By Tom Roth
Recently, USD Radio’s Tom Roth spoke with Lazerbeak, DJ for seven-piece Minneapolis rap collective, Doomtree to discuss the group’s current super-tour and new album, No Kings.
Catch Doomtree on Friday, February 3 at San Diego’s Casbah. Tickets available here.
Tom Roth: At first glance, Doomtree can seem a bit dizzying. It’s not every day that a seven-some rap collective enjoys the same success as Doomtree. Did that group dynamic come about on purpose or was it more of a happy accident?
Lazerbeak: It was a little bit of both. We all kind of met up and joined forces a little but after high school and at that point, we are all kind of figuring everything out. The whole “strength in numbers” philosophy kicked in where if one rapper finagled his way into a show he could maybe pull along another one and they could share the 15-20 minute slot… things like that. We could pool resources, we could do jobs. I remember having a ledger and a little cash box and we made $40 from a show, I could go to Best Buy and buy CR-Rs so we could press up some CD’s to sell. It started there. We all knew that we were individual artists but it just made sense and seemed easier to forge a path together. As that continued and got bigger, slowly, it seemed like it never made any sense to stop. We’re fortunate. Now we’re here and we’re enjoying a little bit of success and working real hard and so we can enjoy that together. It’s pretty gratifying.
TR: How is the Doomtree of 2012 different from the Doomtree from back in the day? How’s the material different?
LB: [Laughs] the structure has changed. We’re all nearing 30 now – some of us have hit 30 – and so that’s a lot different than when we were 19-years-old…. Also, we’ve learned a lot. We’ve gotten the opportunity to do a lot of things and we’ve learned from all those things. We’ve tried to implement new ways of making us successful. A lot of that has brought some structure. Dessa and I end up doing a lot of the business stuff . Sims is really good at the merchandise stuff. Everyone has their own little role that they contribute to make this thing run as smoothly as it possibly can. Through experience and all that stuff we’ve been able to fine-tune it to work for us. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for anyone else but for us, it works.
TR: With so many people contributing to Doomtree, who are the top three influences for the group?
LB: Ooh, ok, three outside artists? Oh man…we all have such different tastes… let me poll the room here [poses questions to the crew]. I’d say maybe Outkast. It’s very rare that all seven of us will agree that we like th same artist but I think Outkast is one of the few that we can always agree on. Outkast for sure. Steely Dan? I think we all like Steely Dan. I don’t know if that’s an influence or not but we all agree on Steely Dan, Outkast, and Kurt Vonnegut, the author. We all ended up reading a fair share of his books when we were younger. I know I did.
TR: Looking at the tour schedule for No Kings, the first thing to notice is that there are 40+ shows on just about as many stops. Got any tactics for keeping your sanity?
LB: [Laughs] I don’t know if we’ve figured that out quite yet. We’re really happy to be out on the west coast. We love it out here and we’ve been fortunate enough to do some shows here. This is some of our biggest markets in the country. For some reason, the west coast has always been really good to us. Starting the tour out and routing it that way, the drives are kind of a grind and we’ve packed it in so that even if we have a day off, its usually a driving day and we do an in-store that night. I think we’re feeling the fatigue a little bit up front since we’re on four or five hours of sleep per night, through the past week. But the longest drives are behind us. I think that’ll help. Honestly, the difference between waking up at 7 and getting in a van, and waking up at 9 and getting in a van is astronomical. We can sleep in a little. We’re trying to take it easy. We’ve been on enough of these now that we know you can’t go hard every night. Just trying to pace ourselves. Even though we’ve all done a lot of tours, this is probably one of the larger ones. Its almost like a three month tour with a week off in the middle. So far no one has gotten super sick. We’re all drinking our Emergen-C’s in the morning and hoping that we make it through. We’re looking forward to the shorter drives. I think tomorrow we have a three hour drive, which is awesome.
TR: With that many shows, are you working in room for improvisation or are all the shows going to be pretty much the same in terms of their format?
LB: Honestly, for the first half of the tour it’ll be changing because it takes us a while to really get into the “perfect set” for that tour. With all the different material that we have, it’s not just the crew songs. Obviously, the set is heavily focused on No Kings but we have probably 30-some releases on Doomtree (Records) and we can play any of those songs so it’s a challenge to pick which ones and to see how the crowd will react to them. It takes some time. Once we get it locked in, we usually don’t stray too far from it because of how long it took us to get it to feel right. It’ll generally be around the same but we’re talking about close to two hours of music with all seven of us on stage every night. It’s a lot. You definitely get the overview of the whole last ten years.
TR: Two weeks ago, you were in Kansas. Now, you’re in Southern California. Have you been surprised by the fan response so far?
