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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Yo-Dot Carries the Torch

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To the consternation of recognition-starved rappers all over the city, Milwaukee has historically only been able to support a small handful of locally popular hip-hop acts at one time. The market simply isn’t big enough for more than a few acts to reliably draw decent-sized local crowds, but it’s easy to tell which acts fall into this elusive A-list: They’re usually the ones that land prime Summerfest gigs. In years past, prestigious opening slots for national rap acts went to mainstays like Black Elephant and The Rusty P’s. More recently, in 2011, Prophetic claimed that throne with a gig warming up a massive crowd for Wiz Khalifa, and this year the honors fell to two deserving acts, Klassik and Yo-Dot, who opened for Talib Kweli and Nelly, respectively.

Of all those artists, Yo-Dot seems the least positioned for broad reach. He doesn’t have the smooth charisma of his frequent collaborator Prophetic, or the cross-genre appeal of Klassik, nor does he traffic in the kind of feel-good, uplifting hip-hop that most reliably wins over college crowds. Instead, Yo-Dot prefers street realism, spitting hard, gritty verses that, while plenty conscious, never cheapen their storytelling with empty, positive-rap sloganeering. There’s not a huge market for this kind of rap, which falls into a radio blind spot. It’s too hard for the Radio Milwaukee set, too independent for the V100 scene.

Nonetheless, Yo-Dot has made a name for himself among listeners who like smart, challenging hip-hop, and enjoyed something of a breakout year in 2012 with his full-length Red Mist, which earned some of the strongest reviews of any Milwaukee rap LP last year. A rumination on fatherhood and adult responsibilities glossed with sharp production, Red Mist suggested he’d internalized a few of Prophetic’s pop moves, but his latest release, Sherman Park Memoirs, returns him to the Teflon-tough hip-hop of his past releases. As the rapper explains, the new album is a thematic successor of sorts to his 2010 Shorecrest Memoirs EP.

“I wanted to make this project an ode to my neighborhood, and my late teens and my early 20s,” Yo-Dot says. “I’ve come a long way from where I was then. Ten years ago I was 18. I was still eager to be heard as an artist, but at the same time, in my environment in 38th and Burleigh on the North Side of Milwaukee, there was a lot of violence. So I’m just remembering all of these really good times and all the bad times. It made me appreciate being out of that realm.”

Yo-Dot credits music for helping get him out of his old neighborhood. “A lot of people are content in that environment, and they don’t see any options or opportunities beyond that neighborhood, but I had music to fall back on,” he says. “I was always doing shows with Prophetic, or going somewhere outside the neighborhood to record. I missed a lot of dangerous situations because I had something else going on.”

As Yo-Dot’s profile has expanded, so have his responsibilities. For years he took a willing backseat to Prophetic who, as one of the city’s most visible hip-hop artists, became the logical face of the rappers’ shared Umbrella Music Group collective. Since Prophetic left Milwaukee for Nashville last year, however, Yo-Dot has inherited much of that spotlight.

“With my music partner not being physically present at events and shows now, I’ve definitely felt the responsibility to carry on what Proph and the rest of us as a collective have built,” Yo-Dot says. “Proph has always been more of the businessman and worn a lot of hats, so with him gone, it’s up to me to continue releasing a good product and stay in touch with the fans. We’re just trying to stay out there and remain relevant.”

Sherman Park Memoirs is posted for free streaming and download at djbooth.net.