Fierce, philosophical female emcee Dessa captivates Chi-Town

By Emily Ornberg

“Forget the bull in the china shop, there’s a china doll in the bullpen.”

Singer/songwriter/emcee Dessa professed this symbolic lyric Jan. 8 during her performance of her track “The Bullpen” at her current tour’s inaugural show at Schuba’s Tavern, 3159 N. Southport Ave. A unique brand of cabaret-meets-hip-hop, Dessa’s delicate rhymes paired with colossal uproars of passionate musicality with salsa, jazz and retro additives captured her porcelain bullfight.

Under the pink and blue lights at Schuba’s intimate main floor venue, Dessa emerged onstage sporting a vintage ’50s updo, 5-inch gold hoops and a men’s button up. “Are you kidding me, Chicago?!” she shrieked, humbled by the crowd’s energetic excitement for her arrival.

Unlike most emcees who are accompanied by DJs, the Minnesota native brought a live band complete with guitar, drums, backup vocals and an upright bass—fitting choice, because the majority of her solo material teeters between double-time raps to retro-lounge melodies with live instruments. The live band contrasted the digital production of her work with Doomtree hip-hop collective. The dynamic combination proved most successful during her performances of “Matches to Paper Dolls”—the plucked bass and growing drumbeat layed a resonant pulse beneath her cadenced rhymes—and the angry “Mineshaft 2,” which combined virtuosic electric guitar with wailing and emotive harmonies.

A vigorously vibrant performer, Dessa hadn’t always been working toward a music career. The 30-year-old originally intended to pursue a career in philosophy, but in college after she realized the lack of job opportunities in the field, Dessa began spreading her knowledge through her work as a spoken word artist, and eventually, an emcee, according to an interview Dessa did for on Jan. 3.

Her background in philosophy lends a rich palette of metaphors and idioms she incorporates into her lyrics. Lines like “Your conscience was clean and as white as a line of cocaine” from “The Man I Knew” showcase her songwriting talents. Dessa recited her poetic lines from famed tracks such as “Dixon’s Girl” and “Alibi” had with the animated crowd. Maintaining her energy, the audience cheered her to the mic upon hearing the beginning lullaby-like melody of “551,” as she began, “She’s a latter day saint, but she’s a Saturday sinner …. I met her boyfriend at the bar, he said he’d stick to beer/ Said I could keep the cocktails, martinis taste like tears.”

Between songs, Dessa spoke to the crowd at ease, joking about technical difficulties and sharing personal stories. Punctuating her deep, introspective songs with her embarrassing moments made the crowd feel as though Dessa was comfortable reading her diary to anyone willing to listen. “When I get really tired, I get really emo,” she humbly admitted, “which is so not hip-hop.”

From her first solo EP “False Hopes” in 2005 to 2011’s “Castor, the Twin,” it is clear Dessa has grown as an artist through more than eight years of practice. Evolving from an unpolished sound on her early work to a more dignified additive of harmonies and clarinets on “Castor, the Twin,” Dessa has flexed her dexterity and success through singing and rapping with confidence.

The show’s highest moments were when Dessa played her most pulsating and amped-up tracks, such as her Doomtree track “Veteran,” when she jumped around the stage, shaking her hoop earrings as the drum beats and cheers were amplified. Dessa gave a flagrant attempt to put on a good show, but her fire began to smolder when she performed her more serious, low-key numbers consecutively.

Regardless, the show proved Dessa has an unmatched and a diverse catalogue of music. Bringing a unique, graceful quality to her stellar and unyielding lyrics, Dessa is ready to unleash her bull on hip-hop’s standards.

“There’s no such thing as overnight success,” Dessa said at the end of her set. “When I was younger, I would sing in the frozen food aisle singing, waiting for a man in a light grey suit to hear me and say, ‘Hey little girl, would you like a record deal?’ It’s been a long road, but now I’m able to rock a men’s shirt onstage …. Thank you, Chicago, for all your support.”

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