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Name: Adam Bernard
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Artist Of The Week - Dessa
Monday, February 01, 2010

A lifelong Minnesota native, Doomtree emcee Dessa felt a musical influence very early on in life thanks to her Bronx born and raised mother. “My dad, as he tells it, says he found her clapping my hands along with the radio to make sure that I would be able to keep time.” Her mother also encouraged her to ad-lib to the popular songs on the radio. Late last month Dessa revealed the latest fruits of those influences, her official solo debut, A Badly Broken Code. With the sheer variety of music on the album Dessa notes it’s a fairly difficult project to categorize, saying “it’s a bitch of a record to try to put on a planogram.” Also a poet, and published author, Dessa’s artistic accomplishments extend beyond her rhymes and songs. This week I caught up with her to find out more about her work, the biggest musical hurdle she’s encountered as an emcee, and how a run in with a husky, balding, middle-aged man reminded her of the universality of art.

Adam Bernard: Start me off with the Dessa story. Which came first, the poetry or the hip-hop?
Dessa: They kind of came simultaneously, but writing preceded both of them. I did creative nonfiction and I took some classes in college that really prompted me to consider trying to pursue it as a career when I read some authors who were doing short, true, stories, which I didn’t know counted as lit. I really liked it, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to get that stuff published, so music ended up being a more immediate possibility because I could see people in Minneapolis booking shows, performing live, pressing their own CDs, and selling and distributing those CDs on small scales. I knew what it would look like to try to make progress and I didn’t know what that progress would look like in the literary world.

Adam Bernard: Yet, you still ended up writing a book, Spiral Bound.
Dessa: I did! I felt a lot better afterwards. I think I had been really dissatisfied, and just kind of fussy, because my career certainly wasn’t making a lot of money, which didn’t bother me very much, but it didn’t feel like I was honoring this kind of literary impulse and it was starting to serve as a thorn in my side, so after publishing that book, even though it’s an independent publication, I felt so much better and it really reinvigorated my drive as a rapper.

Adam Bernard: Are there certain things you feel you can say, or emote, through one form of writing that you can’t through another?
Dessa: If there’s a term or phrase that seems to have a really interesting cadence or sonnet quality to it, that might be hard to include in an essay because essays need more substantial structures. I also think that in songs you have the opportunity to explore stream of consciousness stuff in a more satisfying way. I know that that there are stream of consciousness literary writers, but I haven’t really been satisfied by reading that stuff. It seems like a great writing exercise, but my impulse is to cull that to something more cohesive. In music I feel like the emotional tenor is oftentimes provided by the beat, so you have some more leeway to be able to be flexible as a writer because you’re working in tandem with a beat, which is in itself a very powerful emotional driver. You don’t have to ask your words to do all the work because they’re complimenting the work that’s being done.

Adam Bernard: How has everything you’ve done lead up to A Badly Broken Code?
Dessa: I was cutting my teeth as an emcee on False Hopes, which was a kind of unofficial release under the Doomtree Records banner a couple of years ago. Most of the rappers in Doomtree have put out a disc called False Hopes, it ends up being our series of unofficial releases, kind of like the Headshots tapes by Atmosphere, that kind of vibe. In the intervening years, the past four or so, I’ve contributed to a lot of the Doomtree collective releases and I think I’ve gotten a little bit more comfortable working in a variety of styles in doing so because I’ve had the opportunity to be a guest vocalist on a melancholy song, on a shit talking song, on a political song, and on a love song, so I was able to get a little bit of experience in each of those things. Now for A Badly Broken Code I feel like I’m in a position where I’m really able to release a product that reflects the wider range of musical expressions that I like. There’s club music, there’s introspective hip-hop fare, and there’s also hymnals, almost, a capella arrangements that I did myself.

Adam Bernard: You are the lone female member of Doomtree. How is it being the only injection of estrogen in an otherwise all-male crew?
Dessa: It’s been so cool within Doomtree. The hardest part, artistically, was just that I’m working with an instrument that’s different from what most of my favorite rappers have. My voice is higher and that makes things sound differently. When I would listen to the emcees that I admired, even if I were to just rap along, it was almost as if I was transposing something, like you’re playing something on guitar that was meant for piano. Trying to figure out how to do rap music with a female voice, for me, took a little while.

Adam Bernard: Do you have all the male groupies because you’re the only female in the crew?
Dessa: {laughs} You know, on the occasion that someone hits on someone in Doomtree at the merch table, the girls are so much more ferocious than the dudes. Maybe that’s because it’s presumed that female advances are always welcome, or maybe that’s because I have what amounts to eight older brothers mean mugging somebody over my shoulder. Every once in a while I’ll see a guy lookin and leanin and then I’ll look behind me there’s just eight dudes with their arms crossed like “nah, son.”

Adam Bernard: That’s hilarious! Speaking of shows, you’re going to be hitting the road with P.O.S. for a big tour starting February 2nd. With that in mind, what’s your fondest memory from one of your live performances?
Dessa: Performing at a club here in Minneapolis called The Uptown. It was not particularly well attended, there were maybe 100 kids on the floor, and there was one guy in the back, middle aged, rotund, and balding, and I thought oh that poor guy came into his neighborhood bar to have a beer and has to sit through a rap show. Afterwards he said he’d come because he’d read something that I’d written and posted that day. It was a poem about mercy. Learning how to forgive people is a lesson that I relearn, if not on a weekly, at least on a monthly basis. Real, true, honest forgiving is hard stuff. He’d read that poem about what it meant to forgive someone and he said that he’d come because he’d read it and that he called someone that he had been trying forgive that day. I didn’t know this guy and I just wanted to like collapse on his lapel. It really meant a lot to me. It really reinforced those ideas of the universality of art and all that touchy-feely stuff. It was a very sweet moment for me.

Related Links

MySpace: myspace.com/dessadarling
Twitter: twitter.com/dessadarling
Doomtree: doomtree.net


posted by Adam Bernard @ 7:25 AM  
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