FEELING MINNESOTA “We have a shared reality together,” says Dessa. “I’ve got a second family in an era where many people don’t have the strength of the first.”
A dash of coincidence provoked Margret Wander's relatively quick entry into Doomtree, the hip-hop crew whose "Wings + Teeth Tour" comes to the Middle East a week from Saturday. Back around 2003, the MC who now goes by "Dessa" was not much of an MC. Instead, she dedicated her time to Minneapolis's slam-poetry community. After she joined up with Why?'s Yoni Wolf as part of a hip-hop outfit called Medida, Wolf tossed her a few CDs that served as primers on underground rap. Among one batch of discs, a record by Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree piqued her attention. The CD-R had a handmade cover featuring a dead bird with X's for eyes.
"It stood out from the others, probably because of its amateur recording techniques," says Dessa by phone from the city she still calls home. "You can hear people giggling before a track starts. You can hear a door slamming in the background. Those ambient sounds made it sound like an artifact. It sounded genuine." Intent on finding out who Doomtree were, she prodded for information. Turned out, most of them shared a house only a couple of doors away from her.
At first, Dessa got to know the Doomtree gang simply as friends. Breaking into that circle couldn't have been easy. The tight-knit collective of rappers and producers had grown out of high-school friendships. P.O.S. (a/k/a Stefon Alexander), Doomtree's best-known member, places the group's founding around 2001, and which point there were no huge plans about a future as a label. Producer Lazerbeak (a/k/a Aaron Mader) recalls that the crew initially banded together for just one album.
During her first show with Doomtree, Dessa did a spoken-word piece over a vinyl track spun by former crew member MK Larada. Her original musical collaboration with the group was a "trip-hoppy ballad," and it took her at least six months, by her estimate, to get the whole rap game and technique. But her new friends saw potential. One night after a show, they convened in their living room and asked her to join. "It was midnight on a weekday," she remembers, "and I got so excited that I called my mom."
Dessa's invitation despite her limited rap experience is typical of Doomtree's unorthodox angle. This is artisan hip-hop constructed mostly by folks who took odd avenues into the genre. Alexander was part of a hardcore band called Building Better Bombs; Mader was part of the indie-rock outfit the Plastic Constellations. Cecil Otter, an MC, was a semi-pro skateboarder. The current members of Doomtree — Otter, P.O.S., Lazerbeak, Sims, Mike Mictlan, Paper Tiger, and Dessa — aren't all hip-hop outsiders, but the novel backstories don't hurt. There's some bold unorthodoxy at work here. Although Dessa doesn't speak for the group, she freely admits to finding mainstream rap's tropes — money, women, clubs — "boring." That attitude makes Doomtree especially appealing to the atypical hip-hop listener.