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Breaking The Code: A Q&A With Indie Rap Songstress Dessa

The brilliant rap lyricist is also a DIY maven with a self-published book and an indie record label in her back pocket.
March 29, 2011, 8:42pm

Dessa is the sole female member of the notorious Doomtree crew, hip-hop's beloved Minnesotan rap family. Her introduction to the Minneapolis rap scene began at a poetry slam where she met Yoni—an emcee who asked her to join his newly formed rap group Medida. In Medida, Dessa began to recite her poems over beats, making the difficult transition from poet to rapper. Soon, she crossed paths with Doomtree, a tightly knit hip-hop collective with a punk-rock, DIY approach to the music business. The group who produces their own beats, records their own songs, and maintains complete artistic control over their works. Over the years, Doomtree has managed to carve out a large and growing niche for themselves, due in no small part to a relentless release and tour schedule.

Moved by the clique's passion for their music, support for one another, and do-for-self ethos, Dessa accepted an invitation to join the crew and in 2005 released her first album—the False Hopes EP—introducing listeners to her distinctive literary voice and uncanny penchant for storytelling. In 2010 she released her debut full-length, A Badly Broken Code, a collection of songs full of life delivered with the delightful contrast of sweetly sung melodies and raw-sounding raps. Vocals for the album were recorded in the living room of her one bedroom apartment.

Dessa has taught a course on hip-hop lyrics at The McNally Smith College of Music as well as written and self-published a book of fiction and poetry (she covered the costs of the book's production by charging them to her credit card). Her natural rhetorical instinct comes through in her finely crafted lyrics, which help further distinguish her in the often rote realm of rap.

Dessa's hard work is starting to pay dividends—she is gearing up for her first headlining tour, Into The Spin, which will begin on the West Coast at the end of April. We caught up with her via email to ask her some questions about her writing and life as a working artist. Her answers provide some insight into how she and Doomtree have managed to build such a name for themselves in the indie rap game.

The Creator's Project: What are you reading these days?
Dessa: I’m reading The People’s History of the United States very, very slowly. Philosophy, language and science have always naturally attracted me, but history has been a challenge since grade school. I’m trying to do a little remedial self-education.

What are your top five favorite books?
I don’t have a standing top five list, but moments of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek were rib-cracking and revelatory. David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers are also inspiring writers.

What’s your take on the state of publishing in America?
My first book, Spiral Bound, I financed with my Visa card. Just this morning I dropped off another shipment at Magers & Quinn, our local bookstore. So I’m afraid I don’t have an insider’s perspective on the publishing industry. I do get the sense that it will fall victim to the same market forces that took down the recording industry—an implosion from which I was also pretty insulated as an indie musician.

Do you have plans for any further literary endeavors?
I am working on a collection of creative non-fiction tentatively titled The Perfect Burn.

Have you always had a singing voice or was that something you developed over time?
I’ve always sang, even before I could carry a tune. My pitch has developed over a long run of years, and is still developing.

Have you been approached by a major label for a deal? Is that something you want or are you in a better position maintaining complete control of your work?
I used to harbor a passionate hope that a record company would offer Doomtree a deal. But years later, after developing the skills and resources that labels offer, it would take a hell of an offer to catch my interest. In Doomtree we’ve got total artistic control and a business built on friendships. Every business adviser I’ve talked to tells me this is an unsustainable model. And they’ve been saying as much for seven years.

What’s the meaning of the album title A Badly Broken Code?

(answer excerpted from an interview with Hip Hop Fiend)

Billy Collins wrote a poem titled “Nostalgia,” which contains the line "A Badly Broken Code"—a phrase that became an instant fascination. Extracted from its context, the line speaks to me about humanity's drive to figure itself out. We break the genome, we train telescopes on the edges of space, we examine our dead to see how they're put together and we still don't quite satisfy our curiosity. We get more information but we don't seem to get more understanding. Feels like breaking a code and feeling just as confused as you were before.

Who handled its production?
Doomtree producers Paper Tiger, MK Larada, Lazerbeak and Cecil Otter contributed the production to the album—an amazingly talented group of guys.

Do you worry about not having a “real job” or a "career"? Do you foresee a time in your life when you will want those things?
I don’t have an office or a name badge, but it definitely feels like I’ve got a real job. I work six or seven days running an independent label and I perform between one and six shows a week. This career path doesn’t afford a lot of stability, but there’s no shortage of meetings, conference calls, contracts, or emails—all the jobby stuff that makes an endeavor feel legit. Am I worried about long-term financial stability? Yes, a little. But I’m more worried about generating strong material, mastering my craft, and quelling any fears that would prevent my from giving my very best to the task at hand.

How are indie labels innovating their approach to music distribution? Are record sales still a viable model? Are they branching out to merchandising?
Most bands—before and after the collapse of the industry—sell branded merchandise. The classic example is, of course, the Band T-shirt. I think a lot of musicians are finding that their music sometimes serves to promote their live shows and merchandise, which are becoming a bigger part of their revenue stream. For indie musicians and majors alike, the digitization of music means that listeners can and do download music for free. But you can’t download a shirt, or a stage dive. Increasingly, the task is figuring out how to monetize the service that musicians provide.