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

Mother’s Day

Posted on May 09, 2011
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Posted on May 03, 2011
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Into The Spin Tour – Sioux Falls

Posted on April 25, 2011

Take a look at these photos of Dessa, Sims and Lazerbeak from the first night of the Into The Spin Tour! Click on any of the three to view the whole set, shot by Kate Monson.




Make sure you don’t miss the show if we’re playing near you….are we playing near you? Find out at!

Also be sure to check out this video of Sims performing “One Dimensional Man” on the first night of the Into The Spin tour in Sioux Falls!
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Junior High, Benders, and Dress-up gigs.

Posted on April 01, 2011

In this edition:

  • 8th Grade Talent Show Relived
  • SXSW Reviewed
  • Road trips, Radio, Snowboots and Dress Shoes

Every year P.O.S and I visit the 8th graders at the FAIR school. It’s a remarkable place where young people beat the snot out of national averages and teachers all but eradicate the achievement gap.  P.O.S and I talk about finding your voice, turning off your TV, race relations in America, buying reasonably priced clothing, and living as an artist. Then we do a little performance in the auditorium.

After our visit this year, a former student sent me a little video she’d shot. I don’t remember the circumstances precisely, but judging from the footage, P.O.S and I must have had some technical difficulty on stage and decided to try a song a cappella. I don’t know if this clip will amuse you, but I was stifling laughter at the coffeeshop while watching it: P.O.S starts a soul-clap and when it completely falls apart, he just sort of…glides away as if he’s unassociated with anything that may be happening on stage.

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Metro Magazine invited a few musicians to submit their perceptions of the SXSW experience. Doomtree has been indie for a long time, and we’ve managed to make our way using business strategies that–to say the least–aren’t industry standard. For me, SXSW is always a look into an alien model: the dominant one. You can click on the image below to read the whole article, it’s about a page long.

On the 23rd of April, Sims, Lazerbeak and I set out for the Into The Spin Tour, my first headlining run up the West Coast. You can get tickets or just check out the routing here. In the meantime, there are a few hometown shows I’m unusually excited about.

Rochester with The Current
On April 2nd, I’ll head to Rochester as part of The Current’s Road Trip series. The band and I will play a set at the Rochester Art Center and participate in a Q&A conducted by Mark Wheat.

Live Radio Performance on Midmorning
On April 4th, I’ll play a new song, Anabel, on MPR with Kerri Miller. In the Twin Cities, you can tune in at 91.1 FM. You can also log in here to stream the broadcast. Just click on ‘Listen Now.’ You never can anticipate the exact moment that Kerri will fix you in her laser gaze and command “Sing!”, but I’d guess about 10 am Central Time.

Party at the Bunny Hill
On April 8th, P.O.S and I will head to Lutsen Ski Resort to do some face-melting (no snow will be affected). He will probably snowboard and I will probably drink whiskey, waving occasionally in the direction of the lift. Cheap ticket, good show. Details here.

Opera at the Riot House
On April 9th
, Jeremy Messersmith is curating a night at the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul. He kindly invited me to make a cameo; I’ll be singing a couple of tunes in the company of a bunch of other talented dudes, including Chris Koza. Tickets and info here.

Songwriting, Strings Attached.
On April 14th
, I’ll be performing two songs as part of the Southern Theater’s installment of their Songbook series. This time around all the songs will be arranged for strings (get it? get it?). I’ll be doing a little bit of new material as part of an evening formatted to showcase a myriad of talented songwriters. Other participants include members of Arcade Fire, Dirty Projectors, and Devotchka. Info here.

Until next time,

Into the Spin Tour Announcement

Posted on March 16, 2011

Blogging from SXSW is a little like trying to blog on horseback, while your steed bucks and rears in the throes of sever DTs.

So I’ll keep it brief.

I’m going on tour. I’ll head west in late April for my very first headlining run. This time around, I’ll be bringing the cast of live players with whom I perform in Minneapolis–some serious talent.

Sims and Lazerbeak will support. (Not-so-incidentally, I received word just this morning that Bad Time Zoo is holding the #1 spot on the CMJ hip hop charts. Pow.)

You can check out the routing and purchase tickets here:

Ride on.

On the overnight drive.

Posted on November 15, 2010

Most of Doomtree had some variety of respiratory infection for the past week. In the van at night, chesty coughs rose from every direction in the darkness.  Lazerbeak (ever the optimist) was convinced that his rising fever was evidence that his body was beating the infection. Somehow this line of reasoning took hold, and as our conditions worsened, we became surer and surer that we were getting better. Despite this obvious failure of rationality, we all seem to be on the mend.

