A home away from home: St. Paul's Heiruspecs returns to Duluth Friday

Some rock purists like to disregard hip-hop as a valid art form. They will say the musicians lack talent and too often rely on samples to drive their music.

Some rock purists like to disregard hip-hop as a valid art form. They will say the musicians lack talent and too often rely on samples to drive their music.

Those naysayers obviously haven't experienced Heiruspecs.

The St. Paul group is playing a pivotal role in purveying the "live hip-hop" scene, which was inexplicably kickstarted by Philadelphia's the Roots back in the late '80s.

Instead of relying on samples from previous recordings, live hip-hop stresses instrumentation. It's really an all-too-broad term for a diverse genre with the one unifying theme, but Heiruspecs' bassist, Sean "Twinkie Jiggles" McPherson, doesn't seem to mind.

"It is hip-hop music with instruments, so it fits the bill," he said, "but a lot of times you hope people are just able to listen to it."


Of late, the Heiruspecs-led second wave of live hip-hop has exploded and spawned a number of groups working further and further outside of traditional hip-hop circles, like the Gym Class Heroes, who are signed to the predominately emo/"mall punk" label Fueled by Ramen.

"I feel some good company," McPherson said, "and a lot of people are now integrating live instruments."

Even some of the biggest hip-hop names are incorporating live hip-hop into their sound. Jay-Z, for one, teamed up with the Roots for a successful MTV "Unplugged" album in 2001.

As far as high-profile backing gigs go, Heiruspecs is no stranger.

The group is erroneously best known as Atmosphere's live backing band. While it's true that they have played numerous shows for their Minneapolis counterparts, they've also had the opportunity to share the stage with other indie heavyweights, like Aesop Rock and Sage Francis.

"I think backing other people up is really educational, and I really value that," McPherson said. "But the things that you can develop with your own audience are, in the end, the most rewarding."

A decade after the Roots' principal players met in a Philadelphia high school, McPherson met Felix, Heiruspecs' lead emcee, at St. Paul's Central High School.

"We've really grown up together," McPherson said.


However, it's closing in on a decade, and they're still writing music together.

Not only that, but Heiruspecs has been known to tour a lot ... incessantly, in fact. (Before its current, well-deserved recording break, the group was averaging 150 shows a year.)

All things considered, how have they honestly managed to not kill each other yet?

"It's been a very personal relationship and a really collaborative relationship," McPherson said, "but there's always been somebody non-musical to talk to, to do non-musical things with. ... We do definitely have to have that balance."

From the early "Antidisestablishmetabolism" to the formative "Small Steps" to the particularly mind-blowing "A Tiger Dancing," that "balance" has led the group through three solid LPs.

Taking it to the streets

But it requires more than great albums to stand out in the Minneapolis scene, home of the nationally celebrated hip-hop label Rhymesayers Entertainment.

With that kind of spotlight on one's own backyard, it takes amazing live shows to stand out.


That same high-energy musicianship that lands Heiruspecs those daunting backing jobs for the scene's greatest players only further excels on their own material.

And Heiruspecs is bringing that experience back to Duluth's Pizza Luce on Friday.

"We're really big fans of Duluth and we're really glad it has a place like Pizza Luce," McPherson said.

Barring a few random shows like the Duluth one, the group is taking some time off from the road to craft its follow-up to "A Tiger Dancing."

And, as McPherson points out, the group is living more "consistent" home lives. He's catching up on some college classes and working in a group home.

McPherson has also been joining other members of Heiruspecs playing improvisational shows and collaborating with revolving vocalists at Minneapolis' Kitty Cat Klub throughout the summer.

As for the new record, he only hinted at how that experimentation might affect the Heiruspecs sound.

"I've thought a lot more about textures that might not be as common as the ones we've used," McPherson said. "The next record will have more percussion, guitar, live things.


"Through a lot of the non-rap music we've played, I've thought a lot more about different ways to approach songwriting. One shortcoming of a lot of live hip-hop is that when you hear a song, you think, 'Oh, this is a rap song -- drums sound like a rap song, and so on.' But when you hear a rap song made with samples, you could hear a guitar that sounds like it's out of nowhere, not part of a rap song ... and that's really impressive."

In addition to the forthcoming album, Heiruspecs is also kicking around the idea of releasing its out-of-print debut on iTunes and other online services.

Heiruspecs will perform at 10 p.m. on Friday at Pizza Luce, 11 E. Superior St. Cost is $7 at the door.

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