UPDATE: Baby Shel wound up winning the Are You Local? showcase at First Avenue on March 6, landing him a 1:15 p.m. slot in the Midwest Showcase day party on Friday, March 20, at Holy Mountain in Austin, Texas. He also performs Thursday afternoon at the Coast 2 Coast Live party at Cielo nightclub.
It’s a long way from the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northwestern Minnesota to the great hipster uprising that is the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas. Baby Shel already made the trek two years ago and was greeted like a major rap star — albeit, by only one mistaken sushi restaurant.
“They kept bringing me free stuff, and I was like, ‘What’s all this?’ ” recalled Shel, who was wearing a wristband that said “artist” at the time. “They said, ‘Anything for you, Fat Joe!’ ”
Yes, the real-life Sheldon Cook Jr. bears a noticeable resemblance to burly New York rapper “Fat” Joe Cartagena. That wasn’t the first or last time the 25-year-old member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians has been mistaken as Latino, an error he chalks up to the fact that people simply aren’t used to seeing American Indian rappers. He could be someone to change that.
One of four acts competing in Vita.mn’s sixth annual Are You Local? contest Friday night in 7th Street Entry — the prize is a trip to Austin’s SXSW fest in two weeks — Baby Shel certainly qualifies as a “local” act when you consider most of his gigs have been in Minneapolis. Truth is, he doesn’t really have anywhere else to go.
“There’s nowhere to perform up where we are,” he said, pointing to his reservation’s ban on alcohol (and thus bars). Most of the venues in outlying towns, he added, “only book country or rock bands. No way they’ll let a rap act come in.”
Even just getting to Minneapolis is a long trek from the Red Lake reservation — about five hours.
“A lot of times I’ll come down and do a show and drive back afterward, so I don’t get home until like 7 a.m. It’ll be like a 14-hour road trip round-trip just to do a 30-40-minute show.”
All Twin Cities rappers who complain about how hard they have to work to get a gig can officially stop now.
Bridging the gap
Baby Shel has been fully invested in his rap career for about five years, including a couple of solo albums and work with the Red Lake area group 100 Souls and the reservation’s own resident label/crew, Rez Rap. He played the Entry and Skyway Theatre’s Studio B just last month. Last year, his crew opened a string of Midwest dates with Yelawolf (who’s part Cherokee). He is headed back to SXSW later this month whether or not he wins Are You Local?, with at least two confirmed gigs.
Not bad, considering the big gap he faces, both geographically and culturally.
“A lot of people think we live in the Stone Age up there, but we have the Internet,” he said. “That’s a hugely important thing in our case.”
Thanks to the proliferation of music online, young people on the Red Lake reservation can hear the newly leaked Kanye West single or Drake’s surprise album as easily as teens who live down the street from Fifth Element record store in Minneapolis. Shel said they’re devouring hip-hop like never before back home.
“There are relatable topics in it for native kids,” he said, going down the list: “just living in the gutter, going through violence, losing family members and friends way too often. Hip-hop touches on the really raw, tough stuff that’s happening to us.”
Shel’s personal life attests to how grim reservation life can sometimes be. He’s known many friends and relatives who have committed suicide. One of his closest cousins, Leah Cook, was in the English classroom shot up by a 16-year-old student at Red Lake Senior High School in 2005, where eight died. (Shel himself attended nearby Thief River Falls High School at the time.)
His dad — who originally gave him the nickname Baby Shel — just got out of prison in December after serving a 10-year drug sentence. Friday’s showcase might be the first time Sheldon Sr. gets to see his son perform.
“He really stressed it to me to stay out of that lane and learn from his mistakes,” Baby Shel said.
A rapid-tongued, intense MC, Shel delivers lyrics that reflect the bleakness of his settings in some of his hardest, heaviest songs. One standout, “Get Ya Mind,” advises against fellow reservation members who come back flaunting money they’ve made over less well-off residents: “Talking about them soldiers that need every penny to survive / And you look like a fresh steak on a plate to them guys / Those false moves could lead up to you losing your life.”
More often than not, though, Shel’s songs are more about escapism and rising above. He said, “I want to be known as a rapper who just happens to be native, not a native hip-hop artist.” Likewise, he said, he also hopes to portray the Red Lake reservation in a more positive light.
“It’s a tough place to live, but at the same time it’s a beautiful place. You can see the stars at night and enjoy the quiet woods life.”
Just getting into Are You Local? was big news back home, he said, where folks know full well the importance of performing at 7th Street Entry and First Avenue. “I feel like people are rooting for me up there,” he said.
It’s easy to expect people to start rooting for him down here now, too.