Interview: The Nancy Drew Crew, feminists and activists on the mic

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The Nancy Drew Crew are not your typical hip-hop group, even for a community like the Twin Cities that’s not exactly your typical hip-hop scene. Coming from a queer-feminist activist background, the group’s two MCs—MC Smells and MC Mayhem—rap about, among other things, deodorant, DIY arts and crafts, and the inequities of college education on their debut EP, The Case is Closed. I sat down at Hard Times with the two MCs, along with their DJ and producer Skullbuster, fresh off their first West Coast tour, hoping to find out a little more about the group that City Pages recently called, endearingly, “the Shaggs of hip-hop.”

When did the Nancy Drew Crew start?
MC Smells: Well, last April, the Women’s Student Activist Collective was putting on a hip-hop show. There was an open call for artists, and Anna and I had sort of jokingly wrote this deodorant song together [“Deodorant Conspiracy”]. I knew that Skullbuster made beats, and I was like, “You should give us a CD that we can rap over for this thing.” Our first show with Brian was in September, at the Pocketknife.

Where’d the name come from?
Smells: Anna and I are both huge fans of Nancy Drew books. She’s a powerful female.
MC Mayhem: A good role model for young girls.
Smells: We had this joking name: “Nancy Drew and the Case of the Missing Friendship Elephants.” Anna had this necklace that her grandma had given her with these elephant charms on it, and she was giving them out to people as friendship charms. For our the first two shows we were “Nancy Drew and the Case of the Missing Friendship Elephants,” but we got tired of saying that.
Mayhem: So we made it “Nancy Drew Crew.” And as soon as we get sued for having Nancy Drew in our name, we’re just gonna change it to “NDC.”

What was the impetus to start rapping?
Smells: I took Geoff Sirk’s hip-hop senior thesis class [at the University of Minnesota] and it opened up my eyes to the fact that [hip-hop] can be taken a lot more seriously than the hip-hop I listened to in my youth, which is terribly misogynistic and has more of a message of consumerism than consciousness.
Mayhem: Smells and I don’t have any background in hip-hop, although we’ve listened to hip-hop. I mostly like being into punk rock, but dabbled in hip-hop, I guess.

What links do you find between punk rock and hip-hop?
Mayhem: Dissension. They’re both a sort of way to stick it to the man. The marriage of punk rock and hip-hop is something that I personally am interested in. There’s a sort of specific genre of punk rock-y hip-hop in the queer community, which is where I’m coming from when I come to hip-hop. It’s from a queer feminist stance, and that is the genre of hip-hop that the queer community has most been involved in.
Smells: I think they both have been consumer-ized in a way. They both rose out of a similar feeling of anger, [a feeling that] using music was a way that you could have power and that you could have fun and at the same time get a message out to people.
Skullbuster: I guess both genres were started by outcasts of society having a voice to let their concerns be known and that they’re not happy about how things are going.
Mayhem: They were both underground movements appropriated by mainstream culture to sell stuff. But you might say that about any music.

What do you think it is about hip-hop that makes it a good medium for what you want to get across to people?
Skullbuster: I feel like, being able to get a message across and have people dance at the same time seems like a fun way to bring out serious topics and make it a little bit more accessible to people who normally would not really care about those kind of things. If you come from a direction that they might be familiar with, they might be more likely to listen.
Mayhem: And there still is an underground hip-hop community that exists, so there still is that space to create this music with an important message. And there is a community for it. And there’s a venue where people do want to hear it. The existence of a group of people that are interested in underground hip-hop that are still trying to create social change enables us to exist.

What prompted the tour out West?
Smells: We had some money saved up from playing shows over the past few months, so we decided to go on a road trip/tour. We wanted all basement spaces and house shows, because they are a lot more fun and you don’t have to follow any regulations set by a club or a bar. Also, we’re not capitalists, so we weren’t doing it for the money. We drove out to Seattle, stopped in Missoula to have a show, then, after Seattle, headed down to Olympia and Portland. We were really well received in Portland—our show there was at someone’s birthday party in a backyard. It was a lot of fun to play for people who had never seen us or even seen anything like us.

How do you see yourself fitting into both the queer communities and the rap communities of the Twin Cities?
Mayhem: We come from such a sort of a strange background for a hip-hop crew. I don’t think most of the more general hip-hop community have heard of us. We definitely have connections with Lisa Ganzer and the Homocore crew. Lisa set us up with one of our first shows, actually. Then we have the other spaces that we play that are almost all punk rock and some like electro pop stuff, or maybe a crusty punk crowd at the Pocketknife and the Belfry, where we’re usually the only hip-hop act. But we sort of fit in with that community. People get really jazzed about us, and really excited, because they’re like “whoa, I’ve not heard people rap about this before.” And a lot of people identify with it, cuz there’s like a huge community around DIY and stuff like that. And people are like, “I’ve never heard people rappin’ about crafting.”
Smells: I see us fitting in not so much with the typical hip-hop crowd. It’s more like people who go to a punk show or who are setting up a punk show, who say, “Wow, we could have a hip-hop group play that this audience would be excited about?” It’s like we get a lot of shows because there aren’t many hip-hop groups that can like bridge the gap.

Justin Schell is a freelance writer and a grad student at the University of Minnesota’s Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program. He’s working on a dissertation on Twin Cities immigrant and diasporic hip-hop and plays the washboard tie with The Gated Community.