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[courtesy] Dessa Interview
Author: Adam Bernard

When Dessa released A Badly Broken Code last year it broke at least one thing in a very good way - the mold. From the emceeing, to the singing, to the poetic aspects of the album, A Badly Broken Code pushed boundaries and showed everything hip-hop can be when it's done right (which is why this writer made it his number one album of the year). This week Doomtree's leading lady is back with Castor, The Twin. Castor, The Twin is a new album that isn't new. Confused? That's OK. What Dessa has done with Castor, The Twin is re-imagine her work with a trio of talented musicians - bassist Sean McPherson (of Heiruspecs), drummer/vibraphonist Joui Van Phillips, and guitarist/pianist Dustin Kiel. The result is an entirely new sound and feel to Dessa's work.

RapReviews caught up with Dessa to find out what inspired her to put Castor, The Twin together, how her original producers felt about it when she brought up the idea, and why she may not be as thrilled as one might expect if a review says the album is better than sliced bread.

Adam Bernard: The new album is Castor, The Twin. I've heard this before, but I haven't heard this before. What was the thought process behind creating new music for your songs?

Dessa: To take A Badly Broken Code on the road I ended pairing with a trio of really really talented bad-ass players. After we'd been on the road for our first headlining run of the West coast so many of the arrangements had changed, in part to best suit the new format, and in part because the new players had some musical ideas and some dynamic ideas that we could execute when we weren't working with a DJ rig. You can play really pin drop intimate moments, you can play huge smashing moments, and being able to vacillate between those two quickly, and to read a crowd and to make it much more of a flexible, attentive, set, was a real joy for me. This whole new world of musicality opened up. You can do these key changes and time signature changes that as a rapper who's playing to an mp3, you can't do. Half the set, maybe, involved the previously recorded versions of those songs, and as we continued on our tour more and more listeners would come up and say hey "man, I love that version of 'Kites,'" or "I love that version of '551,' how can I get that one?" Until now my answer's been, "uhhh, you can't." So in part it was prompted by fans asking for it.

AB: Do you consider this a new album?

D: That's a good question. It's a new recording project. The last thing I want to do is confuse anybody who's looking for new music. I'm not interested in a bait and switch and I'm not interested in trying to wring another buck out of somebody who has the version of a tune that they like, but I am interested, as a musician, in capturing new arrangements that seem like they might actually provide a fresh and worthwhile take on a familiar tune. For anybody who's confused by the project I suggest logging on to iTunes and listening to it for 30 seconds and if you don't dig it, no sweat, I got (a new) one coming out in early 2012, but some of these arrangements, for me, as a fan of the trio with which I worked, were a real joy, and a real joy to record. It felt like something different, it felt like something new. There was an elegance, and a grace, and kind of a melancholy that the live instrumentation lent those songs that even for me, who's played them hundreds of times, it really reinvented them and it really made them fresh in a new and different way, so I dug it.

AB: How did the original producers react when you announced this project?

D: {*laughs*} I am so fucking lucky to work with the Doomtree producers who are willing to take risks and who are willing to give me a little leeway. That's a lot to ask for a producer. I think it took hearing the live band. I think there's probably some skepticism that's appropriate in hip-hop when you decide to do stuff with a live band because when live hip-hop sucks is really fucking sucks. It gets cheesy, it gets neutered, it can get kind of white bred funky. A lot of bad things can happen to hip-hop when you try to simply translate it into a live setting. Part of the magic of hip-hop is that you have this real sonic variety, so even in one track you might have a snare that's from 1968, a borrowed operatic melisma that's from a classical record, and then you might have a gritty guitar line from some forgotten Spanish rock band.

D: Part of the interesting textures of hip-hop are created by these really disparate sounds and when you're playing in a live band you have some ability to make different sounds, but the snare that you got is the snare that you got, for the most part. The way that we decided to handle it with the live project is not just simply try to translate hip-hop arrangements with a live band, because I think that's what makes live hip-hop music weakest, but to try to re-treat this material so it can be best portrayed in that format. Like I said before, that meant making musical variability instead of sonic variability, so you have moments in a song where it's modulating, and you have moments in a song where you have two extra quarter notes, and you have moments in a song that take unexpected and dramatic dynamic turns, and that's how the material was best presented, to re-approach it completely and say "how would this song be best served now that we do have a string section at our disposal, now that we do have a timpani and an orchestral bass drum and a vibraphonist, what would be the elegant way to represent these songs?"

AB: When we spoke in early 2010 you described A Badly Broken Code as an album that's "a bitch of a record to try to put on a planogram." Most record stores have gone the way of the dodo bird, and planograms are now few and far between. Obviously there are a litany of negatives that go with this, but do you think it's also created an opportunity for artists to go off the planogram, musically?

