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

The Guthrie

Posted on May 03, 2010

I’ve got a calendar full of red Xs indicating that the Cadence Hip Hop Series is almost upon us. This Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, I’ll be hosting a run of pretty effing cool performances at the Guthrie Theater. On May 5th, Maria Isa and M.anifest will perform. On My 6th, it’s Sims and Toki Wright. On May 7th, Matthew Santos will perform (!) and I’ll headline with a new ensemble. Shane Hawley, my favorite Twin Cities spoken word poet, will perform all three evenings. For the record, that’s a Grammy nominee, a spoken word champion, and a bunch of highly decorated rappers. Here’s what the press has to say about the first performer of the line up:

“What’s a rapper from Ghana who’s as smart as Talib Kweli and as funky as Kanye West doing in Minnesota? Who cares? As proven on his just plain entertaining debut CD, “Manifestations,” (No. 5 on our recent year-end Twin Cities Critics Tally), the 25-year-old African transplant is as at home laying old-school rhymes and Afrocentric grooves as he is at keeping up with the Joneses (as in Nas and Mike), and his songs are positive and thought-provoking.”

-Star Tribune

To get tickets for the show, snag your mom’s Visa and click here.

See you at the the-atah.


Feed Your Calendar

Posted on April 15, 2010

Ok, let’s just have out with it. Lazerbeak is the only one of us with the temerity, discipline, and purity of character to blog on a regular basis. But, I’m determined to get my ass in gear and start contributing more regularly.

Let’s start with some light fare: our schedule of upcoming shows.

During my lap around the country with P.O.S, I acquired  a (drumroll) BOOKING AGENT. For the readers amongst you who are not underground rappers signed to independent labels, suffice it to say that this was an exciting development. I’ve been trying for four or five years to get a booking agent. Now that I’ve got one, I’m not sure exactly what to expect–every rung in the carreer ladder is a fresh opportunity for wide-eyed confusion. But his name is Joe and he seems like  a decent, genuine guy and he works for a fancy agency named CAA in a fancy city named New York.

While Joe is busy seeing if any of his pre-existing contacts would like to book an evening of sad rap songs, Doomtree has lined up a pretty great run of summer shows. The non-exhaustive list is below:

Cadence Hip Hip Series at the Guthrie — May 5, 6, 7

Sue McLean, one of Minnesota’s big-time promoters, kindly invited me to curate a three-day hip hop series at the Dowling Studio in the Guthrie. I enthusiastically agreed. I’m happy to unveil the Cadence Hip Hop Series. Put on your Sunday best for some first-rate secular entertainment. Each evening will involve live musical performance, really good spoken word, a killer DJ, and a smattering of literary talent. The line up is below. You can buy tickets for all three nights here.

May 5: Maria Isa, M.anifest, DJ Paper Tiger, Shane Hawley
May 6th: Sims, Toki Wright, DJ Plain Ole Bill, Shane Hawley, Maggie Sanford
May 7th: Dessa with live ensemble, Matthew Santos Trio, DJ Paper Tiger, Shane Hawley, Brian Judd

Soundset–May 30

Rhymesayers’ annual hip hop festival. If you don’t know, ask somebody. Or excuse yourself from the conversation for a bit of frantic googling on your iPhone. Both Cecil Otter and I will perform at this year’s event. Tickets and information here.

LynLake Festival–May 16

Sims, Mike Mictlan & Lazerbeak tear up Uptown–with permission.

Grand Old Day–June 6

The whole Doomtree crew tears up Saint Paul–no matter what they say.

More announcements to follow, please keep us in your hearts. And day planners.

Thank You

Posted on January 19, 2010

Well, it’s the middle of the night, and my album is slated for official release tomorrow. My impulse is to write a long, lyrical ‘thank you’ note, but my other impulse is the pass the eff out. Splitting the difference:

SanFranBeakEatingOKHey Lazerbeak? Thanks. You and Ander have put so many hours into this thing. I owe you one, man. And you’re next.

MK Larada, you’re ridiculous. The album art elevates the entire project.

Hey Lupe Fiasco['s intern], thanks. I got a little mention on your blog today, and that means a lot. Cause I’m a fan.

People who’ve purchased the album: Thank You. When I did my live broadcast last week, no one leaked the password. No one. If you’re not running an independent record label in your free time, I can’t impress upon you how rare that it is in hip hop–in popular music in general. It’s almost impossible to attracting a listenership who’s willing to buy music, let alone who’s willing to play by the rules to be part of a larger idea, to make a bigger plan possible. Thanks.


DESSA + vitaMN

Posted on January 14, 2010

Dessa scores the cover of vitaMN!

Video Premiere

Posted on January 12, 2010

 The Current was kind enough to post a video for one of my new Boy Soprano songs. You can check it out here.  For those of you who preordered, see you tonight. 


(Pre) Sales Figures–Update

Posted on January 06, 2010

Moments ago, I received the updated sales figures for my new album, A Badly Broken Code.  The bean counters at Doomtree’s HQ just submitted their final tally via certified airmail. They’ve clicked off their desk-lamps, leaned back in their chairs, and are now smoking in the semi-darkness of another endless dusk on the island where the Doomtree Main Office is headquartered.

PreSale Thermometer

With no small measure of pride, I am here to announce that the pre-sale numbers have almost reached the goal that I set back in mid-December. The Excel spreadsheet at left substantiates that fact.

Many thanks to those who’ve helped make this dream (almost) possible. For those of you who’ve considered making that big click, I’ll sternly remind you that the opportunity ends soon…the presale window closes in just a few days. 

