Queen Tut and the best Wisconsin hip-hop releases of 2016 (so far)

By Joey Grihalva

Hip-hop music was my first love. Between a cassette tape of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), hearing Nas in a friend’s car for the first time, and seeing The Roots live at the Eagles Ballroom, I fell head over heels. College opened my ears to all genres of music, but since this is my first feature for WiG, it’s only appropriate that it be about hip-hop, featuring Queen Tut and six of the year’s best releases.

Queen Tut

Wisconsin hip-hop is in the midst of a renaissance. We’ve come a long way since the days of Coo Coo Cal’s “My Projects.” Women have played a significant part in that renaissance. It was at a Fire on Water all-female benefit show where I was introduced to Seshat Roberts aka Queen Tut.

When I first sat down with Queen Tut in the spring of 2015 she was shy and understated. So was her stage manner. But in just over a year, Tut discovered a bold style and lyrical prowess that has pushed her to the forefront of Milwaukee hip-hop. She now leads a talented wave of “femcees” (female emcees) that includes Zed Kenzo, Chakara Blu and Taj Raiden.

The release show for Tut’s celebrated debut EP, Psychedelic Traphouse, was held at Company Brewing on Sept. 27, 2015, under a Super Blood Moon. 88Nine’s Tarik Moody said the crowd and vibe that night reminded him of the Twin Cities’ hip-hop scene when it was coalescing in the late ’90s.

Next month Tut will relocate to Brooklyn, hoping to bridge Milwaukee’s talented music and art scenes with NYC’s established industry. I recently sat down with Tut for WiG.

WiG: How have you been?

QT: The summer’s been very kind to me. The winter was trash. It was way too harsh, so I’m excited every day looking forward to no snow.

WiG: Well you’re not going to escape the snow in New York.

QT: Not at all. It’s probably going to be worse, getting through all the snow and all the people. And they freak out every time it snows. So that should be lovely.

WiG: Summer in New York can be a pain too. There were two summers in a row when I went to visit my friend Bassey and it was ridiculously hot. I ended up helping him and his roommates buy and install heavy air conditioners in the sweltering heat.

QT: Moving anything heavy is a nightmare in New York. That’s why I’m trying to get as much heavy stuff there so I don’t have to worry about it when I arrive.

WiG:  How are you getting out there?

QT: Me and Abby (Jeanne) are driving out there. But I’m trying to see if I can get like a truck or something to move heavier things.

WiG: Is Abby staying out there or just helping you move?

QT: She’s just helping me out.

WiG: You and Abby have been working together for a while now, right?

QT: Yep. I recorded Psychedelic Traphouse at her place. We’ve been friends for a long time. As soon as we met we just hit it off and never stopped hanging out.

WiG: It’s been a little bit over a year since we first sat down at the Colectivo on Humboldt. Now we’re at the Colectivo on Farwell and it feels like so much has happened in that span of time. What comes to mind? What are some of the highlights?

QT: Wow, let’s see … the Afropunk Festival was really good to me. I met people there that are interested in collaborating, and that’s why I’m moving to Brooklyn. A lot of (my new) connections are actually fashion and photography, not music. Which might seem strange. But that’s part of who I am — I also do fashion styling and hair.

The biggest highlight thus far was opening up for The Roots with New Age Narcissism at Summerfest this year. That was very cool. I got to speak to Black Thought, and I just thought that wasn’t real, that was so awesome. And I got to meet Questlove again. I met him in LA and then met him again back stage at Summerfest.

WiG: What were the circumstances when you met him in LA?

QT: I feel like I manifested that entire situation. I was in a bookstore reading one of his books. I was just thinking, “I love Questlove, he’s so insightful,” he’s so this, he’s so that. Then literally within the next two hours my ex-boyfriend was like, “Do you want to go to the Roosevelt Hotel.” And I was like, “Yeah, we can go.”

When we pulled up Questlove was unloading his gear. And I was just like, “What!?” The Roosevelt is one of the oldest hotels in LA and I guess he was living there at the time.

WiG: Another highlight, for me at least, was the in-school show we did at South Division for Arte Para Todos. How was that experience?

QT: It was beautiful. The kids were reaching out to me after the performance. It was incredible to get messages from them like, “I’m so inspired, I really want to keep going with my  music.”  And I’m like, “Yes! Do it!”

