Hip-Hop, know thine mathematics. And history
Answer: “A religious official in ancient Rome who interpreted omens by inspecting the entrails of sacrificial animals” (http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-har1.htm). Question: What is a haruspex?
Confused? It really is simple.
Answer: A five-piece hip-hop band hailing from St. Paul, Minnesota. Question: Who are the Heiruspecs?
Headz of the Midwest are likely familiar with the drums, bass, keys, and two-MC ensemble, known for breaking off mellow my-man beats and everyman thoughts for eight years running. From its foundation in high school freestyle sessions to backing undie A-listers Atmosphere, Oddjobs, Aesop Rock, and Sage Francis, the group gradually broke ground with Small Steps. Fall 2004 saw the release of Heiruspecs’ sophomore album, A Tiger Dancing, an effort that displayed a deepening sense of comfort and ease. 2005 holds further promise for the young group as they set to embark on a brief U.S. tour in support of Lyrics Born in late March and April. PopMatters spoke with lead MC Felix about where he’s comin’ from, and where it’s all going.
“Straight outta St. Paul…”
While listeners with even a passing familiarity of hip-hop will likely first take note of the live element in Heiruspecs’ music, Felix adds that most are surprised to hear that the band hails from a hip hop Mecca in the Midwest. “They’re even more puzzled when we tell them we’re from St. Paul, because no one has ever heard of St. Paul. Ever,” Felix muses on the band’s website. “That’s why we tell most people we’re from Minneapolis.” In conversation with Felix, he embellishes on his statement further by describing the specific neighborhood of the band, Midway Center. Economically and racially diverse with a “weird but not so ritzy shopping area”, Midway places middle class residents within six blocks of “poor whites and blacks”. Not so unusual, you say? Amidst the lower and middle class Caucasian and African-American populace is a large community of H’mong and Thai immigrants. Once the Wonder Bread crust is cleared from the eyes, depressed businesses and gang violence mingling with interracial marriage and neighborly cordiality are revealed. Add exceptional funding of arts programs in public schools, and all of a sudden the interest and sustenance of a music scene hardly seems implausible. The result can be interpreted as a uniquely Midwestern sense of empathy that Felix notes as key to the fertilization of hearty art. “A lot of the music out of the Midwest is more art than hit,” Felix observes, “And that is reflected in the music. You can tell that all these artists are not out there searching for a hit…” Felix tempers this sunny countenance by distinguishing the mainstream face of the Midwest, namely Nelly. “I don’t personally feel that [he] represents us at all. [It’s] a language and swagger that is southern.” Instead, the band is quick to point out the region’s support of homegrown hip-hop. “The Twin Cities is a very nurturing scene”, bassist Sean “Twinkie Jiggles” McPherson says on the band’s website. “There’s a lot of clubs, a lot of musicians, and a lot of open minds here. It’s allowed us to be ourselves while also being able to develop our live act and take it out of town to the rest of the country.” The recipe has obviously worked for stalwarts the Rhymesayers, who Felix describes as “the first to really unify people around a hip hop scene”. Similarly, the Heiruspecs have grown and thrived.
“So move tiger / Pick up your paws and let’s dance”
The core of the Heiruspecs first formed in high school. Twinkie and Felix met in a recording class, bonding and making the most of their “spare” class time—“[Twinkie] was always done with his projects, I was never doing my projects”, laughs Felix. Twinkie held down a riff, a rotating cast of drummers established the beat, and Felix freestyled, all the while attracting the attention of their schoolmates. These impromptu sessions naturally led to shows at local cafés. Although Felix notes that the group never took itself too seriously at this point, they nonetheless took joy in exploring the “band” idea. Twinkie found the word “haruspex” in his Latin class and hipped Felix to it. “[I thought] we could be the evangelists of hip-hop,” Felix recalls. “We’ll try to spread hip-hop to everybody ... but I didn’t know how it was spelled and I severely misspelled it on our first flyer. So, you have the funny spelling of our name.” Although the music was still for kicks, the band still took the time to coordinate a horn section. The band’s commitment quickly became apparent.
