Onstage at a gig with Brother Ali in Kentucky a day or two after the election, Toki Wright was reminded he still has plenty of work to do as a rapper.
"I said something like, 'So, Obama's the new president,'" Wright recalled, laughing at the memory. "There was this half-drunk white guy in the front row who yelled out, 'Yeah! Racism is over!'"
Wright used the story to illustrate why he still believes in his song "State of Emergency," one of the most intense tracks on his fiery full-length solo album, but a song that might sound dated because of its lines targeting the Bush administration.
"There's still racism," he continued, losing his smile. "There's still classism, sexism, homophobia, poverty all around the world, war -- wars! The problems that were here before are still here, no matter how much the media would rather talk about the swine flu instead."
Already well known as an activist, promoter and rapper in the local hip-hop scene -- a scene that he, more than anyone who's not named Slug, has integrated into Twin Cities culture -- Wright, 29, can now add educator to his résumé. He sat down for an interview last week at his new office in the basement of St. Paul's McNally Smith College of Music, where he's been hired to lead a first-of-its-kind hip-hop diploma program that begins in the fall.
This summer, though, Wright only wants to be known as a rapper. After years of waving a spotlight around the scene, he believes it's time he stepped into the light as a solo artist. And so does Rhymesayers, the Minneapolis label/empire releasing his album, "A Different Mirror," June 9.
At Rhymesayers' second annual Soundset festival Sunday, Wright will open the main stage with a solo set and then work the stage all day as host, plus he will perform as Brother Ali's hype man (a job he's held down for almost three years).
Next month is when things really get interesting for him. He'll host an in-store party at Fifth Element in Uptown on June 9. He then heads to Washington, D.C., to speak alongside hip-hop legend Afrika Bambaataa at a Howard University seminar titled "Remixing the Art of Social Change." Then he returns for release parties June 26 at 7th Street Entry and June 27 at the Orpheum in Duluth.
"I figured it was time to make my stand," Wright said. "I've had some drastic life changes over the past few years that made me think about what I really wanted to do."
Among those drastic changes were: graduating from the University of Minnesota; traveling to Rwanda, Uganda and Central America through social-service programs; seeing his house in St. Paul burn down (he alleges it was arson) and giving up his coordinator post at Yo! the Movement, the nonprofit youth organization that launched the Celebration of Hip-Hop festivals under his watch. Not to mention, he stayed busy raising his daughter Asata, 8, through all that.
The tours backing up Brother Ali have been transformational, Wright said, but humbling as well. "Sometimes it's like a talent show, going out there and being a new guy. I've been doing this over a decade, and I know I'm good, but nobody at the shows is there to hear what I have to say."
Still, he added, "Eyedea was Slug's hype man. Redman was EPMD's hype man. I have no problem backing up a great artist."
"A Different Mirror" shows that, of all the established Rhymesayers artists, Wright falls more in line with I Self Devine than Ali, with his North Side-reared ideology, inflamed quest for justice and street-grimy music. I Self guests on one of the album's hardest tracks, "The Law," which points to crimes on both sides of government/ghetto relations. Race and identity also play heavily into the disc's closer "Poison Ivy (Afreecan-American)" and the title track, based on a book of the same name by Ronald Takaki about multiculturalism.
"The only chapter on African-Americans that I read in school was: We were slaves, and then Martin Luther King got beat up and had a dream and we all should hold hands," Wright said, pointing to the heart of the album. "How do I and my generation define our own chapter? Who tells the story that if you deal dope and go to jail, your family gets hurt by that? And who tells the success stories?"
In the new program he's leading at McNally Smith, "not only do we talk about the practice of hip-hop, but also the business side of it and the cultural history and dynamics of it," he explained, already foreseeing what naysayers might have to say. "Hip-hop is part of society all over the world now, not just America. It's also a $12 [billion] to $30 billion industry every year. For us to not talk about it and learn about it in a critical way would be negligent."
Wright will be the first to ridicule gimmicky gangsta heroes such as T.I., Rick Ross and 50 Cent and the image of high-living they sell.
"If I had a stack of money in my hand, a car with shiny rims, and a big-booty girl in the passenger seat, and I'm rolling down the street waving the money out the window -- like you'll see in a music video -- would I not be robbed by tomorrow?" he cracked.
