words by Paul Thompson
photography by Asha Efia and Nancy Musinguzi
• buy issue 004 [thestand4rd cover story]
Even as surrealists go, DJ Khaled is a rare breed. The Miami native wears his stage name loosely, less DJ than cartoon villain, careening through the rap world haphazardly with blank checks for guest features and crystal chandeliers. So why, last fall, was he introducing a little-known quartet from St. Paul, Minnesota, onstage at New York City’s storied venue SOB’s?
That night’s headliners, thestand4rd are as hard to place as they were initially hard to name. “The idea at first was that you wouldn’t be able to know who was contributing what,” says producer Psymun. The four Minnesotans, creative partners in crime for less than a year, had already seen their stock skyrocket since their self-titled debut was uploaded online as a free download just weeks before their performance at SOB’s. But this run of sold-out tour dates was something bigger, something unexpected. Prompted by the group’s youngest member Corbin, then named Spooky Black, and his slight, sneering single, “dj khaled is my father,” the 39-year-old best known for hollering catchphrases as mixtape-drops was instead shouting the praises of a record narrower, quieter, and altogether smaller than anything he had ever touched before.
Joining Corbin and Psymun in thestand4rd are Bobby Raps and Allan Kingdom, producers and vocalists in their own right. Since “Doors,” their first recording together, was uploaded in the spring of 2014, the four of them had watched that original credo of anonymity slip away. Their origins were almost serendipitous, as if the cold of Minnesota winters drove the city’s brightest young talent to a point of inevitable convergence. So as DJ Khaled bounced around that stage in New York, his excitement was, for once, understandable. Thestand4rd are not only one of the Twin Cities’ most visible musical acts since the turn of the century, they’re one of the best.
“I thought I was going to get to St. Paul, and it was going to be one of those industry things, where he was actually 40.” Doc McKinney can laugh about it now, but he was once skeptical. The 43-year-old Toronto-based producer’s credits read like a list of music you and your parents can agree on: Santigold, Maroon 5, Drake, Cee-Lo. A St. Paul expat, McKinney usually makes one pilgrimage home each year; in 2014, he flew back “probably 15 times.” The siren? The white, 16-year-old, doo rag adorned singer of the confounding single, “Without U.” Psymun would later say of the music video’s 2-million-plus YouTube views, “That’s why he did that video—he thought no one would ever see it.”
Bleeding through speakers and RSS feeds, Corbin was inundated with emails from major label and management vultures as soon as “Without U” and the accompanying EP, Black Silk, hit the internet. Shy - but mostly just disinterested - Corbin ignored nearly every overture. “My instinct is to email them, “Fuck you!” he jokes. On a recommendation from Bobby, he took a meeting with McKinney. While still a member in St. Paul Central high school’s choir, Corbin impressed Doc, and read nothing like the SEO wet dream in “Without U.” “He’s incredibly mature, it’s like, ‘Are you really 16?’” McKinney says.
Indeed he is - 16 [ed. note: 17 at time of print], but preternaturally talented and impossibly soulful. In mid-2014 Corbin was laying down track after track of irreverent R&B, not unlike what McKinney had crafted with the Weeknd. After their meeting, McKinney became intrigued by the idea of a young, unconventional solo artist. He, along with old friend and former business partner, Jon Jon Scott - seen by many as a godfather figure in the Cities’ rap scene - had been keeping a close watch over the emerging talent, and something about “Without U” and the other early recordings struck an immutable chord for McKinney. Corbin’s bar might seem lower, but it was just as hard to hit. “I don’t know,” Corbin says, laughing. “Doc just wasn’t weird.” But by the time McKinney arrived in St. Paul, Corbin was already writing and recording with Bobby, and the gears of what would become thestand4rd had already been set in motion.
Before he was the fulcrum for what became the Twin Cities’ biggest export in at least a decade, Bobby Raps was just that dude. The producer and rapper - several years ahead of Corbin at Central High - first became a draw as a member of the local collective Audio Perm, a loose net of rappers and DJs led by Taylor Madrigal (now known as “tiiiiiiiiip”) thestand4rd’s touring DJ and unofficial fifth member. Corbin was an early fan; he once caught a t-shirt at one of the crew’s all-ages showcases where Psymun was the opener, naturally.
