When Minneapolis rapper Dessa released her 2010 debut album, A Badly Broken Code, she found herself with a critical hit: the album landed on end-of-year-lists and got star-heavy ratings from a cross-section of outlets ranging from NPR to HipHopDX. After a break from songwriting – and to drop a collaborative album with the other members of her Doomtree collective in 2011 – she’s preparing the release of her follow-up, Parts Of Speech, in June, and an East Coast tour kicks off on April 30. Hive caught up with the singer/emcee to learn how this album will differ from the last and what it’s like to watch her friend Macklemore blow up.
Did you work with the Doomtree producers who did your last album on the new one?
This one has some Doomtree production on it -- Paper Tiger, Lazerbeak, and my guys --and the other part of the record is kind of hybrid. There’s some programmed percussion, for example, but a lot of it is created with my live band. This is the first record that I wrote a good share of the songs on the piano. I wrote them on piano, had what would be a singer-songwriter tune, unless I sent it to the guys, and then we’d rip it up and make it bang.
Do you still rap on it?
There’s some rapping, but a lot of singing, too. But it’s not, like, folky singing. There are some kind of Florence + The Machine-style big, layered voices on it over hard-hitting drums, and some rapping.
What themes are you singing and rapping about?
Rather than working on each project in a “What is this project about” sort of way, for me, it ends up being sort of a voice of the lyricist. Some of my favorite writers – Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace – I liked being inside their heads almost irrespective of the experience they were having. They’re just funny motherfuckers to sit shotgun with, essentially. I’m hoping to do the same kind of thing in my albums. The things that makes people hear it as consistent isn’t so much what the songs are about, although very often they investigate scenes of death, and love, and communion, and loss, and sex, and drugs! [Laughs.] But it ends up being the way that the stories are told are the same, which is: a little bit of wit, a little bit of dry humor, a little of melancholy.
In the past, a lot of female rappers seemed to be stuck in a place where they had to either try to impress dudes or show how they were at least as tough as the guys were.
There’ve been, classically, kind of two ways to respond to the misogyny that doesn’t define hip hop culture, but does often describe it. One was to prove that you hated bitches more than they did, Lil Kim-style, where you’re tougher than the dudes. And the other style, which I think in some ways is equally compensatory, was to really put women on this pedestal, where we’re, like, goddesses and stuff. And that aesthetic never resonated with me because you’re not talking about women as human. Whether you demean them or you pedestalize them, you’re removing them from the conversation that has real human connection and communion, and all the empathy that comes with realizing that it’s another person. I get why you do that, because it feels like in some ways we were kind of stepped on, and now you’re trying to get us up the totem pole. “Respect me, I’m a goddess!” I’ve lived with me a long time, and if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s a goddess. I drink whiskey, try to figure it all out like everybody else. But I think there’s been two classes and it’s only now that we’re starting to go down the middle and say, “This is my true story -- I’m going to trust the listener to find some truth in it.” At least that’s the idea that I like.
Do you have expectations for the new record?
For the first time, I do. Maybe ambitions is the better word -- I know that nothing is guaranteed. I would say I definitely have ambitious objectives. I’ve had my heart broken enough wishing on stuff that I try to stay clear-eyed, reasonable, and to remind myself to stay cool. But there’s one song on this new record that -- it feels good. You hope. This might be another elevator ride. I might be able to skip a few floors on the stairs on this one.
What’s it like from your position, as an independent rapper from a geographically un-hip part of the country, who makes idiosyncratic music, when you hear “Thrift Shop?"
Go Macklemore. At first, I couldn’t get my jaw off the ground. I was just so -- he’s a homie of Doomtree, he and Sims did Warped Tour together, we’d see him at shows a lot. So the disbelief was difficult to think through. And then after that, I was like, “Fuck yeah, man.” In some small way, I can imagine how weird it would be. There are similarities in our careers -- you imagine winning the lottery or whatever. That would be that. At the same time, does it give me hope? I guess it just seems so unlikely that any one song you write is gonna do that. So I guess I hadn’t compared it too directly to what my trajectory is.
I asked [songwriter] Jeffrey Lewis once about watching people you know have that kind of success, and he said that if it takes a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters to create the works of Shakespeare, then only one of those monkeys is going to have the page with Romeo and Juliet on it –-
But it took a combined effort. I see value in that outlook, and I’m not Zen enough to have it. I do think there is a rising tide, though. I do. I think I benefit materially from the success of other artists. Even Doomtree, right? That’s just a little tide that we have together. We do a lot of leapfrogging, as a business model -- “I’ll pull you up and then you pull me up and then I’ll pull you up and then you’ll pull me up!” Tumbling up the mountain.
Dessa's tour begins tonight in Buffalo, NY. Check out her upcoming dates at the Doomtree website.