wears the trousers magazine

interrupting yr broadcast: dessa

If you didn’t catch Dessa’s song ‘Dixon’s Girl’ in our December batch of Free Music Friday giveaways, you are strongly urged to get on the case. Even better, though, would be hunting down a copy of her recently released debut album, A Badly Broken Code [review], which came out in January on independent hip hop label Rhymesayers. It’s a layered, searingly honest debut filled with the kind of poetic wordplay you’d expect to find in works of literature, which is really no surprise since Dessa is both a published author and slam poetry victor. She’s currently on tour in the US with fellow Doomtree crew member P.O.S., but spoke with us in between shows about everything from gender dynamics in hip hop and the growing pains that come with earning touring spurs, to her recent fascination with Brits winner Florence Welch and a desire to perform over here in the UK; an offer we simply shouldn’t refuse.

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Where did your stage name come from?

I used to sing karaoke in a dive bar when I was a teenager. I sang under the name Dessa then, having pulled it from a book.

What inspired your move from spoken word poetry to music?

My primary interest in college was prose, specifically creative non-fiction. One lousy Valentine’s Day, my roommate took me to a poetry slam where spoken word poets competed against one another on stage. She encouraged me to enter the next competition. I did, and I won. Unbeknownst to me, the winner of that evening’s event was automatically added to the Minnesota Slam Team, and committed to a year of competition. So for a year I performed and met many poets who were also involved in hip hop, such as Sage Francis. I joined my first rap group, called Medida, after one such poet invited me to collaborate with him.

Can you tell us a little about the transition between these arts and how you have had to adapt your work into these new forms?

I’ve had to learn to be louder as a rapper, to be heard over beats. Through prose a writer can very thoroughly explore her subject matter, which can be difficult in the span of a three-minute song. Rap and spoken word reward careful timing — punchlines, clever wordplay and carefully paced revelations are highly prized. I’ve enjoyed working on both fields because when I get a new idea, I can decide which format would best communicate it. Involved ideas often seem best relayed in prose, ideas that involve surrealistic imagery often winds up in my rap songs, and contained narratives become poems.

What’s the story behind the title (and, by extension, the artwork) of A Badly Broken Code?

Billy Collins, a former US poet laureate, wrote a poem that included the phrase ‘a badly broken code’. I loved that line when I first heard it, and I still love it. Extracted from its context, the line speaks to me about humanity’s drive to figure itself out. We break the genome, we train telescopes on the edges of space, we examine our dead to see how they’re put together…and we still don’t quite satisfy our curiosity. We get information…but we don’t seem to reach understanding. Feels like breaking a code and feeling just as confused as you were before.

It seems unflinchingly introspective. What compels you to share yourself so honestly?

Being frank has always been important to me — but I don’t think I realised how candid the album was until people started telling me, “Hey, your album is super candid”. I guess I’ve never liked the idea that people are asked to present their best selves in public, and keep their sadness to themselves. That kind of expectation creates a losing prospect for everyone — the public lives of our neighbours and our co-workers seem to be in order, while our own lives are run through with flaws and mistakes. My mom, over dinner, once said, “I really have to get my shit together”. This is notable because my mom never swears and because her shit seems really put together. I thought, Wait, we all feel like that? Now that’s just ridiculous.

Was there any running theme or concept that you drew on for this album?

This isn’t a concept album, but there are some definite themes that run throughout. I didn’t sit down and brainstorm themes…but I think most people’s lives have some predominant threads that surface.

You’ve been quoted as saying you want to be someone’s favourite MC rather then their favourite female MC. The desire to be judged purely on skills is understandable, but doesn’t denying your minority perspective as a woman in hip hop somewhat negate the power of you as an artist in all your aspects?

When we segregate rappers into two groups, male and female, I think it can imply that we’re working with different weight classes. It implies that we need to segregate rappers for the same reason that we need to segregate sprinters — because the men might have some inherent advantage. Moreover, I’m more interested in being a received as an individual than I am in serving as a representative of a female demographic. Making good art sometimes means taking risks — risks that could alienate people. As an artist, I think I’m likely to create better work if I’m only accountable to the art, not to people that I’m trying to represent.