Bobby’s career behind the microphone started with case studies of various rap styles; the recesses of his Soundcloud profile still house no-frills boom-baps cuts with titles like “Throwback Flow,”and screwed-up odes to the sounds of Memphis and Houston like “Gettin' Throwed.” But soon, the stocky savant was asserting himself as a power player on both sides of the river, with a distinct style of his own creation. By 2013, he was making albums with local veterans like Muja Messiah, whom Bobby had impressed with an impromptu double-time freestyle. “It surprised the fuck out of me,” said Muja.
After a disagreement with his mother, Bobby was invited by early mentor Rico “Tek” Burch to live at a studio in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, owned by Tek’s cousin Arvesta “AK” Kelly. To supplement his income Bobby began running recording sessions for an endless list of local artists. Shortly after, it became one of the go-to spots for the cutting edge of the Twin Cities’ rap scene and the founding site of thestand4rd.
Thestand4rd came together almost by accident; while the group’s members shy away from the term, McKinney likens it to fate. Corbin made some of his earliest songs with Bobby, so when Psymun began kicking around the idea of collaborating with the young singer, Bobby’s spot was the natural setting. Predictably, Psymun began talking with Allan right around the time Allan had started recording at Bobby’s place. So while the quartet would claim on their debut to be “just some kids with computers,” real physical proximity was the flint and steel that sparked the flame. The initial concept of a loose collective soon gave way to a group that McKinney joked “probably all shared the same mother,” and proved Bobby Raps to be pivotal in the group’s formation.
Even with the ease of sliding into the same studio, a rap group is a volatile thing. There are logistics and royalties and schedules to consider - and that’s nothing compared to the egos. Before Corbin’s hype train took off, Allan Kingdom was arguably the brightest young star in the Twin Cities. And people were starting to take notice, including some of the city’s most renowned artists. P.O.S, a founding member of the local indie-rap outfit Doomtree and an acclaimed solo artist, recalls listening to one of Allan’s still-unreleased song earlier in 2014. “I still know every word - and the melody to it,” he says. “Crazy sticky. Allan is as dope as they get.” It would stand to reason that a young artist, especially one with the en-vogue vocal capabilities and leading-man good looks Kingdom was blessed with, would want to strike out on his own, leaving little time for a group whose mandate was to obscure its contributors’ identities.
“We knew we were going to release Future Memoirs, and we thought we were going to release another album [in 2014],” Allan Kingdom explains of his team’s plan for the last 16 months. Instead, after Memoirs established him as one of the most biting voices in the Cities, that second project - an EP co-produced with Poliça’s Ryan Olson - was put on hold. “With thestand4rd, we just didn’t need to,” says Allan. Since thestand4rd came out, his life has been a blur. In March of 2015, he popped up on a London stage, performing alongside Kanye West, who features Allan on “All Day” a single from his upcoming album, So Help Me God. Yet, later that month, he was back with the gang performing alongside Bobby and backed by tiiiiiiiiiip, at several packed shows throughout SXSW. You can’t pry Allan Kingdom away.
In what Bobby describes as “a blurry-ass two weeks” before the group was officially formed, Kingdom began to forge a kinship with Corbin, Bobby and Psymun. “I was already interested in what Bobby was doing, but he was able to express certain elements of his musical abilities once he started working with Corbin,” he remembers. “All of a sudden, I could hear how I could work with him. It was going to work well with what I was doing. We had already seen each other around the city and respected each other.”
It’s Kingdom’s voice that kicks off their self-titled debut, lacing “Binoculars” with his bouncing, darting flow and taunting lyrics, “I was not trying to stunt or to flex although I can see how it look, feeling like y’all.” But by halfway through the album’s second song, “Stay,” Allan’s voice is just another in the fog of icy wind and heartbreak. And by the end of “Vital Signs,” thestand4rd is a Greek chorus that’s dejected, but still a little bit fly.
In the case of Psymun, the cliché of the shy producer is born out of truth. If someone tugged at your shirt while you were smoking in front of the venue - “There’s thestand4rd!” - you would be forgiven for thinking Psymun was their manager. Favoring measured answers and an Extreme Noise long-sleeved tee, the twenty-something doesn’t look like the member who had the most profitable career up until their formation. In fact, while the group’s three vocalists were vying for spotlights and promoter plugs, the group’s lone non-vocalist was building a loyal following through his Bandcamp catalog.
