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Soundcheck video profile: Toki Wright & Big Cats

Oft-mingling rapper Toki Wright has finally found a steady partner in Spencer “Big Cats” Wirth-Davis.

Bonus video

Video: Toki Wright & Big Cats: Gatekeepers

Toki Wright remembered with a huff the first time he and Spencer Wirth-Davis made music together. The free-roaming rapper guested on a 2011 track by the producer/beatmaker’s former group, the Tribe & Big Cats.

“I was mad because y’all didn’t call me when you mixed the vocals, after I specifically asked, ‘Call me when you’re mixing the vocals,’ ” Wright said to his new bandmate.

Wirth-Davis — Big Cats is his rather wryly chosen pseudonym — didn’t need to bother defending himself. Wright obviously liked the results, since he and Wirth-Davis started a new group — one that is shaping up to yield the most innovative music of Wright’s career, adding electronic and neo-soul flavors to his poetic rapper style.

Facing their biggest gig yet at Sunday’s Soundset festival, the two longtime peers began working together full-time a year ago but took their sweet time unveiling the results.

With two other versatile musicians in tow — co-vocalist Lydia Liza of the folk-rock band Bomba de Luz and keyboardist Eric Mayson of the jazzy hip-hop quartet Crunchy Kids — the duo played only a handful of gigs before making their formal debut on Atmosphere’s Welcome to Minnesota Tour in February. Likewise, they have issued only two singles online, saving up for an album release in the fall.

“We really, really believe in this project and believe it deserves a proper plan,” Wright explained.

Said Wirth-Davis, “Our first six months together was spent just writing and demoing together in the studio.”

That’s a sharp contrast to Wright’s prior efforts, including his 2009 Rhymesayers album “A Different Mirror,” which he made with multiple producers who often just handed off their work for the rapper to finish.

That’s the norm for hip-hop, but “I think that method keeps a lot of MCs from growing as much as they could,” Wirth-Davis said. “Producers are only sending them music that they already think they sound like, imitating their last record, instead of sitting down with someone and figuring out a new direction together.”

Following the sample-free creative process of Big Cats’ well-received 2012 solo effort “For My Mother” — an instrumental collection he crafted after his mom’s death — they started with a series of live jam sessions with other musicians, which were then looped and molded into basic tracks. The results heard so far include the psychedelic slow jam “Echinacea,” about an herbal-remedy pill, to the more fiery and sure-to-be-discussed “Gatekeepers.”

“I wanted to prove there’s more than just one herb you can talk about as a hip-hop artist,” Wright half-joked of the former song. As for “Gatekeepers,” he said it’s less about local radio and press insiders who’ve been called that, and more about local performers who feel beholden to them.

“My whole introduction into this music scene was talent shows, where if you don’t come on strong in 10 seconds you’re going to get booed,” said Wright, citing his roots in north Minneapolis. “A lot of people in the music scene have never had to go through that kind of scrutiny, never faced tough criticism; just Minnesota Nice.”

Not that there isn’t a nice streak flowing through this new act. Citing the title of their upcoming album, “Pangaea” — named after the supercontinent that existed 300 million years ago before Africa, Eurasia and the Americas et al. began drifting apart — Wright said, “The point is, we’re all more connected than we think.”

He said, “This group started with Spencer and I discovering what we had in common as musicians, and has grown into all of us doing that. And now, our goal is to bring our music to a lot of different rooms and different audiences and find even more common ground.”

 

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658

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