LB: I have. Every time you go out, you hope that it’s better than the last and that gives you an indicator that you’re doing something right; that things are growing. We were really hopeful putting this crew record out – really, the first all crew record that we wrote together from start to finish – that that would be reflected in the attendance. And it has. It has, man. I’ve been floored by people’s responses to the new material, how many people are singing along every night, selling out a couple of shows already, and doing an encore every night. It’s things that, when you start out, you don’t really think about or ever even expect. You just work hard. I always think of the tour right after you release the record as the reward for all the hard work you put into making it and promoting it and now, you get to see the positive effects of it. We’re all thrilled to get on stage every night and the response from the people who’ve been coming out has been really uplifting for us.
TR: While No Kings is Doomtree’s fourth release, it’s also your second studio album, a notable feat considering all contributing members are balancing solo/collaborations recordings and performances. With all that going on, what was the recording process like for the album?
LB: It was cool. It was different than I’ve ever done it before. We went to Sims’ wife’s family cabin because we knew there was no way – even though most of us live in the same city, our lives are so scattered – there’s no way you get all seven of us in a room even for two hours at a time anymore. We kind of had to carve out this five day period where everyone said “Yep. We’re free. We’ll go up there. We’ll turn our phones off and we’ll just do work”. We’d gotten together with the producers before and stacked a lot of beats so we had a stockpile of music up there. I went up there with the rappers and we just holed up and five days later, we had eleven of the twelve songs demoed. At that point, we had no clue what was gonna… we just had these songs. We didn’t if they were really good yet or not. We knew they were different. They felt really weird to us at the time. Over the next couple months, we got to fine tune them, add stuff, and when it all was said and done, I looked back and was like “Wow… 90% of this happened in those five days and we didn’t really have any idea what we were getting into”. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to duplicate that process again… I’d heard stories of that working for other people but I figured there was no way in hell we’d ever get there. Somehow, we pulled it off with this one. I’m really happy about that because from the business side, I had set the release date before we had any songs because we knew we had to release an album in the fourth quarter so it was a very scary task to be like “Well, we gotta come up with something. I hope it rules”. We lucked out. I don’t think I’ll ever do that again, but we lucked out.
It speaks to how good these guys have gotten at working with one another because, like I said, that first crew record – the self-titled album – was compiled over a five year period. Those songs were written mostly by one person who then brought another person on board late or stuff like that. It just showed through all the touring and stuff we’ve been through that the rappers are at a place with each other where they can feed off each other so quickly. I was really impressed to see that.
TR: “Bangarang” makes mention of “rappers/beats/raps” that sound the same. Is that in any way related to the album’s title?
LB: Mike came up with that chorus and then those guys kind of filled in their verses. We didn’t set out like “We’re gonna call the record No Kings, we’re gonna write about this stuff”. It was interesting. We didn’t name the album until a couple of months later… it was interesting that everyone was on the same path of “all equals” and doing it together and all this kind of stuff. I feel like that chorus does sum up a lot of that stuff… we don’t want to be negative about this stuff at all but we want to say “we’re here to level the playing field and we want everyone to come with us”. It’s just kind of a statement that everyone can do this stuff. And everyone should. We shouldn’t have to worry about a hierarchy or anything.
TR: Whose idea was the iTunes flashmob?
LB: That was Dessa’s idea. She’s the creative one when it comes to brainstorming “how do we promote on these really small budgets? How do we become effective and get our name out there?” For us, those first-week sales are kind of our opportunity to get out there and compete a little bit. If we can mobilize our fan base within that first week to really support it, we have an opportunity to show up on those charts with the big guys…. We had seen a couple people get up on those charts and we knew that they [the charts] regenerate every 12 hours or 24 hours but if you can get a burst of sales, you have a shot sometimes,(if there isn’t a huge release out) of getting up there. So we gave it a shot. We sent a letter to our mailing list and we put it out there on our social networks and we said “Hey, if you were thinking about buying the album today, would you please consider buying it at this time from iTunes to see if we can’t do this together”. And sure enough, we cracked the top 10 hip-hop. We got the #9 for a day. Which is awesome.
Honestly, looking into more and more and understanding what these sales mean, it doesn’t mean that we sold 50,000 records or anything like that but for one 12-hour period, we were hanging. And this is the end of November, this is fourth quarter, this is when all the big rap albums come out like Drake and Yelawolf and all these guys and to see our album cover next to theirs even overnight. To wake up and it was still there was pretty awesome…. Huge shout goes to our fans. Everyone says “Oh, our fans are the best” but we’ve always tried to be as transparent as possible when it comes to this stuff, from the business to the music. I think that really worked to our benefit. We put it out there and told them what we were trying to do and they backed it. Pretty awesome.