Interview: Empire Status

words by Eamon Whalen

photography by Austin Fassino

 

No one has latched onto the imagery, style and themes from both real life and fictional icons of organized crime quite like rappers. Biggie was the “Black Frank White,” named for a mobster in the movie King Of New York. Wu Tang Clan adapted the Gambino Crime Family into their own “Wu-Gambino” inspired aliases. Nas was “Esco,” named for Pablo Escobar. The list could and will go on.

 

Now, in the same city where prohibition-era criminals like John Dillinger and Al Capone made their hideouts nearly one hundred years ago, Bobby Raps and Muja Messiah look to continue Rap’s rich, mafioso tradition. Their album - “Empire Status” takes influence from the criminally minded, prohibition-era based HBO series, Boardwalk Empire and interprets it with a modern sensibility and present day parallels.

 

“The mentality of the guys back then, its the same as the hip hop mentality. The style and everything, how they carry themselves, the whole aura of the show,” said Muja, seated in the duo’s own hideout, a recording studio on the West Bank of Minneapolis. This is where they recorded the album, and where Bobby has made his home now for over a year. Some rappers claim to sleep in the studio, this one actually does.

 

“Its about guns, drugs, smuggling liquor and wenches. I mean who wouldn’t want to rap about that, you feel me?” says Bobby half-jokingly, looking over a new song on Pro Tools he’s produced for AK, the owner of the studio and a rapper featured on Empire Status. Several times throughout the interview AK peaks in to check on progress.

 

The seat at the mixing board is one he’s gotten used to in the past year and half. It was the former seat of his mentor, AK’s younger cousin Tek, until Tek was incarcerated in the fall of 2012. The multi-talented producer, rapper and engineer had taken Bobby under his wing, eventually inviting him to move into the studio after a disagreement between Bobby and his Mother.

 

Originally known around town as a rapper in the nearly ten-member Twin Cities upstart collective Audio Perm, Bobby was beginning to establish himself as a dual talent. After winning a regional Istandard beat battle in November of 2011, he devoted the entire year to refining his production skills in preparation for the national finals in New York. In January of 2013 he placed 8th out of 50 contestant for panel of industry-level producers

 

After Tek was incarcerated, his protege naturally stepped in to engineer his remaining sessions, including some with  Muja, one of the most respected veteran rappers in Minneapolis. Muja, whose son Nazeem is an aspiring rapper nearly Bobby’s age, made a point to keep up with the young talent in his city and noticed Bobby rapping as a member of Audio Perm.

 

“[The first time we met] I was like ‘if your Mr. Raps, then rap.’ Then he freestyled double time and killed it and I was like man, I mess with this little kid! Then later I heard the beats, and I knew I had to work with him,” said Muja. Not only did they have a mutual admiration of each other’s work, but mutual desire to take a hiatus from their previous more personal and autobiographical music.

 

The hit HBO show was just ratcheting up it’s third season, and featured the lifestyle that had enticed rappers for so long. It also boasted a storyline that the two could relate to. The central story arc of the first two seasons of Boardwalk Empire involve young Jimmy Dormandy being schooled to the nuances of the liquor smuggling business, by his mentor, Atlantic City Treasurer and prohibition kingpin, Nucky Thompson.

 

"We just painted the picture of the young dude Jimmy coming up and I’m the OG [Nucky], we did it just like the show, only we applied it to the streets and to hip hop," said Muja. Their difference in age and experience appears both an asset, and an invitation for insults between the two throughout the evening. Muja gives Bobby shit about being young and dumb, taking too many takes when he recorded his verses. Bobby retorts, asking how old Muja was when Slick Rick dropped.

 

“It’s dope because it’s like both a peer and a mentor relationship,” said Bobby. “I admired his work growing up but always thought I could add something with my production.”

Muja had long held down the role as one of the most talented, unfiltered street-minded rappers in a scene where those qualities aren’t historically rewarded. In a 2000 City Pages interview he boasted of being among the first “fuck you” rappers on the Minneapolis scene. A self proclaimed D-Boy/B-Boy, his solo work showcases a brazen voice on everything from the street to pop culture to geo-politics. Empire Status, however, was his first conceptual effort.

 

“I learned a new method of making music from this process,” said Muja. “Today I’m the Godfather, I’m Scarface, I’m Nucky Thompson- go in, but apply it to my life you know what I mean?  Making this project changed my whole creative process as far as I approach music in general.”

 

Bobby, who didn’t have the same wealth of experiences to draw from, had a little trouble escaping out of himself. “The first couple of sessions I had to tell him like get in your inner gangster, tell some stories, be a little more egotistical than normal and don’t talk about what’s going on in Minnesota. Get out of all that,” said Muja. After a year of focusing almost solely on production and now after his first year out of the house, sleeping on the couch of a rap studio, it was just what he needed.

 

"[The past year] I’ve gone through a crazy growing experience like, maybe some things people wouldn’t even believe unless it’s on a rap song. It’s a way we can relate to the gangster stuff that was going on back then, and apply it to what’s happening to us in real life,” said Bobby.

"He [Bobby] became a made man from St. Paul," said Maria Isa, the other member in Muja’s duo Villa Rosa, laughing in the corner of the studio. On the nine track album he sounds like it, in confident command of his multi-syllabic flow even singing several hooks. Like a young protege trying to prove himself, he clearly aims to over-impress and outrap the big homie with each verse. Muja, the OG, is altogether more acquainted with the subject matter and takes advantage with imagery fit for film, or at least premium cable. Oxtail and vermicelli dinners, python handled pistols, dystopian ghettoes, and other details from the “Black Steve Buscemi,” with Muja sometimes even channeling his more sadistic adversary from season 3, Gyp Rosetti.

The backdrop is a heavily-melodic, grandiose interpretation of soul-sampling production, with a level of polish appropriate for the roaring twenties. “We thought the sound should be classy, luxurious almost. Just upper echelon sounding,” said Bobby. With his versatility behind the boards, Bobby could soon find himself in the multi-genre super-producer position of the album’s executive producer Doc McKinney. McKinney, originally from Minneapolis but now based in Toronto, has a longstanding relationship with Muja and a resume including work with Drake, The Weeknd, Santigold and Raphael Saadiq among many others.

“This album was perfect to segway my life back into the mode of getting songs done, I don’t just want to be a producer or just a rapper I want to do it all,” said Bobby, still looking at his computer, tinkering with AK’s track on Pro-Tools.

Muja and Maria get up to leave Bobby, clearly in his element, just before Muja adds, “We just wanted to do something to come together to showcase our talents. Showcase his production, his rap skills, his singing and blend the two worlds together, young and old, black and white, you know?”