Emcee | Writer

From its first track, Dessa’s new full-length Parts of Speech (6.25.13, Doomtree Records) announces itself as something different. The Doomtree veteran and inveterate wordsmith — having proved her mettle in the fields of creative non-fiction, spoken-word and hip-hop — jettisons all genre expectations on “The Man I Knew” and croons a heartbreaking lament to a disintegrating relationship at an explosively-building clip.

From this moment on Dessa — oft–described as “Mos Def plus Dorothy Parker” for the wit and flow shown off on previous solo albums A Badly Broken Code and Castor, The Twin — proves she has truly coalesced as an artist, transcending the restrictions of genre to reveal an astonishing multi-platform voice.

“I wanted to investigate the idea that a cohesive record isn’t always made cohesive by having twelve songs that sound the same. I figured when you make a mixtape for a friend, you can get away with a range of genres and a lot of dynamic change. Why can’t I approach an album like that? The sequence has to be just right, and we worked hard to nail it, but the thing that holds this record together is the sensibility of the lyrics, rather than a uniform theme.”

Track two kicks off a stunning hat-trick of the record’s standout numbers. “Call Off Your Ghost” is an admittedly haunting dirge on the “struggle for grace in the wake of a long relationship.” An arena-sized chorus tucked into a melancholy lullaby, “Ghost” has that unique ability to perfectly soundtrack new love or bitter breakup at the same time.

Dessa then puts her fists up for “Warsaw.” The track boasts a beat like Azealia Banks playing Pacman, which provides a background for our emcee’s confident, hypnotic flow. Narrative takes a backseat to mood here, as Dessa spits impressionistic one-ups like “I sleep with both eyes open, standing up,” daring you to blink first.

“Skeleton Key” contains Parts of Speech’s mission statement: “I haven’t met a locked door yet.” An ode to female self-reliance that doesn’t waste ambiance for message, the track plays like a great, lost M. Night Shyamalan movie, calling forth an era out of time in the story of a woman, a key and a bottomless reserve of courage.

“This record involves multiple narratives. It explores the same themes of love, loss, connection and communion as a lot of my work, but the angle and lens through which they’re explored sets this album apart from my previous ones. The production techniques were new for me too — we spent a lot of time crafting a record that could include live players, Doomtree production, and sometimes a blend of the two.”

While the album is born of Dessa’s artistic vision, it benefits from the collaboration of her varied friends. Parts of Speech owes much of its impact to its diverse production. Dessa got her start as a member of Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree — eventually going on to help manage the group’s business affairs as they launched their own label — and members Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger lend their production to several tracks.

The players in Dessa’s live ensemble all contributed to the record, as did several top-flight Minneapolis musicians working in rock, folk, and opera. She even enlisted a cellist she found on Pandora to make the gorgeously-layered foundation of penultimate track “It’s Only Me.”

Dessa, born and raised in Minneapolis after her parents met at a Duluth music store, was valedictorian of her high school, eventually skipping a year of college and graduating with honors before she could legally drink. Armed with a philosophy degree, the intrepid Midwesterner spent her nights as a waitress and days writing reference manuals used by doctors in the implantation of pacemakers.

“Language and verbal communication were important in my family. If I could argue my way into a later curfew, that argument was entertained. My parents may have regretted that policy later but it was a great motivator to help me develop a facility with words.”

A love of words is evident in both Parts of Speech’s title and its ethos, as Dessa’s philosophy training surfaces too. The rousing chorus of “Fighting Fish” references the Greek philosophical paradox of Zeno’s Arrow. “Beekeeper,” polished up from a starker appearance on Castor, finds Greek god Prometheus repossessing fire from the humans. “Sound the Bells” sings of Mercator, the cartographical genius who pioneered flat maps of a round world.

Parts of Speech could be made by no one but Dessa, but in its evolution and awareness it is the perfect culmination of the journey started with 2010’s A Badly Broken Code. Middle album Castor, The Twin was in many ways a blueprint for Speech. The earlier albums were praised widely for their focus and depth, but Speech shows a fantastic breadth.

