to stay visible amid the literally thousands of other rappers competing for the exact same audience. All musicians struggle to create meaningful art, but the pressure to create that meaningful art on such a ceaseless pace is unique to hip-hop, and at a certain point—usually after a couple releases break whatever pipe dreams a rapper may have held about achieving instant success and notoriety—every rapper has to ask himself or herself whether it’s worth the commitment.

After a bit of soul-searching, Yo-Dot has decided that it is.

The Milwaukee rapper’s latest album, Red Mist, is the first of several projects he has planned for the next year, and it signals a return following a modest hiatus. Nearly two years have passed since Yo-Dot’s grippingly gritty mixtape Dot Balistrerri and its like-minded EP Shorecrest Memoirs, and while that’s hardly a blink of an eye in the scheme of things, in the rap world it’s practically eons.

“It kind of baffles me a little bit,” Yo-Dot says of rap’s ever-accelerating timetable. “Back in the day an artist could put out a project and it would circulate and make its way through the market over a year, or a year and a half. But now there’s more rappers, more consumers, more styles, more trends. That’s just the state of hip-hop music now; everything is transitioning really rapidly.”

Of course, Yo-Dot has also changed over the last two years. He’s still the fiercest rapper in the local Umbrella Music Group camp, rapping in a determined snarl, but by his account he’s in a “much calmer mind state” now, and his new temperament is immediately apparent on Red Mist. Where Dot Balistrerri was all cutthroat Mafioso fantasies and brutal street realism, a lighter, almost optimistic air carries through his latest album. Credit fatherhood for some of that shift. Now that his son is 5 and newly enrolled in a Montessori head-start program, he’s more conscious than ever of being a good role model.

And while nobody would mistake Yo-Dot for his fellow Umbrella Music Group (UMG) rapper Prophetic—the effortlessly charismatic, locally ubiquitous charmer who may very well be performing at some hip-hop showcase, benefit concert or indie-rock bill as you read this—a little bit of Proph’s mass-appeal mentality has started to rub off on his friend.

“Proph is a genius,” Yo-Dot says. “He’s one of the guys I’ve got to credit for giving me an awareness of rap music beyond just the traditional radio and TV artists. When I first started rapping, I was kind of on my own, building my own network, but when I met Prophetic and Umbrella Music began to come together, it gave me a lot of structure. Being with UMG really opened my eyes, as far as both music and marketing go. Those guys taught me how to present my music.”

Red Mist has all the trappings of the best UMG releases: a brisk pace; snappy choruses; soulful production from a crew of some of the city’s most inventive producers; and a level of songcraft that frankly eludes most independent rappers. It’s a pop album from a grizzled rapper who hitherto had seemed uninterested in making pop music.

“I’m really not trying to take anything away from my core audience, but I just felt like I had been stereotyped as being this battle-rapper type with a lot of aggression,” Yo-Dot says. “For this project, I really wanted to reach for a broader audience.”

Yo-Dot’s Red Mist is posted for free streaming and download at DJBooth.net.