For you know, and I know, good horse ´mongst the rich ones
How oftimes we go there an unwelcome guest
-Woody Guthrie, “The Unwelcome Guest”
Earlier this year, Minneapolis MC and spoken word poet Guante told me that he was working on an album that was “about immigration.” This vague, yet full-of-potential germ has resulted in An Unwelcome Guest (Trú Rúts), the debut album from Guante and producer Big Cats!. The album is a follow up to the group’s Start a Fire EP, also on Trú Rúts, which was released in May of this year. The duo will celebrate its release Saturday, December 12th at Bedlam Theatre, with support from Kristoff Krane, No Bird Sing, and The Tribe.
Part Cormac McCarthy, part Woody Guthrie, and part Public Enemy, An Unwelcome Guest is an intricately woven poetic and sonic excursion through landscapes mental, emotional, and physical, cementing Guante and Big Cats!’s status as two of the best emerging artists within Twin Cities hip-hop. When I spoke with them at their St. Paul rehearsal space, they were quick to emphasize how collaboratively they worked to create An Unwelcome Guest.
According to Big Cats!, “we would start with, ‘hey I have this beat, do you wanna use it?’ But then there was a process from there, ‘Can you change this part of it, can you rearrange this section, can this verse be 24 instead of 16?,’” he says. “It wasn’t just taking a verse and slapping it on a beat.”
“Each beat needed to fit a certain mood,” Guante adds, “to fit what was going on at the story at the time. They make the album as a whole more captivating.”
That attention to detail is evident throughout the album. Something that’s marked Big Cats!’s work since his first beat tapes is his vivid use of sonic color. Part of this comes from the producer’s multi-instrumental skills. “I have a musical background, I know how to play some instruments,” he says—including piano, guitar, and bass, along with the AKAI MPC1000 sampler. “I came up playing other people’s music, writing my own music.”
These details are not just present on drums that bump and hooks that grab, but also on elements like the constantly shifting sonic beds for verses, such as the hauntingly effective auto-tuned voices on “The Stockholm Syndrome.” Elsewhere there is the discordant harpsichord on “Yes, God is a DJ; No, Not a Good One.” This grating musical dissonance matches the social and emotional dissonance of the lyrics, which features a guest verse from No Bird Sing’s Eric Blair, as the two MCs explore the how the events of the album are “going according to plan/but whose plan?” This line is just one of many bursting with meaning, made all the stronger by their unified place in the album’s overarching story.
The idea of doing a concept album is nothing new to Guante. “I’ve been wanting to do a concept record for a long time, just as a challenge for myself. I think it makes interesting listening.” This emphasis on listening is key for Guante. “Music, and particularly hip-hop, has become a very passive listening experience,” he says. “It’s something you just nod and zone out to. We definitely wanted to have beats that anyone could appreciate and rhymes that flowed nicely, but it’s the idea that you could go deeper.”
The basic narrative of Guest, as I understand it and without giving too much away, revolves around a person is escaping some terrible event (although it’s never quite revealed what that event was), and while doing so, explores not just the physical landscapes he traverses on his post-apocalyptic journey, but also the emotions and meanings of that changed world and his place within it. “It’s not super abstract,” says Guante. “The language is very simple. I think where it gets complex is the subtext.”
The subtexts of Guest change with almost every song, invoking numerous interlocking themes. These include contemporary rhetoric about immigration; the reality and ideology of borders physical, national, and emotional; a biological plague; and governmental irresponsibility, conspiracy, and violence, as well as the insurrectionist response from the victims of these actions. There are two themes, however, that provide an inspiring and redemptive power in the midst of so much darkness and destruction. One is an insistent and unwavering emphasis on the power of aggressive social critique and the fight for social justice; the other is the power of love, a love that is neither hokey nor Hallmark, but one that persists and emboldens even through an apocalypse.
“Hopefully,” Guante says, “listening to the album is an experience that demands and rewards multiple listens.” Like the people whom Guante speaks about in “No Capes,” the everyday heroes that don’t need a costume or a mask to fight for what’s right, the messages of the tracks on An Unwelcome Guest possess more power together than they ever could alone, sounding a 21st century battle cry rooted in the righteous hoof beats of Woody Guthrie’s Black Bess.
Originally posted on TC Daily Planet on 8 December 2009.