Hip-hop beats are a spur for social change among a new breed of independent musicians, and a former Madisonian is at the forefront.
Kyle "El Guante" Myhre, 25, is a UW-Madison graduate who relocated to the Twin Cities last fall. During his six years here, he co-founded the Madison Observer and organized campus antiwar efforts.
Before he left, Myhre also earned a reputation as one of Madison's most prolific spoken-word poets and hip-hop MCs. His stint in the local music scene culminated in a 2005 release, Vanishing Point.
This Saturday, El Guante returns for a homecoming show at the Rathskeller. He'll be celebrating the release of his debut CD on the Minneapolis-based independent record label Tru Ruts. His performance will be a Tru Ruts showcase, featuring a core of artists who define themselves more by their activism than their music.
They're part of a movement as poetic and culturally potent as the Beat Generation of the 1950s. With percussion central to their sound, the dawn of a Beats Generation is upon us.
Adam Rengel is a voice of this generation. Rengel MCs under the hip-hop name "See More Perspective." His MySpace page describes him as "a revolutionary leader motivating the masses through his work as a lyricist, poet and educator." Musically, he's "KRS-One meets the Dalai Lama."
PosNoSys are a voice of this generation. They're a Hmong American rock band whose name is short for "Post Nomadic Syndrome." They describe themselves as "socially conscious" and striving to "inspire audiences with a fusion of spoken-word poetry, soul, hip-hop, blues and funk-influenced music."
Truthmaze is a voice of this generation. He's the "Afrika Bambaataa of Twin Cities Hip-Hop" and an outspoken critic of the use of force by Minneapolis police.
Tru Ruts is a record label of this generation. It strives to transcend the boundaries of music, calling itself "a multidisciplinary artistic organization."
And progressive hip-hop is the sound of this generation. It's the kind made by Seattle's Blue Scholars and San Francisco's Pigeon John. These indie artists are charismatic and educated. They are multicultural and self-assured. They are committed to social change. They are to pop music what Barack Obama has become to American politics.
It's 9:30 on a Friday night and El Guante, See More Perspective and actress/playwright Sha Cage have just finished a spoken-word performance at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.
As Myhre tries to tell me about his new album through his cell phone, he's interrupted frequently by fans who want to meet him or say goodbye. The background is filled with the voices of students, and by the sound of things, they've been moved.
"It's a collection of my best output over the past three years," says Myhre.
El Guante's Haunted Studio Apartment is a variation on the '90s soul album Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite. Myhre describes it as "more sinister and weird."
It doesn't take long for expressions of working-class and artistic restlessness to emerge from the new tracks. "Fourth Wall" yearns for a transformation that never seems to come.
"Life will start when the rent is paid/Life will start when my album drops/Life will start when I graduate/Life will start tomorrow, too late."
The album is founded on samples that invoke an emotional spectrum, from gentle jazz piano and lonely horns to energetic percussion. My favorite track, "Esta Tarde," is a poignant love song backed by Spanish vocals and a bright harp.
Haunted Studio is an album that's sure to put El Guante on the verge of national exposure, and Myhre senses it.
"I guess the next few months are the real test for me," he says.
"Family Business" is a new poem Myhre wishes he'd written in time to add to his new album.
It's a tale of two janitors. One has been on the job for three weeks, the other for 15 years.
On break, they play chess and disagree about the nature of their favorite piece - the pawn.
Jackie, the veteran worker, sees nobility in the pawn's sacrifice. But his young friend can only see pawns as tragic symbols of the working class, "believing we can get to the other side and become royalty ourselves, but most likely dying on the way there for a cause we don't even understand."
Before Myhre hangs up, he tells me that he and his friends are gearing up for the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis this year.
"We'll be delegates of a different kind," he says.