DFW Music News

Q&A: Dessa Talks Philosophy, The Lack of Females in Hip-Hop and Singing Versus Shouting

Dessa was once known as one Margret Wander, a philosophy major and technical writer from Minneapolis.

But after joining the campus slam poetry team, Wander evolved into hip-hop diva Dessa and quickly gained the attention of her hometown's music collective known as Doomtree. Of course, it didn't hurt that Dessa's boyfriend was Doomtree's founder and ranking artist Stefon Alexander, aka P.O.S. Although no longer a couple, the pair is currently on tour together, and, along with Astronautalis, they'll stop by Hailey's tonight for a gig in Denton.

Dessa's recently issued, full-length debut, A Badly Broken Code, is the reason for her appearance tonight and it's an impressive collection of inventive hip-hop. Using unusual instrumentation (sampled strings and clarinets) to set the beats, Dessa raps with uncommon tact as she actually sings rather than shouts.

Speaking from a tour stop in Las Vegas, Dessa let us in on her imaginative mind.

Who gets to call you Margret these days?
I have one uncle who calls me Margret. My last name is Wander and the word "dessa" means "wander" in Greek. Of course, I didn't know that until after I choose the stage name.

How many other hip-hop artists have a college degree in philosophy?
I might be one of the few. Every so often, I find out that some artist has a degree in some field that is as equally intellectual and I hadn't heard about it until I read it as part of their bio. I imagine there may be more of us out there than people imagine. I would venture to say that I may be the only female hip-hop artist with a degree in philosophy, though.

Why does the hip-hop genre have so few female artists?
I'm not sure exactly why. I know that the scene is dominated by guys. I know that, by and large, it's been an art form that has been characterized in a lot of male ways for the length of its history. Perhaps, in the coming years, there will be more female emcees.

Does it feel special to come from a city that has as rich musical heritage as Minneapolis does?
Absolutely. We have really permeable genres in the city. Mixed bills are really common where you will have a hip-hop act playing with an indie rock act and an instrumental ensemble. That's not unusual in our city--and in a lot of other markets that would be asking a lot of an audience.

How cool is it to be part of the Doomtree collective?
I don't know if I would be doing what I am doing now if it weren't for Doomtree. Those guys have been a huge part of making this career as attractive as it is to me. Those bands have also been a big part of shaping the aesthetic that I am interested in.

How important is it for you to actually sing on your records?
I think, initially, I was actually apprehensive about singing too much because I was afraid some hip-hoppers might write me off. Now, I love having the opportunity to decide which format would be better for a given line, whether to sing it or to rap it. My favorite rappers don't yell. I don't do it. I don't like performances that lack nuance and dynamics. My favorite rappers exercise a lot more control.

The video for the first single from the album, "Dixon's Girl," has some very disturbing imagery. How much input did you have in that video?
It's a dark video. I've made four videos for the album with two of them yet released. Working on a Doomtree budget, which is actually a shoestring budget, you give your disc to a series of directors and they develop treatments for the songs that they select. I think the director got a dark feel from some of the samples in that song. He drafted his own vision for the video that is a complement, but the video does not narrate the lyrics to that song.

You have published a book of nonfiction (Spiral Bound). Do you have another book in the works?
I do. It's way too early to title it, but I did anyway. It's called A Perfect Burn and it's about a trip I took to India where I visited a cremation fire. I hope to have it finished this year.

Dessa performs at Hailey's tonight with P.O.S. and Astronautalis