Twin Cities Hip-Hop community adapts to life in quarantine and prepares for life post-COVID-19

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Collage of local Hip Hop artists
Clockwise from top left: J Plaza; Nado NSE; DJ Blase; Frankie Bash; Shanell McCoy; K.Raydio; Dua Saleh; iLLism; Why Khaliq. (courtesy the artists)

As clubs, bars, and other venues have been shut down to limit the spread of COVID-19, Twin Cities Hip-Hop artists have been left contemplating: what's next? For some artists, the coronavirus hasn't been a huge burden. For others, it has altered their livelihoods.

I spoke with J. Plaza, Why Khaliq, Dua Saleh, K. Raydio, Shanell McCoy, Nado NSE, Frankie Bash, iLLism and DJ J. Blasée about how they've been adapting to being artists during the coronavirus crisis.

Closed venues mean no more live shows

"I had like four shows. I was gonna have one solo show with two other artists," said J. Plaza, who was organizing a Minnesota showcase to highlight some of the Twin Cities' up-and-coming Hip-Hop talents. "I'm trying to figure out how to make money right now. To keep surviving. I'm straight, but I'm running out."

The St. Paul rapper was not alone. Artists like Why Khaliq have had to cancel several out-of-town shows because of coronavirus. March and April were going to be pivotal for Why Khaliq, who took a little break from music to spend time with his family and his newborn daughter.

Dividing time between his day job and being with his then-pregnant wife, Why Khaliq wasn't able to promote and celebrate his November album, Skies. Before Governor Tim Walz ordered a state-mandated shutdown, Why Khaliq hosted a release party for his latest album.

"I knew the event wouldn't be as great, because people don't want to get sick or they have kids," Why Khaliq said. "So many people couldn't make it out, but it was still a major success."

For singer Shanell McCoy, March and April were supposed to be filled with several shows and live events. "I had one show, a solo show with a band, before being quarantined. With that momentum, we had shows lined up one after the next: two panels, two performances. I was even gonna do a pop-up show at Icehouse, and all of that has been shut down," McCoy said.

Just before Minnesota issued the mandated shutdown, Nado NSE, an emerging artist from South St. Paul, hosted a live show at the Pourhouse in downtown Minneapolis. As Coronavirus became more widespread, he and the MPLS Ties, the promotion company that got him the gig, were concerned there wouldn't be many fans in attendance and considered cancelling the event. Fearing that this could be the last time that young people could enjoy a night out for a while, they ultimately decided to keep the show as planned. "Being so new to the scene music-wise, I was excited to be out there," Nado NSE said. "We thought we weren't going to sell out because of Corona, but it wasn't as packed as weeks prior.

"You always feel like you're the last to do s***," he continued. "I saw this as my rollout and said I'd rap the f*** out of this."

Studio sessions aren't what they used to be

Producer Frankie Bash was hoping to head to Los Angeles to work on music and spend some time with some of his musician friends from Minnesota. When he saw that California was shutting down, he decided to stay home. Though he's been distancing himself from his family and friends, Frankie Bash continues to make time to go to the studio. "I still need to make music," he said.

His studio sessions have gotten smaller in the last month. What used to be a mini-party of close friends and artists has strictly shifted to recording and editing sessions for him and Minneapolis artist Nimic Revenue.

"It's just me and Nimic right now. We're working on her album," Frankie Bash says, as they are taking every necessary precaution to keep themselves safe. "It's never more than a couple people. I'm not trying to be in a crowd. I got Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer. I wash my hands if I do anything. I'm wiping down surfaces even more, so the studio is super clean."

Frankie Bash is one of the fortunate few who still has access to a studio. Artists like Dua Saleh and Why Khaliq have had studios shut their doors, creating an obstacle to recording new music.

Dua Saleh in The Current studio
Dua Saleh, pictured here performing in The Current studio in 2019, had been booked to play Rock the Garden 2020, since canceled. (Nate Ryan | MPR)

Quarantined in their apartment, away from family and friends, Dua Saleh hasn't been able to record new songs. "I've been inside. I don't have recording stuff in the apartment," they said. "I've been writing songs, and producers have been sending me music."

"My day job, they paying us, but they're trying to cut our hours," Why Khaliq said. "Plus, someone at the studio tested positive for coronavirus, so I've been out of money to pay the studio and I can't even go and record." He has since brought his recording equipment to his house and has been working to crank out new songs.

With touring and sharing studios no longer an option, Twin Cities Hip-Hop artists are trying new ways to interact and entertain their fans

One of the Twin Cities' favorite rapping and singing couples, iLLism, took a break from touring and performing a few months ago when they learned that lead singer Fancy was pregnant. Still, they're working on staying engaged with their following.

"Seems like everyone is doing live streaming and we want ins on that, said Fancy. "We started a blog as a way to engage with fans outside of being onstage." On their blog, they write about issues that fans might find important.

iLLism have also been thinking about streaming a show with their band, and they plan to release new songs in the coming weeks and months. "We've had several recording sessions and will start dropping them here and there," said Envy.

Fancy and Envy of iLLism
Fancy and Envy of iLLism, photographed in Santa Monica, Calif. (courtesy the artists)

Content is king right now as Americans work from home and consume visual and media art at historic rates. This has motivated artists to release more music.

"I have a project that will be with Def Jam, which will probably be released this summer," Frankie Bash said. "I'm getting everything finalized." Until then, he has seven music videos that he hopes to release in the next two months.

