A Rakish Interview: Big Quarters

In the Jasmine Deli, Zach and Brandon Bagaason – the brothers that constitute the rapper/producer team Big Quarters – don’t mess with the menu. Regulars well-acquainted with the selection at this Vietnamese spot on Eat Street, they ordered without consulting the dual-language laminated pages.

Regularity, it might be said, is what defines Big Quarters – their work ethic, at least, if not their actual music. After the 2007 release of their debut album, Cost of Living, they’ve been working relentlessly on a number of mixtapes and EPs. Now, having devised a producers’ sort of Holy Grail, they’ve found an effective means to release them. On September 5th, they will introduce their monthly subscription system – Big Quarters Direct – where for five bucks a month you’ll get five new tracks a month, sent to your email account.

“People have been talking about how albums aren’t relevant anymore,” Brandon said. He speaks in a drawl, as if he chews his words a little, flattening them, before spitting them out. “So this is a way to maintain a connection with fans. People who want our stuff will have it instantly.”

Recently, a number of musical acts – most notably (and most successfully) Radiohead – have been reaching audiences by releasing their work online. Last December, Atmosphere put out Strictly Leakage for free download; earlier this year Big Quarters made the Fall in Love EP, produced in conjunction with Mux Mool, available online for free.

(An interesting tangential story, paraphrased, because my tape recorder stopped working at some point during the interview: Zach and Mux Mool used to work together at the now-defunct Discount Video on Hennepin [its spot has since turned into a cell phone shop]. On Saturdays, only one of them would be scheduled for a shift, but both would show up, and they’d trade turns clocking in. Then, while one of them helped customers and stocked shelves and did what video store clerks do, the other would be in back, recording audio clips from the in-stock movies to use later for production. The store, Zach estimated, had over 40,000 titles, and they ended up with an unwieldy amount of samples, which they are now turning into a series of Discount Musical tracks, some of which will possibly be released – and now we get back to the main body – on Big Quarters Direct.)

“It’s the first time we’ve been able to speed up the process of releasing music,” Zach said. He is more soft-spoken than his brother, his sentences maybe dampened by the beard that haloes his face. “We want to put out quality music every month, because now we have that capability.”

Their compositions aren’t made for passive fans. Rather, they produce with the hope that their music is something to interact with. After Cost of Living, they released the Cost of Living Construction Kit (yours free when you sign up for Big Quarters Direct), which is actually a dissection of the original album, with both a cappella and instrumental versions of the songs laid out for other producers and MCs that might want to use them. Beyond that, though, Big Quarters hopes that people are able engage with their tracks on a more personal level.

“Everything’s about telling our own story,” Brandon said. “Communicating, storytelling, we like to try and do that through rapping, and through our instrumentals.”

Fittingly, their lyrics are marked by introspection. They explained that when they write about personal experiences, that’s when fans pay the most attention. The line that’s gotten them the most renown, off their song “Everyday,” is “Home of brown babies and white mothers” – an embrace of their own mixed-race heritage.

Carrying their music over into their professional lives, Big Quarters try to promote the curative aspects of storytelling in their (our) community. By day, Zach and Brandon work with a number of youth groups – at the Hope Community, at IDDS, at the Minneapolis YMCA – teaching kids to DJ, to put together a song, and most importantly, to unleash their personal narratives.

“It’s about therapy,” said Zach. “We hope that people can relate to us, find similarities even if their story’s not exactly the same.”

Discerning a story from their instrumentals is a bit murkier of a task, but certainly there’s a narrative element to their production. None of their beats relies on a simple loop; rather they stoke a melody throughout the track, layering and collapsing it in progressions that never let go a listener’s ear. As far as actual sound, one might compare their production to some of the stuff RZA does for Wu-Tang Clan – full-bodied and sour and vaguely kung-fu-ish – though the recent Fall in Love EP seems to try and crack through this, bordering on pop.

“The goal for us when we’re producing,” Zach said, “is to take something people might know, and play with it and break it down until it’s not really recognizable anymore. That’s when a beat sort of becomes our own, and we can begin to tell a story with it.”

(If you listen to this, it’s easy to see what he means.)

September 3rd, 2008 @ Turf Club.
Performances by: Big Quarters, Mux Mool and DJ Anton
21+ / $4 / 9pm