This is why I’m hot, even in the cold

Local group Big Quarters heat up the Twin Cities’ hip-hop game with the release of their new album

Megan Kadrmas

Inside a sparsely decorated Mexican restaurant on East Lake Street, brothers Brandon and Zach Bagaason of local hip-hop group Big Quarters chow down on authentic burritos with slowly cooked meats and homemade salsas. They’ve worked up quite an appetite after a long Saturday.

Big Quarters CD Release Party
WHEN: 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., April 5
WHERE: 7th Street Entry
TICKETS: $6, early all ages, late 21-plus, www.first-avenue.com

Big brother Brandon worked all day at the Hope Center in Minneapolis, where he helps teach a music production class to grade-school- and middle-school-aged children. The brothers also teach a hip-hop production class through the YMCA in Minneapolis. They were pushed to give back to the community by their mother, Brandon said.

The burritos with salsa picante fill and warm the siblings. But the constant blast of what feels like the air conditioner has Brandon quickening his bites so he can step out into the balmy mid-March afternoon to warm his fingers and nose.

Big Quarters
TITLE: “Cost of Living”
LABEL: none

This paradigm of hot and cold, north and south, spicy and mild has shaped the brothers’ personal lives and musical content. Born to a Mexican mother and Norwegian father outside Chicago, the boys only came to Minnesota to visit relatives during their early years.

It wasn’t until the pair’s paternal grandmother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and moved into a nursing home that the boys discovered what living in Minnesota was like. The young family moved to the tiny northern Minnesota town of Clearbrook, where the men say their biracial heritage and hip-hop swagger prevented them from making any real, long-lasting friendships.

“We don’t have friends who we grew up with since day one, who we hang out with today,” Brandon said. “It’s basically just us and we reflect on our past.”

Although the move was hard, they said it brought them closer together and drew their whole family tighter. This loyalty is apparent in Big Quarters’ first full-length album, “Cost of Living,” which has been in the works for more than two years.

The album comes off as an honest dialogue between the two brothers about their personal lives, about growing up different than the others and having brown pride. The beats are raw and the bass is booming. Big Quarters draws inspiration from, among others, the Wu-Tang Clan, which shows in their sample-heavy style. Clips are drawn from a wooden jazz flute and baby xylophones, cow bells and baritone horns, with a wide range of sounds – mostly instruments – in between.

The back cover of the album is a photograph of the whole Bagaason family. Mom and dad still live in Clearbrook, but the boys got out of there as soon as the opportunity arose. For Brandon, the way out of Clearbrook was attending the University, where he took journalism and Chicano studies courses. For Zach, who is two years younger than Brandon, it was acceptance at the Perpich Center for Arts, where he attended high school and lived in the school’s dormitory system.

“We wanted to do a record that was very personal. We have so many experiences, that we have to look at it from each other’s side and find middle ground to tell the story,” Zach said.

Their strong sense of family ties is also felt in the album’s lyrics, like these taken from “Lou Diamond”: “First you gotta watch out for yourself and your fam, cuz if you don’t watch out no one else will give a damn.” Watching out for family is just what the Bagaason brothers have built a career from.

“When we made ‘Lou Diamond,’ that was when we knew this was something that reflected us really well,” Zach said. “We knew we needed to meet each song to that level. This record is every song we made after ‘Lou Diamond’ that reached that level.”

The two complement each other vocally, creatively and musically. Brandon “Allday” has a deep, violent voice that carries as much force as the words it spits. “Medium” Zach, meanwhile, is more soft-spoken but is the creator of most of the beats on “Cost of Living.”

The two are able to keep each other in check too, in the cutting but honest way that only siblings can get away with.

“I think a challenge for this record, and a challenge for us or any artist, was being honest with ourselves all the time,” said Brandon. “Since we’re brothers, we know what we’re capable of, as well as each other’s experiences. We have our own voices but we can check each other.”

In the end, the brothers conclude that although the two moves they experienced as children did not immediately make them best friends, the total effect of their past is coming out in the form of sincere hip-hop on “Cost of Living.”