As I write, we’re driving from L.A. to Austin. It’s a 22-hour haul and we’ve decided to do it in one go. Paper is behind the wheel, Lazerbeak is The Navigator and DJ, and most of the guys are just starting to slump over in their seats and doze off.

I’m particularly looking forward to the Texas and New York dates on this tour because I’ll have family in the house. We’re playing the Red 7 in Austin and the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. Via insistent text message, I’m trying to convince my little brother Max to sing with me at the Red 7. No definite commitment yet, we’ll see what a couple of beers might do to persuade him to get on stage.

In New York, we’ll be playing the day after Thanksgiving. In all likelihood, Doomtree will celebrate the holiday in a standing-room only fashion, with a dozen of our friends in a Brooklyn apartment,  eating food from plates, saucers, bowls, and cups. Which sounds exactly right.



Posted on September 19, 2010

Hello all,

The book club is officially on. For those of you just joining in, the first title we’re reading is Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

So here’s what I’m thinking: Let’s read the chapters 1 through 8 by next Sunday, the 26th. We’ll read through the end of the book by the Sunday after that.

I’ll be introducing a forum for the conversation in the coming days. Until then, here’s one of the questions I’ve been considering as I’ve read through the first few chapters:


Making moral judgements across cultures is a challenging task. Americans are often justifiably cautious about issuing any judgement, lest they be accused of colonialism, paternalism, arrogance, and ignorance. But it seems to me that if we refrain completely from acting, or even commenting, on the moral violations around the world, we tacitly permit some pretty heinous stuff: child pornography, blood diamonds, sex trafficking, etc.

On the other hand, we’ve got a track record that implies we’re pretty good at getting ourselves involved in conflicts we don’t fully understand. Moreover, we’ve got a history that includes some significant human rights violations here at home. So when and how do we responsibly make moral judgements about practices that occur around the world–particularly those practices like female genital cutting that have cultural significance? And how can we make those judgements without making ourselves vulnerable to the accusation that we’re rudely foisting our values where they don’t belong?

In the first few chapters of Infidel, that’s the issue I’ve been thinking about most. I’m eager to hear what questions or answers you’re finding. Format for the conversation will be announced soon. In the meantime, let’s use the #LitHop for our hashtag on Twitter.



Last Days.

Posted on September 18, 2010

Pre-order here:

And thanks.


All Day. Erry Day.

Posted on August 05, 2010

Doomtree is positively a-buzz with industry.

Yesterday, while sitting in my mom’s car at the Mall of America, I got a call from Alex at Billboard. He called to inform me that Paper Tiger’s album made one of their charts.  And we chatted! Because we have developed what can be fairly called ‘a friendly and informal rapport’! I will keep you posted on my increasingly intimate relationship with Alex as Doomtree’s release year continues. The charting is almost entirely due to people who pre-ordered Made Like Us or bought it online. Thank you. If you’d haven’t heard it yet, you can check out a free track HERE.

Lazerbeak is an unstoppable force of nature as of late. He’s finishing up 10 music videos, all of which will be packaged in a DVD on his next disc. He and I are also hustling pretty hard on the business end of Doomtree’s affairs, gearing up for the release. Here’s a semi-candid shot that I snapped during his last visit to my apartment.


And here he is giving Sims a sneak preview to one of his videos.


For me, last week was made memorable by a visit by the violinist Jessy Greene. Jessy and I are long-time  friends and collaborators (She lent her talent to Mineshaft, Mineshaft II, Into The Spin, and other Doomtree songs). When we are not making music, we are facing each other and talking simultaneously. This continues, non-stop, until we start making music or until one of us has to go home. As some of you may know, she moved to L.A. a couple of years ago, after having been asked to join a world tour with the Foo Fighters. I knew I missed her but hadn’t realized how much until spending time with her this week.

To take advantage of her visit, I booked a bit of studio time. Which gave me approximately 72 hours to prepare something ready to record. McNally Smith College of Music was kind enough to grant me access to their piano on last-minute notice. I am determined (if ill-equipped) to teach myself to play, and have been banging around on a Casio keyboard at home for some time. But to sit in front of a real piano, with live mics, was a moving, scary, thrilling moment.

The instrument itself really is elegant:


Piano Detail

With the help of Aaron Hodgson at McNally, I (painstakingly) captured some usable audio.  Then Jessy came over to my apartment and we to set about writing violin lines together.

Big ups to the resident in unit 36–I will not make a habit of playing live music in the middle of the night. Sincerely, the woman in unit 34.