Sitting on a bunch of music and unable to record new tracks, Dua Saleh is contemplating sharing some unreleased tracks. "I have too much music in the vault, stuff that I been working on for the past two years," they said. "I like understanding where waves in music is going or when my ears get tired of the same sounds. I like transformative music."

Dua Saleh plans to listen to their vaulted tracks and identify the best projects. If the tracks pass the sound test, Saleh might release them.

Nado NSE is hoping to partner with other quarantined Twin Cities artists and plans to share his debut album, One 4 All, in the near future.

"You just got to keep expressing yourself, because you at the house ain't got nothing else to do," he said. "Sometimes we think art will be enough, but there's lots of business aspects like partnering up with other folks to create a place where we can start making music and make it easier to reach people."

Nado NSE, One For All
Nado NSE, One 4 All. (album artwork)

J. Plaza has been using this time to reach out to Hip-Hop icons and find ways to grow his following. He reached the host of Sway In The Morning, Sway Calloway, on his Instagram live and was invited to freestyle on his page.

"It was cool to link up with Sway," J. Plaza said. "He's always putting people on to Hip-Hop and putting on in the game." J. Plaza is also wrapping up a submission to be a rap contestant on the second season of Netflix's Rhythm & Flow, a rap show hosted by rappers T.I., Cardi B and Chance the Rapper.

Unable to record new music, Dua Saleh has focused on writing and being a positive force for listeners that have struggled to adapt to life indoors. "I been keeping people afloat. I'm trying to make people laugh, by doing Netflix challenges, just trying to make sure people are not thinking," they said. "In the future, I might maybe do a live concert, but the main focus is humor and telling people stories."

Adjusting to recording from home, Why Khaliq sent a challenge to his fellow Twin cities' artists.

"The world is going to be different after this," he said. "Things won't be the same. We have to be ahead of the curve. This is the time to study your content, you have to try all your ideas to reinvent yourself as an artist.

"Even for me," Khaliq continues, "I have to see what wasn't working, analyze that and be analytical with your moves."

DJs are also adapting to a new normal

DJ J Blasé, who often spins tracks at Basement Bar and Gold Room, is a little concerned with life during coronavirus and is pensive about what life post-outbreak will look like.

"It's really spooky," he said, "because I've built relationships; now there's nothing I can do right now. These relationships can't help me right now. I've been calm. I still got my health, I'm not in a terrible situation. I just feel for the bartenders and nightlife community that are struggling. I feel for DJs and musicians living check to check."

While quarantine is hurting the nightlife economy, Blasé believes the industry will bounce back strong. "People are missing nightlife and the joy you can get from a venue," he said.

DJ Blase
DJ Blasé at work. (courtesy the artist)

As many DJs, including himself, transition to doing live sets on Instagram, Blasé believes the quarantine will increase the value and appreciation of DJs.

"Without DJs, there's no parties right now," he said. "People will always appreciate artists, but they appreciate us more for tasks we're doing now."

How Coronavirus could impact the future of the music industry

As time progresses and, hopefully, a vaccine or cure for COVID-19 is found, we will all be social-distancing and streaming our favorite tunes. For Twin Cities' artists working to pump out new music and help us maintain our sanity, the music world is starting to change, and the artists are forced to rethink how to make money without touring and performing.

Why Khaliq thinks it's time to make virtual reality more applicable to experiencing concerts and interacting with your favorite artists.

"Imagine VR to make it feel like a concert: seeing, hearing and feeling like people are next to you," he said. "As artists, we'll have to think more about it. If I had the money, I'd invest in a virtual program to help you interact with artists personally."

Shanell McCoy has been contemplating how artists can diversify their revenue streams to not be fully dependent on streams and shows. "In the digital landscape, musicians don't make money off their music. Most money comes from advertisements," she said. "If I don't make money on shows, how do I make money?"

McCoy used herself as an example on how other artists can rethink their revenue streams. "For me, it's been my CDs, podcasts and shirts. I make more money off of products than the shows," she said.

Since coronavirus has disrupted the lives of artists, McCoy and Support Local Artist MN, an organization that uses art to connect people and improve their lives, have been selling t-shirts and other merchandise. All the proceeds from the sales will support local artists and other creative ventures.

K. Raydio is glad that streaming sites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp have stepped in to help artists whose livelihood has been impacted by COVID-19. Still, she believes Twin Cities' Hip-Hop artists have to think more critically about their brand and image. "How can we bring artists to their audience? How can artists work remotely? Even in my own life, how do I interact with music?" she asked.

K.Raydio
K. Raydio. (via Soundcloud)

As she contemplates, K. Raydio is assisting artists who are struggling to find grants or donations with help from the Springboard for the Arts' Emergency Relief Fund and the Twin Cities Music Community Trust. "We have to feel and see what everyone is going through to make sure to support each other. I want to be helpful," she said.

Although we're living in turbulent times, K. Raydio believes COVID-19 will showcase the resilience and brilliance of the Twin Cities' artist communication.

"True artists will rise from the surface," she said. "Genuine artists will shine from the surface. You're either about this or you're not."

Jeffrey Bissoy is a former assistant producer at MPR News. Born in Yaoundé, Cameroon, raised in The Twin Cities and now based in Mexico City, Jeffrey has grown a passion for representation and identity, Hip-Hop, and the impact of sports on society. He's also the host of the podcast — The Come-Up — which stays current with the NBA when the season is on.

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