Here’s my new project. It’s one 30-minute track. Download it for FREE here:

Experimental mixtape. Nine brand new songs mixed into one track. All beats jacked from Dungeon Family (Goodie Mob, Outkast, Cool Breeze, etc.) songs. Mixed by Big Cats.

1. Chill Touch
2. Knock
3. Fireball
4. Crushing Despair
5. Raise Dead
6. Chain Lightning
7. Prismatic Spray w/ Homeless, Heidi Barton Stink, Tony the Scribe, Kaoz, Just Wulf & See More Perspective
8. Greater Shout
9. Mage’s Disjunction

All I ask in return is, if you like it, to sign up for my email list. And to go along with all this new music, here are pretty much all my thoughts on it:

My plane touches down in Atlanta as I’m listening to the final mix of DUNGEONS for the first time. It’s just a stop on my way to New Orleans, where I’ll be performing at a conference on sexual assault prevention on college campuses, but it’s a nice moment. Hip hop is always about the conversation between past and present; these beats have roots in this city. I wonder how many people will hear that call and response, how much it matters.

Goodie Mob and Outkast were my entry points into hip hop. Before Wu-Tang, before Nas, before Pharcyde, before all of the other artists I’d name as influences, it was those two groups (and their extended crew, the Dungeon Family). Part of this project is paying homage; part of it is really highlighting how ahead of their time that crew was.

I’ve been extremely intentional about everything in my career so far. DUNGEONS is really the first project I’ve done just because I want to, just to clear my head. Some songs are leftovers from the You Better Weaponize sessions. Some are kind of random freewrites. I wrote “Crushing Despair” when I was like 19. Some are brand new songs written to bridge these other songs together into a cohesive whole that can almost be called a concept album. Some of them are really good, some of my best writing. Some are okay.

That’s part of the theme here, at least for me. Letting go. Moving on. The mixtape isn’t perfect, but I need to put it out, to get it out. I’m always haunted by old songs. But what could have been a random collection of cannibalized rejects (like a lot of mixtapes) has kind of turned into something I can be proud of. Again, it’s not perfect. The posse cut is kind of… messy. None of the songs are catchy pop hits. It gets a little unwieldy at points. But it’s very much an authentic documentation of where my head has been at this past year.

So what’s the concept? It probably makes sense to start with what isn’t the concept first. It’s called DUNGEONS because all the beats are jacked from Dungeon Family songs and all the song titles are Dungeons & Dragons sorcerer spells, level one through level nine. But those are both just organizing principles, arbitrary rules I set for myself to help focus my writing. The actual concept is something more than a gimmick.

The album talks about bullying, about economic and social violence, about resistance and activism, and more. A running motif is the power/magic inherent in language, how words shape reality. That’s getting close to the concept, I guess. I don’t want to over-explain this one (ha). It is what you take from it.

I probably tend to over-explain my work because it’s always going to be under-explained elsewhere. We’re all underrated. Every MC I know doesn’t get the attention they deserve. A masterpiece LP, a new single, a mixtape, a promo video, a show announcement– they all get the same amount of ink, the same cursory glance, the same obligatory surface-level props. We’re all pigeon-holed, often early in our careers, and we can never shake those labels. Releasing a rap album is like having a kid, being a great parent for five years, and then dropping that kid off on the very first day of school; it’s just that the “school” is full of 19 year-old drunk white boys.

I’m not too stressed about this one, though. Because I made it pretty much just for myself, it’s okay if it doesn’t get ten thousand downloads in the first week. I’m not doing any videos, singles, release parties, or even a big press push. But this whole decision-making process HAS made me think more about what success looks like, and what I want to be doing in the years to come.

