Bigwigs like Atmosphere and Brother Ali cast large shadows over the Twin Cities hip-hop scene. For an upstart, that mid-tier indie fame can signify the ultimate end goal.
Not for Xavier Marquis. The Minneapolis-born MC has had one goal since he wrote his first rhymes at age 9: mainstream stardom.
"I've always aspired to be someone that reaches the masses," he said during an interview last week at Republic on the West Bank. "I wanna fly all over the world and have stadiums full of people that love the music I make."
Before any globetrotting, though, he'll have to outdo the local competition when Vita.mn's Are You Local? contest culminates Friday at First Avenue.
Marquis has been surrounded by music for most of his 27 years. Born to a Jehovah's Witnesses family in north Minneapolis, he was indoctrinated by his mother (a singer) and uncle (a DJ). Vintage soul and R&B staples Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin were first loves, but Xavier transitioned to hip-hop by age 15. Then he received some top-notch production training at age 18, when he studied at Flyte Tyme studios, home to famed producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. He didn't work directly with the '80s hitmakers, instead using the time to study their catalog and hone his own skills.
"I listened to pretty much every single song Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis ever made," Marquis said, adding that the intricacies behind structuring and arranging songs were among his key takeaways from Flyte Tyme. In 2010 he quit his day job at a mailroom in Dallas and returned to Minnesota to pursue music full-time.
When Marquis says he's dedicated to music, he means all aspects of it. The rapper/producer handles his own booking, website and PR. "Energy" is a word he's prone to repeat, and that trait explains the hundreds of unreleased beats and songs stored in his north Minneapolis recording space.
A punchy seven-piece live band injects its chops and energy into Marquis' live show. Marquis gathered the group largely via a Craiglist ad that didn't make mention of genres or experience. The ad's only prerequisites? Passion and energy.
"He's a perfectionist," said percussionist Marcus Kar. "He constantly exercises himself. He wants to stay in that energy of creating, of productivity."
Although Marquis is just two mixtapes deep into a solo career, the young rapper's glossy output already nods to his Top 40 objective. The aesthetic on his most recent release, "The X-Files Mixtape: Volume 2," wouldn't sound out of place on KDWB, a fact made more resonant by his uncanny Kanye West-ish cadence and flow. Standout tracks like "Goodbye & Hello" and "Walk With Me" have the same charisma-driven accessibility as "College Dropout"-era Kanye. His upbeat, slice-of-life lyrics are marked by playful braggadocio (though nowhere near the level of Yeezy). Production-wise, Marquis' beats are polished and lively, with enough artful swing-beat touches and alt-rock influence to ward off the mundane.
Marquis and his bandmates were set to take First Avenue's main stage for the first time at January's TC Hip-Hop Awards. Moments before their set, however, the event was shut down by police due to violence in the audience, delaying what Marquis describes as a "dream" to play First Ave.
"I told my band not to be discouraged, 'cause we'd have another opportunity to play there," he said, "When I put my mind to something, I know it's gonna happen, and 99 percent of the time it does."
Should Marquis manage to prevail on Friday, the dream will come true sooner rather than later. But time, it seems, isn't really an issue for the driven MC.
"We perform for five people like they're five million people -- we're in it for the love," Marquis said, acknowledging that he's hardly pulling megastar income so far. "I couldn't fathom life without making music. Like, what would I be doing?"