The Englert Theatre — Saturday, Nov. 7 at 9:30
Indie hip-hop collective Doomtree could be dubbed an artistic smorgasbord. Comprised of five emcees and two producers, the band has been active since 2002, though most of its members met earlier as high school classmates in Minneapolis. Despite each artist’s robust solo career, the group has produced six crew albums, toured extensively throughout the U.S., organized and promoted a decade’s worth of festivals, and — perhaps most impressively — created a sound that is arresting and unmistakably their own.
In anticipation of the group’s Nov. 6 show at the Englert Theatre as part of Iowa City’s Witching Hour festival, Doomtree’s Dessa (emcee) and Lazerbeak (producer) spoke with Little Village about their creative process, the evolution of their music and everything they love about living in the Midwest.
Doomtree succeeds where so many other artistic collectives have struggled: you allow each of your artists to maintain solo careers while still recording and performing consistently as a group. What does your creative process look like?
Lazerbeak: For our first couple of records, it was everyone throwing songs into the pot, almost more of a compilation or a showcase of what we were as individuals. With No Kings (2011), we struck on the idea of how to make the most collaborative record we could with the seven of us. And so it started with the beats for the first time, and that process continued through this last record, All Hands (2015), where the producers would get together at first and really carve out the sonic landscape. Someone would start a beat, we’d send it to Paper[Tiger] out in New York, and he would add some files in the back, and then we’d bring in a session player. We’d just kind of slowly put these things together and release stuff with a sound that I think is unique to our crew records. With that kind of foundation in place, we bring it to the rappers.
What happens next?
Dessa: So after the producers have created a batch of sketches of the kind of beats they’re working on, they’ll share it with the rappers, and usually we’ll do that electronically. We’ll all listen, and we’ll make notes on which are our favorites, which we can imagine rapping easily on, which we might like but aren’t sure exactly how to approach, and then we get together as an entire crew to start the writing process. For the past couple of records, we’ve done so by sequestering ourselves in a cabin outside of cell phone range, which prevents one of us from wandering off to a Walgreen’s, never to return.
We just kind of huddle out there in the wilderness, where focus is forced on us. And we play the beats on repeat and each of the rappers listens, trying to figure out what a concept, or what a first line, or what a chorus might be. And whoever’s got an idea first just kind of raises his or her hand, shares it, and then we kind of gravitate toward that direction and build from there. And spend a few days staying up late, drinking late and eating a lot of snacks.
That sounds like a writers’ retreat.
Dessa, you’ve also written books of poetry and prose. Is your generative process different for music?
Dessa: When I’ve got a verbal idea, one of the first things to do is to sort it into one of three bins. It might be a song lyric, or it might contribute to an essay or a short story, or it might be a line in a poem. For me, those processes are all driven by language but are a bit different. In writing lyrics, you’re constrained metrically in a way that you aren’t at all in prose. And you’re also buoyed by the fact that there’s the amazing emotional engine of the beat that you’re working with. So you are an accompanist to and a collaborator with another emotional force; you’re not providing all the energy.
Have you found that being from the Midwest has influenced you in terms of your process, your work, your connections?
Dessa: I don’t know the extent to which it informs the aesthetic, but it definitely informs our approach. For example, we planned and executed the [Doomtree] Zoo [a day-long festival in Minneapolis featuring Doomtree, ten other bands and a host of visual artists] alone; we didn’t work with a venue that had streamlined the concert promotion process. I think the DIY ethic is definitely part of the Midwestern heritage, in part just because there’s not the same amount of industry infrastructure here that you might find in LA or New York. You know, people are generally not signed by talent scouts. They generally just organically build up a fanbase on their own.
Lazerbeak: I think the collaboration ties into that as well. As Dessa mentioned, it’s harder to be a cutthroat act here. I think the Midwest breeds a lot of collaboration, and not just within the same genre. In Minneapolis, it’s never out of place to see a punk band playing with a rap group playing with an alt country band on a Wednesday night in some dive bar. Fans don’t think anything about it, and the bands don’t think anything about it, either. So it’s become this kind of special place that’s separated from the big cities.
We’ve definitely got a Midwestern vibe to us, and we roll into New York or we go on tour with an act who’s from LA or something, I think people can pick up on the fact that we’re Minnesota-grown, a little bit, for better or for worse.
What can we look forward to from your Witching Hour show?
Lazerbeak: A total rap party. A lot of dancing and a lot of sweating and hopefully yelling along to all the songs. I love our records, but our live shows—even from a performer or artist’s standpoint—all that work really clicks, and it feels really cool to create that vibe with six other people you’ve been working so hard on all sorts of things with for so many years. So I think it’s a strong show, and it’s a lot of fun for everybody, from the door guy to us on the stage to the people standing the back and the front.
Dessa: Totally. And I think for as much aggressive energy as will circulate around the room—because I think there is a lot of it, you know? Big feelings onstage hopefully transmitting to big feelings offstage too—it’s an unusually welcoming crowd. You see grandmothers there sometimes, you see college-aged kids, you see children with young professionals, you see queer teenagers. You see a lot of spanning demographics, and I think a point of pride for me has been that we’re like, “Hey! Everybody come and dance and yell and drink if you’re of age and feel free to dance even if you’re not great at it.” I think we’ve done a good job of creating an environment that feels like everybody has a bit of floor space to freak out on.
Lazerbeak: We’ve also done a good job of showing off that it’s okay to dance when you’re not very good at it.
Dessa: Yes, we are definitely modeling that.
It’s difficult to describe the Doomtree sound. How would you do it?
Lazerbeak: I think that if you’ve really got to pinpoint it, we’re rooted in rap music, but it’s taken so many different places that it’s sometimes hard to tell. It’s like some electronic shows, some rock shows, some indie pop. It covers a lot of ground with a lot of jangling voices. As Dessa mentioned, we’ve been at this for quite a while now, and I do think that some of that hopefulness and perseverance and hard work has gone into the music—you can almost hear it in there, even if it’s not explicitly in the lyrics. And, yeah. Rap party again, I guess.
Dessa: It’s driving. I think there’s some aggression, but there are really beautiful moments too, and you see some really distinct personalities shine through over the course of an evening. There are some moments of pretty singing, and there are a lot of moments of all-out rapping. Collaborative production yields a really layered sound, and five rappers sharing a spotlight yields kind of a carousel, a whirlwind on stage of different voices working on the same piece. I think you can tell that the people on stage really mean what they’re saying, and that we really have worked together and loved one another for a long time. The dynamic looks and feels genuine, because it is.
Mallory Hellman is the director of the Iowa Youth Writing Project. A recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she’s currently at work on a novel.
This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 187.