BOUNCING OUTSIDE THE BOX Doomtree

Minneapolis punk-hop collective is limited only in liability.

BY JAMIE
GADETTE

 

The idea
of making a record with the entire Doomtree crew was always on the table. For
seven, eight years, the conceptual project simmered on the backburner as
various artists in the eleven-member crew pursued solo careers and day jobs in
their hometown of Minneapolis. The expansive hip-hop collective finally put the
wheels in motion three years ago, recording in fits and starts the self-released,
eponymous 21-track LP that could raise them out of the struggle and into the
spotlight.

 

Obscure
above ground and beyond Minnesota, Doomtree are largely recognized for one
member’s fairly swift ascent. Emcee/producer P.O.S. broke out before the rest of
the crew took flight, signing to local indie label Rhymesayers and grabbing
headlines for his aggressive, genre-bending style. Of course, most of the
headlines got him all wrong. At the time, lazy writers and PR hacks just
couldn’t wrap their heads around the concept of a fluid punk/rap/rock combo
that didn’t sound like Linkin Park. And so many simply, foolishly wrote him off
altogether.

 

Those that
stuck around couldn’t quite pin down P.O.S.’s connections. Though he namedrops
Doomtree throughout both of his critically acclaimed albums (2004’s Ipecac Neat and 2006’s Audition), most people identify him as
part of the extended Atmosphere/Brother Ali family—which he is, and isn’t.
P.O.S. is still signed to Rhymesayers, but Doomtree’s relationship with the label
is purely informal and amicable.

 

“Being in
the same city and being friendly with those guys, we get a lot of support from
them. And it goes both ways—they’re a staple in Minnesota and we’re building
our way to being a staple in Minnesota too,” P.O.S. says. “They show us love
and we show them love back.”

That
spirit of loyal camaraderie parallels Doomtree’s internal workings. P.O.S.’s
band mates don’t begrudge his success. In fact, all ten of them—Sims, Cecil
Otter, Dessa, Lazerbeak, MK Larada, Mike Mictlan, Turbo Nemesis, Emily
Bloodmobile, Paper Tiger, Tom Servo—encourage it.

 

“We’re really
good friends, really loyal to each other. We don’t get jealous. We realize the
bigger picture—this is Doomtree, this is our company and the reason why we’re
so picky about business is because this is us,” emcee/producer Sims says. “It’s
in everyone’s best interest.”

 

“Picky” isn’t
the first word that comes to mind when you watch the group joke around like
siblings on their first road trip without mom and dad. Whether shooting the
shit or getting merch in order, Doomtree seem perfectly content to operate on
cruise control. Behind the scenes is another story. When it comes to serious
business proposals, Doomtree sort through fine print with a razor blade. Now an
official LLC—“our liability is limited,”
emcee Dessa says proudly—the group started their business plan from scratch and
in the dark, knowing only that they wanted to remain independent at all costs.

 

“Nobody is
willing to make compromises on their aesthetic decisions, so that’s just out
irrespective of financial goals,” Dessa says. Besides, “None of us harbor huge
aspirations toward shiny cars and big houses, I think all of us would like a
living wage… ”

 

“Speak for
yourself. Living wage is just not going to cut it. I’m tired of being broke,”
Sims interrupts, though after some cajoling from the crew he admits no amount
of bling could ever persuade him to sell out. “We passed up on money from a
couple of companies because we wanted to play our music—and we wanted to own
it, all the Internet sales, everything,” he adds.

 

In the
couple of years leading up to the record, Doomtree focused on booking shows and
getting their internal business plan in order as a complete democracy. “There
is no hierarchal order to Doomtree,” says Dessa. “We’re a diehard committee. I
think that’s our strength, but it taps all of our resources. It’s a challenge
to be as agile as you’ve got to be.”

 

That means
figuring out how to highlight individual voices while showcasing the group’s
chemistry. It also means weighing the pros and cons of a proposed contract with
each and every member, and if one person says, “Nah,” the deal is off. Period.

 

“That’s
one of the things that keeps our boat floating a little bit slower than
everybody else’s,” says P.O.S. “It’s very important to us that we’re all
feeling it before we jump into something.”

It helps
that Doomtree long ago agreed to bet the farm on DIY ethos. While shopping
around for potential labels and distributors, the group discovered that while they
might not get the best immediate numbers on their own, they’d feel good about
the work and would learn enough to chart the course indefinitely—or until the
right deal comes along.

 

“You don’t
automatically say no to anything. You take a look and you think smart, you
think longevity more than what can we pop off right this second,” says P.O.S.