Promotionally yours,


Posted on January 06, 2010

First and foremost, thank you to everyone who has pre-ordered my new album, A Badly Broken Code. I know that 2009 wasn’t flush for most folks, and there are a lot of other ways to spend $12.99.

Now, down to details. I’ve just sent off an email to Ander Other, our trusty intern, about the live broadcast that’s associated with the pre-order. Here’s the deal: on the evening of Tuesday, January 12th, Jeremy Messersmith, Aby Wolf, and I will get together in Paper Tiger’s basement. We’ll arrange and rehearse vocal harmonies for our upcoming performance at my CD release show. We’ll stream this session on a password-protected site. We’ll email the necessary password to everyone who pre-orders the album.  

Now I don’t expect you to believe that I am impartial, but I do hope to be believed when I report that both Aby and Jeremy have some very special voices. I know because I’d trade with either of them in a heartbeat. Aby’s got a clear soprano that she maneuvers effortlessly…on a good day, Aby really is nothing short of stunning. During several practices, I’ve forgotten to sing–forgotten completely–because I’ve been distracted how beautiful she sounded. If she’s ask very, very nicely, on the 12th she may be compelled to do Snow White. 

I met Jeremy almost by chance, but was immediately taken by the writerly quality of his lyrics and by his pitch, which never seems to waver. His song ‘Scientist’ (playable here) features some of the best lyrics I’ve heard in many years: honest, brilliant, plain.

If you’d like to listen in, and even submit questions or comments, we’d love to have you. For the next few days, you can pre-order the disc here: clique.


Video and the Radio Star: A Delicate Ceasefire

Posted on December 21, 2009

Last night, we finished filming for my second music video. We shot in the woods of Fort Snelling, flood lights trained on a bend of desolate road. 

Dixon's Girl Shoot

Directed by Todd Cobery. Shot by Bo Hakala. Cameraphone image snapped by My Roommate (Thanks Jaclyn).

This Is It.

Posted on December 12, 2009


Well, this is it. I’ve spent the last few years writing and recording to try and produce an album I’m proud of. I came up with a collection of 15 tracks titled A Badly Broken Code. Doomtree has spent infinite hours, and most of our finite dollars, to support this album. For the first time in our history we’re in a position to really take our music and our business to a national level. This morning Ander, our gifted 20-year-old intern, launched the pre-order on our site.        

While Ander was programming at his desk, I reported to the set of my first, real music video. Britni, the Art Director, picked me up just after 7 a.m. I don’t see a lot of sunrises, but I caught one this morning as we arrived at a rented house in Saint Paul. Inside I scanned the full rooms for Maria, the director and my friend. She looked busy, in cuffed jeans and Converse, talking with two other women standing around a monitor. 

I greeted Crist, the make-up artist. Then I ducked into the mudroom, determined to stay out of everyone’s way until Maria called for me. From the doorway, I watched twenty people haul gear, drink coffee, check watches, talk shop, tease each other, hoist lights, try and fail to lift a piano, and show baby pictures. I saw a few people whose names knew and a few others with familiar faces. The rest were strangers.

If you live in New York City, one month of your rent is probably more than the budget for this entire video. So who are all of these talented strangers in this house working so hard? Come to think of it, who owns this effing house? I saw the wedding pictures on the piano, they seem like a happy, sensible couple–so why let twenty people shoot a rap video in your lovely home? 

At the risk of becoming unsalvageably sentimental: art can be an irrepressible force. An appetite for it moves us to act against our other interests: we go broke, sleepless, and grey for it. We memorize wine lists for it. We answer other people’s phones all day to make art at night. 

Ander moved to Minnesota from California, leaving his mom and sister, to work for Doomtree. For absolutely free. 

Britni, the Art Director who picked me up this morning, has been working on her feature for two yearsShe’s designing sound while simultaneously trying to raise money to support a film she doesn’t expect to turn a profit. Ever. 

I don’t think Maria budgeted one cent to compensate herself for this video. In fact, I’m pretty sure that she’s breaking her own dinner plates in the scene we’re filming tomorrow. 

I’m 28 years old. I’ve got a good job teaching music. It pays the bills and and my bartab at The Leaning Tower–the neighborhood dive. I’m don’t imagine that I’m making any epic sacrifices. Nonetheless, it’s powerful to see so many people behave in ways that confound economists. So many artists give up so much of their time, their money, and their peace of mind to do what they do independently. 

These same artists benefit from working independently, or with carefully chosen partners, because they’re not beholden to anyone. For example, as an independent touring musician, I sleep on floors more often than I do in hotel beds. That’s a little harder as I near thirty.  But, I can say ‘No’ to anyone. That’s important in this business. If you’re a photographer who would like me to lose twenty pounds before the next shoot, I can say, “Fuck you very much.” And I don’t have the kind of manager who’s going to tell me to apologize, get him that twenty percent, and switch to celery juice for breakfast. And if you’d like me to sing on song that says ‘faggot’ in it, I’m not interested. And if you don’t believe in my art…well, you don’t have to. That’s what Doomtree’s for. 

I’m lucky enough to work with a collective of pretty fierce music-makers. I can’t think of another 8 guys I’d rather spend my nights and early mornings with. We drive each other to be better artists, we sometimes drive each other crazy, and once in a while we get to drive each other around the country in a white van with blown speakers. 

So, that’s the honest story of it. It’s a hard year, if you can’t buy music this time around, I hope you’re warm and safe. If you can buy music this year, and you like what we do, I hope you’ll consider supporting us. The pre-order link is up at Listeners are the only ones who make Doomtree possible, and we’re working hard to prove that we’ve got what it takes to make our music and our model work in the big leagues.

Thanks Minneapolis. 
And to everyone else who’s made another city feel like home.