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Dessa ascendant 

The Doomtree emcee gets philosophical about hip-hop

You can picture the scenario, I'm sure. Major-label A&R execs convene to determine what, if anything, can save their industry. A crowd holds vigil outside, like devout Catholics awaiting the selection of a new Pope.

Finally, the chosen one is announced: She's a Minneapolis hip-hop artist with a fondness for rapping over clarinets, singing a cappella, and infusing her work with both the soulfulness of Erykah Badu and the minimalism of Steve Reich. A formula for success if ever there was one.

OK, that might not work. The music industry will have to find its economic salvation elsewhere. But from an artistic standpoint, it's hard not to be impressed by Dessa's debut album, which was released two weeks ago to widespread acclaim. The title gets it half right: A Badly Broken Code surely deconstructs the tropes of hip-hop and recombines them in unexpected ways, but it's more than competently done.

Dessa, who's also a spoken-word artist and leader of the a cappella group Boy Sopranos (no boys, one soprano), is the sole female member of Doomtree, the Minneapolis hip-hop collective that sets out "to create some of the most forward-thinking beats and rhymes this side of 1987."

"After performing with them once or twice, there was a label meeting — which is a fanciful way of saying that we met at half past midnight on a Tuesday — and I jumped out of my skin when they asked me to join," she recalls. "We kind of operate as some hybrid of a production house, a gang, and an independent music label. But it's always been primarily based on friendships."

The upward spiral

While Dessa's lyrics and writings are less overtly political than those of P.O.S. (the collective's best-known artist), they are no less intriguing. In Spiral Bound, her collection of essays and poems that was called a "dazzling debut" by Minneapolis' City Pages, she notes that, "by the literal report of our senses, nothing actually happens without us," and goes on to conclude that "Daguerre, when he took the first portrait of a Parisian passing by, became the Copernicus of the personal sphere."

Yes, Dessa earned her bachelor's degree in philosophy.

"I didn't go to art school," insists the Minnesota native, "but I am kind of an academic. So in most of my endeavors, I'd have a difficult time not being cerebral."

That's reflected in her work, as is the fact that she now teaches in both the composition and hip-hop programs at the Twin Cities' McNally Smith College of Music.

"It's one of the first institutions that is accredited to offer a diploma in hip-hop, and it's been a trip. I think I've read more about the social values and ramifications of hip-hop in the past nine months — and evaluated them in the context of my own life — than I have in the four or five years preceding."

Philosophy books, meanwhile, have fallen by the wayside: "Since I've been out of college, I'm definitely not keeping up on my philosophy game. The basic tenets that I learned continue to really affect my daily thinking and my mental life, but I'm not in the halls at the University of Minnesota philosophy library trying to make sure that I've read the latest issue of Philosophy Today or anything."

Applied aesthetics

So to what degree could Dessa — a self-described "sucker for empiricists and utilitarians, and I know people hate that" — still crack open some Wittgenstein and understand it, let alone apply it to her life?

"I'd say 79 percent. But I'd be reading the words in my head slowly, like a record on 33 that was intended to be played at 45."

Right, 79 percent. Is she absolutely sure of that figure?

"Less and less," she says, "the more we talk about it."

Although Dessa says she's critical of pretty much everything she does, such reservations are clearly unwarranted. The video for "Dixon's Girl" — which includes sly references to Donnie Darko and A Clockwork Orange — is as aesthetically arresting as the music, while the album as a whole justifies the five-year wait since her first EP.

"Yeah, I had a lot of time with this album to really develop some serious self-doubts about it" she says. "Because, in part, it's an album to fuck up your planogram. I knew when I was making this album that ranged from secular a cappella hymns to club songs, that it might not fly very well with the industry, but I think it's doing pretty well with the listeners."

Hold on, wait a minute: There's still a record industry?

"Yeah, I've heard it rumored on the coasts. But out here in the Midwest, there never was one."

bill@csindy.com

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