These last few months working with young people makes me believe the future is lit. These kids are really creative, they just need outlets and I think it’s very important to keep making sure that they have those things. That’s why I push so hard for arts in school.

WiG: The kids were buzzing about that show for weeks.

QT: They were so amped! I was not expecting them to be so turnt. At first they were pretty reserved. But by the end of it I was like “Yes!”

WiG: You’ve definitely elevated your fashion sense and stage presence over the past year. Do you think that’s a result of performing regularly?

QT: I think it’s been personal growth and things I’ve gone through outside of the stage. I feel like I’ve grown a lot this year with my collaborations. The people I’ve met have made me so much more motivated, so much more focused on making sure that my music is pushed the right way and that I can give the audience more.

WiG: Do you feel like you’re more business savvy now in terms of how you present your music?

QT: Yeah, I’m trying to push myself as a brand. It’s not just me pushing this short EP that is on SoundCloud. Now I’m pushing merchandise and an identity.

WiG: Not to backtrack too far, but that Super Blood Moon EP release show was a special night.

QT: Oh yes, that was a good night. I’ve been lucky to have thrown shows on weird cosmic nights. There was another show during an eclipse.

WiG: Do you do any meditating or any daily ritual type activities?

QT: I meditate and I’m a huge believer in manifesting things into existence. And just trying to stay positive even when the outlook is not good. I feel like negativity gets you nowhere. Constantly saying, “This is wrong. That is wrong,” and pointing fingers, it doesn’t help. I’m all about personal responsibility. I feel like if more people took that perspective they would be further ahead with their goals. A lot of people like to complain about the music scene and what’s not happening, instead of making what’s not happening happen.

WiG: What can you tell us about the new project?

QT: It’s still in the works. Two singles are going to come out very soon. One is called “Ra” and it’s featuring Fivy. I’ve performed that at a few festivals. And then I have another song that I’m actually recording with Q the Sun right after this interview. That song is called “Cantaloupe.” 

(WiG is proud to debut this new song from Queen Tut produced by Q the Sun. Listen to it here.)

The project is called The Disconnect. It’s basically about separating yourself from social media and all the stuff the world is throwing at you and focusing on yourself and shining from within. That exterior stuff doesn’t hold much weight and can be so distracting. At the end of the day all that manufactured BS is not going to get us anywhere. I want to make something that people can resonate with on a deep, spiritual level and find something from within themselves to push out.

WiG: Is that song you’re recording with Q today related to the one that you came up with on the spot when you were rehearsing for the South Division in-school performance? That was super impressive.

QT: You’re talking about that “Rumors” song. I’m actually going to talk to Q about recording that. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff with him where we just make up songs on the fly. I’ll go over to his house and he’ll play me some of the stuff he has and if I resonate with it I’ll just start saying stuff. Then he’ll be like, “Keep going with it, keep going with it.” And before I know it, it’s a song! So that’s how our process usually works. But to answer your question, no. “Cantaloupe” is different from the “Rumors” song, but it’d be fun to record that and put it out somewhere.

WiG: How did you get connected with Lex Allen initially and the New Age Narcissism crew?

QT: Lex is more of a fashion connect for me. I met him initially as a photographer. I had no clue he could sing. I had no clue. I was as shocked as anybody else when Lex got onstage and slayed it. I met him, I want to say on this Milwaukee renaissance photo shoot. It was me, WebsterX, a model for a designer, and Michael, my friend who’s a fashion stylist.

This group was writing about the art renaissance that was happening in Milwaukee and how we are cultivating all of this amazing stuff. That’s how I met Lex. Ever since then we’ve been really close. We recorded “Shapeshifter” shortly after we met and have another song coming out called “Sex to Mozart,” with me, him and Zed (Kenzo).

WiG: How about other collaborators for the new project?

QT: On “The Disconnect” I am collaborating with Klassik. I am supposed to be collaborating with Cam (Lorde Fredd33) very soon. It will have another track with Abby.

In terms of performance, I’ve been trying to get as many people on stage for my sets. I’ve performed with a lot of people this last year. Sometimes I had to throw them on a special song that was not mine.

