The Rumpus Interview with Dessa


Minneapolis-based hip-hop powerhouse and writer Dessa, described as “Mos Def plus Dorothy Parker,” just released her new album Parts of Speech, a masterful document of a journey in self-exploration and empowerment (she admits many of the songs are truly confessional and straight first person experiences). When I called her at her home in Minneapolis, the conversation just wouldn’t stop as we explored her love of creative nonfiction and the connection between verse written for a book of poetry and the rhythmic lyrics she composes for her beat heavy songs. Currently traveling the country on tour in support of Parts of Speech, she has a collection of poetry coming out later this year from the Minneapolis small press institution Rain Taxi.


The Rumpus: I was told you’re a fan of Dave Eggers. Can you talk about your interest in Dave Eggers and that sort of writing that mixes up different genres and does its own thing?

Dessa: I’ve known I had an interest in the language arts since I was little (although I didn’t know that phrase). I knew that I liked words and I liked talking, and I liked stories that were brief and funny and deep—all three of those together would be my favorite kind of story. It wasn’t until college that I realized that a lot of writers were working in vein like that, writing true, short, funny, profound stories. I took a class in creative nonfiction, and that was where I was first exposed to writers like Dave Eggers and David Sedaris and David Foster Wallace and David Rakoff and everybody else named David who I immediately fell in love with. It was in reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which I’m shy to say because that feels like everybody’s story, that I thought, “Wow, this feels like a totally different way to communicate in a literary medium.” It felt like Eggers trusted his readers to have thoughts that were as associative and sometimes goofy and sometimes sacrilegious as his were, and so he didn’t painstakingly drag you along his line of thought. He trusted that you could bounce with him really rapidly from funny to serious, and from pop culture to highbrow, and then back to the idiosyncratic relationships between family members.

Rumpus: You work with narratives, and that’s really important to you. Can you talk about some of the narratives in the current album and where they come from?

Dessa: For me, voice has always been even more important than narrative. Part of the reason that I loved reading the essayists that I mentioned, and Dave Eggers, wasn’t because they had an amazing plot. It wasn’t because the narrative arc itself was so compelling. It was because fundamentally, those dudes seemed smart and hilarious and sensitive in the right ways and badass in the right ways. I think there are a few people in my life, my little brother being one of them, who no matter how we spend the day, the day is better for having spent it with him. We could go to the DMV, and he’s just an astute, hilarious dude who can provide color commentary for the most mundane activity, and make that day feel special and important. That kind of narrative voice has always been the most compelling part of a writer. In writing my songs, I think there is a consistency to the writing style and to the sensibility that all of the songs share. It feels like all of the songs are written by the same person, or at least I think it does. Not every song is like a murder mystery, with a beginning and middle and end in five acts that unfold like a flower, but I think that you can tell that the same mind is living those experiences. And for the most part, my songs are about true lived experiences, are true stories.

Rumpus: I like what you say, because I’m definitely drawn to literature without a tangible, straight-up narrative. But I think that people like to use the word narrative to describe anything that’s a story, even if it’s not necessarily a story with a straightforward trajectory.

Dessa: Or even for anything writerly, I think people use the word narrative. And now that you say that—whenever you’re excited about a piece of art, and a friend says, “Ooh, what’s it about?” and there’s this sinking disappointment because you realize that the sentence you’re about to say isn’t one that sells the artwork very well. The question, “What’s it like?” is a better question for a lot of art than “What’s it about?” Or, “How does it move you?”

Rumpus: Let’s talk about your trajectory. How did you get into making music?

Dessa: For me, the path into musicianship was circuitous. I started out wanting to be a writer of creative nonfiction, but as a late teenager and in my early twenties I wasn’t sure exactly what any of the steps might be to transition from an aspiring writer to a vocational writer. I spent some time and effort writing essays, cleaning essays up and then putting them into manila envelopes and writing destinations like The Paris Review or The New Yorker.

Rumpus: That’s pretty ambitious!

Dessa: Well, it felt ambitious. It felt long-shot-y, and I didn’t like that. Because if I were to get a yes from one of these people, that would be a big break. But it seemed unlikely, so how does someone who is young and entering this arena take the first step? And I did not find a clear answer to that. I still don’t know the clear answer to that, to be honest.

