Doomtree is a hip-hop collective base in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The seven-member band and record label is known for its homegrown DIY ethos, wide range of musical influences, and lyrical complexity and wordplay. Their fanbase on a local level, as well as nationally, has grown organically since their founding in 2001, to the point where former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak proclaimed a "Doomtree Day." Recently they released their third official full-group album All Hands, and I spoke with the primary producers, Lazerbeak (Aaron Mader), Cecil Otter (Kyle Smith), and Paper Tiger (John Samels).
How did Doomtree get started?
Aaron: We've been at it for over a dozen years; basically a lot of us out of high school. We played in bands in junior high and high school, or grew up together, and as we all were really getting involved in hip-hop, we gravitated towards each other to play shows and make CDs. Essentially it was a million solo artists that joined forces to pool resources and over time, the seven of us have stuck it out.
Is there a RZA of the group? Did one of you pull it together?
Aaron: It's changed over the years. Everyone has been a RZA in their own right.
John: The weird thing for me is that a lot of us grew up playing in bands, or being into music, but we also have trouble being part of a group dynamic. A lot of us got interested in making hip-hop because it was something you could do by yourself. You could be at home and make a beat by yourself. It's interesting that we were still doing it as a group, because it's a very individualistic thing that we do together.
Cecil: Like skateboarding. You skateboard by yourself; but then you get together with a group of people and you skate the same spot all day, and you get pushed to skate harder.
Your music has changed, along with a lot of the hip-hop world, to incorporate electronica and EDM. Tell me about that.
A: We always set out to make rap music, but a lot of us came from different musical backgrounds. I was really into indie rock throughout junior high and high school, but I was into R&B when I was a little kid. I know a lot of Doomtree guys were into punk bands or metal. We're taking from all these elements, rather than being raised on East Coast rap, or only making boom bap, or whatever. That's my take on it. And we live in different music. A lot of us don't really listen to a lot of rap these days, so we're constantly influenced by different music.
C: I agree. [We are more about] whatever sounds good to us at the time. I'm down to put anything in the song if it sounds good. I don't think it's about the style of music. I don't think there's ever a real plan. Let's roll with whatever sounds good on the keyboard. It depends on when the songs come in and out of the process. Some of the songs I did [on All Hands] were more solo songs. They were last minute additions that people grabbed, listened to, and wrote vocals for. On our early recordings, we were working collaboratively; people picked up and added parts. Sometimes the sound can be attributed to the process. Throughout the 2000s, we were chopping up samples, drum loops, and things like that. It had a more organic quality to it because we were using old, acoustically recorded sounds that we were reappropriating. Now we're doing everything very synthetically, so it sounds newer. It sounds like a lot of what's happening now because the process was very synthetic.
What are some of your go-to pieces of software and hardware?
C: Pro Tools.
J: Pro Tools and [Native Instruments] Maschine. I also have a few hardware synths that I love to use. Native Instruments and Pro Tools mostly are my go-to right now. I don't know [Apple] Logic at all. I know Ableton [Live] very little. I use it mostly for DJ tricks, like blends and mashups for mixtapes when I'm DJing out live. For writing and recording, it's Maschine and Pro Tools for me.
A: Cecil does every single thing in Pro Tools. Up until a year and a half ago, I made everything in an [Akai] MPC2000XL, so to watch Cecil be able to do all that within Pro Tools from the start has blown my mind. We started a lot of these beats for the new album together a couple years back, and getting to know Cecil's engineering process has been interesting. Because I still gotta tap...