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Dessa mixes old soul, hip hop and philosophy

February 23, 2010
By Justin McIntosh

Dessa burst onto the underground hip hop scene in 2005 with an EP. Since then, the indie rap world’s been clamoring for more, having to satisfy themselves with a handful of appearances on Doomtree Collective releases.

Finally, in January, Dessa released her debut full-length, “A Badly Broken Code,” to critical acclaim. She’s on tour right now with fellow Doomtree artist P.O.S. and took some time out of j ump roping to talk about the new release and the challenge of being a (half-) white female rapper.

Graffiti: Tell us a little about what you have going on right now?

Dessa: We are in a van, our touring party is like seven people. We have P.O.S., Plain Ole Bill, who DJs for  him, and Grieves and Budo and then there’s me and our tour manager, Stacy. We have a documentarian with us. His name’s Isaac.

Right now we are  heading from Cheaton, Calif., we had a day off (Feb. 15). We’ll be playing (Feb. 16) in Reno.

Graffiti: Is he mostly filming the shows or is getting behind the scenes stuff too?

Dessa: Isaac has been filming the shows. He has a really nice Canon camera that shoots stills and video and he has those flip cams that we’re using too.

We’ve been jumping a lot of rope, so I imagine some of the footage will be devoted to jumping rope (Ed. note: There’s already a video posted on the Doomtree Web site, at doomtree.net, of the crew jumping rope in a parking lot).

Graffiti: Where did that interest come from?

Dessa: I think it was Isaac. He brought a rope on tour and by day three we were trying to up our jump roping chops.  So we stopped at a Dick’s and bought some rope.

Graffiti: Are you doing like school kids jump rope or like Rocky jump rope?

Dessa: I think it started as school kid jump rope and now it’s pretty intense. We can do three people jumping in the same rope. Yesterday, while Stacy and I were shopping for sports gear, Isaac was jumping rope and Plato Bill and P.O.S. had another rope and they were twirling it around him in this jump roper cocoon.

Graffiti: So it’s mostly trick jump roping?

Dessa: Oh yea. I think by the end of the tour it will be mostly trick jump roping.

Graffiti: Is that something you plan to take on stage?

Dessa: (laughs) We talked about it.

Graffiti: I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. So, anyway, your debut full-length, “A Badly Broken Code,” was just released. Yet you’re one of those artists who’s been on the periphery for some time now — appearing on various Doomtree releases and eventually putting out your own EP. This full-length then has been a long time coming, going back to your EP being released in 2005. Does it feel good to finally get your debut out there?

Dessa: So, so much of a relief. Because I put out that EP so long ago and it was so well received, I think I got psyched out and took an indefensibly long time to make the next one.

But it feels great to get it out there and it’s gotten great feedback. It feels overdue.

Graffiti: Do you think the third release will take as long or do you hope to speed that process up?

Dessa: (laughs) God, no.

Graffiti: So you’ve been pretty happy with the reception so far?

Dessa: I have. It’s been overwhelming. This is the first release I’ve fully supported by myself with my own tour.

I have a  lot more opportunities to try to earn listenership in other markets and I couldn’t have asked for a better result so far.

Graffiti: As you know, white rappers are somewhat of a rarity, but even more so are white female rappers. Do you ever feel the novelty of that gets more attention than you’d like to sometimes?

Dessa: Where I’m from, white rappers aren’t that much of a novelty as they may be in other cities. Female rappers, as near as I can tell, are a rarity in almost any market, at least female rappers that are working hard to create a lasting profession.

I’m half-Puerto Rican and half white, but definitely look white. I have on some occasions attracted more attention than I would have liked, but I do realize I’m still getting attention. The onus is still on me to show my merit by being a good recording artist and performer.

Early on I wore a lot of oversized clothing to de-empathize the fact that I was a woman, but now six years in I worry about it less because it’s a variable that’s completely outside my realm.

Graffiti: And you’re right, Minneapolis is pretty open-minded musically.

Dessa: It is, totally. The divisions of genres are remarkably permeable and have been for some time. It’s nothing for us to have mixed bills with a rapper and a rock band and a punk rock band and and instrumentalist outfit. It isn’t unlikely for us to collaborate between genres either.

Graffiti: Now you have a philosophy degree. How often do you draw from your that in writing music?

Dessa: It does for me. In only a couple of songs have I directly alluded to a philosopher. But the education I got at the University of Minnesota for philosophy has definitely changed my world view. I think completely differently now than I did before I studied philosophy.

Graffiti: And philosophy’s one of those foundational subjects too. Everything kind of springs from there.

Dessa: It’s not like you learn much in philosophy but you learn how to process new information that you’ll get throughout your life. I couldn’t write a particularly compelling biography of a philosopher. I’m not even particularly well-versed compared to the people who study, even as an amateur.

But the way it taught me to evaluate arguments I hear on the news and how to decide what’s right and wrong in the middle of the night when I tempted to do something. Philosophy from a moral level and an intellectual level did a lot to form me into the person I am today, and as a musician.

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