As members graduated and departed for college, the core of the band reevaluated how to continue. The band maintained a full sound by using keyboards in place of the dearly departed horns. Tasha Baron provided this accompaniment on the band’s aforementioned debut Small Steps. Although modest on the outside, the album made enough waves to break the band into the national spotlight, garnering praise from Urb magazine, amongst others. Relentless touring got the name out, and further line-up changes modified the sound, leading to a new deal and the latest album. Throughout, the Heiruspecs have remained dedicated to crafting natural music. The band has emphasized what comes through instinct and heart more than mind and deliberation; hence, Felix points out the greatest quality of new keyboardist dVRG as being his long-standing friendship with Felix and co-MC Muad’Dib, more than even his conservatory music training. Thus, the resulting album resembles a peek inside the lives of a group of friends more than an album “trying to make it”.
A Tiger Dancing achieves this resonance by adhering to Felix’s life-long principle that “music is art and art is a form of expression: why ... make music that is not expressive of something?” The themes explored on Tiger are not revolutionary or a source of wonder, though they are wonderfully articulate and thoughtful. The album’s “hit” single, “5ves”, starts off with a standard hip-hop counting trope, but mostly documents waking up, a peaceful morning in the neighborhood, and the joy of writing. On the album opener “Something for Nothing” Felix juxtaposes the grimy grind of touring with the adrenaline-rush of performance. Although Felix dips in the well of machismo ink at times, his grasp of realism comes through in lines like, “I don’t get stage fright but Twinkie gets nervous.” The group’s struggles and efforts are evidenced in the stuttering military march of “32 Months”, where Felix recites in the background, “I am young, mixed, and mixed up / Sometimes confused / Paying my dues / Basically I’m you”. However, Felix and Muad’Dib find time to lollygag and throw away lines on the bonus cut “Drop”, “You’re like a Millie Vanilli record / Your fans feel gypped.” Felix is relatively lucid regarding his lyrics, stating simply, “I’m not writing as a rapper; I’m writing as me.” Hence, Tiger confidently straddles the fence of soul-bearing and kicked-up soles.
“Take steps to break dead spaces / Or rest in distress with all the stone faces”
While the Heiruspecs seemingly continue to go for delf, Felix reveals the band’s awareness of the industry it is now involved in, and its goals within it. “Early on I met a lot of people that were very much about being underground only,” says Felix as he comments on the pressures of the band’s community. He continues though to point out the reevaluation of the divide between critical and commercial success:
I think that more recently, I’ve met more people who are all about trying to go mainstream, but have underground credibility. And to be honest with you, I’m trying to go on the same path. I’ve been set that way ... by looking at how nothing has really changed in the things I like in hip-hop. But all these things I liked about hip-hop are starting to be embraced by popular rappers. Like Nas for example ... he may not be quite as big a pop figure as Jay-Z, but he still gets an equal amount of respect, or maybe on another level, more respect than Jay-Z because he has never compromised himself to do it. It’s pointed out to me that you can do underground stuff and become popular with it and not have to sell out. I like that about hip-hop today, it’s not quite so much a big polarity between the underground and commercial fans.
Citing Windy City neighbor Kanye West’s collaboration last year with critical-darlings Dilated Peoples on the group’s occasional MTV-featured “This Way”, Felix sees such an instance as a positive development in the mainstream idea of hip-hop. In discussing how such a diverse field of music will affect hip-hop headz born in the 21st century, Felix predicts, “I think they’ll be making music that is a lot more emotionally in touch than a lot of the stuff [the hip-hop community does] now. I think that a lot of rap historically and even currently still ... is disjointed from reality ... You see [rappers’ credibility] being questioned at every corner and people get tired of seeing that. And I feel like the people growing up on hip-hop now are learning to be more sensitive.”
To a degree, the Heiruspecs already embrace that ethic, being such a tight-knit unit of diverse personalities. Felix lists the band’s “indie rock and jazz loving drummer”, and “bassist who grew up in a small town in Massachusetts and loved the blues”, yet stresses the group’s ability to work in symbiosis. The band continues to move on with growth on its mind. Felix hopes to see more people of color in the band’s fan base in the future, noting how “underground hip-hop especially ... has become a very white affair. On one hand it’s a very accepting and ... genuinely aware audience ... but that is at times not the perception.” The aforementioned tour with Solesides/Quannum star Lyrics Born will undoubtedly bring the Heirupsecs’ music to new audiences. However, the group has sufficiently grasped the idea of gradual processes. So the steps may continue to be small, but they move the Heiruspecs forward, both within itself and beyond.