In a lot of ways, 2015 will go down in the history books as an age of excitement in the promise of endless opportunities. With new technologies emerging from our imaginations and manifesting in what seems to be instantly into the comforts of our palms as well as the symbolic social progressions in the forms of the renouncement of the confederate flag soaring above government buildings and granting equal rights to LGBTQ community. Yet for many, this era of enlightenment is overshadowed by the staggering issues of race and its role in social inequalities that get swept under the comforting rug of the ‘Minnesota Nice.’ With hundreds of lives being claimed in the sanctified hands of law enforcement officers and people trying to get by with the ever widening divide in between classes, it doesn’t take much to feel overwhelmed by it all. Perhaps that’s why Jesse Jackson’s haunting speech at the Watts Stacks is so resounding today on the legendary I Self Devine’s solo debut, Self Destruction as it celebrates its 10th Anniversary.
As far as resumes go, I Self Devine’s has been chiseled into the foundation of the Twin Cities Hip Hop culture as far back 1989 when he first moved out to Minneapolis from Watts, California. With him, he is credited with bringing the west coast style of graffiting to the alleyways and vacant walls across the metro. From there, he traded aerosol cans for a mic in his hand a rose to prominence as part of one of the most prolific crews in underground rap, The Micranots. Along with that, he helped establish Rhymesayers Entertainment into the independent empire that defied all common perception of the Midwest, let alone the Minneapolis. But much like Rakim and Pharoahe Monch, after releasing classic after classic, it took him over a decade to release his first solo album. Of course, the transition between the two dynamics came with its own challenges.
“When Self Destruction was originally created,” said I Self Devine, “the role and the goal was to have Ant produce the whole album. Initially, as you can imagine from coming from a group to going solo, there was going to be a transition. It wasn’t the goal, but we recorded about 70 songs for Self Destruction and selected the best of those songs. But we still felt that we needed something, so that’s why brought in other producers. So everything was created outside of the studio in a smaller studio where we demoed the stuff, so everything that you hear has two different versions.”
As the concepts and ideas began to take shape, it gave raise to then up incoming producers such as Medium Zach of Big Quarters, Benzilla and the Seattle upstart, Jake One. After this lengthy process of demoing songs and fleshing out those ideas eventually lead to the modern day classic being released on a sweltering Tuesday, August 2nd, 2005. With topics ranging from tribulations of single mothers (Feel My Pain), the oversexualized culture (Sex Sex Sex), and living paycheck to paycheck (Live In The Moment) to a genuine love story (Love Song); one highlight came in the form of “Sunshine’s” brazen hidden track that proved to be ahead of its time.
“The one around the “N-word.” It’s kind of a hidden track. There’s certain traditions that I carry on and listening until the tape ran out and sometimes hear a hidden song. So for those that would hear listened until the tape ran out, they have an ear and listening to be being more intent. I come from an era where everything isn’t hand delivered so the pieces of the puzzle were missing and you had to do your own research. So for me and my era, that’s some different things that keep going throughout my music. I’m proud of that one and I think it predated Nas’ album (Untitled) by 5 years or so…If you want to change the flag, it is important because it is symbolic. If it stands alone, it is novelty because it does not change behavior. You can change the “N-word” to a different word, but it’s not changing the conditions that emerge from the word. Part of the reasons why people of color love using the “N-word” is because everything that we have created has been appropriated whether it be wearing dreads, creating rock n’ roll and jazz. The “N-word” is the last thing that we get to have that allowed us to take something that was not designed for us in a positive way, but re-imagine it and repackage it in a way that is indicative of our history as Africans in America. To continually take what is not constructed, especially in the Hip Hop fashion, like polo and soccer, and bring an urbanized element to it.”
Now as fans begin to dig up this treasure from a decade ago, many are finding the timeless effects that continue to hold true beyond the era that brought us “Laffy Taffy” and Souljah Boy. While news outlets claimed to finally extinguish flames of hate and oppression, the pervasive issues of race played a large role in the overall inspiration of the album’s central theme of Self Destruction and its unfortunate longstanding relevance.
“First and foremost, the issue of racism and our inability to talk about it as a nation is what is baffling. To talk about it explicitly and being able to detach yourself from the privilege that you have been afforded without having to work. Bear in mind, I do recognize that there are European Americans that have fallen below the wealth category and that’s where class plays a role. I think that racism is an illusion and social construction, but what we’re trying to address is the impacts of that said class system in America and really look at how this system was founded. You understand that it was never designed for an African American to thrive and you can look at how the constitution was built. I think right now, we’re at a real pivotal moment where race is at the forefront and because of that, technology such as handheld phones are kind of democratizing information and kind of oversteps the media where the media was the gatekeepers. Now we just have folks that are able to report on what is happening right now and gain support. There are always peaks, but inside of peaks there needs to be a momentum to be maintained, to understand how race works, how it is not good, even for middle class European Americans and how it benefits that 1% or planet elite on terms of how you want to think about labeling. So it is up to us to be able to find people to really wrestle with this through music, culture and setting the tone and fertilizing the ground for other conversations that have to deal with policy, which is understanding policy on how laws and regulations affect us. To really understand that, I think locally is where we have the most power and to me right now, I think this generation right here in terms of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and GLBTQ are the generation to cash the check the past few generations have put together.”
