If there's one thing Muja Messiah is really good at, it's getting people's attention.
He does it by pointing pistols at cameras and dropping gunshots onto his recordings -- trite-and-true gangsta-rap gimmicks that generally don't fly in the Twin Cities hip-hop scene.
Mostly, though, he does it by talking smack.
Case in point: One of the first times I saw a performance by the Brooklyn Park-reared rapper (which he likens to being from north Minneapolis), he berated former City Pages writer Peter Scholtes onstage for his excellent oral history on the local hip-hop scene. Muja's problem with the article? He wasn't in it, of course.
That's just one of the many times Muja Messiah's mouth has earned him notoriety, a trait he doesn't deny.
"I talk too much [crap] for little ol' Minnesota," the 31-year-old says proudly.
Finally, though, people outside of his local rap peers and a small audience are learning that Muja Messiah has other skills besides making a spectacle of himself.
A trio of songs is earning him more attention than anything he's ever said.
One is curiously called "Amy Winehouse," and another is a remake of M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes." Both are featured on his new mix-tape CD coming out this month, "Mpls. Massacre, Vol. 1." Combined with an older online hit, "Patriot Act" -- a political Molotov cocktail featuring I Self Devine -- Muja has built an underground audience online by applying his audaciousness to his songs. Vibe magazine recently named him one of the "51 best MySpace rappers," and his list of MySpace.com "friends" is more than 5,000 and rising.
"By the end of this year, people will see what I've been doing all along -- that I've been working hard, and I'm ready to sit in the same room as Kanye and Jay-Z," the rapper said confidently in an interview last week.
His confidence arises mainly from the "official" album he has in the can, ready to drop over the summer. Titled "Thee Adventures of a B-Boy D-Boy," it features guest spots by the Roots' Black Thought, Eminem beatmaker Che Vicious, Slug of Atmosphere and many other locals. The difference between that album and the new mix CD, he said, "is one's essentially a setup to the other."
"I only put together 'Mpls. Massacre' because I had 40 or so tracks that I had nothing to do with, and I wanted to get something out quick," he explained.
If "Mpls. Massacre" is made up of leftovers and outtakes, then "Thee Adventures" really must be as strong as he makes it sound. The mix CD -- actually 27 tracks, but still an impressive output -- features a mix of thug-leaning tracks, a few party anthems and one political thinker, "True Lies." The latter follows "Patriot Act's" lead with such bold assertions as: "The Taliban, you kidding me?/ [They] ain't killing me/They're all a bunch of wimps/ Terrorism doesn't exist to me/ It's all politics."
And then there are the CD's random oddities, including "Amy Winehouse." It's not about the British singer/bad-girl, nor does it even sample one of her songs (in fact, it uses Rihanna's "Umbrella"), but it does rhyme Winehouse with "White House" and "that ol' girl from 'Grindhouse'" while riffing on troublesome women and Minneapolis pride.
"I might do a song called 'Britney' next," Muja quipped.
As for the "Paper Planes" remake, when Muja heard the original, he said, "It was the best [thing] I'd heard in a while; I just had to do something with it." To help with the song's redux, he enlisted burgeoning Minneapolis-via-Ghana rapper M.anifest, though they'd never worked together before.
"He sent the track back with lyrics in two days, and they were tight," Muja recalled. "That dude's efficient."
The mixed-bag aesthetic on "Mpls. Massacre" is actually perfect for Muja Messiah. He's the rare rapper who knows inner-city violence firsthand -- an older brother was shot and killed, and so were some of his friends, he said -- but who also knows plenty about politics, socioeconomics and other topics popular in so-called backpacker hip-hop.
He has been mixing it up like this since he first hit the scene with his group Raw Villa around the start of the '00s.
"I'm from the era of A Tribe Called Quest and N.W.A., and here in the Midwest I was literally right in between those two," he said. "Kanye, also as a Midwesterner, is really the embodiment of that."
Following Kanye's lead, Muja said he explores more personal themes on "Thee Adventures." He was born Robert Hedges (for some reason, he has never revealed his name to the press) to a black mother and a white father, who he said abandoned him.
Local bigwigs I Self Devine and Slug pushed him to be more personal, he said.
"I was driving around with Slug just listening to my songs, and I had this funny track about Dianetics. Slug said to me, 'It's clever and everything, but I don't know if it's right for your audience. How many people in north Minneapolis care about Dianetics and Tom Cruise?'"
In other words, Muja Messiah is, thankfully, the rare Minneapolis rapper not trying to sound like Slug (whose audience might indeed laugh at a Dianetics track). But he is one of the few rappers in town who might tell you point-blank he's way better than our big kahuna. This might be the year we'll find out.New Moon
While his Bryant-Lake Bowl CD party will have happened by the time you read this Friday morning, Kill the Vultures rapper and Roma di Luna singer/songwriter Crescent Moon (Alexei Casselle) still deserves attention for his latest project: a solo EP recorded with the Heiruspecs offshoot band Big Trouble, appropriately titled "Crescent Moon Is in Big Trouble."
Issued on Afternoon Records, the six-track finds Crescent spewing dark and weary-sounding tunes such as "Hunting Season" and "Where the Cutthroats Stay" over gritty, smoky, bluesy and raw rock 'n' roll, captured with a great live sound by producer Joe Mabbott. Interestingly, the final track on the EP is a version of "St. James Infirmary," a jazz/blues standard that seems better suited to Casselle's Roma di Luna but soars here.Random mix
Speaking of Afternoon Records, label founder Ian Anderson has up and taken his band, One for the Team, off the roster of his own record company to sign with a bigger one. OFTT's in-the-works sophomore album is due this summer on the Militia Group, a Long Beach, Calif., label that's home to the Panic Division, Juliette & the Licks and Cartel. ...
Anyone who plans on watching Sunday night's episode of "Dirt" (Anyone? Anyone?), keep your ears peeled for a track by Moon Maan. Rick McCollum's mighty band landed its song "Chain Yr Soul" on Courteney Cox's FX series. ...
The Hold Steady will be back in town to play Northrop Auditorium on April 10, a special concert rewarding U of M students who take part in the Minnesota Student Association's community service. Loved the quote from MSA Vice President Ross Skattum in the Minnesota Daily: "We wanted an act that was a little bigger than Guster." The band should be back with a regular gig later in the year to promote its fourth album, which it just completed last month with producer John Agnello (the Sonic Youth cohort who also handled "Boys and Girls in America"). ...
The Honeydogs' show Saturday at the Uptown Bar is their first gig since November, and their first at that club in 10 years. Frontman Adam Levy said they will play tunes from a new album they're about to record. ... Mason Jennings isn't just recording for Jack Johnson nowadays (his new CD comes out in May on Johnson's Brushfire Records) -- he will also be the Hawaiian surfer dude's opener on a summer tour that lands June 22 in Somerset, Wis. ...
The list of local acts headed to Austin, Texas, for next week's South by Southwest Music Conference seems to be growing by the minute. Many bands, such as the Alarmists, Vampire Hands, Romantica and First Communion Afterparty, are going even without being officially accepted by the conference (proof that getting in is as political as it is musical). And it's not just bands going there: Local companies including 50 Entertainment, ReveilleMag.com, Eclectone and Modern-Radio.com are all hosting day parties during the fest. Looks like I'm gonna be extra busy this year.
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