Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Dessa: Tearing It Up in the Bull Pen

Written by Susannah Wexler
Dessaone.jpgDessa’s A Badly Broken Code is, quite possibly, one of the best albums I’ve heard in a long time. From the second the first beat drops to the moment the last one closes, every time I listen to it, I find myself wanting to hear more. Dessa is an amazing musician. If her album was comprised solely of beats and rhythms, I would still play it, eternally, on repeat. Her lyrics, however, are what make A Badly Broken Code one of the best albums of all time. They are smart, witty, and do an excellent job of confronting a world that has not always welcomed women. (In her song, “The Bullpen,” for example, she raps, “I love this job, but ah, good god sometimes I hate this business / It’s all love backstage, but then the boys get brave, gotta say I hope your mother doesn’t listen.”)

 

Photos by Ben LaFond and Kai Benson
 
Dessa’s A Badly Broken Code is, quite possibly, one of the best albums I’ve heard in a long time. From the second the first beat drops to the moment the last one closes, every time I listen to it, I find myself wanting to hear more. 
 
Dessa is an amazing musician. If her album was comprised solely of beats and rhythms, I would still play it, eternally, on repeat. Her lyrics, however, are what make A Badly Broken Code one of the best albums of all time. They are smart, witty, and do an excellent job of confronting a world that has not always welcomed women. (In her song, “The Bullpen,” for example, she raps, “I love this job, but ah, good god sometimes I hate this business / It’s all love backstage, but then the boys get brave, gotta say I hope your mother doesn’t listen.”)  

Born Margret Wander, Dessa grew up wanting to be a writer. While performing as a slam poet, she met hip-hop artists and eventually started to rap. Not to speak for others, but . . . I can only imagine that anyone who has heard A Badly Broken Code is happy she made this decision. Fortunately, after some e-mails back and forth, I got the chance to pick this amazing lady’s brain about her latest album, Doomtree, and the creative process.  
 
Susannah: I just want to start by saying that I really enjoy your work. Where do you get your ideas from and what is your songwriting process like?  
 
Dessa: A story often starts around a kernel of language—a turn of phrase or a snippet of overheard conversation. I try to capture all these little pieces as they come, either in a notebook or a long, completely scattered word processing file. When I sit [down] to write a song, I’ll draw from these little bits and pieces to start assembling a coherent whole. It’s laborious and sometimes inelegant, but it works.  

Susannah: Yeah, it definitely seems to. To back up a bit, would you mind telling our readers a little bit about yourself and what the musical and hip-hop scene was like when you were growing up?  
 
Dessa: My name is Dessa. I’m a writer, a rapper, a proud member of the Doomtree collective, and an amaretto enthusiast. My crew Doomtree includes rappers, DJs, producers, and visual artists. We’re based in Minneapolis and have been working together since before some of us could legally buy booze. Minneapolis has a vibrant musical scene for a lot of genres—punk, rock, and rap particularly. But during my teenage years, I didn’t have a personal connection to the musical community. I was something of an academic, and I wasn’t very social during most of my high school career. Meeting Doomtree opened up Minneapolis to me in a lot of ways.  
Susannah: So, did you always want to pursue a career in hip-hop, or was it something you fell into?  
 
Dessa: I first took the stage seriously as a slam poet. I competed on Minnesota’s team at the national competition. The rap scene in Minneapolis, as in a lot of communities, overlaps considerably with the poetry scene. I was introduced to local hip-hop artists through my involvement in slam.  
 
Susannah: That’s awesome. So, if you didn’t always want to pursue a career in hip-hop, as a kid, what did you “want to be” when you grew up?  
 
Dessa: I loved language since I was a very small girl. My mom often tells a story in which I enter her home office as a three-year-old and solemnly ask that we "do the thing where you talk, then I talk about the same thing, then you talk again."  
 
"A conversation?" she asked.  
 
"Yes," I confirmed, "a conversation."  
 
Later, I loved the idea of being a writer, but was a little scared off by how hard everyone said it would be to carve out a living that way. I studied philosophy in college, but was hard-pressed to find a way to apply that learning directly. After graduating, I wanted to make music but was well aware that I didn’t have a technically perfect voice. As it happened, rapping might be the perfect job for a writer with philosophical ideas and a singer without the range for classical fare.  
 
Susannah: That makes sense, and rapping definitely seems like a perfect fit for you . . . I’ve read some really great reviews of your most recent album. What would you say have been some of the highlights of your career?  
 
