Photos by David Rubene
Welp people, the inevitable happened. Winter has hit the Twin Cities and my four mile drive from home to First Avenue went from 7 minutes to 27 minutes due to a little white powder falling from the sky. Okay, I was annoyed. No, I was more than annoyed and the drive definitely tested my patience as I dealt with idiots going to fast and idiots pretending they had never driven in snow before. Regardless, after taking a couple of deep breaths after parking, I trudged through the snow that was sticking to the ground and quickly found myself in the warmth of my home away from home- First Avenue.
With just a slight delay surely due to the knowledge that everyone was going to be running a bit late, Dem Atlas took the stage just a little bit after 8PM. As always, I was instantly impressed with this young man’s energy, voice, and all over being. There’s just something about this guy that, as soon as I see him or hear his voice, a smile stretches from ear to ear. Much like the headliner of the night, Dem Atlas (born Joshua Turner) comes off as nothing short of genuine. Every word and every movement comes off as so natural and it’s obvious that he was just being him– nothing more and nothing less.
With a new album (“Bad Actress”) that just came out a couple of weeks ago, Dem Atlas did a great job of showcasing the progress he has made over the years while still entertaining the nearly sold out audience with some old favorites. One of my favorite things about Dem Atlas is the fact that you can literally hear him grow in his music. I mean, I’ve loved his style since day one and he definitely has something that not many have but I think I love being able to see that progression more than anything. Although clearly a rapper (and a damn good one at that), Dem Atlas incorporates this sense of soul and funk into his raps– not the instrumentation, but the vocals. It’s a very unique mash-up and something that will definitely shoot this guy into the mainstream before you know it. That soul isn’t just heard in his raspy yet somehow smooth voice that often breaks into a screech in the vibe of James Brown, it’s felt. His movements are electric and, although he’s clearly a fan of jumps, they come off as completely organic and as if he’s just doing what the music makes him feel. I always praise the local rap/ hip-hop scene all the time (hell, I even have a Doomtree (local rap collective) tattoo right on my wrist) and I can tell you that Dem Atlas is definitely one of the brightest stars we have right now.
Following Dem Atlas’ high-energy set was a DJ set from Last Word. As one fourth of the local DJ collective Get Cryphy, Last Word has strong local ties that reigned supreme throughout his set. His set combined good old school local sounds with more modern and bigger names while still feeling very original. As amazing as the sounds coming out of the speakers were, I found it a bit strange that Last Word was placed second in the line-up instead of first. Although up-beat mixes, the energy in the room seemed to drop a little bit after the explosive set that was Dem Atlas. I’m definitely not down playing Last Word’s talent in any way, shape, or form but having a DJ between two powerful set was a strange choice and I’m not quite sure it worked in Last Word’s benefit.
Closing out the night of local pride was one of my personal favorites in the scene, the one and only Brother Ali. Ali is so much more than just a rapper to people here in the Twin Cities. He’s an activist, a friend, a neighbor and just an all around normal guy. I remember the first time he came to my college to perform (I was new to Minnesota and new to the whole rap thing) and I couldn’t believe how big of a deal he was what with how normal he came off. That hasn’t stopped and although last night was a nearly sold out show at the legendary First Avenue and was a celebration of the 15 year anniversary of his album “Shadows of the Sun”, there was something so normal and familiar about him that it was hard to not feel like you were just watching a good friend on that stage.
Ali played through the entire eighteen song album that came out in 2003. Out of his six full length albums, I feel like “Shadows of the Sun” is definitely the one that put Brother Ali on the map and made him a “thing”. “Forest Whitiker” is easily my favorite song from Ali so, of course, him playing that song was a highlight for me. With relatable lyrics, and honest smile and dancing that clearly screamed I don’t give a flying crap what you think of me and my moves, Ali’s set was electric, it was fun but, most importantly, it was powerful. Speaking of social justice, being true to yourself, and being just an all around good person, it’s next to impossible to not fall in love with Brother Ali’s larger than life personality and honesty.
I was prepared for surprises walking into last night’s show. Surprise number one was running into my cousin who had the night off from his kids and wife and had decided that a show was better than just sitting at home alone. Having not seen him in a couple of months due to hectic schedules, it was definitely a pleasant surprise to kick back and have a drink with him. That could have been my only surprise of the night and I would have been happy but the best surprise of the night was when Slug from Atmosphere walked past me on his way to the stage to sing a quick track with Ali. Although definitely a surprise and a treat, I wasn’t shocked. Brother Ali is a force in the scene as is Atmosphere so it only made sense that they would support each other. It was nice to see someone who is as big as Atmosphere (seriously he’s making the Twin Cities hip-hop scene uber proud right now) take the time to show how much he supports everyone in this scene.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I never thought I would be so into rap/ hip-hop but the Twin Cities scene welcomed me with open arms and I have no intention of leaving. It’s because of acts like Dem Atlas, Last Word and Brother Ali that I am honored to call this scene home.