On the day of our interview, Dessa is walking back after participating in one of the March For Our Lives demonstrations that took place in New York City, joining a community of fellow hip-hop stars like Common, Vic Mensa and Kanye West in the nationwide protests on March 24 by lending a voice and presence to the movement.
The 36-year-old rapper/singer/writer and record label executive, who is part of the eclectic Minneapolis-based Doomtree collective and has played nearly every venue in Chicago from boutique clubs to Lollapalooza, Riot Fest and the Pritzker Pavilion, has never been overtly political in her rhymes but has always been a proponent of contributing to and expressing shared experiences among humankind. It’s the sort of thing that takes your attention when you have a philosophy degree and come up in the slam poetry circuit.
DESSA When: 9 p.m. March 31 Where: Subterranean, 2011 W. North Ave. Tickets: Sold Out Info: subt.net
“For me the stories that move me the most are told on an individual human scale,” she says. In addition to recordings, Dessa’s incredible prose has been featured in The New York Times and Ars Medica and will be on display in her debut book of essays, “My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love,” that will be released on the Penguin Random House imprint Dutton this fall. The memoirs will tell “some of the most compelling stories of the last decade touring with a rap crew full of guys and falling in love and sucking at it,” she says laughing. “And they will delve into my lifelong fascination with science.”
The book is a natural progression from her newly released album, “Chime,” that peaked on the Billboard charts on March 10, taking the No. 9 spot on the alternative album rankings, breaking a record for Doomtree, in which she is the only female on the roster. In addition to Dessa’s trademark smooth freestyle on the feminist anthem “Fire Drills” (a manifesto about traveling alone as a woman), the album also adds in layered choral compositions on the beat-heavy “5 out of 6,” as well as pure pop on the album single, “Good Grief,” which was inspired by mourning the end of relationships — for her, her grandmother’s passing as well as a romantic breakup.
Dessa was so fascinated by the idea of “falling out of love” in fact that she tapped into the resources at her alma mater to try to discover the science behind the emotional process, which ended up inspiring several of the songs on “Chime.” Working with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, Dessa aimed to discover the neuroscience behind romance, even putting herself through an MRI machine while looking at photos of her ex to see how her brain reacted.
“It was surprising to learn there would even be a particular coordinate in the human brain that would become active in love. It didn’t occur to me that you could plot the physical location on that subjective experience in a neurological way,” she says. The other question that she went into the project with was, ‘Is love voluntary?’ “I wanted to know if you can choose to stop loving someone. The song ‘Velodrome’ was me asking how free a will might really be.”
“Chime,” which will be highlighted in an upcoming appearance at Subterranean backed by her friends in the Chicago act Monakr, also takes cues from Dessa’s experience working with the Grammy Award-winning Minnesota Orchestra, which she debuted with last year, as well as co-producer and composer Andy Thompson, who helped add instrumental depth to the album. In the interim between albums (Dessa’s last record, the excellent “Parts of Speech,” came out in 2013), the duo also worked on the “Hamilton Mixtape,” contributing a cover of the song “Congratulations.”
Show creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and Dessa first met on Twitter, she says, and after being moved by a performance of “Hamilton” in New York, the rapper contacted Miranda to give him a poetry book she had written, and the rest was history.
“I found the song I did really challenging, because the vocal range is wide and different from my talent set as a melancholy indie hip-hop kid,” she jokes. “But I realized I could in fact hit those high notes, and then wondered how many notes am I presuming I can’t nail that I just need to try harder for. The experience really made me a much more confident vocalist.”
The rise of “Hamilton,” a spoken word masterpiece, also has Dessa thinking about the new platform it has given to hip-hop. “I think it made hip-hop culturally compatible to many people that might not have considered themselves rap fans before that production and reached into some echelons of our culture that didn’t have their ear turned to that frequency beforehand,” she opines. “Hip-hop has always been smart and has served as social commentary but I don’t think that all of America conceptualized it that way, perhaps dismissing hip-hop as only club music, tone-deaf to the fact that it also has historically served as social commentary and political dissent. Its global dominance, and its importance now, is hard to overstate.”
Selena Fragassi is a Chicago-based freelance writer.