What seems like a lifetime ago, I was longboarding the streets of my hometown with a group of people I barely knew, and I first heard of this month’s spotlight artist: Dessa, a 30-something, female, Minnesotan rapper amidst a largely male-based genre.
I was taken with her rhymes, the sound of her voice, and the sheer fact that she held her own as a woman in the industry. Once a philosophy student at the University of Minnesota, she fell hard into the art of prose and has since made it big as an internationally touring rapper, writer, and president of the Doomtree record label. While Dessa doesn’t consider herself much of a collaborative artist, her most recent album was produced with the help of her Doomtree family, and it has me wracked with excitement.
Born in Minneapolis as Margaret Wander in 1981, she had dreams of becoming a creative non-fiction writer. It was only at a poetry slam that she met the members of Doomtree and in a slow progression of events, she began devising lyrics for the group’s various projects. Fortunately for us, her deep love of the written word has propelled her through the last decade to becoming the person she is now.
Fun Fact: Dessa is a Latin word meaning “wandering”, and seems to be a subtle play on her last name, which I find both profoundly clever and jubilantly hilarious.
After holing up in my office to actively engage in the album, then taking in the Current’s video “The Making of Chime,” I found myself in substantially greater appreciation for this Minnesotan artist. Chime as a whole has no real through-line or topic, but my takeaway is that it revolves around being a human, female person, just putting her heart and soul into the music. In the interview, Dessa makes a comment about life and how we aren’t compartmentalized into single themes at any given time, so why should the album be?
Chime reflects that, and although she wants to start a conversation with her songs, she still strives for them to feel native and genuine. The track Velodrome touches on free will, with musings on our behaviors and feelings — whether they are chosen by us or if that’s just how it is. Fire Drills dropped during a time that the #MeToo movement was all over media, but the song was being written long before current events shifted the politics around sexual assault. She stated that she didn’t intend it to swing that way, but the timing suggested she merge with that flow. The synchronicities with all that’s going on gives her a quote-ability , as one line rings, “We don’t say go out and be brave, Nah, we say be careful and stay safe.”
In an interview with HipHopDX, she revealed a moment when she asked herself why no one used altos as the main vocals, and decided to tweak the instrumentals to make way for her voice. Modern technology gives individuals access to every sound imaginable. The number of people making music from their computer has immensely grown, but Dessa maintains an air of originality, as she plays with gritty, then pop-y, then operatic. Where she once followed unspoken guidelines, her evolution demanded that she break the mold in order to develop herself. Her resulting style is pleasantly eclectic, with subtle hints of traditional stringed instruments, stacked onto strong electronic beats, sound samples from her travels around the world and so on.
What I really like about Chime is that Dessa doesn’t allow her rap to be put in a box with a label. As my own mother put it, “It would be an injustice to pigeon-hole her solely as a rap artist.”
Dessa’s entire career has been an exploration of the range to which she’s willing to reach, and that reach continues to expand, not only in vocals but in feel. She is exercising her access to a world of sound by dabbling in a little of everything, and the results remain authentic to her aspirations. I look forward avidly to what she’ll release next, but for now, Chime offers a little something for everyone.
By Rian Dicke-Michels