Dessa: After seven years of essentially climbing in place, this last year was very kind to me [frantic knocking on wood]. Doomtree released my first official full-length record, A Badly Broken Code. I toured the country with P.O.S to support it, and I earned some pretty fancy reviews. I spent a long time (too long according to every trusted advisor) on that record. It was a relief and a thrill to see people in cities I’d never visited mouthing the words. Asking fans to listen to bittersweet rap music at an otherwise kinetic show was a real risk. And it was enormously rewarding to find people willing to take a chance on me. Also, opening for Ani DiFranco. Easy highlight. I got so nervous before taking stage I threw up—and watched myself do it in the beautiful light-ringed mirrors of her backstage area.  
 
Susannah: That’s amazing. So, what are you currently working on?  
 
Dessa: I’m slowly assembling some material for my next album. Doomtree producer Paper Tiger gave me a really lovely beat a couple of months ago, and I’m trying to write some of the new tunes on piano. I’m also working on a second collection of essays to follow up my first book Spiral Bound. This next collection is tentatively titled The Perfect Burn.  
 
Susannah: That sounds great—I'm totally looking forward to it. To shift gears a bit, what has being a female in hip-hop been like? How have things changed during your time in the business and how have they remained the same?
 
Dessa: Being a woman in hip-hop brings both challenges and advantages. It can be a challenge to be taken seriously. It can also be difficult to tell the difference between a legitimate business proposal and a veiled come-on. On the other hand, a woman rapper is still a relatively rare thing—and rarity attracts interest and attention. Artists spend a lot of time and energy trying to attract attention to their work; being unusual gives you a leg up. Of course, if you’re unusual but talentless, you’re out of luck.  
 
Susannah: True. So, what advice might you give young women wanting to break into the hip-hop scene? The music industry?  
 
Dessa: Decide how you’d like to be perceived. Don’t get involved in projects or photo shoots that jeopardize your vision. Even if seemingly powerful or famous people tell you it’s a good idea.  
 
Susannah: That’s good advice. So, in what direction do you see hip-hop moving? What do you think the scene will be like in five years?  
 
Dessa: To be honest, I don’t keep too close an eye on the trends in hip-hop. I don’t think that as an artist I can learn much from them—although I bet they’d be crucially important to me if I were an investor. As is, I’ll make the music that moves me and hope I can find other people interested in the same aesthetic.  
 
Susannah: That’s such a great perspective. So, where do you see yourself in five years?
 
Dessa: I’d like to have more credits to my name as a writer in five years. The music industry is so public and so fast-paced. There is a host of people to push you to keep moving. Literature, at least to me, has been a more patient, private endeavor. There’s only me to set deadlines and only me to enforce them.  
 
Susannah: Totally. I’ve found the same thing with writing. I am also interested in some of your other pursuits. I read online that, in addition to writing and performing, you also teach at the McNally Smith College of Music. That’s awesome. What courses do you teach?  
 
Dessa: I’m now serving as an Artist in Residency at McNally Smith College of Music. But I used to teach a couple of courses there. One was a class on the poetics of hip-hop lyrics. The other was more a course in the basics of songwriting.  
 
Susannah: That’s awesome. What was teaching like, and how did it affect your art?  
 
Dessa: I’d never read books on songwriting until I began to research texts for my classes. In reading some of them, I simply learned the formal names for a lot of techniques I’d been using intuitively. However, I also learned a lot about song forms with which I was previously only vaguely familiar—forms that don’t involve the standard verse-chorus structure.  
 
Susannah: Cool. So, how did your writing and rapping influence your teaching?  
 
Dessa: I tried to make my assignments and my handouts entertaining and well written—the same kind of care I spend on my songs, essays, and interviews. I wanted to demonstrate that I valued the students’ time, and I demanded that mine be similarly respected.  
 
dessatwo.jpgSusannah: Totally. I teach too, so I’m going to ask a super-nerdy teacher question. What did your syllabus look like and how did you decide what you were going to include on it?   
 
Dessa: I tried to include texts and activities in my classes that were immediately germane to the decisions of rappers and songwriters. In my class called "The Language of Rap and Spoken Word," we learned about figurative language by analyzing the lyrics of artists like Tupac, Lupe Fiasco, and Atmosphere. We held a debate on whether or not emcees had any moral responsibilities; students referenced interviews from people like Eminem and Sage Francis.
 
Susannah: That sounds awesome. OK, so if you could only assign one book and one film, what would they be?  
 
Dessa: I would highly recommend the documentary The Cruise. Made a big difference for me in how a writer, a musician, or a filmmaker could go about telling a true story. I’d also assign A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius or An Anthropologist on Mars. The first is a lesson in the power of voice. The second is an exercise for the imagination.  
 
Susannah: That’s really true. I have actually assigned An Anthropologist on Mars to some of my creative nonfiction students. It is so powerful. Is there anything else you’d like to add?  
 
Dessa: If people are interested in hearing some of my music or learning more about Doomtree, they can do so here.  
 
Susannah: Great. Thank you so much for speaking with us.  

Share this post