Rise of the rebels
Every rap crew says it's as tight as family. G-Unit? Cohesive. The Roots? Solid.
Doomtree, though, is like a vise-grip. Most of its members even live together.
So when the group asked Dessa to join its ranks in summer 2003, she knew she was getting into something serious. It was an ordinary night in the Doomtree house - way past midnight and surrounded by mountains of beer bottles and cigarette butts - when they popped the question.
"I lost my mind. I was so excited," said Dessa, a Minneapolis MC. "I remember feeling like I was prouder of that than anything I'd ever done."
But Dessa's mom was dubious about her daughter jumping into the indie-rap fire. She still wanted Dessa to go to graduate school. So when Dessa told her mom the news, she was ready for the proverbial life lesson only a parent can dole out.
"My mom was like, 'Be careful!' She had a really long conversation with me about cocaine," Dessa said laughing.
While it's obvious the Doomtree guys were impressed with her skill, Dessa, who graduated from the University in spring 2002, had never even touched a mic until April of that year.
She'd sung to the radio all her life, but spoken word and MCing were never on the agenda. After some friendly encouragement, though, she entered her first slam (a spoken-word competition) - and won. By the time Doomtree brought her into the fray, she was a regular in the Twin Cities spoken-word scene and was rapping and singing in the alt-rap group Medida.
For Dessa, Doomtree represented everything good about hip-hop, which, incidentally, had much to do with what they weren't about: violence, misogyny and homophobia.
Her five-song "False Hopes" album is a daring ride through the kind of freeing, provocative hip-hop that Doomtree symbolizes.
"I hold a lot of grudges against hip-hop, and Doomtree didn't indulge in any of those," Dessa said. "Their aesthetic and emotional overtone is exactly the kind of hip-hop I was looking for, which is that they are angry, but they're angry in a constructive way. They're not hateful. They're angry for change. And I remember thinking, 'I want to be part of something like that.' "
It's September. Election season. And Cecil Otter is slouched on a red, velvet sofa in the middle of a posh Miami Beach, Fla., nightclub.
Britney Spears look-alikes are dancing all around him, Paris Hilton is backstage snorting coke and Lil' Jon just walked by with his pimp cup screaming, "What?!"
Cecil grips his $9 Budweiser and thinks:
The mellow Minneapolis rapper won a local Bush-bashing spoken-word competition in August, which got him a spot in the national Slam Bush Championship, held in this very club for some big money.
Cecil is bummed, though. Besides having to spend $9 on crappy beer, he didn't expect to deliver his spoken-word piece to coked-out celebrities in a bling-bling dance club.
"It was really, really weird," he said.
But Otter is in Doomtree. And the first rule of Doomtree is simple: make good with what you have.
After ditching the club that night, he ran into Chuck D, who emceed the event. The hip-hop legend gave him a high-five and told him he did a good job on stage.
"I felt a lot better," Cecil said. "Chuck D rules."
Months later, Cecil has finally compiled four years of stray material - including the Bush poem, now with a beat behind it - into a Doomtree "False Hopes" release.
Doomtree's "False Hopes" series, which basically consists of unofficial solo albums, epitomizes the crew's ethic: low-budget releases, recorded in basements and bedrooms but drenched in sweaty passion.
The passion on Cecil's 12-song opus employs the usual Doomtree sound - heavy drums sprinkled with dusty samples and a whole lot of distortion.
You might gather from Cecil's rough time in Miami Beach that this guy is "Mr. Serious." And with the best songs on his "False Hopes" release focusing on his mom and the president, he's a pretty earnest MC.
But, surprisingly, the track you'll hear most fans rapping along to at Doomtree shows is his pro-alcohol anthem, "Lakeshore Drifter." It's sort of turned into Doomtree's club banger, if you can imagine that.
"Yeah, I guess people like to party," Cecil said.