It’s as easy to rationalize success as it is to rationalize failure. I know I’m not alone in this– the life of an artist (I’m happy to say this is my actual job, and has been for 2-3 years now) is a constant inflation and deflation of the ego. On the negative side: everyone’s playing bigger shows than me, this new video has more YouTube views than my new video, this other artist gets more love from the press even though they have nothing to say, etc. And on the positive side: my work has a much larger impact because it’s actively challenging the audience with specific critiques and action points, I probably make more money on the college circuit than a lot of better-known MCs on the club circuit, even when my videos have fewer views, they’re actually saying something important, the people I respect respect me, etc.

And both sides of this dance make good points. For me, I know that I AM doing really good work and having a concrete impact on my world. I also know, however, that I could have a much bigger impact. There’s always a new plateau.

So what does all this have to do with DUNGEONS? The project is fairly obviously not about me getting famous. It’s not a good promotional strategy to say that this is a “stepping stone” or “detour,” but that’s kind of what it is. That “next plateau,” for me, isn’t necessarily selling out the Mainroom or getting posted on all the big rap blogs. That’s not defeatist; that’s having an intentional strategy and making my own way. The more experienced I get, the more I figure out what my strengths, passions and experiences are pointing me toward. And I just caught a clear glimpse of that this past year.

In some ways, DUNGEONS is wholly unrelated to that “something” I caught a glimpse of. In other ways, it is inextricably bound to it. I hate to be abstract and mysterious like that, but I’m hoping it’ll all make sense in time. Thanks for listening.

UPDATE: here’s a track-by-track breakdown.

***Updated July 2019; check out the ZINE VERSION of this post (here are folding/cutting directions); if you have people in your life interested in spoken word, please share!***

PDF link of this zine here.

Spoken word isn’t about a handful of “great” artists who have lots of video views or publishing accolades; it’s about how everyone has a story, and every story has value.

In that spirit, I wanted to consolidate a few resources, links, and tips that I’ve shared with young (and not-so-young) people all over the country. If YOU are interested in spoken word (or poetry, writing, art, more generally), whether that means finding somewhere to share your work, getting feedback to sharpen your craft, or just being around poets and building community, here are a few thoughts. Feel free to add more in the comments below.

1. Show Up: Attend an Open Mic or Poetry Slam
One of the best ways to get involved is to simply dive in—whether as a performer or just as an audience member. Spoken word is built around open mics, poetry slams, and other spaces in which anyone can show up and share something. While I realize that not everyone reading this lives in the Twin Cities, here is my big list of Twin Cities open mics, slams, and other opportunities. If you’re here, use it. If you’re not here, do a little searching and find the similar events in your community. Specifically, I want to shout out two of TruArtSpeaks‘ programs:

  • The Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam Series (happens every January-March); a huge opportunity for MN youth poets to meet each other, tell their stories, and have fun.
  • The ReVerb Open Mic (free, all ages; happens every Thursday night, year-round); one of the most community-oriented, supportive open mics I’ve been to.
  • There’s also Button Poetry Live, The Free Black Table, the OUTspoken open mic, college slams, and much more. Here’s the full list.
  • This list is more spoken word-oriented, but if you’re looking for information on how to dive into the publishing world, here’s a potential starting point.

2. Build Your Cypher: Connect with Other Writers
Writing is about community. Many high schools and colleges have spoken word clubs, and showing up to those can be a great first step. If you’re a student and your school doesn’t have one, start one!

It doesn’t have to be as formal as a club or student organization. What counts is community—maybe it’s just a circle of friends who meet up once a week to give each other feedback. Maybe it’s an online document that multiple people can edit. But getting feedback from other writers, having someone to bounce ideas around with (and not just trade Instagram likes)—that’s vital.

Revision is 85% of the battle. First drafts are not ever as good as they potentially could be. Break out of the mindset that the poem is this magical, perfect thing that just bursts fully-formed from your head. Your peers, friends, and mentors can have a lot to offer.

3. Read More, Watch More, Write More
The deluge of poetry on Instagram and YouTube over the past five years or so has meant that there’s more poetry than ever before, right at your fingertips. I’d argue that this is a good thing, but the flipside is that there’s a lot of not-so-great work out there too. That’s natural; that’s fine. But it can make learning and growing as an artist a challenge: is the IG poem with ten thousand likes a “good” poem? Is your poem, that didn’t win the poetry slam, a “bad” poem? What does that even mean?