 

To that
end, Doomtree took their time with the album. Well, they weren’t entirely
responsible for the slow and steady pace. With engineer Joe Mabbett at the
helm, progress hinged on whatever additional jobs he agreed to in advance. The
crew laid down tracks at Mabbett’s Hideaway Studio for a week here, a month
there. Toward the end they dropped in whenever a slot opened up. They also
recorded portions of the album in the Doomtree house—a modest mansion “built of
paper,” whose tight quarters put the all-for-one theory to the ultimate test.
In a house where a sneeze in the attic can trigger “bless you” from the
basement, it’s not a bad idea to forgo certain basic needs. “Nobody did ‘it,’
ever,” jokes P.O.S.

 

They
recorded several songs in the butler’s pantry; “Jaded” in a closet; “Last Call”
in Dessa’s kitchen. The cut-and-paste approach mirrored much of the group’s
writing and production techniques. The beats come first—original compositions
reflecting each producer’s vision and methodology. Lazerbeak (who also plays in
The Plastic Constellations) is arguably the most prolific of the five. “He came
with 25 beats to start,” says Sims. “And by the end of it he had turned in over
50 beats for the crew album. He’s definitely one of the most prolific and
gifted producers I’ve ever had a chance to work with, or see.”

 

Cecil
Otter digs voraciously through crates, coffee mug in hand. Judging by his
hard-knockin’, smooth-talkin’ delivery, he doesn’t take cream or sugar. (Then
again, Otter sometimes describes his material as “emo shit,” so who knows?) He puts
the needle on the record and, if he likes what he hears, he’ll build on it. A
little guitar, some drums. P.O.S doesn’t attack the crates so much as caress
them, carefully adding to his existing pool of songs and mashing them through
the ringer.

 

“It’s a
lot less sampling from the records and a lot more me playing stuff and then
making it try to sound like a sample,” he says. Basically, after years of
buying beats and then watching beat and gear prices balloon, Doomtree developed
a sound that’s “very unique to us and unique to individuals in our crew as
well. Cecil makes beats that sound like Cecil beats. I make beats that sound like
P.O.S. beats.” Most importantly, they make beats that sound like no one else’s.
“The idea of rapping over others’ beats, for the most part—unless it’s like a
straight banger—it’s not as appealing as showcasing your own stuff,” P.O.S.
says.

 

And there’s
quite a bit to show off. Doomtree reads
like a “Dear Diary” wake-up call: Lust, love, lies, and redemption dissected in
reverse. Mistakes were made. Here’s a rag—clean it up.

Each emcee
hits the ground running, down but not out; each song implying things might look
up if you can only get your shit together.

 

Welcome to the future!/ Rap won’t save
you/Did you hear that?/Rap won’t save you.”

 

Doomtree
assume the role of drill sergeant one minute, wise barstool sage the next. Most
of their tough love scenarios involve bottles and battles with fallen angels,
“baptized in bourbon/capsized for certain.”

 

It’s not
all dead-ends and sob stories. Most of tracks soar with a sense of urgency and
fierce determination to right past wrongs. “It’s like we don’t even talk no
more/ never seem to really anyway/ just repeated single serving and
erections/best wishes on your way/can you see how we speak right through each
other?” P.O.S. sings on his shit-happens lament, “Liver Let Die.”

 

Though
common themes thread through Doomtree’s lyrical content, each emcee and
producer brings a unique and distinct sound to the album. They make it seem
easy, even if it wasn’t.

“I think
that was one of the challenges for us as solo emcees,” says Dessa. “The styles
are so disparate that it took a lot of dedicated effort to make something that
was cohesive but still really showcased a huge range.”

 

It helps
that Doomtree grew up in a community that encourages cross-genre pollination,
so to speak. Unlike the majority of music scenes across the country,
Minneapolis seems more or less immune to divisive cliques. Death metal bands
play with folk artists, for example.

 

And it’s
not just the musicians, but the listeners as well. “It’s not just ‘I’m a hip-hop
head’ or ‘I’m an indie rocker’,” Dessa says. “They’re really willing to listen
to all types of stuff and go to shows that have really mixed bills.”

 

“I think
that’s one of the bigger reasons we’ve had so many shows,” Cecil Otter says.
When he and P.O.S. were first starting out, they would play anywhere, with
anyone. That flexibility continues to give Doomtree a consistent leg-up on
today’s word-of-mouth music world. P.O.S. recently toured with Underoath, and
while much of the audience was understandably confused, by the end of each gig
he converted at least a few hard rock fans to his signature sound.

 

“I went to
see Atmosphere and Dillinger Four once in Chicago and people were brawling. It
was a total mess,” P.O.S. says. “If that same show happened in Minneapolis it
would be a straight party. I feel like nowadays more and more it gets easier to
do that and have it be okay, but it’s nothing like Minneapolis.”

 

With the
new crew album—plus releases by Cecil Otter (Aug. 27) and Dessa, Mike Mictlan
and Lazerbeak out later this year—Doomtree just might convince the rest of us
to bounce outside the box.

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