Muja Messiah’s new “Adventures” in hip-hop


Sunday night marks the release party for one of the most anticipated Twin Cities hip-hop albums in recent memory, Muja Messiah’s Thee Adventures of a B-Boy/D-Boy (Black Corners). The album follows on the success of his MPLS Massacre mixtape, released earlier this year, which landed him critical acclaim throughout the Twin Cities music press as well as a spot in VIBE’s “51 Best MySpace Rappers” and URB’s “Next 1000.”

The event, hosted by Brother Ali and I Self Devine in First Avenue’s mainroom, will feature performances by Black Blondie, Maria Isa, and M.anifest as well as DJ Turtleneck and DJ Verb X spinning throughout the night. Samahra (lead singer of Black Blondie), I Self Devine, and Maria Isa make substantial contributions to the album, while M.anifest was a collaborator on the track that most helped propel Muja to popularity, a remix of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.”

Muja credits influences both local and national. “Run-DMC made me like it and then Rakim made me wanna do it,” he told me sitting outside of Caffetto recently. But he told me that the Micranots—made up of I Self Devine and DJ Kool Akiem, and one of the most important hip-hop groups in the Twin Cities before the founding of Rhymesayers—were also one of his key influences. (I Self Devine now records for Rhymesayers as well as working as a youth organizer for Hope Community, Inc.)

“Run-DMC made me like it and then Rakim made me wanna do it.”

Muja Messiah hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere, though. He broke into the local rap scene as part of the groups School of Thought and Raw Villa. The latter released an EP in 2000, Rebellion, and was featured in a City Pages article that same year. Muja himself opened up for 50 Cent, Kanye West, and DMX in the now-defunct Quest nightclub.

Much like Kanye West did on a national level, Muja is attempting to bridge the fault lines within Twin Cities hip-hop audiences. While the dominant sound of rap here is Atmosphere, which is most popular among white middle-class folks living in Uptown and in the suburbs, Muja seeks not just to embrace this type of sound and lyrical subjects, but also more street-oriented subjects—especially the problems in impoverished neighborhoods and what can be done about them—that haven’t grabbed as much attention.

But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole Muja as a gangsta rapper. “I’m not a ghetto rapper, and I don’t know shit about the ghetto,” he told me. “I am trying to bridge the gap, though, ‘cause that’s how my life was. I seen my friends become gang members, some went to college, some went to music.”

“I’m not a ghetto rapper, and I don’t know shit about the ghetto. I am trying to bridge the gap, though.”

Appropriately, the album’s production features a diverse range of sounds. There are Dirty South sounds throughout the album—whether the digital molasses of the Houston chopped-and-screwed style on the album’s title track or the Memphis synths and drums on “Get Fresh.” “Beautiful” features Samahra’s cooing against a Miles-like muted trumpet and a club texture so thick that you can almost see the smoke. Yet there’s also a more “coffee-shop,” Rhymesayers sound on “What’s This World Coming To,” with BeanOne shuffling old-school jazz drums and a needle-like soprano sax line.

This last track features Atmosphere’s Slug. The collaboration might surprise some, but the collaboration is no surprise to the two artists involved. When I talked to Slug last year about his collaboration with Muja Messiah, he was quite enthusiastic: “Yeah, that’s my guy, man! Muja and me have been friends for a really, really long time.”

The album has its share of radical politics, too. The most openly defiant track is “Patriot Act.” The video for the song opens with spinning tape recorders—a nod to wiretaps rather than spinning vinyl on a turntable—and shots of Muja and I Self Devine rapping are interspersed with military and newsreel footage, especially from President Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” appearance in May of 2003. Asking why he should be afraid of Al-Qaeda when he “was already afraid of America first,” Muja dedicates the song to the authors of the Patriot Act and declares “that ain’t how a patriot act.”

“Everything is real/ Of course I feel America’s pain/ But all my friends got Arabic names.”

Also in this vein is “Give It Up,” one of the best songs on the album. The track features a propulsive, string-heavy beat from Malik Worthy and a guest appearance by the Roots’ Black Thought. According to Muja, Black Thought heard one of Muja’s verse from a mutual friend (“Everything is real/ Of course I feel America’s pain/ But all my friends got Arabic names”) and sought him out.

Near the end of “MadNess,” over a heavy distorted guitar, Muja juxtaposes two seemingly opposed ideals, delivering the chorus from “Party Like a Rock Star” in perfect Shop Boyz imitation and then quoting Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls On Parade” (“Rally ‘round the family/ pocket full of shells”). The juxtaposition demonstrates Muja Messiah’s embrace of all the best things about rap, and a few that might need to be changed. On the local hip-hop scene, which many mistakenly see as being one-dimensional, Muja Messiah’s voice is a welcome one.

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.

Also in the Daily Planet::
l’etoile magazine’s interview with Muja Messiah
Chris DeLine’s interview with Black Blondie
Justin Schell on Atmosphere
Justin Schell’s interview with Slug