Headspins, Headshots, & History: Big Zach's Quest to Chronicle Twin City's Hip Hop

Headspin, Headshots, & History: Big Zach’s Quest to Chronicle Twin City’s Hip Hop

If you’re at all involved in the Twin Cities hip hop scene, it’s likely you know Zach Combs aka Big Zach aka New MC, and it’s likely he’s got your back. This veteran rapper has been hustling and grinding from the South Side of Minneapolis for almost twenty years, drawing in new fans and staying loyal to old ones.

“At this point in 2011, a lot of kids, a lot of younger artists look at us like we’re pioneers, we’re legendary artists.”
-Big Zach

He’s the front man for one of the longest-running rap crews in Minnesota history, Kanser, and has lately gotten some attention on the festival circuit with his live-band hip hop group, More Than Lights. But Big Zach is more than that, you can often find him posting flyers around town or coming out to support the next generation of rappers. An embodiment of what it means to be an MC, Zach has been one of the most prolific hosts in the state, mentor to many younger rappers, part of crews and live bands, and had an accomplished solo career. With such a long bout of involvement in the scene, Big Zach could probably write a book on the subject — and he just has.

Now he can add published author to his list of accomplishments with his new book, Headspin, Headshots & History: Growing Up In Twin Cities Hip Hop, which was published this past December by No Static Records. We talked with Zach to get the story behind the book, and what it meant to be such a big part of hip hop in Minnesota.

“I started writing it about five and a half years ago, but I never had no training, I never had no writing classes or any training, and I didn’t do that well in high school, so my grammar was pretty terrible. But three or four years ago, a young dude named Josh Holmgren hollered at me, he was asking me hella questions about the hip hop scene, and I told him I had a book written. Josh took it and started editing it, Josh didn’t go to school for book editing or English or anything, but he could hook it up a lot more than I had it hooked up. Then we worked on it, we worked on it, we worked on it, and we finally got it together. It was a long process, just because we didn’t know what we were doing.”

Hip hop in the Twin Cities has blossomed into one of the most unique rap scenes in the nation, and happens to be one of the most encouraging zones for independent musicians. This atmosphere has cultivated artists who push the envelope and perfect the craft, but there is also an incredibly rich history behind the scene as we see it today. Aside from an article here or there, hip hop in the Twin Cities has been relatively undocumented, which is where Zach’s first-hand accounts come into play.

“At this point in 2011, a lot of kids, a lot of younger artists look at us like we’re pioneers, we’re legendary artists,” Zach tells me about his place in the world of Twin Cities culture. “We’re old rappers who’ve been around, but in the early nineties, groups like Kanser and groups like Heiruspecs, groups like Oddjobs, were the original enlarging fanbase to older rappers such as Musab and Urban Atmosphere and The Abstract Pack. So not only do we have the status fifteen years later as veterans from the hip hop scene, in truth though we were some of the original fans.”

“I focused on more of the popular rappers so people would be interested in reading it, so that they would read about the 200 other characters that they might not have ever heard of who are just as important in our hip hop.”
-Big Zach

Though some of the very early pioneers on the scene came around before Big Zach’s time, the book touches on every aspect of hip hop in Minnesota, from its seasoned veterans to newcomers, and never fails to give a fair viewpoint, even when personal beef and mishaps might have soured relationships. However, Headspin, Headshots & History is much more than a history book. With a keen sense for storytelling and a knack for getting himself into wild situations, Zach has riveting and hilarious stories to tell about every rapper to grace the Minnesota music scene, and he enlivens each chapter with a few first-hand accounts that will keep you glued to the pages.

“I was like, I’m gonna write it from completely my perspective so I can tie in dumb stories about my life to keep it entertaining,” the Kanser rapper tells me. “Such as the one night there was this underground hip hop rap battle in this warehouse and on the bus ride there my homeboy got jacked for a bag of weed on the bus, which really happened and I think I took it out of the book, but to add a little personality to it, and then I can tell it from my perspective.”

In addition to the relatively-neglected history of hip hop, Zach delves into an even more-undocumented culture: The Minnesota graffiti scene. He pays homage to the most legendary writers in the city, and gives a solid background to something deeply ingrained in hip hop culture.

“When I was a teenager I grew up taking graffiti photos around the Twin Cities, but all my pictures got stolen in a drug raid years ago, and this kid name Philly from South Side paid for my photos to get re-developed,” he says. “I kept the negatives, so we were able to get picture in the book too.”

Anyone could dig around on the Internet and piece together a timeline of the Twin Cities’ hip hop history, but it takes someone who has completely devoted their lives to hip hop culture to write a book this deep and on-point. As you read the book, you see Minnesota hip hop shift and change and continue to blossom into a beautiful thing. But you also experience Big Zach mature in a real way — both as an artist and as a person — and you see him make relationships and help do his part to build the scene. This first-person account makes the book not just a history textbook, but a retelling that reads like a novel.

“For my story, one of the key people in my evolution was Ant, who later on became the producer/DJ for Atmosphere,” Zach says. “His story is a big part of the book, and I focus on more of the popular rappers. There’s a lot about Slug and people, even though there’s not a lot of background about him, just things about his career in the early days. There are stories of Brother Ali, and a lot of stories from Doomtree. I focused on more of the popular rappers so people would be interested in reading it, so that they would read about the 200 other characters that they might not have ever heard of who are just as important in our hip hop.”

There are even a few lessons to be learned between its pages. With his eternally-positive mentality, Zach drops plenty of wisdom, whether it’s through a brush with heaven on a festival mushroom trip or a brush with death in a close-call car accident. There are a couple key points that he makes about hip hop that stick out and cut deep to the heart of hip hop here and everywhere.

“I want to tell a lot of stories of where stuff came from. There were a couple rappers who were pioneers at the beginning that your average Minnesota rap band doesn’t know about that passed away early or before their time, I want them to know about their stories and that they helped everybody.”
-Big Zach

“I know race issues can be touchy, but we have a beautiful hip hop scene in Minnesota, and a lot of the audiences happen to be not from the city and happen to be Caucasian, which is beautiful. But if you’re part of that, say you’re from the suburbs, you’re a richer kid and you just happen to be white and you’re super into hip hop, that’s fresh, that’s dope, I just want you to read and find out that twenty years ago the scene was all inner-city African Americans. That’s where it came from. Also I want to tell a lot of stories of where stuff came from. There were a couple rappers who were pioneers at the beginning that your average Minnesota rap band doesn’t know about that passed away early or before their time, I want them to know about their stories and that they helped everybody.”

The book is an overdue treat for fans of hip hop in Minnesota, and diehard fans and newcomers alike will struggle to put it down. You’re guaranteed to learn a thing or two about your favorite rapper, and hear plenty of stories from your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper: Big Zach. It’s a blessing that the stories of how the Minnesota hip hop scene developed have been finally captured and preserved, and the next generation of rappers and fans are sure to be inspired. Do yourself a favor and get your hands on this book, and discover the rich history and depth behind one of the most vibrant independent hip hop scenes around.

Headspin, Headshots & History: Growing Up In Twin Cities Hip Hop can be purchased at nostaticrecords.com, in-store at Electric Fetus or Mindstate, or you can catch Big Zach hustling around the South Side with a backpack full of ‘em.

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