Lost in space with Astronautalis

The local rapper lays southern storytelling over a beat.

Astronautalis performed at Soundest 2012 on Sunday, May 27, 2012, in Shakopee, Minn.

Image by Mark Vancleave, Daily File Photo

Astronautalis performed at Soundest 2012 on Sunday, May 27, 2012, in Shakopee, Minn.

by Patrick Maloney

What: WHY? with Astronautalis and Sarah Winters

When: 6:30 p.m., Saturday

Where: Fine Line Music Café, 318 N. First Ave., Minneapolis

Cost: $15

Age: All ages


Astronautalis’ music lacks braggadocio and punch lines, so it might seem odd that this artist got his start doing rap battles.

Kicking off in his early teens, Astronautalis worked his way across the country before calling it quits.

“Battling has a pretty shallow creative glass ceiling,” Astronautalis said. “There are only so many times you can sign up to have some dudes call you gay over and over again.”

Astronautalis used to hone his freestyling skills by having his friends give him unconventional topics to rap about. When he quit battling for songwriting, he evolved that practice technique into part of his nightly performances.

“I take topics from the audience to freestyle about. I ask that they’re things that people don’t usually rap about,” Astronautalis said. “I take these disparate elements and try to make a story out of them.”

Astronautalis asks for around five subjects that no one has ever rapped about before — adding that “there are already so many awesome songs about cars and guns and butts and the stanky leg” — and then composes an impromptu narrative involving the topics over Top 40 rap beats.

The crowds get pretty into this exercise, urging Astronautalis to spitball about topics like Nicolas Cage, quantum physics and necromancy.

“There’s always something about zombies,” he said.

Astronautalis traces this freestyling back to his roots in Jacksonville, Fla.

“It’s like old southern drunkard storytelling throughout the whole thing,” he said. “That’s a gigantic part of my culture.”

Astronautalis’ songwriting also draws on storytelling. Over piano- and guitar-driven beats, he weaves stories about the Revolutionary War, making out behind vending machines and cryogenic freezing.

Like battling, he says, rapping about science and history can be one-dimensional.

“When you get into that nerd-core and joke rap, it’s basically just like a book report,” he said.

Astronautalis tries to look a little bit deeper. His writing process is the antithesis of freestyle — long and slow, filled with years of research. However, he strives to make his work to come off more like a song than a TED Talk by incorporating intricate rhyme schemes and sing-a-long choruses.

“When you read these stories, there’s a lot of amazing drama there. That’s the heart of a lot of good art. It’s all there.”