By uniting a wealth of different tones and narratives under Dessa’s unmistakable poeticism, Parts of Speech greatly resembles Sherwood Anderson’s modernist fiction classic Winesburg, Ohio. Dessa creates a new world, populating it with complex characters, beautiful sonic landscapes and refreshing, assertive production.

An album that can boom out of a car window after its summer release, or soundtrack a November night in, Parts of Speech marks a highpoint in Dessa’s career and demonstrates the crossover power of the rising star’s burgeoning arsenal.

Bio written by Zack Rosen

–Chicago Tribune

“Dessa has emerged as one of the most diverse and talented artists in indie rap.”

“A one-woman powerhouse…with a literary sensibility and an aversion to genre clichés”
–Utne Reader

“If wordsmith-songbird Dessa isn’t the future of hip-hop, she should be.”
-Insight News

“Profound and moving”
-Star Tribune

“equal parts Ani Difranco and Mos Def”
-Rift Magazine

“Dessa combines the dry wit of Dorothy Parker with the beat of Mos Def”
-Minnesota Public Radio

“clear-eyed candor…understated realism and dark wit.”

“witty, sardonic, and keenly observant of human behavior.”

“Absolutely brilliant.” (London)

“A paramount, intimate look into an astonishing human being.”

“Dessa stands alone in her brand of music.”


False Hopes
Spiral Bound: a short collection of essays and poetry
A Badly Broken Code
Castor, The Twin

Dessa's Blog

Parts of Speech Packaging and In-Stores

Posted on June 21, 2013

Hey! Parts of Speech drops this Tuesday and we’ve got a brand new video showcasing just exactly what the physical versions of the CD and LP are all about. Check out the sweet promo video below (courtesy of the extremely talented Adam Dunn) to get a glimpse of the real deal album, and also witness the glamorous life of running an indie label out of your living room. Plus you get to hear “Skeleton Key” (track 4 on Parts of Speech) in its entirety, so I’d call that a win/win all around.

YouTube Preview Image

One more thing if you live nearby the state of Minnesota: Dessa and her whole band will be going on a 24 hour record store tour this Tuesday to hang out, sign CDs, and play some of these new songs out live. Things kick off with a listening party and autograph signing at Fifth Element on Monday night at midnight. On Tuesday morning they’ll travel to Duluth for a noon in-store performance at Electric Fetus, followed by a 5:00 in-store performance in St. Cloud (also at the Electric Fetus). Then at 8:00 they’ll bring it all back home to the Minneapolis Electric Fetus for a final performance and autograph signing.

Due to such high demand in the Twin Cities, you will only be guaranteed admittance to the MPLS Fetus show by pre-ordering the CD or LP directly from them (link HERE). Those that do pre-order will receive a bonus gift and first dibs on spots at the in-store. There will also be a second line open to the general public that will be let in on a first come first serve basis once all pre-orderers have been admitted. There are only 250 spots total though, so you might not want to risk it. Pre-order an album from the Electric Fetus right HERE, and check the flyer below for all the details. Hope to see you Tuesday!

Dessa MN Tour - web flyer

T minus 1.

Posted on June 14, 2013

Dessa here, borrowing the blog (and the baby) for a quick update.

I’m writing from the airport, en route to Boston for a storytelling conference (no idea what that is, will report back when it’s over), so I’ll keep it brief. We’re boarding in five minutes and I’m blogging for four and a half.

Last night, I spent a few hours at Lazerbeak’s, signing preorder CDs. Which means I’m heading to Boston with my right forearm smeared with permanent ink. (Somehow, I have a feeling I’ll be asked to tell a story about that as part of an icebreaker session at this conference.)

As empty boxes and shrink wrapping took over Beak’s living room, Penny was kind enough to lend a hand [and face].

The new guy.

The deluxe packages of the CD look awesome. I won’t ruin the full effect, but here’s a close up of the emboss treatment we created just for the project. The preorder closes tomorrow (Saturday) night, so if you’d like to sneak in under the wire, there’s still time to pick up a copy.



Okay, we’re boarding. One last pic–forgive the Myspace angle; I figured it was warranted in my attempt to capture a pillar of boxes as tall as me. Thanks to all who’ve supported us; we’re excited to get this one out into the real world (and out of Beak’s living room).


