I Self Devine’s name is legendary status in the Twin Cities and rightfully so. Despite the flattery that is most often associated with a word like “legendary”, in Hip Hop it also carries a negative undertone. Such accolades are often synonymous with “no longer active, relevant, or contributing to the Culture”. In the case of I Self, nothing could be further from the truth.
After an amazing multi-marathon worthy run in Hip Hop for over twenty years, he is as active as ever; he’s releasing tons of music, he’s heavily involved in the community, and he’s continually diversifying his means of engaging people. He is, as they say, a living and extremely active “Legend”.
There are several factors that contributed to his storied rise to iconic status. He experienced life in three different Hip Hop hot spots: LA, Twin Cities and Atlanta. He had an upbringing that educated him on politics and social injustice. He has an impressive gift for weaving words together brilliantly. Additionally, he is blessed with a magnetic personality and a charismatic, slightly off-centered, sense of humor. All these experiences, skills, and characteristics come together vividly in his music. With the release date soon approaching for his latest album, “The Sound Of Low Class Amerika”, I wanted to take a look at the journey that led to there. Over the next several weeks I’ll be chronologically focusing on the history of I Self Devine…
The earliest material of his that I have been able to get my hands on is a Micranots demo from 1993. In this era, I Self Devine (a.k.a Self One) shared mic duties with another Twin Cities pioneer, Truth Maze. By the time this demo came about, Truth Maze had had already made a name for himself on the scene as a Human Beatbox for the mighty I.R.M Crew (Immortal Rap Masters). This Micranots demo is laced with three songs that are each strong enough to stand on their own.
Each track his this nice misleading intro that has a more smoothed out or easy going tone, but the beat always drops in more rugged than you might expect. The production is well done, combining a variety of break beat loops and lots of changes ups to keep it interesting.
“Radical Speak” comes in with a playful Billy Preston loop and after a few bars gets slightly edgier with some light percussive scratching and then eventually drops into some heavy Funk Inc. drums. The beat is supported thru out with traces of Sly Stone, The JBs, and a few other choice elements, including Chuck D (Public Enemy) being scratched up, “Radical…”
I Self and Truth Maze contrast effectively. I Self is more subtle with his aggressiveness, while Truth Maze is more hyped in his approach. On “Radical Speak” they freak the verses back n forth, switching topics at will, while flipping a variety of styles. “Radical” exists as a great verbal exercise to get the listener familiar with what the crew is all about.
“New Depths 2 Trudge” attempts to initially mellow you out with some Faze O “Riding High”, but when it finally drops in with that Kool & The Gang “N.T” drum loop and triggered firecracker snares, the vibe is certainly intensified.
In every track the crew touches on some political and social issues, but “Pick Up The Glock” is where it really gets deeper to the point. I Self’s solo verse is where he most shines on this demo and reveals the truest example of the vocal approach he would become best known for, “Pick up the glock from block to block/From crack slanger, bangers, or hardrocks/Something like a Noah’s ark as I spark/Reactionary, come again as I bury/Counter-productive house n***as who’d like to see blow another field n****a with the steel trigger…” Later he continues, “Self defense is in effect/ brain cells are set, my people come correct/Gangbangers just keep banging/A change of your agenda, revolution in the mind is what I’m saying…”
Not long after this demo, I Self and Akiem packed up to head to Atlanta. At that time, there was a rising musical migration jumping off there. There was also a strong presence of black consciousness, which blended perfectly with the Micranots message. Up to this point, I was still unaware of the Micranots and their movement, but during a Hip Hop Vacation to Atlanta in ‘95 I connected with some people who had transplanted there from my area in North Chicago/Waukegan, IL. One thing I was curious and asking people about was the Underground local crews and someone blessed me with the recently dropped Micranots “So Deep I Never Fell” tape.
“So Deep I Never Fell” is a key track in their history and in one form or another the track has found its way on a few different Micranots projects. I’m assuming it was probably a song that got a great response at early live shows. It’s easy to see why. The track has that lightly mystical vibe that gives it a jazzy feel and the cuts, with Nas dropping the track title, are performed with precise franticness. It is a perfect representation of what the thriving Underground Black Conscious fanbase was hungry for. In just a few bars into the first verse it is evident that I Self has significantly grown as an MC since that last demo. He has better mastery of projecting his voice, his flow is more fluid, and his content is more concentrated or as he states, “My occupation is real MCing/Half-Android, Half-Human Being, lyrics with meaning…” He is clearly a force to be reckoned with.
The Remix adds a Reggae flavor into the mix, to keep the same message, but with a different vibe. The more coolout feel makes parts of I Self’s rapid-fire delivery easier to distinguish, “Utilizing brain power so much when I grab the mic I black out/Words pull you back out, no guns, I pack a black mouth!”
“Decapitation” comes in with intense horns, which are quickly joined by some vocal samples from Cool C, “It may be a story, but it’s all true” and DMC, “I’ll cut the head off the devil and I’ll throw it at you!” I Self comes in rugged, “I burn n****s to the mantle, the core of existence/Self Destruct, burn myself, reemerging with the fitness!” Pure illness…
Also on the tape, there’s an I Self freestyle and “Rock Rock Y’all”, which is a posse cut, which features some MCs who I never heard of beyond this cut, Downtrodden, Newton, Mishap, Fulfeel. I know I have asked I Self about this cut before and I think he told me that someone on this track did more material later, perhaps under a different name…
Once I got my hands on this tape I used to rock it on the regular and was looking forward to what would come next from the Micranots. Although it would be years before I personally heard more material, they put in some serious work immediately following this. It was those efforts that led to the “Return Of The Travellahs” tape. To be continued…