WiG: What can we expect from the going-away show?

QT: My going-away show is going to be insane. The headliners so far are Lorde Fredd33 doing a solo sort of “Unplugged” thing, so that should be interesting. I have Klassic with Foreign Goods backing him. Zed is also going to perform. My performance will be special. I’m going to have a live band and a lot of different collaborations. It’s going to be crazy. It’s going to be unexpected.

WiG: Tell me about the plan to move to Brooklyn.

QT: I’m trying to bridge the gap between musicians here and musicians there. I’m also trying to bridge my fashion and my music together. I have ideas for visuals that I want to make happen.

We have a lot of resources in Milwaukee but I feel like in New York more people have those resources right at their fingertips. I want to get a lot of these ideas out. I have a lot of creative director sort of ideas that I want to get out. So that’s the goal.

WiG: One of my favorite times seeing you was at Pridefest with Lex. What are your thoughts on the term “ally” as it pertains to the LGBTQ community?

QT: I don’t like the term “ally.” To me it sounds as if somebody is doing something wrong. People are people, they do what they want to do. I’m openly bisexual and I don’t care what anybody’s doing. I love everyone.

WiG: You can feel that positivity in your music and your presence.

QT: It’s for everyone. It’s all inclusive. I mean that so strongly. I grew up around so many gay people. Gay men were my first friends. When I got to high school, girls didn’t like me. But the gay boys loved me and they took me in. My prom date was gay.

WiG:  What have you been listening to lately?

QT: A lot of instrumentals. It’s always beats. My favorite person, I probably mentioned his name last year when we talked, is Sango. He’s a producer from France. He incorporates a lot of tribal elements and hip-hop elements and fuses them together. He speaks Spanish too. He’s like French and Cuban and he mixes all of that together and it sounds beautiful. I rap over a lot of his instrumentals for shows.  

WiG: So there’s a mixtape vibe at your shows, in terms of you rapping over stuff that has not been recorded?

QT: Yep, definitely. I feel like a lot of my SoundCloud and stuff that is online, it doesn’t touch what I do on stage. My set list every time I go on stage is different. I try to give people their favorites and some songs off the EP, but it’s always something new. I might play with a different band or a different DJ.

I’m trying to phase DJs out of what I’m doing. Not because I don’t like DJs, but because I feel like live instruments provide more of an experience for the audience. I want to give the audience the best experience I can. So I’m trying to get a band.

WiG: In terms of giving the crowd an experience, I have to say your fashion on stage is always interesting and different.

QT: That’s just who I am. Someone was asking me about my “costumes,” and I was like, ”What costumes? These are things I will literally wear out in public.”

It’s not a costume, this is my personal style. This is how I dress. One day I might wear a kimono. The next day I might wear a ball gown, I don’t know. It’s just how I feel that day.

WiG: From the music to the fashion, it’s all been elevating since I met you, and I know you’ll continue to do great things.

QT: Thank you. I’m excited for the new stuff. I’m excited to push the new singles. I feel like Psychedelic Traphouse was really conscious and the material was pretty heavy. These next two songs are lighthearted, playful and fun. “Cantaloupe” is about being fresh, gaudy and fly. I want to showcase that side of me more because I feel like when people meet me they tend to think I’m very serious. But I’m not. I’m a joke. I’m always thinking of something funny in my head.

Queen Tut will play a going-away show on Sat., July 30, at Company Brewing in Milwaukee featuring Lorde Fredd33, Klassik (with Foreign Goods), Zed Kenzo, live painting by Tesfaye and a custom backdrop by Kristina Rolander. 

She will also play Mile of Music in Appleton on Sat., August 6, at the Lawrence Stansbury Theatre along with fellow Milwaukeeans Cree Myles, AUTOmatic, Klassik, Bo and Airo, Zed Kenzo, Chakara Blu, New Age Narcissism, plus Chicago’s Ric Wilson, Rahn Harper, and Kweku Collins.

If you’d like to support Queen Tut and her effort to bridge the Milwaukee and NYC art scenes consider contributing to her GoFundMe crowdsourcing campaign. Below is a video of Queen Tut performing live on 91.7 WMSE in Milwaukee.

 

Year’s Best Hip-Hop (So Far)
Below are six of the best Wisconsin hip-hop releases of 2016.