-Dess. (Seat 14E)

Dessa “Call Off Your Ghost” Video Premiere

Posted on June 10, 2013

YES!!! The good people over at just premiered Dessa’s brand new music video for “Call Off Your Ghost,” the second single from Parts of Speech (album drops June 25th via Doomtree Records). The video was directed by Daniel Cummings for Picture Machine Productions. Read ELLE’s write up HERE, and check out “Call Off Your Ghost” below.

YouTube Preview Image

And don’t forget, you have until this Saturday to get your deluxe Parts of Speech pre-order in (HERE). Help us spread the word!

Dessa “Call Off Your Ghost” World Premiere

Posted on May 20, 2013

BAM! The good people over at Wall Street Journal and Speakeasy have just premiered “Call Off Your Ghost,” the smash hit second single from Dessa’s Parts of Speech album, due out on Doomtree Records June 25th!


Check out the WSJ article right HERE, and stream “Call Off Your Ghost” below for the time being. It will be available for download through all digital retailers tomorrow.

SO GOOD!!! All this awesome news on the heels of last week’s ‘Parts of Speech’ tour announcement. Click the flyer below for all the major deeetz and ticket links. Des Moines (7/6) and Sioux Falls (7/7) just got announced as well!


Ok, just in case you forgot to check out the song in all of your excitement, here’s “Call Off Your Ghost” one more time. Help us spread the word!

Parts of Speech Album Announce & Pre-Order

Posted on April 09, 2013

UPDATE (Friday, 12:00pm): Both album release shows are officially SOLD OUT!!!! Two sold out shows within 24 hours of the public announce. Thank you so much for the support.

UPDATE (Thursday, 12:00pm): Tickets for Dessa’s two album release shows are now officially on sale to the public. Both shows are selling fast though, so make sure to grab your tickets HERE (Fitzgerald Theater, 6/22) and HERE (First Avenue, 6/29) before they’re gone. Then check out an in depth Q&A Dessa just did with Bullett (HERE), and tune into MPR tomorrow at noon (central time) for her roundtable discussion with Kerri Miller (91.1 for the locals, streaming HERE for everyone else).

UPDATE (Wednesday, 9:05am): Dessa just announced the details to her TWO album release shows for Parts of Speech on air at The Current!

That’s right, two shows. On June 22nd she will be playing the Fitzgerald Theater with her full band (plus some very special fancy guests). Anyone who’s seen a Dessa theatre show over the last couple years knows these types of events are all out and completely one of a kind. The brand new Parts of Speech material is gonna be insane in this setting. Then the following Saturday, June 29th, Dessa takes it back to the First Avenue Mainroom for a bit of a rowdier (and boozier) evening. Expect the full band, plus a ton of special guests (several from the top of this website). This night will definitely put the “PARTY!!!!” in “CD Release Party.”

Tickets go on sale to the public tomorrow, so make sure to stop back here for even more sweet deeets and ticket info. You can also tune in to MPR (HERE) on Friday to catch Dessa’s roundtable discussion with Kerri Miller (91.1 FM for the locals). Now check below in case you totally missed yesterday’s huge Parts of Speech album announce and deluxe pre-order launch. SO MUCH NEWS!

Dessa by Bill Phelps window

Oh man, the day is finally upon us! It gives me the greatest joy to announce that on June 25th Dessa will be releasing Parts Of Speech, the long awaited full-length follow up to A Badly Broken Code and Castor, The Twin. That’s the truly sweet album cover below (sorry for the tease yesterday).


So beyond excited that this info can finally be out in the world! It’s been a long time coming, frreal. With every new album announcement should come news of a new album single, and the good people over at Billboard have been kind enough to host the world premiere of “Warsaw,” the third track off of Parts Of Speech. You can read what they have to say about it right HERE, and click the Soundcloud player below to be one of the first to check out the brand new track. If you’re really feeling it you can also download it from iTunes (HERE) or Bandcamp (HERE), OR just keep reading a little bit further to get it for free. Shouts to Paper Tiger on the beat! I love this song.

