Underground hip-hop veteran visits Chicago

“Rap won’t save you,” the mantra of the Twin Cities rap collective Doomtree, is repeated in song lyrics and printed on all of its merchandise.

Founding member Andrew Sims, however, credits rap for much of his success. Listening to mainstream and underground hip-hop artists, such as the Wu-Tang Clan, helped him cope during a tough childhood, when his musician parents often left Sims to watch over himself and his younger brother. Sims collected cassette mixtapes of hip-hop music that he traded to kids at school and kept them hidden because of his parents’ disapproval.

Eventually, Sims found his own talent through rhyming, writing and experiencing in the Minnesota hip-hop scene. At Hopkins High School, he met local producer and rapper Stefon Alexander, also known as P.O.S., who let him record in his in-house studio and sold him beats for $30 a piece.

“I really started doing talent shows in coffee shops and basements, whatever I could do as a teenager,” Sims said. “Then in my young 20’s, it was just about if I could get a show, I would do the show. I had no level of expectation about getting money, or that I was going to get famous. I just wanted to do it.”

Now, Sims is touring a few Midwestern cities to keep his name out there. At his intimate show at The Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace St., on Nov. 8, Sims hung out in the crowd during opening numbers, worked his merch table and met with fans.

“That’s how I get most of my joy, from playing shows [and] meeting people,” he said. “I think my show is improving so much everytime I go out there, I get more and more excited to go back out.”

In 2002, after slowly picking up other local Twin Cities rappers, Sims and P.O.S.’s collaboration grew into the seven-piece collective Doomtree, and began to expand into a business-savvy operation, creating their own label and steering their own career. In addition to Sims and P.O.S., Lazerbeak, Dessa, Mike Mictlan, Paper Tiger and Cecil Otter make up the collective that is part of the grassroots Minneapolis indie hip-hop scene.

Minnesota’s hip-hop community functions as a tightly knit family, and encompasses a pool of rappers, producers and disc jockeys that is small enough to allow for friendly competition. Fostered by local indie hip-hop label Rhymesayers, artists such as Atmosphere and Eyedea & Abilities have emerged from the scene with successful careers. Doomtree received its fair share of exposure, when it performed to a crowd of thousands at Lollapalooza this summer. Alongside other artists from the Twin Cities, however, Doomtree’s members made it clear they weren’t pursuing their careers for materialistic reasons.

“I had very low expectations about what to get out of shows other than I loved playing shows,” Sims said. “It was really a humble way to approach [our career], and it made a lot of people in the city really appreciate the type of mentality that I think Doomtree had toward the way we did shows—of course it was for free, of course we’re on first, and of course we’re one of five acts on the bill.”

Minneapolis hip-hop is known for its artistic, innovative backtracks and introspective and philosophical lyrics. Sims’ lyrics categorically push boundaries, using kinetic wordplay on themes such as commercialism and political cynicism. He proves he is constantly searching for a way out of the trappings that define the modern lifestyle. The track “One Dimensional Man” defines his relationship with complacent liberals: “You did your part, you gave your hundred bucks to NPR / You joined the co-op now, bought the hybrid car.” It is all said in satirical fun, as Sims himself votes Democrat and drives a hybrid.

During his Chicago show, Sims brought up his paradoxical feelings about the presidential election.

“I found myself pretty excited on Tuesday … but our country still has a lot of work to do,” he said. He later implied he was disappointed with the government.

Sims added that even though he gives his audience an enjoyable experience, he likes to strike a nerve at the same time.

“I try and [perform] in a way that is still fun for me and hopefully for the audience,” he said. “But I’m not just talking about swag the whole time. I give you a little bit to chew on while you’re throwing up your drink in the corner.”

Sims credits Doomtree’s survival to being able to adapt to change. He doesn’t generally have a static business plan or model, though he would never recommend anyone start a record label in the current industry.

“Today, it’s a terrible business to try and get into,” he said. “The idea of what a record label is going to be in the future [will] be a moving thing as well. I don’t think even the major [labels] are going to survive in a 10-year scheme. They’re going to have to figure out what to do to provide additional services other than just be the bank for artists to put their record out.”

Being in the scene for more than a decade and watching the industry start to crumble left him feeling conflicted, he said. He’s thankful the playing field has been leveled so his fellow independent musicians can sell more records. However, Sims said top-selling records aren’t making as much money as they used to.

“What’s lasted is that people say, ‘Now a licensing opportunity; sell your song to Pepsi,” Sims said. “I think Pepsi should stick to selling Pepsi, and if it helps that they have a song in [their commercials], that’s cool. But as far as an artist relying on Pepsi for their rent, that’s going to be a tricky spot to be in.”

Sims is currently working on another album and visiting his favorite cities across the country. He said he will be back in Chicago with Doomtree in December.

“As far as the short-term,” he said, “you’ll find me playing, making music [and] playing rap shows.”