LORDE FREDD33 — Dead Man’s View

Milwaukee’s Lorde Fredd33 (pronounced “Freddie”) is a beautiful punk. A soft-spoken sage off-stage, in live performance he’s a tour de force. His previous releases have struggled to capture the complexity and intensity of his live performance. But Dead Man’s View is a textured, cinematic production that layers the Lorde’s charmingly esoteric persona over producer Q the Sun’s lush, organic sound. Fredd33’s delivery has never been so dynamic nor his poetry so personal and poignant. Yet the Lorde remains an enigma. With Dead Man’s View, Lorde Fredd33 and Q the Sun have shifted the paradigm surrounding Fredd33’s cult status and created one of the best Wisconsin albums of 2016.

 

TRAPO — She

Eighteen-year-old Madison-native Trapo has a surprisingly mature sound and style. His Drake-esque emotive rapper-slash-singer skills earned him a coveted Pigeons and Planes “No Ceilings” showcase in NYC this summer. The brooding nine-track She is Trapo’s best work to date, with features from Milwaukee’s Meraki, Chicago’s Max Wonders and theMIND, plus a smooth, infectious production style that should carry him to the national level in no time.

 

 

RUSTY PELICANS — Apartment 7

You can’t talk about Wisconsin hip-hop without mentioning the Rusty Pelicans, who made a name for themselves in the mid-’90s and collaborated with the likes of The Pharcyde’s Imani and Atmosphere’s Slug. Last year the original lineup of Count Classic, Phantom Channel, Oneself, and Dana Coppa reunited for their 20th Anniversary. In September they will release Apartment 7, a return to form for the godfathers of Milwaukee rap. The 10-track album includes features from Klassik, J.J. Jabber, SPEAK Easy, Vincent VanGREAT, and Bushman.

 

 

MIKE REGAL — Premonitions

Mike Regal is on the road to becoming Milwaukee’s Kanye West, minus the personal drama. Over the last few years Regal has established himself as a talented producer, providing sonic treats to a slew of local rappers and taking home back-to-back Miltown Beat Down championships. On his debut album Premonitions Regal has officially stepped out on his own, even while taking production help on almost half of the album’s 13 tracks. His rowdy Miramar Theatre release show featured many of his collaborators and friends, but the “Reeeeegal” chant reigned supreme. On Premonitions Regal balances bangers and head-nodders, with clever punchlines and tragic tales from his Sherman Park neighborhood.

 

VINCENT VANGREAT — UnGREATful

Like Lorde Fredd33, fellow Milwaukeean Vincent VanGREAT recognizes the power of a live band. On the SAFS Crew producer’s long-awaited album he skillfully incorporates live drums, bass guitar, and electric guitar. You can feel his energy as soon as the first song plays. Throughout the 15 tracks his joyful spirit and hunger shine through. Deb.On.Air, Q the Sun and Mammyth share production duties, but VanGREAT does the heavy lifting. Milwaukee expats Genesis Renji, Signif, and Tay Butler are featured, along with Klassik, Yo-Dot, Cincere, Dana Coppa, SPEAK Easy, APRIME (of AUTOmatic), Ray Rizzy, and fellow SAFS Crew members Blizz McFly and RTystic.

 

EL-SHAREEF — Ninety-Three Expedition

There was no extravagant release show for El-Shareef’s Ninety-Three Expedition (N3EXP), but that’s kind of Reef’s style. On N3EXP the 22-year-old Milwaukee wordsmith’s low-key, laid back raps flow over jazzy beats provided by Derelle Rideout (MKE), Canis Major (Canada), Krys$hun (LA), Eli Myles (Detroit), Professa (North Carolina), and MZA (Hawaii). Fivy turns in a sultry interlude, while Pizzle lends some breezy bars on “Overdose.” The Mike Regal assisted “Big Player,” an homage to Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin,” is a beach jam ready for any party boat. “Earthworms,” a warm, wistful ode to our inevitable demise, is the album’s sleeper track, pun intended. N3EXP shows that El-Shareef remains one of Wisconsin’s most refined young emcees.

 

Queen Tut. —PHOTO: Amanda Mills
Queen Tut. —PHOTO: Amanda Mills