Alright, now that you’ve gotten a glimpse of what is to come, it’s probably about time we roll out the very special Parts of Speech pre-order announcement – one of our most elaborate to date. Starting right now you can pre-order the album from the Doomtree Webstore in both CD and vinyl, as well as in standard and deluxe editions! Check out all the glorious details below:

Both standard and deluxe pre-order packages will include:

- Your choice of CD or vinyl, signed by Dessa

- Access to a private Ustream chat and performance with Dessa and special guests on Wednesday, June 19th.

- Instant free download of “Warsaw,” the first single from Parts of Speech

- Free download of “Icing Burns,” an unreleased B-side not available on the album. This track will be emailed to you in the week leading up to the release date.


The mega deluxe pre-order package will also include:

Special edition deluxe versions of the physical album. The deluxe CD pre-order will contain more elaborate, limited-edition packaging (different from the standard retail version). The deluxe LP pre-order will come in red vinyl (different from the standard black retail version). We’ve pressed only 500 red albums; when they’re done, they’re done.

- Limited-edition Parts of Speech screen printed t-shirt. This specially designed shirt is being manufactured exclusively for the pre-order and will not be made available ever again. Please make sure to specify shirt size when ordering.

- Limited-edition copy of Are You Handsome?, the second installment in Dessa’s miniature book series (continuing the tradition started by “Sleeping With Nikki” from the Castor, The Twin pre-order). This one is a cleverly formatted dialogue, told one line per page. The spine is just over 2 cm high, 50 pages in all. Tiniest books in the game.

Totally insane. Here’s a more detailed glimpse at the awesome shirt that MK Larada designed specifically for this pre-order (created completely out of typographical elements). These will not be made available anywhere else.

Parts of Speech shirt detailed

So sweet. Plus all pre-orders will be shipped almost an entire week before release date! Truly incredible. Holler at the Doomtree Webstore right HERE for all the extra details and purchase info. DOOOOOO IT.

OK, that’s probably enough stimulating new album info for one post. I’ll leave you with one brand new Bonus Jam in case you completely skipped passed the above Soundcloud player in all of the excitement. Here’s “Warsaw” one more time for good measure.

As always, thanks a million for the continued and absolutely tremendous support. I live for big announce days like this, and we certainly could not do it without you. Stick and stay all week as even more exciting news gets rolled out in the coming days.

In closing, here’s a couple Parts of Speech themed Penny Pics (to tide over all the relatives). Just picked up the test pressings yesterday, and it looks like we’ve already got her co-sign. BAM!

– Beak

penny 1

penny 2

Posted on April 08, 2013

Tuesdays With Dessica

Posted on January 15, 2013

Here’s the deal. I, Dessa, badly needed a ride to the airport. And Lazerbeak, my good friend, needed a blog post. So (as you might have already surmised), I’m posting this entry en route to MSP Terminal 1, riding shotgun in the legendary Camry. Those of you who stay abreast of Doomtree’s comings and goings-on, might be thinking, ‘But aren’t you on tour with your very talented live ensemble, Dessa? Why are you bartering with Lazerbeak?’ The short answer: I flew home (Sun Country) for one (1) day to mix (mix!) my new record at The Hideaway Studio in Minneapolis.

With Joe Mabbott at the helm, we managed to dial in final mixes for the majority of the record. Here’s me and Beak, 7 hours into our 11 hour mixtravaganza.

pizza shot

Now I’m flying to Detroit to reunite with the guys. We’ll be playing tonight at the Magic Stick (tickets HERE if you’re in the neighborhood).

The tour thus far has been excellent [according to this not-very-impartial source]. Sold out concerts in Chicago and Philly, and great showings everywhere in between. (A special shout out to everybody who attended more than one show—the ultimate compliment.) On this run, we refined our van-packing strategy, put a new hoodie on the merch table, and played before GZA in New York.

van shot

hoodie shot

live show shot

 In the spirit of TWL, here’s a quick Bonus Jam from Susanne Sundfør, a Norwegian vocalist. Can’t comment on the video quite yet, but her voice is pretty incredible.

Ok. Gotta make it through security–see you on the other side.




Tuesdays with Dessica

Posted on October 09, 2012

On September 16th, my friend Paper Tiger got married. I had the honor of standing up for him, along with the rest of the Doomtree guys.