There aren’t easy answers to those questions, if there are answers at all. The key is to never stop developing your critical eye/ear. This is work. Almost every poet or artist I know whom I would call successful has years and years of work under their belts. That work doesn’t have to be some fancy, inaccessible degree or whatever– but it does have to be work. That work can be fun, though. Here are a few thoughts and resources:

  • Some good background info: Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Spoken Word and Slam Poetry
  • While online video providers have thousands of poems you could potentially watch, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend just typing “slam poetry” into a YouTube search bar. Here are a couple of lists of poems that might provide good starts:
  • In terms of books, there are too many great poets to shout out here, but a couple of presses that regularly publish work by poets who also participate in spoken word: Write Bloody, Button Poetry, Coffee House Press, Haymarket Books– I could go on and on; feel free to add more in the comments. There are also journals and zines like Poetry Magazine, Paper Darts, Mizna, Muzzle, and many, many more.
  • Lots of social media accounts share poetry; a lot of is bad. There are some, though, that regularly share good, curated stuff: @PoetryMagazine@SlowDownShow, @POETSorg, and Litbowl.
  • Check out the VS podcast w/ Franny Choi and Danez Smith.
  • Every April, TruArtSpeaks shares a daily writing prompt. Other sites, organizations, and accounts do this as well. Try to find some you like, and potentially try writing a 30/30 (30 poems in thirty days).

4. Take Advantage of Opportunities to Sharpen Your Craft
For artists, growth can happen both inside and outside of formal spaces. Classes, workshops, conferences, festivals, cyphers, e-classes– wherever you can find that support, take advantage of it. Again, to use the Twin Cities as an example, a few shout outs:

If the opportunities in the last point aren’t as accessible to you– there are some good tools on the internet too. This video series is about sharing some of the ideas that have been helpful to me as a writer and performer. Honestly, when people send me their poems for feedback, 95% of the time, my feedback is based on video #2 and video #5. More videos on the way.

  • Intro/Five Things I Look for in Poems
  • On Concrete Language, Specificity, and Turning Ideas into Poems
  • Spoken Word Performance Tips and a Note on “Poet Voice”
  • On “Diving In” and Getting Involved with Spoken Word
  • On Revision
  • Even though my TEDx Talk isn’t specifically about poetry, it does contain a lot of insight into my writing process and may be worth a watch.

A running theme through all of these points is the idea that craft matters. Of course, if you’re just writing poetry for your own healing or enjoyment, whether some other poet or critic likes it or not is beside the point. But if you’re someone who is trying to make a career out of it, or really wants to find some measure of concrete success (book sales, publishing credits, a larger audience, etc.), then I hope these links, thoughts, and resources can be useful.

(BONUS POINT) 6. Live Your Life
Writing is important, but the best poems don’t come from locking ourselves away in a cabin and just writing for 20 hours every day. They come from engaging with our community, showing up to things, experiencing the world, having conversations, organizing and rabble-rousing, thinking critically, and then writing. Have fun.

(BONUS POINT) 7. Quick/Basic Writing Advice
There isn’t enough space here to go too in-depth with writing tips, but if I could share anything with an aspiring poet, it’d be this. The poems that stick with me…

  • …tend to be driven by images, not just ideas. They’re not just “deep thoughts” or manifestos; they use imagery, storytelling, and metaphor to go beyond the surface of an idea.
  • …tend to have creative HOOKS: the concept or angle that makes a poem fresh. How is your love poem different from all the other love poems out there? How is it uniquely yours?
  • …tend to be focused and specific. They don’t try to tell “the whole story.” They take one moment from that story, zoom in, and explore it.
  • …tend to be more concerned with being timely than timeless. You are free to agree or disagree with this one! I appreciate poems that comment on the world as it is, and/or try to help me envision a better one. 
Check out the zine for more!