The Tribe & Big Cats! will be the first to tell you that the Twin Cities hip-hop scene is over-saturated. TruthBeTold, aka Chris Hooks, and producer Big Cats, aka Spencer Wirth-Davis, are slugging away anyway, and they set themselves apart in the crowded scene because they won’t settle for being hometown heroes.
“It’s great that we have such a dense scene here,” Wirth-Davis said. “But I think at the same time people get a little too comfortable.”
“You have to be more creative so you don’t get pigeonholed in this scene,” Hooks said.
Their new album—Space, released this week—is their smoothest and most fully realized release yet. It’s more of a head-nodder than a fist-pumper, and bodes well for the duo breaking out of the cities.
Space is the duo’s third album in 18 months and their most cohesive. With Wirth-Davis exclusively producing the record for Hooks, they are able to avoid the patchwork feeling that plagues too many rap albums.
“I think it’s a lot easier. We know each other’s styles, and we know how to push each other,” Hooks said.
“I know what stuff is going to work well for Chris, and I can make tracks that work well with his style,” Wirth-Davis said.
Wirth-Davis grew up in suburban St. Paul, where he studied classical music and played bass in the orchestra. The foundation in composition gave him a leg up when he started playing around with hip-hop beats.
“It’s given me flexibility,” he said. “Having an understanding of theory and being able to play an instrument gives you more options.”
Hooks grew up on the south side of Chicago, where his uncle, a DJ, taught him to rap over breakbeats at age six.
“The first rap I can remember was to ‘Hickory Dickory Dock,’ he said. “I was flowing on that, thinking I’m really getting it.”
Now Hooks’s rapping is tightly wound and confident. He often delves into confessional territory, but doesn’t let the listener get too close, clouding his stories with whip-smart pop culture references and chest-beating swagger.
Hooks isn’t the first rapper to make references to Final Fantasy or Dragon Ball Z, and he’s certainly not the first rapper to yell “[expletive] the police,” but the fact that he sandwiches those lines right next to each other—and that they actually work—is fresh.
Hooks and Wirth-Davis said they set up a few stipulations when making Space. They said they wanted to see if they could make a full album by themselves, because their last record “Make Good,” leaned heavily on features from other rappers and big hooks by local singers like Claire de Lune.
Since Space is available to download for free, Wirth-Davis also experimented with more sampling. He drew mostly from jazz and soul records from 1968-78, and the result is smoother than the party rap sound of previous releases.
Wirth-Davis said that putting constraints on themselves helped drive the recording of Space, which only took about a month.
By releasing the album for free, the duo also hopes to break out of the insular Minneapolis scene. They’re currently charting a Midwest tour, rare for a group that’s been releasing music for less than two years.
“If you want to make a career out of music and be able to sustain what we’re doing, you can’t just be known here,” Wirth-Davis said. “We’ve done a lot here, and the next step is being known outside of Minneapolis.”