As the dust is swept away from the jewel cased cover art, the question of posterity is one that is constantly posed by the critics and plagued by the its worst critic, it’s creator. Yet as Hip Hop has stylistically progressed into a more ambient, trap influenced prevalence, I Self Devine’s call to action has not lost the fiery passion of Chuck D and Brand Nubian nor stagnated into faded glory of many out of season veterans.
“In general, I think that the album has aged well. Sometimes when you do something real era heavy and depending on how you angle it, you can create something with a very short shelf life…When you understand the nature of how capitalism works, you understand that everything in some point in time is going to be investigated, researched, repackaged and co-opted it. That’s what I think is so different from the era of the Chuck Ds, even though their still out here and making an impact but not at the height that they were in the early stages of Hip Hop. To me, the music that is heard is not reflective of what is going on on the ground. It’s not that the music isn’t reflecting the ground like the era of the Chuck Ds is not being made; it’s just that it’s not being fed to the people through the same channels. This is why the internet is so important because it is the way of leveling the playing field and bypass the middle person in the media .With the evolution of pro-tools replacing the analog and subsequently shutting down a few big studios, it put the power in the hands of the people but it also put it in the hands of those that shouldn’t be in the music business. So it’s just an ebb and flow.”
Along with the 10th Anniversary of Self Destruction, 2015 also marks the 20th Anniversary of Rhymesayers Entertainment. After watching the fledgling Headshots crew grow into the independent powerhouse that has won the respect and admiration from some of the culture’s greatest entities, I Self Devine’s contributions are not to be overlooked as being a founding member of seminal collective, The Dynospectrum as well as being the front man for the DJ Abilities collaborative project, Semi.Official.
“Looking back, it’s a great accomplishment. Some of the choices that we made were not made to say that we are the black sheep, but out of necessity because it wasn’t all about the money. So in certain situations where there was a lot of money upfront, we were able to look at the impacts of that money and the control that they wanted to have. The key characteristic and value of the organization is recognizing the value in the supporters. They say that they’re fans, short for fanatics, but I see them as supporters. They are the ones that keep the lights on and it’s important to cater to them and make sure that they feel like they’re the only one in the concert hall. You know staying after to sign every autograph and talking to every supporter, these are the small things and it’s never about the big things. Another thing is touring in second and third tear cities that may not get hit or get any attention like that. So those are the things you do to build an empire. It doesn’t stay the same, it keeps changing.”
As the Twin Cities scene continues to grow and flourish with the rise of many talented artists, I Self Devine is seeing the rewards of joining up with the Headshots crew. With Soundset becoming one of the most exciting summer festivals around and the inclusion of fellow independent royalty such as Aesop Rock and Dilated Peoples, I Self Devine still remembers first linking up with Rhymesayers before the glimmer of the crown was in sight.
“First and foremost, the city is small so everybody knows everybody. By joining, we knew that we were all co-creating a scene. A lot of the shows we were able to perform on as the Micranots were promoted and developed by Siddiq and a handful of others, so we were always connected and working together. It wasn’t in this container and packaged as Rhymesayers. We as the Micranots left at the time because we thought that we hit what we perceived to be the glass ceiling. We always saw Minneapolis as a hotbed of talent; we just didn’t see people supporting the infrastructure. So we moved to Atlanta and did a lot ground work for that scene as well. I came back to record Dynospectrum, the scene had changed a lot and Headshots stepped up to fill the void. They took the lessons that we did well and accentuated on it as well as took the lessons that we didn’t do well and did it better. I’m always a strategist and I saw the momentum and I want to be a part of what’s going on around here. And that’s what it was.”
Now as the Twin Cities hotbed of talent continues to grow and flourish in what I Self Devine describes as “the peak of the mountain,” the idea of climbing down into obscurity does not seem to be an option for the legendary MC. Along with working with young adults on creating murals and working as The Director of Organizing and Community Building, he has revealed that he is reuniting with DJ Kool Akiem to create a new Micranots album.
“We are about 12-15 songs deep. No release date, we are just working on it until it’s ready. We’re not rushing it, but we are rushing with a sense of urgency. If you ask me, I think it’s the best Micranots album that we have done up to this point and as far as me as a musician and soloist, it’s some of my best written material in terms of topics, presentation and musicality. We are still in the demo phase and haven’t even brought in the instruments yet, but we will probably start with an EP just to wet people’s appetites.”
While longtime fans drool in anticipation for its impending release, they can satisfy their desire at the 7th St Entry on Saturday, August 1st to help celebrate the official Self Destruction Release Show with help from Muja Messiah, Sarah White, The Lioness, DJ Todda, DJ Just-Nine & Miss Brit as I Self Devine will revive the classics for one night only before falling back into the studio. As calendars flip to August and 2015 rounds into its uncertain conclusion, there is a prevalent sigh of despair. Prefaced by the names and faces of protesters and activists, memorialized on timelines and street corners in the wake of senseless tragedies and unjust incarcerations; sometimes it takes a legendary Rhymesayer to remind us of the powerful words of Jesse Jackson as we say, “I Am Somebody.”