Like sharks, the seven members of Doomtree keep moving. Ten years after the Minneapolis hip-hop collective started out, co-founders P.O.S. and Otter are each finishing solo albums for summer release. Dessa, Sims and Mike Mictlan are all working on their own albums. And Lazerbeak just completed an instrumental collection with Plain Ole Bill.
P.O.S., born Stef Alexander, knew from an early age he was meant for the stage — "as soon as I realized it was a thing people did for a living," he says. After growing up on punk and metal, he transitioned into hip-hop. But those early influences remain in his music, giving it a distinctive edge, albeit one that wasn't immediately embraced.
"Going from playing in bands and being in the punk scene, to trying to all of a sudden be taken seriously as a rapper, was not really happening," he says. "I ended up playing on a lot more rock bills than rap bills."
So P.O.S. decided to collaborate with friend Cecil Otter. Before long, five others came onboard to help start the Twin Cities' second-best-known indie hip-hop label. (The first being Rhymesayers, home to indie rap icon Atmosphere as well as P.O.S. solo efforts.)
"Before I got signed to Rhymesayers, I'd go ask [Atmosphere's] Slug and Saadiq and J-bird [for] different tips," says P.O.S. "After we got the ball rolling, it was on us to figure out how to keep it rolling straight."
The two emcees collaborated on early albums for their label's "False Hopes" series, after which P.O.S. became a fixture on the Warped Tour, showcasing enough guitar-laden samples and punk fervor to carve out his own niche as a rapper with passionate, MC5-like intensity.
Meanwhile, Otter struggled. "He's emotional," says P.O.S. of his buddy. "He's writing songs and not talking shit about people. I don't think people took to that too quickly, though eventually they did."
It wasn't until 2008 that Otter released his debut solo full-length, Rebel Yellow, on Sage Francis' Strange Famous label. Like Francis, Otter's a one-time spoken-word artist who likes longer narratives, while his production favors jazzy rhythms and plenty of acoustic guitars. All of which gives much of his music a late-night cabaret vibe that's unusual for hip-hop.
While Rebel Yellow generated some buzz, Otter's most noteworthy release came this past summer with Wugazi's 13 Chambers, a clever mash-up album of Fugazi and the Wu-Tang Clan.
The brainchild of Swiss Andy, the Wugazi album was the result of more than a year spent stitching the 13 tracks together. The preview track "Sleep Rules Everything Around Me" racked up 20,000 listens in 12 hours. Available as a free download from Doomtree, 13 Chambers become an underground hit.
"We knew people would like it," says Otter, "but we didn't expect them to take to it in that short a time."
Now the Doomtree collective has released No Kings, its second "official" album. Unlike 2008's self-titled release, which sounds more like a compilation, this one seamlessly blends the talents of all seven members. And while previous live shows tended toward fewer members and more solo sets, the No Kings tour will feature five emcees and two DJs onstage together.
"Everybody gets so wrapped up in their own projects and their own things," says P.O.S. "It was cool to take a step back and let it be a Doomtree project. Nobody was trying to outshine anybody else. We know how to shine and stay out of each other's way, just because we've been together for 10 years."