If you saw him in "Machete," the "Spy Kids" series or just about any other Robert Rodriguez movie, you know that tough-guy actor Danny Trejo looks like the kind of guy you do not want to cross. But leave it to the Twin Cities' firebrand hip-hop starlet Maria Isa to do just that.
"We've had a few rough moments over the dialect," Isa said with a laugh Monday, calling from the set of the indie movie "Strike One" in Los Angeles. "When you're a Puerto Rican girl from Minnesota talking to Mexican dudes in East L.A., there are going to be some translation issues."
"Danny's so sweet, though," she added. "He says, 'Hey, we're all brown.'"
Obviously, we have some catching up to do with Maria. When we last wrote about the 24-year-old West St. Paul-reared rapper/singer (and now actor), she was starring in a well-received production of "Rent" at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis. The makers of "Strike One" came to see her in "Rent" last year after recruiting her to craft music for the soundtrack. Obviously, she passed the audition.
Isa (born Maria IsaBelle Perez Vega) left for Los Angeles in late May and will return ever-so-briefly to the Twin Cities to headline the Uptown Pride Block Party -- a gig she said she took to "help make sure it isn't just white kids there showing pride in themselves."
Next month, she is heading back to Puerto Rico with yet another camera crew. The Twin Cities filmmakers behind the upcoming music documentary "We Rock Long Distance" will be following her to a hip-hop fest there, just as they recently did with M.anifest to Ghana. Then in August, she's dropping a new album with fellow hometown rap star Muja Messiah. Then she's putting out her own mixtape in the fall. Somewhere in there, she might sit on her culo for 10 minutes, too.
First, though, Isa has to finish filming "Strike One." A gritty drama from second-time director David Llauger-Meiselman ("El Matadero") -- whose mom is Maria's aunt and one of her performing arts teachers -- the film centers around a teenage Mexican-American boy teetering on gang life and possible jail time. Trejo plays an ex-con uncle, and Isa has a leading role as the boy's older sister, a single mom who tries to steer him right.
"I may not know East L.A., but I still know the story," Isa said. "I know what it's like watching young men from our 'hood get shipped off to jail and fall in with the gangs. It's a never-ending cycle, and this movie is sort of about telling that story the right way."
Isa set out to tell another side of her neighborhood in a new song, "Esto Suena," which name-drops the mom of one of her classmates at St. Agnes High School in a not-so-flattering fashion: "Michele Bachmann, time to listen / How you gonna be a racist and a Christian?" Isa explained that she was good friends with Bachmann's son but always thought "they didn't understand our side of the story of what goes on in my 'hood." She recorded the song a year ago but waited to release it until Bachmann announced her presidential candidacy.
When asked about the ramifications of such a scathing lyric, Isa's audibly shrugged, "I'm an MC, and that's what I do: express my thoughts."
That wasn't the only thing she said to indicate she's still in touch with her roots. Never mind being on a film set.
"All of these opportunities that are coming my way, they all stem from my success as an independent hip-hop artist from the Twin Cities," she boasted proudly. "That's always going to be my base."Release parties
Combining the live-band muscle of Heiruspecs with the sociopolitical wallop of Toki Wright and I Self Devine, local quintet Junkyard Empire takes over 7th Street Entry on Saturday to promote its full-length debut, "Acts of Humanity, Vol. 1 & 2." Wright, Desdamona and Alicia Steele all guest on the album alongside the band's steamy mouthpiece, Brihanu, who riffs on murderous American policies in "Manifest" and the band's real- life trip to Cuba in "Rock el Emperio." Wright, Guante and City on the Make also perform Saturday (9 p.m., $10).
Unless you're hip to the Bosso Poetry Collective (and many people are), the name Jeffrey Skemp may not ring a bell, but some of the backers on his first spoken-word album probably do. Martin Dosh, Roma Di Luna's JG Everest and Ben Durrant and GST's Greg Schaefer are all featured on "Spent," a madcap, dark-humored collection recorded at Durrant's Crazy Beast Studio. They will also all back Kemp at his release party Saturday at Bryant-Lake Bowl (7 p.m., $6-$8).Random mix
At the recommendation of the Black Lips (fans of the band), the Vice Records-affiliated music videography site Noisey.com recently followed around Twin Cities punk duo the Birthday Suits for a segment that includes footage at Treehouse Records and 7th Street Entry. The mini-film will premiere Tuesday on the site. ... The Rockford Mules and Goondas, neither well-known for good behavior, are making a nice gesture toward fans with kids and/or day jobs and playing an early gig Sunday at Cause (7 p.m., free). ...
Dessa has curated another Cadence Hip-Hop Series for the Guthrie, happening July 8-9 with Cecil Otter, new Minneapolis transplant Astronautalis, Crescent Moon Is in Big Trouble, Lazlo Supreme, Abby Wolf and more. Details at www.GuthrieTheater.org. ... Dessa herself will perform on the big outdoor stage at the second annual West Bank Music Fest on Aug. 20, which will also feature Retribution Gospel Choir, the Goondas, Gramma's Boyfriend and more music in the neighboring venues. ...
After spending part of last week atop the iTunes album chart, Owl City was somewhat coincidentally replaced this week by Bon Iver. That reminded me of all the similarities between the two: Both sophomore albums were recorded at home studios, in houses that the pseudonym-using singers bought in their rural Upper Midwest hometowns after their first albums blew up. Oh, and both dudes use a lot of Auto-Tune to beautify their voice. Too bad Adam Young isn't also into deer hunting. ... Tickets to Bon Iver's Sept. 7 show at the Orpheum Theatre go on sale Friday at noon ($37.50). ...
Pennyroyal, which plays the Uptown Pride Block Party on Friday before Maria Isa, is one of the 10 acts who landed on my annual midyear tally of "The Best Local Albums of the Year (So Far)," being published Sunday in our Variety section and at Startribune.com/music. I'll be on "The Local Show" at The Current (89.3 FM) on Sunday at 6 p.m. to discuss the list.
- Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib