For Minneapolis-based hip-hop group Doomtree, success might have rang false if it had arrived too easily; although, after more than 10 years either on the road or scrambling for recording opportunities, they may beg to differ on that point. Running one’s own label can mean both freedom and isolation. And, the demographics for a seven-piece hip-hop collective from the Midwest don’t exactly scream Hollywood biopic.
But in 2012, the tide seems to be shifting for the group. Their 2011 album “No Kings” recently hit No. 3 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart. They were listed on Amazon’s 2011 “100 Outstanding Albums You Might Have Missed.” And this week, they dropped a video for the album featuring none other than Har Mar Superstar singing the song’s lyrics via karaoke. How many hip-hop acts can say that? Their tour for the album, which kicks off today and visits Denver’s Summit Music Hall on Sunday, is hitting larger-sized venues all over the country.
We recently spoke with emcees Mike Mictlan and Dessa Darling about the “No Kings” tour and the long journey that preceded it.
Q: This tour looks pretty grueling, there’s something like 33 shows in the first 38 days. How do you keep up the intensity of your live shows, are there trailers of 5-Hour Energy drinks involved?
M.M.: Usually I make sure I’m completely exhausted before we leave for the tour — then I’m already used to it (laughs).
D.D.: Yeah, it’s like the runners that train at high altitude. I think the fact that all of us are together is invigorating and helps a lot. When we come off stage, we’ll often talk about the moments Mike saved the show with his energy or Sims saved the show or whomever. The interaction with the audience also inspires us a lot, and yes, having seven performers on stage gives you a moment to breathe!
Q: You’re not quite as big as Wu Tang was, but you’re still a big collective in comparison to most hip hop acts. How do seven people manage to get along and still make all the necessary decisions?
M.M.: We’re still learning our own process about how to do those things but we all generally have the same idea when it comes to Doomtree.
D.D.: Working together for so many years, you learn that if one decision is not yours, you’ll have another at bat very shortly. It’s about finding creative ways to help our artists succeed.
Q: How does DIY figure into sustaining a whole collective over 10-plus years?
M.M.: We certainly hire people for management and promotion, but it has definitely helped us a lot in building friendships with other artists.
D.D.: That term used to imply more of a disadvantage than it does now. For Doomtree, DIY used to mean we were tragically undercapitalized. Now, it means we’re ferociously attached to our creative control. We pay our debts and we don’t compromise our music at all. We’ve played at Red Rocks and we’ve also played in Denver basements to 20 or 30 kids. We grew up hustling, we’ve had bad monitors, bad soundchecks, we’ve vomited off stage and still hit our lines. So, it’s changed (along) with us.
Q: Genres usually can’t encompass the music they’re meant to describe, but at times “No Kings” does sound like a blend of indie-rock and hip-hop. What’s at work there to keep it from sounding clichéd?
D.D.: Both Mike and I play rapper roles, but P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Lazerbeak, Paper Tiger and other members, they don’t worry too hard about staying in the lane. I think it comes from being open-minded about sounds and worrying less about fusion.
M.M.: And their influences from Minneapolis speak a lot to that. We came up playing shows with all kinds of bands. It was a big part of the Minneapolis scene that all kinds of music coexisted on bills together.
D.D.: I didn’t know being on a bill with a rock or metal band was weird until we started touring. In some American cities a mixed bill won’t succeed. I hadn’t realized how much I took that for granted.
Q: You did “No Kings” from start to finish in like nine months. And in the opening of the track “The Grand Experiment,” you go historically from the Big Bang to the atomic bomb in a few lines — are you trying to set a hip-hop land speed record?
D.D.: Another break-up song just wasn’t gonna work at that point (laughs). We’ve lived and worked together for a long time and suggesting song themes is something we do intentionally. For that tune, we wanted to do something on a really big scale. Each of those verses takes on a big theme.
M.M.: We like to make the music fun for people. But in trying to be innovative with our sound, we also want our lyrics to be taken seriously at the same time.
Denver-based writer Sam DeLeo is a published poet, has seen two of his plays produced and is currently finishing his novel, “As We Used To Sing.”