The next day, I boarded a plane to South Africa. There, my best friend Jaclyn would be be getting married and I’d be serving as her maid of honor. The trip, with 2 stops, took 24 hours to deposit me in the capital city of Johannesburg.

In a flurry of jetlag, South African liquor, seating charts, eyeshadow, power converters, and bobbypins, Jaclyn and Collin were married. It was beautiful. I cried. Then ate some cake. Then cried.

After the ceremony, and the perfunctory hangovers, a cohort of the wedding guests embarked on a safari. I’ve written about it at the Star Tribune today, but the photos below might hint at the wonder/splendor/grandeur/vastness/diversity/staggering complexity of the natural world.

Right? Right?! I know.

When I returned to the city, I had the opportunity to play two (2) shows while in South Africa. (Many thanks to the local promoters, rap fans who made this happen on just a few days notice. Jovana, Baden, and Robert, that’s you .) I did one in Cape Town and one in Johannesburg. Here are a couple shots from the rooftop venue in Jo’burg. (It took me a couple days to use that term and not feel like a total poser, but I’m assured it really is the common name for Johannesburg).

There’s at least one set of wings in the fray.

After a day lost to jetlag delerium, I’m back at home and on the clock. Lazerbeak and I hit an Uptown happy hour last night and he filled me on what I’d missed. And I’d missed a lot. In my absence, Lazerbeak  really took it to 11, which is why I gave him a much-deserved Tuesday morning off. Presumably he’s 3 bottles into a case of Mike’s Hard by now, cueing up the second Nicholas Cage flick (no accounting for that one, Beak).

We’re knee-deep in October already, so if you haven’t yet done so, remember to pick up tickets for Stef’s CD release show at First Ave on the 26th.

If you’re not yet on the mailing list, I’d remedy that soon, friend. (And don’t say you don’t have a computer. It’s a blog, man. C’mon.) We’ll be giving away tickets to mailing list subscribers for the TV pilot that I’ll be filming later this month for TPT. (Whaaa? Click here for more details.)

Finally, if you haven’t checked out that Star Tribune post, here’s your internet wormhole, just click to be transported.

Your friend[ly stranger],

Tuesdays with Dessica

Posted on August 21, 2012

Every so often, and only in the cover of darkness, I like to sneak into Lazerbeak’s penthouse loft and take his blog. Just snatch it away. A week later I sneak in to return it to exactly the same spot. On some Gaslight shit. 

No time for ninja braggadocio, however. Been a busy week. A mere seven days ago, Paper Tiger’s Summer EP dropped. You can listen to a song or pick up a copy right here.  The very next day, the P.O.S pre-order started. (Now, do it now). 

And today, the pre-order opens for one of my new projects: The Elixery “Dessa” lipstick.

Some months ago, I partnered with The Elixery (an indie cosmetic house in Minneapolis) and make-up artist Crist Ballas (Emmy-winning bad-ass) to create a product to benefit the CARE charity. The lipstick turned out a killer shade of matt red, it’s cruelty-free, and each stick is hand-poured by Karoline the chemist. She runs the Elixery and formulates all of its products herself. I’ll be donating 100% of my take (20% of profits) to CARE’s initiative to help educate girls around the world. To preorder, click HERE. Or here. Or even here

This is me, wearing the “Dessa” prototype. Very meta. 

This is Karoline. Please note the tailored lab coat. 

You can read all about the color, the science, and the team here

In more musical news, the band and I are in high-gear this week, recording some new songs and rehearsing for a couple of upcoming gigs. On August 26th we’ll be at Hell’s Kitchen with a bunch of pretty exceptional artists, pictured below. Tickets are still available; click here for info.

Then, on August 31st, we’ll be at the MN State Fair Grandstand. This is a big one. Mom’s coming out. It’ll be me, Jeremy Messersmith, The Jayhawks, and Semisonic. Mic stands make for Mics-on-a-stick, right? (Don’t hate.) 

In literary land, I posted my second essay with the Star Tribune. This one is about what’s ownable. Can you really own an digitized melody? A genetic sequence? I compare Apple to Monsanto to explore the idea. I also share a story or two from my childhood–a strange time in my life, as evidenced by the photo below. Click the bonnet to read the post. 

