A few minutes before she was set to hit the stage at a recent sold out show at Brooklyn’s Union Hall, Dessa, the female emcee and singer from the Minneapolis-based hip hop collective Doomtree, got a drink from the bar, fiddled with her phone, and greeted a few bashful fans with a glowing smile and genuine graciousness for coming to see her perform. When it was time for the gig to start, her devoted fan base, already sweaty from too many bodies and not enough air conditioning, were more than ready to hang on Dessa’s every word—spoken or sung. Some claimed to have waited three hours in the venue so as to ensure a spot in the front row. No one would budge for any straggler looking to weave his way through the crowd, and more than a few people bitched about spilled drinks and the tall folks interfering with their view of Dessa. But fuck ‘em, this is Dessa…in New York City. Get your ass to the front row.
“Brooklyn is a favorite spot, but it’s always a shit show,” Dessa said during a pre-gig interview while chilling out in Union Hall’s courtyard area. “And [I’m not just saying this] because we’re here, but it’s hard not to consider New York as a market for a real testing ground. If I could choose to be a relaxed musician, I would. But I’m tight-roping like fuck. I’ll be better after some whiskey.”
If New York is a testament to earning a badge of respect, her touring schedule has allowed for plenty of shots. The Union Hall show was one of three in the city, and one of four in New York state. Add the fact that she is touring in support of her upcoming release, Parts of Speech, and there is certainly room for at least a little performance anxiety. But despite her claims of walking a tight rope, before, during, and after her gig, she showed very little, if any, signs of worry about the response to the new material.
“I think the years working with Doomtree has garnered an audience that’s really willing to listen to very different material,” Dessa said. “So far so good. I don’t want to jinx it. Every night, as far as I’m concerned, is an audition. That said, we’ve got some real music-loving fans. I think that they’re willing to listen to an acoustic guitar song, even if they’ve came having heard a very aggressive rap single. Good music is really more important than genre.”
Indeed, it’s hard to classify Dessa to any one sect, and even more difficult to describe her music without sounding pretentious. She is certainly a singer with speed, but arguably the most accurate moniker currently being kicked around is “high-brow hip hop,” though that label is also far from perfect too. Reluctantly aware of the categorical boundaries she adhered to in her previous efforts, in Parts of Speech she tosses genres into the trash, mixing banging rap songs with ghostly, whiskey-soaked ballads.
“I insist [the tracks] are cohesive,” she said of the auditory juxtaposion of Parts of Speech. “There’s a lyrical sensibility that connects them, even if the musical voicing is different. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear a lot of similarities, even if at first the songs sound worlds apart. I came at music as a writer; words have been my strength for a long time.”
Dessa may well embody nearly every definition of the word composed. That’s a weighty statement, but considering who Dessa is and what she does, it’s not a stretch. Not only can she spit at a head-spinning rate, she also sings beautifully, writes and publishes creative non-fiction and poetry, has formed a Minneapolis-based female a capella group, and when time allows, is a guest lecturer at area Minnesota colleges and teaches teenagers the art of the written word—a craft in which she is quickly approaching master status. Love, loss, death, sex, whiskey, and the plight of society are themes found on her three previous LPs, and all carry over on Parts of Speech, hitting their mark with incredible precision. On “The Man I Knew,” the opening track from Parts of Speech, Dessa addresses helplessness, hypocrisy, and loss when singing about a friend’s drug use:
“Last night you came to kiss me / in a dream / and when I woke / what kind of foolishness is this? / Breathed out a lungful of your smoke. / I’ve seen you at your brightest / when mine’s gonna burn. / Who am I to pull you down to Earth?”
And on “The Lamb,” she addresses loss, love, and religion:
“I’ve got no ax to grind with you / but goddammit, man / this hatchet won’t stay buried without some sign from you…They can sew your hands together / but they can’t force you to pray.”
For Dessa, it’s an insatiable appetite to address these themes that pulls her pen across the page. “For me, there’s a very particular restlessness and uneasiness that visits occasionally that feels like it would be satisfied by writing.”
But that’s not to say that it’s fun. Like most writers, creating is often agonizing, tedious, and frustrating, and Dessa is no stranger to these aspects of a tortured artist.
“It’s not therapeutic or anything. I understand how other people talk about that, but it’s never been that way for me,” she said of the process. “It feels meaningful to me, but it’s not a goddamn vacation. It takes so long to achieve a product I’m proud of. And then you’re done, and you’re over it, but every moment of the process until you’re fucking finished is an exercise in ‘not good enough’.”
Of course, there are little crutches every creator uses to help with the process. Dessa doesn’t have any set ritual, though she admits to trying to stick to whatever led her to success in her previous endeavors. Sometimes that means having a few whiskeys, “after a full lowball, it starts to get real fluid with the adjectival phrases,” she admits. Sometimes the spark of a song will come from a piece of overheard conversation, and if she is out somewhere and is suddenly hit with a melodic idea, she’ll use the voice recorder on her phone in a bathroom to preserve the thought. She plays around with perspective, especially in Parts of Speech, where some tracks are written from a man’s point of view.
No matter the means of creation, the end product is something that causes fans to salivate, all anxiously awaiting the June 25th release date of Parts of Speech. Perhaps that’s why, midway through the Union Hall set, no one uttered a sound when she humorously asked the crowd not to cat-call or holler while she removed her sweater, revealing a black tank top more fitting for the temperament of her aggressive tunes and the temperature of the room. Or perhaps everyone stayed silent during the sweater removal because they were afraid that if they were to disobey, one of the dudes from Doomtree would come out from the shadows swinging. But more than likely no one said a word because when Dessa speaks, people listen.