Andy Bothwell, better known as Astronautalis, has been at it too long to suggest a move to Minneapolis finally catapulted his career. The freshly localized rapper has been plowing away for a decade-plus in the underground hip-hop trenches.
Still, the vagabond MC has been enjoying unprecedented success ever since he relocated here last summer. He says album sales and fan attendance in the Twin Cities have both doubled his previous bests. Now he's nabbed a slot at Soundset, the massive indie hip-hop festival that lands at Canterbury Park Sunday for a fifth year.
"I'm in the best place I've been in," he said last week at Kramarczuk's deli in Minneapolis. "I'm on the crux right here; I could tip over in one direction or I could tip back."
Two traits could help push Astronautalis forward. First, the man is blessed with prodigious rapping ability. Attend a show or watch a YouTube clip and you'll see. His signature stunt -- soliciting several words from the audience and twisting them into an eight-minute freestyle -- looks effortless, with Bothwell batting around bars and twisting diction like it's no big deal.
Secondly, Astronautalis now sits at the coolest table in the Twin Cities music cafeteria. He's pally with Doomtree, and he's tight with tastemaking label Totally Gross National Product (Poliça, Marijuana Deathsquads). TGNP co-founder (and Gayngs honcho) Ryan Olson was drawn to Bothwell's skill set, and together with some dude namd Bon Iver, they recently formed a still-under-wraps band.
"He can do things that very few people in our scene can really do," Olson said, comparing Astronautalis' ability to that of the late Eyedea. "He can rap his fucking pants off."
Before the scenester-hobnobbing and supergroup-forming, though, Astronautalis was just a shy kid on a farm. Bothwell, 30, grew up in a 100-year-old farmhouse 45 minutes outside of Baltimore with an Amtrak executive father and a photographer mother. There were only 100 kids in his middle school, just one of them black, he says. Thankfully, his older brother, Seth Phillips, served as a wellspring of musical knowledge, turning the rural pup into a premature hipster. "I was listening to the Clash in second grade," he said. "I knew all the words to every Smiths song when everyone was listening to New Kids on the Block."
His family moved to suburban Jacksonville, Fla., when he was 12. Bothwell didn't immediately take to his eventual trade; he confesses that "RAP SUCKS" was scrawled on his eighth-grade binder. That same year, though, his brother -- by then a DJ in the burgeoning U.S. rave scene -- introduced him to East Coast rap royalty such as Gang Starr, Big L and Lord Finesse.
That same year, Bothwell started freestyling. "When I started out, I was as bad any other white kid," he recalled. "I would do it every night when I walked my dog." For the high school theater geek, the performance and improv elements of hip-hop were an immediate draw. Friends introduced him to skateboarding videos that combined rap and indie-rock soundtracks, a genre cocktail that would later inform Astronautalis.
Jacksonville, a city with a Navy base and sizable Amtrak depot, also turned out to be an improbable hip-hop incubator. "Military bases add this huge influx of minority groups -- there's tons of black people and Filipinos," Bothwell said. "The train yard adds this other element: When there's a lot of trains, there's a lot of graffiti; when there's a lot of graffiti, there's a lot of rap music."
The young MC would tag along with his brother to DJ nights, freestyling for the bouncers before and after shows. "To be a white rapper, there were no open mikes; it wasn't like today," he said, claiming his first rap battles came against older, often unsavory rappers fresh off the rails. "I was like 'I just got done with theater practice -- let's battle!'"
Prior to Soundset, the largest Astronautalis show to date was actually the first. In 1998, he and his brother opened for a 5,000-seat A Tribe Called Quest and Black Eyed Peas concert at the University of Florida bandshell. "I did really well," he remembers, adding that it was his rap coming-out moment to his parents, who were in attendance.
In 2002, a year before he graduated from the theater program at Southern Methodist University, Bothwell competed in the heralded Scribble Jam rap-battle competition. He didn't win, but the process did alter his artistic course. "Freestyling is about the craft, about being clever and thinking of the coolest way to call someone a pussy," he said. "That's when I had the light-bulb moment of like, 'Why am I not thinking about this the same way I think about directing and art theory all day?'" Astronautalis undertook his first tour immediately after college, working the pop-punk Vans Warped Tour without pay from 2003-05. His ability to win influential friends was evident early on, as the greenhorn rapper and grizzled Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong nearly formed a songwriting team.
Bothwell says those Warped Tours made for amazing first years on the road, but he immediately transitioned to living out of a van or with his parents. In 2008, after finishing his second album, "Pomegranate," he moved to Seattle to be with a long-distance girlfriend. Six months after the move, he got dumped. Friends urged Bothwell to stay, and he worked as a museum security guard. His final year in Seattle, hip-hop become a full-time job. "Things were truly starting to take off for me in Seattle right before I moved," he said.
Lured by years of successful Twin Cities shows, an enthusiastic music scene and plenty of friends, Astronautalis moved here last June. So far, he says the Twin Cities have exceeded his expectations.
"This city is so obsessed with rap music. It's so mind-blowing," he said. "When I moved here, newspapers wrote articles about how I'm moving here. That's absurd -- that's nuts! There's gonna be negative side effects to that absurd, relentless support. But hey, I'll take that over constant disappointment!"
The geographic change coincides with an artistic one for Astronautalis. The artful MC, who often injects heavy doses of indie-rock and blues into his songs, previously took a highly literate approach to lyricism, penning character-driven narratives about divergent topics. "I wanted to make records that weren't about me, because I felt the subject of 'middle-class, suburban white rapper with mild problems/sadness and a post-modern awareness of the world' for the last 10 years had been pretty well taken care of."
But on his latest album, 2011's "This Is Our Science," Astronautalis made a push toward more personal lyrics and an even more experimental sound. "It's about putting myself out there -- both the good and bad, not sugarcoating," he said of the album. "It's about me and my friends carving our niche in the world."
That niche is one wrought with tradeoffs, he said -- another topic covered on "Science." "I tour 10 months out of the year. I'm not a normal person. I don't have a girlfriend; I don't hang out. But if I were to take the other path, the regret would be overwhelming."
Bothwell is content with where he's at now, but striving for greater success. Yielding that "making it" is relative, he says less touring and a little more income would be ideal. In the short term, he's thrilled to be a part of the Soundset festival.
"I kind of stepped away from the rap community a few years and decided actively to only play indie shows," he said. "Playing Soundset, that's sort of a nice benchmark of acceptance in the rap community, which still matters to me. I still consider myself a rapper first and foremost, so it still matters to me that other rappers respect my craft."
- With: Atmosphere, Lupe Fiasco, Kendrick Lamar, Ghostface Killah & Raekwon, Aesop Rock, P.O.S., Grieves & Budo, Danny Brown, Big K.R.I.T., Evidence, Prof, I Self Devine, Astronautalis, more
- When: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.
- Where: Canterbury Park Festival Field, Shakopee
- Tickets: $41, www.ticketweb.com
- More event information