I’d had a really bad breakup, and a friend of mine, knowing that I had a big interest in writing, she came over to my house and she said, “I’m going to take you to a poetry slam.” And she did, and we watched it and had fun, and at the end of the evening she said, “I think you could do this.” I thought she had a point, so the next month when the event took place again, I wrote some material and I competed. And I won—and unbeknownst to me, the really good poets were out of town that night. So I probably had an inflated sense of my own talent on that first evening. But the person who won that night was committed to a year of performance on behalf of the Minnesota slam team, which I also hadn’t quite understood. I found myself sort of accidentally involved in a year of performance poetry, competing around the state and around the Midwest, and then around the country.  It was through that scene that I became acquainted with the members of Doomtree, who would eventually become my label-mates and the family with which I make music.

Rumpus: What was that transition like, from being someone who was primarily writing things down on the page to being a performer? It makes sense that you talk about the slam poetry, because that has a very performative aspect to it.

Dessa: I think I wasn’t a natural as a performer, and I wasn’t a natural as a rapper. But I was a good student. I got better steadily. There are some parts of writing that are very difficult to translate to the stage, and there are some parts of spoken stage performance that are very difficult to translate into musical performance. Part of working in all three media is to learn what works and why. And I feel like I’m still learning that. I published a book in 2009, and I have my first collection of poetry coming out later this year…and I’m a little unhappy that I don’t think several of those poems are going to be very effective in a spoken format. Part of the reason that I find that so challenging is because so often it feels as though performing a work really is an invitation for an audience to engage.

So what are the differences? I was scared shitless the first time I performed at a slam. I remember I wore satin pants because I thought they made my butt look cute, but because they were light-reflective they revealed every tremor in my knees, and so it looked as though I had a waterfall from the waist down as I performed. I remember thinking that I would never wear shiny pants on stage again.

You learn some tricks to hide your nervousness. My nervousness has never gone away; it’s part of being a performer.

Rumpus: Speaking of poetry and rap, they both require an innate sense of rhythm. Where does that rhythm come from, for you? How did you find your voice as a rapper?

Dessa: Part of me is tempted to just throw together an answer, but what is the true answer: “Where does rhythm come from?” I don’t know if I know. That might be…that’s not an interesting answer, but I don’t think I know. I mean, I know when I read a poem and it seems janky, and I’m made to find too many stressed syllables together, let’s say. I know that I don’t like that. But I don’t know why I don’t like that.

I do feel like it’s different; I feel like the percussive nature of hip-hop is very different than the metered nature of poetry. You’re really being asked to do two different things. In poetry, you’re mindful of meter and it’s an important part of the structure, but in rap you’re asked to solo that element. It’s almost like if you were in a choir, and then I said, “Okay, now I want you to do the aria.” In one scenario, you’re focused on blend, on blending your voice with the other singers. In the other scenario, you’re really focused on sustaining interest that is trained in a laser-like way on you. In poetry, there are a lot of concerns I have. What are the sounds of the words? What is the way that they look on the page? What are the connotations of all the words? And, what is the meter? But I’ve never written a poem that’s mostly meter, that’s driven exclusively by meter. But I feel like there are some moments in rap where the reason that we all love them is because it sounds so awesome, when it’s like “Baby mama drama make me wanna” and it’s like, “Oh my god, that sounds so cool!” There are a lot of lines in rap where it’s like, I don’t even know what that means but it just sounds so cool, because in some ways it is very much a vocal percussion, at least in moments.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about your new album Parts of Speech. It’s a collaboration with Doomtree—I’m always curious about artistic collaboration and how people work together effectively.

Dessa: I’m going to back up, because Doomtree is a pain in the ass to understand in terms of structure. Doomtree is seven artists who work together as a collective. We’re solo artists fundamentally, but sometimes we come together Voltron-style to put out an album that features all of us. When we do that, we release it as the artist Doomtree. Those seven members of this collective are also the owners of a rap label that we started initially just to release our own work. So, Doomtree is also a record label.

Parts of Speech is out on Doomtree Records, and to make it, I asked for production from two of the members. Their names are Laserbeak and Paper Tiger. When I was setting about making this new record, I asked those dudes, “Hey, do you have any beats that are still up for grabs?” and they said yes. They send me a beat, which is in most ways a fully produced instrumental song, and then I wrote lyrics for those beats. Came back, rearranged them a little bit, enlisted a couple of other musicians to add some new layers, and that’s how those produced songs got made. Very often in hip-hop, the collaboration is very modular.

