Most hip-hop fans around the country know there's something strangely special about the Twin Cities scene. They can flash their indie cred like a fanned out fistful of Franklins just by rattling off a few of the most recognizable names -- Atmosphere and Eyedea & Abilities come to mind. But there's another duo that has quietly helped define their city's place in hip-hop culture since the turn of the millennium: The Unknown Prophets.
Just barely out of high school in 2000, MaD SoN and Big Jess debuted with memorable single "Never" featuring a friend who'd become one of the genre's most recognizable Rhymesayers. The collaboration with Slug was a down-to-earth opus that not only cemented the UPs melodic rap style, it laid their cards on the table: Even though the Prophets might never get signed / Never drop a video or go platinum with our rhymes / It'll be cool just knowin' that we've touched a few / and rocked the mic with some of the dopest emcees too. Little did they know that just three years later they'd release their scrappy World Premier debut featuring a trio of the genre's break-out stars -- Brother Ali, Slug and DJ Abilities -- all artists who continue to support the pair's music career (Slug demanding in a 2008 interview with City Pages that the writer's next Q&A be with the UPs). This deserved recognition took time to build, milestones including Now You Know in 2002 and highly praised The Road Less Traveled in 2006, but it all began in a Northeast Minneapolis classroom.
"Around our junior year of high school, Jess and I started hanging out with the same neighborhood hoodlums and my rock tastes turned toward hip hop," recalls MaD SoN, whose guitar playing in local garage bands earned him the nickname 'Banger Mike' back in the day. "Jess' dad was an incredible jazz/blues guitarist so he was recording using his equipment and asked me to play guitar on one of his songs. I wrote a 16-bar verse one day and used a karaoke machine to record it. I played it for Jess and he was shocked when I told him that it was me rapping.”
At the time, Jess had been submitting his songs to local radio station KMOJ's "Rush It or Flush It" but got flushed every time until the project morphed into a duo. The chemistry between them was confirmed when the next two songs they submitted were instantly "rushed," and thus the Unknown Prophets were born, adding award-winning DJ Willy Lose to the mix shortly after.
Fast forward to 2010, countless shows down the road. The Unknown Prophets won't be found chasing their breath outside First Avenue slapping fives with fellow scene kingpins and talking shop to waste time as it was in the past. Both men have since become fathers and are raising families in the city that brought them up, the first realizations of a matured UPs glimmering through on Big Jess' solo album of '08, The Ride Of Your Life: "I got my wife riding shotgun, kids in the back seat / Forget the freeway, I navigate the back streets."
Rather than flying down rap's superhighway with blinders on, Jess and Mad Son are plowing out their own path and allowing time for scenic detours that teach them even more about life and the crazy business they're in. This is what makes the Unknown Prophets so relatable – something they've easily accomplished over so many radio rappers.
“We don't write about a life we don't live, so our music tends to be on some 'grown man shit,'” Jess explains.
The grown man duo spent the last days of the decade in studio fulfilling their roles as “true DIYers” and on stage promoting their latest album Le System D, a career high-point for both lyricists that further sharpens their tight rhyme style and lets their rock and R&B prowess shine through. And if there's one theme that comes across on this album, it's that The Big Dream they obsessed over as kids since that first single hasn't escaped them at all, it's just grown up, too. The Prophets rapped on “Never” that they might never be the most famous rap stars in the history of the game, but they've got the stamina and the talent to make a serious dent. And that's exactly what they've done.