D: Yeah, that's a good question. I think the honest answer is I wasn't enough a part of the music industry to know how its collapse affects it. I've always been an underdog, an outsider, an indie kid lost somewhere in the prairie trying to figure out a way to make, distribute, promote and tour my music. When we received the news that these distant monoliths have finally succumbed to market forces I took note of it because I understand it to be culturally important, because I understand that it affects the business that I'm in, but it doesn't actually affect my camp as much as it probably affects anybody who has some serious stake in that businesses. When Doomtree started we burned CD-Rs in our mothers' computers for our first shows and we cut out the album art that we photocopied at Kinkos to slip into slimlines that we bought at Walgreens.

D: So when Sony comes to its knees it doesn't affect my mom's computer, Walgreens, or Kinkos, you know what I mean? We've been off the grid for so long that now we've just got more company. That said, when I put out A Badly Broken Code I was listening to people that had been in the industry. I was afraid to dismiss their advice because it seemed like they knew better, and they may well know better about a lot of things, but I have made a conscious decision as an artist that I'm not gonna worry about what retail wants, I'm gonna worry about what music listeners want and I'm gonna worry about how to make good music because, to be honest, that shit is hard enough. {*laughs*} It is fantastically difficult to write a good song, at least it is for me, so I'm not really interested in accepting a larger goal than that. That one seems plenty lofty.

AB: I've been speaking with quite a few female hip-hop artists and it seems to be a really good time to be a woman in hip-hop. Why do you think that is? Is it something cyclical, or is there a deeper reason behind the sudden interest in women in hip-hop?

D: That's a great question. I don't know. I think you know more female emcees than I do. I hear about it on Twitter. I have the phone number of two female rappers in my phone and it's been the same two for three or four years. From the vantage point of a practitioner in the Midwest it's not yet affected me, but maybe in another six months I'll feel that new wave of talent in an immediate way.

AB: Whenever people are asked to list the greatest emcees of all-time it's always a long list of men. Has a female emcee not reached that status yet, or is the boy's club mentality tough to break?

D: You know, I think that there are a couple of females that if somebody's listing their top hundred, or top fifty emcees, and you were to interrupt them with names like Lauryn Hill they'd go "oh yeah, for sure, but she's kind of a singer, though, man." I think a lot of times what happens is that women who rap and sing don't immediately come to mind when cats are doing their best-of emcee lists, but I think a lot of cats would have a hard time brushing off a talent like Lauryn Hill, or Missy, or Salt-N-Pepa. I think they're out there. I think they might not be the first to come to mind, and I think you can also find heads who list MC Lyte and Rah Digga and Lady of Rage right away, but on the real, they're just far far far fewer of us.

D: I don't know if that's because there's a huge cultural inhibition to the inclusion of women, if there is I haven't found it, I've lucked out and worked with some really good dudes. I've definitely encountered some sexism, but I've also encountered a lot of "hey man, what are you doin?" A lot of initial interest was sparked by the fact that I'm different. I look different when I take the stage. People don't come twice for novelty, but novelty turns most of our heads, so there's also a benefit in that way. People will shush their conversational partner for moment in a crowd and be like "hold up, is she rapping?" And then they'll like it and they'll buy my CD, or they won't and then they'll continue their conversation, but so much of an artists' career objective is to just get a fuckin chance. Can you just listen to me for a second? Any bit of interest that someone is willing to lend me I welcome as long as they'll then judge me on my merit.

AB: Switching gears a bit, you mentioned Twitter earlier, and you are a very interesting person to follow on Twitter. What's your beef with sliced bread?

D: I can't believe the enormity of the push back (from that tweet). I think sliced bread is a convenience. I really enjoy it. I ate a sandwich this morning and I made it with sliced bread, but when we talk about our favorite new inventions and then immediately our first historical reference point is the invention of sliced bread, I cannot abide, man. Thomas Edison, that's a dude who made an invention that really changed our lives. Whoever the fuck made sliced bread, I commend you, but I cannot exalt you, my friend.

AB: And we don't know their name.

D: Yeah, exactly. If it was a really important invention we would. {laughs}

AB: I also read about the guy you eviscerated for hitting on you inappropriately in a grocery store parking lot. Since, clearly, when you're picking up lunchmeat and unsliced bread is not the time to holler, how would you prefer a guy to approach you? Take this opportunity to fix that man's game.

D: {*laughs*} I think anytime you're making explicit comments about a woman's body and you don't know her first name, an easy rule of thumb has been broken. That's very likely to totally ax your chances of scoring with said woman. I think a confident, even a cocky approach would fly most of the time for me, but you can't go to the x-rated stuff off the bat.

AB: And don't say that you're better than sliced bread because it will be very unimpressive to you.

D: I will fuck you up!

Check out Dessa on the web at and follow Adam on Twitter @AdamsWorldBlog.

Originally posted: October 4th, 2011

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