Okay. Lipstick, rap music, and patent law–that’s all I got this week. Now to sneak this thing back into the penthouse. 

Tykes tykin’. Fancy blogtown. German shnapschotz.

Posted on August 03, 2012

Dessa here, and with no time to waste. Doomtree is setting off for Chicago today to perform at Lollapalooza tomorrow. Further ado:

I’ve announced a couple of benefit shows recently. I’m often reluctant to do benefit shows, not because i’m not cold-hearted (snaaake, look into his ey-eyes), but because I think they’re really hard to do well. That said, my visit to the South Side Family Nurturing Center (which operates in Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood), proved compelling enough to overcome all of my hesitations. 

Every aspect of the center seems so carefully tuned to the kids’ interests. Physical therapists, teachers, grad students, social workers, all working together to provide bigger-picture services to kids at risk of abuse and neglect. To safeguard kids, SSFNC makes lasting, genuine connections to parents to help provide the resources they need to provide safe, affectionate homes. Even the dolls come in the same colors as the toddlers who spend their days at SSFNC.

After my visit, I wrote a letter to ask some other artists to perform at a benefit with me. Here’s an excerpt from the email I sent to Jeremy Messersmith, Gabriel Douglas (from 4onthefloor), Toki Wright, Coroline Smith, Taj Raj, and Robbie Robinson (who stole the show at my O’Shaughnessy gig). All of them agreed to play. 

   Some months ago I received a message from the Southside Family Nurturing Center, which serves little kids and families in the Phillips neighborhood. The story is a familiar one: a struggling non-profit faces staggering funding cuts. But the note–written by Barb Olson, Executive Director–was unusually compelling. The degree to which Barb and her colleagues devote themselves to bettering the lives of the families and children that they serve was genuinely arresting. In a visit to the center, Barb explained that when kids enter kindergarden without having had a lot of interaction at home, they often haven’t developed the motor skills to hold a pencil–a serious hurdle to literacy. She also explained that kids with behavioral problems (hitting, tantrums, etc.) may not have had the chance to develop the speaking skills they’d need to express their frustration verbally instead of physically. So, at the Center, they practice moving their bodies. And speech therapists focus on helping kids with the two types of language development: learning how to understand speech and learning how to form it in their own mouths. All the while, the center visits the children’s families every week. A lot of families have had lousy experiences with social services, Barb explained. So instead of marching in and telling parents not to spank kids, they ask “What do you need? How can we help you?” Then they develop lasting relationships with families and offer parenting resources after having earned their trust.

   A lot of the Spanish-speaking families experience the challenges of generational poverty with the added challenge of isolation; their neighbors might not speak their language. So Barb opened up the center to the Latina mothers in the neighborhood, organized a regular little pedicure day where they could come for free, talk, and listen to each other. “Oh cool,” I said, “so you found a salon willing to donate the service?” “No,” she said. “We all just bring polish and do it ourselves.” Those of you who know me know that I’m a vocal atheist. But man, first thing I thought was, Uh, this is like biblical–they’re literally washing feet. I don’t know if that story moves you or not, but for me the thought of all these underpaid, highly trained professionals on their knees to serve was a striking image. 

So if, you’re free on August 26th, consider coming to Hell’s Kitchen to catch the show. All 7 groups will be doing short, stripped down sets. I’m hoping for a listening-room kind of feel: artists, listeners, and organizers in a small room, listening to special, casual performances from some of Minneapolis’ best. None of the artists are getting paid and Hell’s Kitchen donated the space; all of the proceeds go straight to SSFNC. Tickets are available HERE

In other news, I’m excited to announce that I’ve signed on as a blogger for The Star Tribune. My first post, titled “Drowning in Milk” is live now. Click on the image below if you’re inclined to check it out. 

I’ll leave you with a few images from Stuttgart, Germany, where Doomtree recently played the Hip Hop Open Festival.

Photos courtesy of Nobbe K. 

Alright, Chicago traffic. MOUNTAIN the tour van is coming to join your inching, halting ranks.