Four years ago, City Pages ran a cover story on a young, burgeoning hip-hop group by the name of Big Quarters. The article followed Brandon "Allday" Bagaason and his younger brother "Medium" Zach as they traveled through Illinois, documenting performances, ideologies, and personalities. The most remarkable development captured during the trip wasn't the struggle of the young independent artists, nor was it the crowd's reaction to their blossoming talent. Rather, it was their remarkable hustle: Not only would they pick up gigs at a moment's notice wherever they could (regardless of size or whether they'd be paid), but Brandon would rarely leave a performance without handing out a CD of the group's music to everyone he could. And he continues to this day.
"Passing CDs—that's what we've been doing since day one," explains Brandon. "If you see me, and I don't have a CD, I'm slipping. That's my business card."
It's a unique perspective: the thought that your recordings stand as your sales pitch, that the trading a free CD for a new fan is valuable, and that if you're able to entice a new pair of ears, they might come to your shows, buy a T-shirt, or tell a few friends about you. Last year Big Quarters put faith in their fan base, hoping that they would be supportive of a startup venture by the name of BQ Direct. Essentially, it's a monthly download service that gives fans "five songs for five bucks, every month." The immediate response suggested that all those years of doling out free CDs was now paying off.
BQ Direct is exactly as advertised; for a small fee the group offers a subscription service that gives fans the opportunity to download five new songs each month. "We became preoccupied with how we were going to release songs," Brandon says. "Now, we're feeling our creative process is more natural." Zach chimes in, "We've also become self-sufficient—we do it all in-house, then put it out."
As labels continue to defend against shrinking record sales and artist disillusionment, it's refreshing to see a group of independent artists utilize modern resources to stay ahead of the pack. "Twitter is another tool—and I have to use the tools that are going to allow me to navigate this music industry as it evolves," Brandon continues. "Physical flyers and CDs won't be relevant for too long. We used to make beat tapes. We made tapes, then we made CDs, and now we're sending out 320kbps digital singles. But it's still about the music."
The brothers' entrepreneurial spirit was instilled in them at an early age, as their mother nurtured them to create their own music. "Our first songs together were about crate digging, cheap food, girls, and making beats," says Zach. At the dawn of the decade the brothers moved to Minneapolis so Brandon could attend the University of Minnesota and Zach could attend Perpich Center for Arts Education. "Living away from home allowed me to be independent—it was mainly my way of getting to Minneapolis and surrounding myself with artists and musicians," says Zach. "At 14, 15, we started making our own music. And that became all I wanted to do."
Now Twin Cities hip-hop veterans Brandon and Zach find themselves assuming a new role—that of mentor. "Credit goes to people like Rhymesayers, Interlock & UVS," says Brandon. "Those guys gave us shows and took us on the road when we didn't know what we were doing—so I think we are a proponent in the same way, giving upcoming artists opportunities and any words of advice we can offer. And now we're doing some of that through Last of the Record Buyers." Additionally, they both work with youth through Anne Sullivan middle school, the Minneapolis YMCA, and Hope Community, offering writing and recording tutelage.
After taking on new challenges their entire career, the new Big Quarters album, From the Home of Brown Babies & White Mothers, stands as a yet another self-imposed hurdle. "On the new album, we challenged ourselves melodically," Brandon explains. And not to discredit the album, or suggest that it's free of bangers, but Brandon's statement shows. With Brandon and Mux Mool both lending scarce production assistance, Zach's beats cover the bulk of the album's tracks, lending it a smooth sensibility that nurtures the shift in focus. In addition to contributions from Crescent Moon and P.O.S., Mankwe Ndosi and Alissa Paris step in to help guide the album's later tracks, enhancing Brown Babies' harmonies and smooth feel.
Big Quarters are a group of multifaceted entertainers who have strengthened their following by creating a dynamic relationship between themselves, their fans, and their music. Are Big Quarters likely to break through to the mainstream with their combination of innovative self-promotion and suburb craftsmanship? In today's musical environment, the chances of that are unlikely. But are they dedicated enough to last another four years in this ever-evolving musical landscape? Brandon's answer best sums that up: "Big Quarters all day, every day."
[This article was first published by City Pages.]