On the other hand, he said, "A lot of the underground rap artists kind of wag their finger at the hood, and that's not what I do. I don't want to separate myself from my community."
Wright bounced around as a child between Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis, where his mom and three siblings finally settled in 1990 near Farview Park. Mom is a Buddhist ("a strong, hardcore Buddhist," he noted), while his grandmother often made him go to her Baptist church. That schooled him on being open to different cultures. Mom actually gave him his first lesson in hip-hop, too.
"She brought home the Fat Boys' 'Crushin' on tape, and I loved it," he remembered. "Then my older brother starting bringing home Slick Rick and N.W.A. albums. I thought they were cool just because they were swearing and talking about sex, but I wised up. I was writing my own stuff at age 11."
Wright got his start performing with childhood pal Adonis (A.D.) Frazier as the C.O.R.E., which is still an active duo with new recordings in the can. Wright also hopes to record with the Chosen Few, the local all-star group with Träma and St. Paul Slim.
For now, though, he is content that "A Different Mirror" represents most of what he wants to say as a rapper. And it's not only heavy-lifting social-injustice stuff, either. The disc also features a few Fat Boys-like braggadocious party tracks, including the coy "Next Best Thing" and the Ali-produced gem "The Feeling."
"You know, I go to the barbershop and play hoops and talk trash, too," he said. "I know how to have a good time. But that doesn't mean I can't tackle serious issues."Flippin' Quarters
Not all the Twin Cities hip-hop action is moving out to Shakopee this weekend -- Big Quarters performs Saturday at the Triple Rock to promote their second album. The title lets you know right up front it's a doozy: "From the Home of Brown Babies & White Mothers." Brothers Zach and Brandon Bagaason -- aka Medium Zach and Brandon Allday, who actually have a Mexican-American mom and Caucasian dad (but you get the idea) -- cunningly touch on racial identity issues throughout the disc, most stunningly on "Wipe the Dust," featuring Crescent Moon. P.O.S. guests on another gem, "One on the Lip." The best tracks, though, such as "Barter System" and especially "Good Look," demonstrate how strong the bros are at producing their De La Soul-like, jazz-spiked beats and wrapping their own carefully rhythmic rhymes around them. Crescent Moon's Kill the Vultures opens Saturday's show with Mankwe Andosi and more (10 p.m., $7).Random mix
Mighty noise-rock trio Gay Beast issues its long-awaited sophomore album, "Second Wave," with a release party Saturday at 7th Street Entry also featuring Mute Era (10 p.m., $6). ... Ex-Domo Sound frontman Mark Edwards (who also records as the Original Mark Edwards) coleads a new quartet called The Arrest, which is promoting its debut CD for Princess Records tonight at the Fine Line, full of stargazey, epic-sized rock a la Radiohead and Spiritualized. ...
Finnegan's ShamRock fest will return to the Cabooze's outdoor stage June 6 with West Bank regular Joseph Arthur headlining. Kraig Johnson (Golden Smog, Jayhawks) now plays in Arthur's band. Tim Mahoney, Jeremy Messersmith and Matt Wilson's and John Munson's new group the Twilight Hours will also perform. More info at FinnegansShamRock.com. ...
Seen around town all too little these days, Slim Dunlap and his band return to Lee's Liquor Lounge on Saturday to head up a fundraiser for Bryn Mawr Elementary School's ailing band program, also featuring Gone Is Gone and Paschanga Society (9:30 p.m., $6-$10 donation). ...
Possibly buoyed by the new Rolling Stone cover interview that spotlights Bob's roots, Hibbing is throwing its Dylan Days festival once again this weekend, culminating in a concert Saturday night with Scarlet Rivera and Gene LaFond, both members of the '75-'76 Rolling Thunder Revue. Details at DylanDays.com. ...
The sixth annual Rock for Pussy concert -- a David Bowie tribute show benefiting animal-rescue efforts -- lands again tonight at First Avenue with an all-star band including John Eller, Randy Casey and Noah Levy and guest singers such as Jeremy Messersmith, Laurie Lindeen, Chris (Little Man) Perricelli and FCAP's Liam Watkins (9 p.m., $6-$8). Hopefully, those are all the details you'll need, because you don't want to have to do a Google search for the title like I did. At the office, no less.
We blog music at startribune.com/poplife.
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