You’ve touched on sexism in the hip hop industry on the album. Would you ever name and shame well-known figures you felt had treated you disparagingly due to your gender?

The hard part about sexism in the industry, and maybe everywhere, is how insidious it can be. It can be hard to tell why certain opportunities don’t materialise — maybe it’s because of a gender bias, or maybe it’s an honest aesthetic preference on the part of the deciding parties. It is clear, however, that an inordinate amount of sexual attention and pressure is a part of this job. And the biggest shame isn’t having to rebuff the sexual advances…it’s the self-doubt that becomes part of a female artist’s daily life. You learn to second guess every potential collaborator, every agent, every reporter…because it may be that he’s interested in your art only as a vehicle to sleep with you. And that doesn’t make you feel indignant. That makes you feel sad.

There’s been an amount of debate on the internet about whether your music belongs under the ‘hip hop’ label. Do you classify your music as being part of this genre, or any, and if so, which aspects of that particular genre do you feel your music fulfils?

I think I understand why there’s a lot of talk about the genre classification. There are fifteen songs on the album; some of those songs are rap bangers, some are ballads, some are a cappella arrangements. That makes the whole project hard to classify — even if the songs aren’t. Some people advised me not to release a disc with such a mix of content, because it asks a lot of an audience. In the end, I worried less about the genre of the songs on this disc and worried about the quality. They’re fifteen of the best songs I knew how to make.

You’ve been published, and I’d guess from the content of A Badly Broken Code that you’re a pretty big reader. Which titles and authors have made an impact on you, as an individual and an artist?

David Foster Wallace and Annie Dillard seem to be some of the most intelligent, lyric minds that lived during my time on the planet. I’m sure there are others of their calibre, but I haven’t discovered them yet.

How’s the tour going? Are you at home, so to speak, with life on the road?

Most of my past tours were routed along the west coast of the US, a run that takes about three weeks. This tour with P.O.S. – called the Every Never is Now Tour – is the longest run I’ve ever been on. It’ll take us 48 days to hit 39 cities. So far, so good. My knees hurt, my liver hurts, but I’m learning to sing my own material more fluently, and I’m meeting new people who are willing to listen to give me a chance. Don’t want to jinx it, but I think this tour will help me try and build a base in the same organic way that P.O.S has.

Do you have any dream touring partners and studio collaborators?

I’d love to work with the French singer Pauline Croze. I recently purchased the Lungs album from Florence + The Machine. I’ve been daydreaming about a tour with them — the singer does some pretty amazing layered vocals, which I also really like doing.

The relationship between artists and performing is diverse; some live for the stage while others prefer writing and recording. Do you have a preference for one aspect over the other?

At home in Minneapolis, I often perform with a live ensemble — clarinet, violin, stand-up, bass and guitar. It’s a format that allows for real nuance. I like working where I can use a pause to dramatic effect, or where a raised eyebrow can elicit a response from the crowd. But both writing and performing feel like work to me. I’m very often frustrated and dissatisfied. But the moments when I get something right — when I finish an essay that I know is good — are some of the best moments in my life so far.

Have you mapped out 2010 yet, and if so, what are your plans?

2010 gets a little blurry for me after March 22. Doomtree will be playing Paid Dues this year, and we’re excited to be apart of it. But after that, I’m not sure exactly what I’ll be doing when I get home. I know it’s important to continue writing material, so I’ll probably start preparing a new project. But if there’s a promoter in the UK looking to give an academic, snarky, American rapper a shot…she’ll clear her calendar.

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Charlotte Richardson Andrews

Top photo by Aaron Wojnak; centre photo by Kai Benson.


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Dessa is freaking awesome.

Her album is definitely going to be up there for record of the year too, a perfect example of how to lay out a hip hop record, expansive as it is.

Wings and teeeeeef!

Comment by London-Ass Sam

Nice interview. I need to check this lady out.

Comment by Rob B

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