I made about half the record that way. The other half of the record is with a live band. This is the first time I’ve made new material with a live band, and it’s also one of the first records on which I’ve played piano. So that was harder. For that, I sent some demos to the band and we turned a voice and a simple piano line into a fully produced song with drums and strings and keyboards and guitars and bass and all that jazz.

Rumpus: What was it like to work with a full band? What was the process like?

Dessa: It’s exciting and daunting and frustrating. It’s exciting because I had access to half a dozen really brilliant musicians with talents and skill sets that are worlds apart from my own. It was daunting because I thought, “What the hell am I doing?” And it was occasionally frustrating because it was really uncharted territory for me to have so many variables to control and to be mindful of. I found myself weepy with frustration sometimes, because I so wanted a song to be good and I wasn’t sure what to do to it to make it good. I wasn’t sure what the next step was.

I remember thinking, “This must be what’s like to write fiction.” Because in fiction anything can happen, which means if something wonderful doesn’t happen it’s your fault. Whereas with creative nonfiction I always felt like my parameters here are the facts, and I have a limited set of facts. My job is to bring significance and humor and wit and tenderness to those facts, and to render them in such a fashion that they might be engaging for a stranger.

Rumpus: When lyrics for a song come to you, is it like a flash, like I’ve got to get a pen and jot this down right now?

Dessa: Very occasionally, a string of lyrics will appear in a big, sometimes upsetting rush. But usually, I’ll have little pieces of lyrical content and then I will have to build the retaining wall of the song out of these little pieces of lyrical gravel. Even when four bars of lyrics come to me, or eight bars, which would feel like a total windfall, when it’s time to write the song I’ll still have tiny phrases that I have to take in somewhere. You know when you’re little and you’re watching archeologists put together the dinosaur on TV? It’s like that.

Rumpus: There’s a lot of talk about the nature of hip-hop and certain hip-hop artists not being feminist, but then there’s also a lot of femininity and feminist hip-hop out there. What’s it like being a woman in the field of hip-hop?

Dessa: I think in hip-hop (and out of hip-hop), I tend to live my feminism as it is part of a larger humanist philosophy. I don’t have an explicit agenda that I set about to express in my songwriting. I’ve always been an artist first and an activist second, although I respect people who choose to live their lives in the other order. I figure if I write true stories about my experience on the planet, that because men and women are pretty damn similar, a lot of those stories will resonate in important ways with male listeners. Therein is where the work of feminism happens. It’s not me rhetorically persuading you with a well-crafted argument that I should be paid equally. It’s about telling you how my life really is—I’m trying to find love and make rent and extract some meaning from the mundane, like you are, whether you’re a man or a woman or a Christian or an atheist or an American or Sudanese. There are some important strands of humanity that I think do unite us, and I think stories are a powerful way of showcasing those universals or those commonalities. I sort of trust that the art will do that work itself, and that I don’t have to make explicit or be evangelical about feminist theory if I answer questions honestly and I make genuine art.

Rumpus: What was the biggest challenge in putting the new album together?

Dessa: There were so many! This was so hard. I think it’s the best one I’ve done, but I think it took the most generous pound of flesh to get it done. There are some songs on this record where I pushed my instrument harder than I had pushed it before. I wrote songs that were just way harder to sing than I had in the past. I really asked my body to play catch-up with my imagination. You better teach your vocal chords how to do what your imagination has written here. There was a point where I had a post-it note in my closet that just said, “No crying.” Because that’s where I record my vocals, so when I opened my eyes after singing, I would just see that post-it and know that even if I was very frustrated, I was not allowed to indulge in that frustration.

Katy Henriksen writes for Live Nation TV and is a classical music and arts producer at KUAF 91.3FM Public Radio. She's written about arts and culture for the Brooklyn Rail, New Pages, Oxford American, Paste, the Poetry Project Newsletter,Publishers Weekly, Venus Zine and others. You can keep up with her at @helloloretta or through Katy is Music Editor Emeritus for The Rumpus. More from this author →