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Scene Stealers: How Minnesota’s Music Can Break Out

There’s a culture and arts scene in Minneapolis and St. Paul that’s as varied and active as any in the country, with expansive musical ideas evolving constantly through an exchange of new sounds. Some of the most promising young artists in the country are born and bred near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

And yet, with few exceptions, almost no one has emerged from Minneapolis into breakout success.

How we quantify “success” in music these days is difficult. Suffice it to say that despite having possibly the nation’s best underground rap scene, and producing a near constant stream of innovative young rock bands, Minnesota remains a place forgotten by much of the country’s notice.

But, as it has many times before, the scene seems poised for a break.

New artists have emerged that have started to gain traction in ways we haven’t seen in many years. The build has been a slow one, and whether what’s been built is a bridge to mainstream recognition or a house of cards may very well be determined in the next 12 months.

The following are a few artists and avenues through which Minneapolis might find its voice and rise out of “fly-over” status, as cities like Omaha and Montreal have in the past decade. This is only a sampling of possibilities, but these, in my opinion, are some of the most tangibly near reality:

Scenario 1: Doomtree makes Minneapolis rap a distinct, desired sound

While acts like Atmosphere and Brother Ali, fringe successes in their own right, have made Minneapolis a more viable source for fresh hip-hop in recent years, no group has so completely embraced and embodied the spirit of Minneapolis’ musical identity quite like the Doomtree collective.

Evoking, at different times, the city’s hardcore punk past, its undercurrent of poetic romanticism, and its sporadic bursts of soul music, Doomtree’s rappers and producers have also managed to capture, on record, a sound that paints a vivid portrait of Minneapolis at night.

Now, with the collective’s recent group record drawing the eyes of the mainstream music press, the time is right for a grand statement. Rapper P.O.S.’s 2009 album Never Better did more than any hip-hop album before it to sound distinctly of and about his hometown. With a new album in the works, scheduled for release sometime this year, now might just be the defining moment for the Twin Cities’ rap community to come together and embrace this eclectic and decidedly unique aesthetic.

If P.O.S., and by extension all of Doomtree, sees success, it’s likely that many other local artists, like No Birds Sing, could cash in on the opportunity.

There are obstacles to this. Doomtree’s members all have distinctive styles, but for the most part they deal in a darker vibe than the current party-crazed, dubstep happy radio would likely embrace. It’s more likely that the group could find some critical acceptance, become stars of the indie or blog community, and invade from that position.

Either way, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen sooner rather than later.

Scenario 2: MaLLy eases listeners into the Minnesota scene

Another way that Minnesota’s hip-hop community might break out, rather than by embracing a specific local sound, would be to utilize a strong, universal appeal to break through the gates and bring the rest in over time.

Few local MCs have greater potential to make this happen than MaLLy, who, though he’s very open and strong in his Minnesota roots, has a classic hip-hop flair that features enough variety so as to be almost universal. His flow is tight, his message is conscious, and he seems poised, with his new album, to make waves in the rap world.

If MaLLy were to find success, the next likely beneficiaries would be young hip-hop trio The Tribe and Big Cats, whom I’ve covered before for AudioSuede. Their most recent EP, Make Good, was one of the best rap albums to come out of Minneapolis in 2011, and their upbeat party-rock beats and smart, reasoned lyrics make them ideal for radio and critical respect alike.

Then it would only be a matter of capitalizing on the attention.

Scenario 3: Young bands like Polica and Howler capture ears and pull them along

It’s undeniable that indie rock has become something of a stale commodity; look at any major indie blog like Prefix and Pitchfork, and increasingly the artists that receive word counts are rap and electronic artists. American listeners have grown increasingly bored by rock music, and while that might be sad for some, it leaves a hole for others to fill.

Minnesota has such a wide breadth of rock outfits that could adapt to the new environment with the right marketing. Polica, for example, combines their rock elements with a tragic electro sheen that can make them much more appealing to jaded bloggers.

Howler, meanwhile, is ready to be the American version of The Kooks; still hanging onto The Strokes’ early success, they have what many of their fellow nostalgic band brethren don’t. Specifically, they have personality. A band that can make people care about its individual members is a band that can sell themselves as a brand, and that could make them hard to ignore.

These two acts are hardly the only groups worthy of note who could make themselves known in the national music community, but they are among those with the most press and label support behind them, behind bands like The Hold Steady, who’ve struggled to make a decent new album since 2006’s classic Boys and Girls in America, an album that almost did for the Twin Cities what Springsteen did for New Jersey.

 

There are many different directions Minneapolis’s music scene could take in the coming year. The point is that if the community ever wants to escape their position off the radar of most critics’ and listeners’ attentions, and if they want to do it as a collective, they need to move together. Perhaps the weight of all those artists on their backs is what has made Minnesota’s musicians so slow to finding success in the past.

Though, more likely, there remains an issue of vision. There’s an enormity to local music when you’re in the thick of it; there’s always something new to divert attention from the grand prize, always cold winters through which no amount of packed concerts can ease the frozen potential of so many starving artists. It feels like a thaw is coming.

But of course, it’s felt like that many times before.

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