First garnering national attention for his heartsick EP, Psymun throws the usual homemade beat tape influences - some Dilla here, some Flying Lotus there - at a funhouse mirror. What stuck, stuck. At the end of 2013, he put out a record with Minneapolis singer K.Raydio; less than six months later, the pair became the first R&B act to play the Rhymesayers-curated Soundset festival. Their set came less than four weeks after the release of Psymun’s Pink Label, a phenomenally jagged, airy inversion of the K.Raydio material, and was intended to be a triumphant exit from the scene.
At the time, Psymun was planning two things: A move to Brooklyn and a solo record called Fuck You, Minneapolis. Neither really took. There was a U-Haul and a new set of apartment keys, but the relocation was good for little more than a headache. “When I went to New York, it was before I knew thestand4rd was a really serious thing,” explains Psymun. “But it pretty quickly became apparent how well the four of us worked.” He pauses. “I was only in New York for, like, a month.”
From there, Psymun was off to Toronto to meet with Corbin, Allan, Bobby and tiiiiiiiiiip at the same studio where Doc had produced a majority of The Weeknd’s early material. All told, thestand4rd spent over a month of the summer at Doc’s studio writing and recording what would become their debut. It was a far cry from the early sessions at Bobby’s, where the extent of the foresight was a haphazard online profile meant to be ambiguous. There was no discernible structure, just a handful of musicians with varying degrees of local fame, trying and succeeding to make brooding, biting MP3s.
But McKinney was energized by the creative kids. He describes the four as “brothers” content to be in only each others’ company for weeks on end. Doc was also invested in what they represent; while “Minneapolis” is the blanket term-slash-euphemism for the crew’s hometown, there was a very real push to play up their connection to St. Paul, the black sheep of the Twin Cities. Perhaps more importantly, there was a total lack of ego in the booth and behind the boards. All four members endorsed the idea of a record where the listener was confused as to who played which role.
All the while, despite the expectations that came with McKinney’s involvement, the finish line kept moving. “I remember Allan sort of just wanted to drop it out of nowhere,” says Psymun, admitting that he and Corbin always thought it would be “cool” to go with an established label. Ultimately, the record came out for free, but that doesn’t mean Doc’s involvement didn’t push the project over the top. “The mastering made all the difference,” says Bobby, still stunned by the improvement. “It was recorded on three different computers, and [originally] you could tell,” referring to the unrefined sound of the album’s first incarnation. The mastering process smoothed it all out, giving the record a professional, cohesive feel normally afforded only to those with major recording budgets.
That sheen was the touch the group needed. Thestand4rd was the best record to come out of either St. Paul or Minneapolis in years, as uncomfortably personal as it is improbably fresh. From the wanderlust of “Stay” to the spiritual Xanax of “Decisions,” the record is tighter and more dynamic than anything any of the four have pulled off on their own. For a lineup so stacked, that’s no small order. But as sums and parts go, the self-titled album wins by being an exercise in misdirection. Just when you think you have the LP pigeon-holed by “Tryna Fuk / No Reply” and its deliberate existential tension, you’re hit over the head again with the skull-rattling coda of “AsapRockyTypeBeat.” The effect is hypnotic.
Though Corbin had been approached by nearly every major music publication, thestand4rd’s final cut inspired enough confidence to forego the expected promotional channels. With no blog debut, the unceremonious release turned into a stunningly successful tour, the kind that becomes a victory lap from the jump. The stories from their aforementioned New York stop are legend already - Corbin’s grandma in the crowd shilling merch while DJ Khaled pontificates from the stage. The four sold out every venue on the eight-stop tour, bookended by packed shows in St. Paul and Minneapolis - in that order, of course. Somehow, Macbooks and good fortune turned the last two months of the year into a coming out party.
As for the future of thestand4rd, it’s uncertain, but hopefully long and fruitful. “We really just need to block off a month here or there to record the next one,” says Kingdom. Those studio sessions have yet to be booked, but the four agree that they are inevitable. And despite the recent praise, the one thing that whips all four artists into a frenzy in an instant is the concept of the compliment. Feeling them to be hollow and disconcerting, Allan, Bobby, and Psymun express, in turn, their desire to be left alone by those who admire them. Corbin takes a lighter approach; “When I first got on Worldstar…people [were] really good at dissing,” he remembers, sounding giddy at the very thought. “I loved it.” Yet, the fire of the four isn’t derived from the world of A&Rs and internet adoration, but from the passion for the craft that brought them together in those “blurry-ass” two weeks last year, and from the shared desire of four kids from St. Paul to transmit their ideas worldwide. Perhaps Bobby sums it up best, “I just wanna make mainstream music tight again.”