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On the final evening of their three-night, blizzard-blurried Blowout concert marathon last December, members of the Doomtree crew assembled in the offices at First Avenue and looked over the 2011 calendar on club booker Sonia Grover's desk. Like the two feet of snow piled outside, the whole blank week of Dec. 4-10 seemed to glare at them and taunt them from the calendar page.
The fact that 600 or so young fans had just turned up for two of the snowiest nights in Minnesota history -- when buses and even snowplows weren't operating -- was a clear sign that the Doomtree Blowout had blown up into something bigger than its creators had ever imagined.
"When kids are skiing or hitchhiking their way to your show, that says something," said the crew's resident starlet, Dessa, who "blames" Grover for the idea to stretch this year's seventh annual Blowout into a seven-night affair starting Sunday.
The weeklong windup begins with a 7th Street Entry gig hosted by Sims, who had a breakout year following the February release of his sophomore album, "Bad Time Zoo." The group's other four rappers will then helm their own Entry shows through Thursday with a wild mash-up of guests. Finally the entire crew (and just the crew, no one else) will move into the First Ave main room next Friday and Saturday for the standard three-hour, tag-teaming Blowout sets.
First Ave's booker doesn't mind taking the blame for all this: As of mid-week, five of the seven nights were sold out, including next Friday's main-room show, and the rest were very close.
Said Grover, "Not a lot of clubs would give an act a whole week and say, 'Here you go. Do whatever you want.' Obviously, it was a smart move in this case."
This maniacal marathon is fittingly centered around a truly lunatic new Doomtree album, "No Kings," which reached No. 9 on the iTunes hip-hop chart one day last week (a huge week of competing national releases). The 12-track ear-assault of a record has picked up raves everywhere from Pitchfork.com to my old college newspaper, the Daily Texan. (Hey, its 30,000 circulation is bigger than most music blogs.)
Starting with the "Spyhunter"-stalking opening track "No Way" -- in which all the Doomtree rappers save for Dessa take a turn -- the pacing on "No Kings" is breathless, and the approach is at once cohesive and chaotic. On every song it feels as if all of the crew's wordsmiths are fighting to get a word in edgewise -- a style that distinguishes the disc from the previous all-crew record, 2009's more piecemeal "Doomtree."
"We started talking about it back in March and agreed we wanted to actually make the record all together, instead of just compiling tracks that we worked on separately, like the last one," said producer/beatmaker Lazerbeak. "The problem is, even when we're all in town, it's hard for us to all work together at once because we're being pulled in so many other directions these days."
Out of the woods
The crew settled on a weeklong session over the summer at a Wisconsin cabin owned by Sims' in-laws. About 20 skeleton tracks already had been laid by Lazerbeak and the collective's other beatmakers, Paper Tiger and rappers Cecil Otter and P.O.S. A few of those tracks would be put into rotation in the morning, and by the afternoon the lyricists would be ready to record their parts.
"They would all be walking around muttering lines, working things out," Lazerbeak recalled. "They were pretty intense about it."
Remembered P.O.S., "Cecil Otter would make us breakfast in the morning, and it was all work from there. The fun just came out of us all being together, which we don't get to do enough of anymore."
This unified-attack style must have had an influence on the album's overlying themes, an us-against-them haranguing against the kings of the world and an in-this-togetherness that has always been a Doomtree trademark.
"In the freezin' cold, y'all keep chillin' / We'll leave tracks you can follow in," P.O.S. rhymes in one of the album's slower yet most intense tracks, "Team the Best Team."
Mike Mictlan wraps things up in "Fresh New Trash," the album's kiss-off, love-in finale: "This isn't indie-rap / This is 10 years, stress and tears, sweat and fears / Acceptance from our friends and peers and everything that has brought us here."
For all the memorable lines and manic deliveries, though, the production and beats are the crowning achievement on "No Kings." This album is a beatmakers' delight. A good portion of the spark seems to have been provided by Otter, who had this year's most attention-getting Doomtree release, the so-called Wugazi record ("13 Chambers"), a not-for-sale disc that brazenly mashed-up punk heroes Fugazi with rap Wu-Tang Clan.
Cecil has yet to announce the "very special guest" to be featured at his Entry show Thursday (alas, it's not Wugazi-related). Other than that, the lineups are locked in, and the logistics nailed down.
"It's mostly just small errands from here, things like figuring out which bottle of booze Hannibal Buress wants in our fancy backstage area," Dessa quipped, referring to the Chicago comedian taking part in her Entry night.
The one unknown factor will be stamina. Can the crew survive a seven-night run? Dessa said she has been cross-training at the gym to toughen up. Lazerbeak likened it to being on tour, "except I think this is going to be way more intense and exhausting."
Let's hope so.