Dessa of the Doomtree crew took some time out from her busy touring schedule to discuss the past, present and future of her career. From humble origins in the Minneapolis slam poetry scene to selling out shows alongside P.O.S. on the Every Never Is Now Tour, Dessa has emerged as one of the most diverse and talented artists in indie rap. When she’s not on the mic she finds time to write thought-provoking works of creative non-fiction and poetry and teaches a hip hop diploma program at McNally Smith. Also check out the video for “Dixon’s Girl” from her stellar full-length debut A Badly Broken Code at the end of our interview.
URB: Who were your influences when you first got into writing and performing?
DESSA: It was a writer of creative non-fiction named Dave Eggers, who was a pretty big deal in my writing life. I really liked his stuff. It was candid and found a way to be goofy and serious at the same time. So he was probably a major influence. And then… Lauryn Hill. I listened to Miseducation a couple times til it wore out the disc.
URB: How did you get involved with Doomtree?
DESSA: I initially started as a prose writer, so I was writing essays and then a friend of mine took me to a poetry slam on a particularly lousy Valentine’s Day. So I went back next month and competed, made the Minnesota team, and then participated in the slam community for a year or so. And that was kind of my principal exposure to the underground hip-hop scene in Minneapolis. The slam and hip-hop scenes overlap quite a great deal in Minneapolis. So that was how I got involved there. And then after rapping for a while with a different crew, I heard Doomtree and was like, “Man… these guys are awesome. Where are these guys from?” And one of the rappers in my old crew said they live next door. So I started hanging out with them socially and was eventually asked into the collective.
URB: You teach a hip-hop diploma program in St. Paul. How did that come about and can you tell us a little about it?
DESSA: I’ve been teaching at a music college for maybe three years total. And when McNally Smith said they were going to start a hip-hop diploma program I was excited… and cautious, probably too. So they hired some really great people which answered any concerns that I had about the program. Now I teach a class there called “The Language of Rap and Spoken Word” and it deals mostly with poetry… ya know—similes, metaphors, assonance, alliteration. It’s the same kind of stuff that you would study at any college language class, but we’re doing it aggressively through the lens of hip-hop. I’ve dug it. It’s a risky prospect bringing rap music into an academic institution.
URB: Yeah, it’s a definitely a new concept.
DESSA: Yeah… for all the reasons you would imagine. And so it’s been a relief and a delight that it’s come out as well as it has.
URB: Spiral Bound, a collection of essays and poetry, was released last year to high praise. Do you have any other writing projects in the works?
DESSA: Yeah. Thanks for asking. Well Spiral Bound was poetry and creative nonfiction, so it’s true stories. And I’m starting to work on another collection, which I’ve tentatively titled A Perfect Burn. And this is another collection of essays and part of it will chronicle the trip that I took to India to visit the funeral pyres.
URB: There’s a lot going on in the video for “Dixon’s Girl.” What themes are being explored here and how would you describe exactly what’s taking place in the video?
DESSA: [Laughs] Well I gave the album to a few music video directors when it was finished, and I asked those directors if they would be willing to work on an indie label budget to produce a video. The guy who created “Dixon’s Girl” is named Todd Cobery. And in large part, it was his vision. He heard the music, he had the disc. And then he presented to me a treatment with images, and kind of a storyboard that he saw in his head. So I know that there’s a lot of references in that video. You can see that there’s a reference to A Clockwork Orange and that there’s a reference to Little Red Riding Hood as well. So I think for the most part, it’s a collage of kind of sinister… kind of sexy images that he was inspired to create after hearing the song.