Most rappers like to brag that they’ve been freestyle-rhyming and honing their craft since their early teens. Dem Atlas, however, is happy to admit he did not start performing until after high school. And he’s only 21 now.
That the St. Paul wordsmith got signed so quickly to Rhymesayers — the Minneapolis record label that U.K. newspaper the Guardian just called “arguably the finest independent rap imprint in the world” — might be a bone of contention to all the longer-dedicated rap-star wannabes out there.
“Everyone has their own path and journey, and mine was just different,” said the real-life Joshua Turner, who last fall became the first local act to join the Rhymesayers roster this decade. He is working on an album due this year and has his big coming-out on stage this week as part of Atmosphere’s Welcome to Minnesota Tour, winding down Monday at First Avenue.
“I pursued a lot of other interests before I became an MC,” he continued. “I was in a rock band. I was an actor, a painter, a speaker [on the speech team]. I think all those things gave me a different vision and more balanced qualifications to do what I’m doing now.”
As you can maybe tell by his comments, Dem Atlas is one of the more soulful, contemplative, artistically minded 21-year-olds and/or rappers you’ll ever meet. With a lanky figure and dreadlocks down to his shoulders, he speaks in a mild tone that belies his rapping style — wiry, playful, cocksure, reminiscent of smart ’90s-era groups such as the Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest. He can’t discuss the lyrics of one of his songs without closing his eyes and going into full-blown performance mode.
Turner started singing while discussing his first vivid musical memory, which was listening to the Fugees’ 1996 hit “Killing Me Softly” when he was 4, a story that at once underlines how young he is — and how expressive and tender, too.
“My mom and my dad got into a physical confrontation, and it got really ugly,” he recounted. “I kept playing the song over and over while they were upstairs, and my dad was beating my mom.”
Opening his eyes after singing the chorus, he said, “The song made me think everything was going to be OK. I never forgot how music can have that kind of power.”
Eager to brandish that power as a rapper, he stepped out on stage with great frequency last year, coming first to the attention of poetic scene do-gooder Guante (who recorded tracks with him under the moniker Sifu Hotman) and then to various members of the Rhymesayers crew. He earned an opening slot for Seattle-bred Rhymesayers star Grieves at the Triple Rock last June, which he realized later was an audition of sorts.
Born in Akron, Ohio, with three older siblings, Turner moved to north Minneapolis at age 4 but eventually wound up in Eagan before junior high.
“From hearing gunshots to hearing crickets,” he dryly noted.
His mom, Cherisse, came out as a lesbian later in his childhood and entered a steady relationship with another woman, which he said helped shape an open-minded mentality and “made me more sensitive to the ways women are treated in songs.”
In his early teens, he remembers deleting a bunch of his older brother’s rap songs from their computer because of the heavy use of the B-word and other lyrics he didn’t like, including Tupac, Biggie and DMX — “all this stuff that I did wind up getting into later.”
By no means a prude, he opened his debut EP with the line, “No one understands me, not even my [expletive] family,” and goes on to declare, “I can’t be the voice of a generation / Get it now, get it out / I can only hear the songs in my head / They’re too loud.”
Even with just six tracks, the “Charle Brwn” EP — self-released and streaming via Bandcamp — shows an impressive musical range, from the rapid-tongued opener “A Happy Sad” to the dreamy, loopy, insomnia-inspired closer “Fall Into Sleep Endlessly” and the jazz-bopped gem “Chowder.”
The most definitive song is the title track, which boasts a buoyant beat and a positive outlook (“The world ain’t pretty, but it ain’t [crummy] either,” is the hook). But it also points to Turner’ introspective, sensitive character.
“I really identify with the character Charlie Brown,” said the rapper, who’s also heavily into cartoon animation. “He’s a comical character, but there’s a deeper side. He’s also a depressed figure, and he tries and tries and tries no matter what.”
Although he’s been putting his work ethic to use on his upcoming record, it already seems that Turner himself doesn’t have to try too hard to get results.