A&E » Music

Big man on campus

Local emcee Big Zach colors inside the lines on his sophomore LP “Crayons”
March 24, 2011

Who: Big Zach and Big Jess dual album release with special guests

When: 8:30 p.m., today

Where: Cabooze, 17 Cedar Ave. S., Minneapolis

Cost: $7

When Zach Combs first started jotting down raps, the Twin Cities hip-hop scene was still a work in progress.

It was the summer of 1997, and Atmosphere was headlining their Overcast! CD release party at First Avenue. Kanser, the then-two-man rap outfit Combs cut his teeth on, was scheduled to open.

“There was only like, 400 people there. But we thought that it was the [expletive],” Combs said. “We probably hadn’t performed in front of 400 people before unless it was a high school crowd.”

While Combs, who goes by his stage moniker “Big Zach,” has never enjoyed the commercial success of his local peers, he’s somewhat of a pioneer of the scene. Over the course of almost two decades, Combs has juggled various projects that include Kanser, solo fare and live-band rap collective More Than Lights. And tonight he’ll be celebrating a homecoming on the heels of a month-long tour with a CD release party at Cabooze for his solo album, entitled “Crayons.”

“Crayons” is 11 cuts of funk-infused rap romps brimming with nostalgic trips down memory lane and frivolous wordplay. In his more personal moments, Combs reminisces on the darker side of growing up in the city, rapping: “Violence in my science class, guns in the bathroom, I can’t learn math … Uptown was all skinhead and gutter punks, parking lots covered up in the summer months.”

Combs was ushered into the hip-hop world at a young age, hustling around the south side of Minneapolis as a graffiti artist. After attending a Micranots show in high school, Combs began to take an avid interest in music. But he didn’t have any beats, and he didn’t know how to rap. So when longtime friend and fellow emcee Unicus introduced him to Anthony Davis, everything started to change.

Today Davis, who is better known as Ant, makes up one half of local rap legend Atmosphere. But before becoming the Twin Cities’ most widely known beatmaker, he was just a new face in town struggling to build a network of emcees to work with.

“He started giving me beats, teaching me this and that, but it wasn’t because I was tight. It was because I helped him move,” Combs said, laughing.

Shortly after graduating from South High, Combs took a job hosting and booking the weekly hip-hop affair “Headspin Sundays” at the now-defunct Dinkytown café Bon Appetit. Combs remembers Headspin Sundays as a much-needed venue for rappers seeking exposure in a scene that was still burgeoning but felt stagnant. It was a place where young emcees could hone their craft and escape the crime-ridden neighborhoods they resided in. Some of them would even go on to become staples of the music scene in years to come.

“P.O.S. used to show up there as a teenager … I mean, back then Dinkytown was the most neutral spot,” Combs said. “Kids were gangbanging on the south or north side. No one was gangbanging in Dinkytown.”

Combs doesn’t break any new ground with his rhymes, but he’s not trying to. His face is flush with glee as he recalls his years as a starry-eyed kid falling in love with hip-hop. A more cynical observer might find it sappy, but there’s something remarkably admirable about his humility and gratitude.

“We never had one album, we sell a few thousand copies, we do as many shows as we can and, like, we never got to go on a huge tour, but we would just grind out and do as much as we can,” Combs said. “And everything has been good, and we’ve slowly been climbing. I feel blessed to still be part of the hip-hop scene.”

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