Culture clash at the Black Dog Caf

Local hip-hop duo teams up with Ballet Minnesota to bring the streets to the fine arts

Megan Kadrmas

The story of how it all started starts much like the story itself.

It was a hot, humid, heavy day in July. The area around the Black Dog Café in St. Paul’s Lowertown district teemed with sweaty, sticky music fans watching the ominous thunderheads roll in.

“Black Dog Café”

WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 19; Saturday, Oct. 20, 2 and 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: The Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E Exchange Street, St. Paul
TICKETS: free, fitzgeraldtheater.publicradio.org

Eventually, this cruel act of Mother Nature led to the clashing of two musical cultures, and to the beginning of our story.

On this fateful day, during the Black Dog Block Party, the rain began to fall with such force it threatened to wash away the concert altogether. While the event’s organizers scrambled for a back-up plan and fans scurried for shelter, Ill Chemistry had an idea: act quickly to keep as many fans as possible from dashing to their cars and high-tailing it home.

Ill Chemistry, which consists of rapper Desdamona and beat-boxer Carnage, were at the block party only to host the concert. They were supposed to keep the line-up on track, fill the void between acts and energize the crowd.

Even though it was raining cats and dogs outside of the Black Dog, Ill Chemistry decided it was only proper host etiquette to convince attendees to stick around until Plan B was ready. They grabbed an amp and a couple of mics and began to play a spontaneous set inside the cafe, with the lightning serving as their stage effects and the pounding rain and rattling thunder accompanying Carnage on the beats.

It was at this exact moment that two cultures collided. But Desdamona and Carnage had no idea at the time that someone was listening to them and liking what he was hearing.

They didn’t know about the impact they made that day on a man until Desdamona’s manager called her weeks later to tell her that this man bought every one of their CDs during the block party and had choreographed a ballet to some of their songs.

The man, Andrew Rist, is the co-founder and artistic director for Ballet Minnesota. He was at the block party looking for music to use in a ballet he created about the Black Dog Café.

“I had never seen them before,” Rist said of Ill Chemistry. “They just started singing in the corner of the café. It was this amazing time.”

Rist was so impressed with the hip-hop duo that he knew he found what he was looking for. He picked a handful of songs from the CDs he purchased and eventually created choreography to the tracks as part of his larger ballet project, “Black Dog Café.”

“I wanted to do more with their music, but I ran out of time,” Rist said.

He said the movement in the ballet is inspired by the interactions he watches at the Black Dog Café: people coming and going, laughing and crying, bumping into old friends and making new ones.

This web of human interactions weaves certain movements into the ballet as well. Instead of having Ill Chemistry’s CD playing during their section of the show, they will join the dancers live on stage. The two entities, the worlds of refined art and gritty streets, will be interacting with each other throughout the act, Rist said.

“As I sat there, the whole place was moving to their own rhythm,” Rist said of the Ill Chemistry concert at the block party. “So the dancers will be interacting with the band in the sense that, at points, they circle her as she’s singing.”

There will be no prima donnas in pink tutus and pointy shoes, but some of the elements of classic ballet movements are incorporated into the show. The section with Desdamona and Carnage features more updated, modern dancing with some reggae and hip-hop inspired moves added in.

Both Carnage and Desdamona said they are excited to work with Ballet Minnesota.

“It’s cool to me that people want to dance to me beat-boxing,” Carnage said. “Our music isn’t actually drums, so it makes me feel good that people still feel it like they do with drums.”

Ballet meets hip-hop at the intersection of music and self-expression, Ill Chemistry said.

“We’re all also pushing boundaries with this,” Carnage said. “Things can have a connection, like this, if people are willing to go outside the box.”

Also, Desdamona said, the show will motivate Ill Chemistry to push their sound in a new direction.

“When you put two things that maybe seem like they don’t fit together, that’s when new things are created,” Desdamona said. “New realities and new ideas come out of that.”

The differences between the musical styles doesn’t worry Desdamona, since she said she’s worked with dancers in the past.

“The difficult part, actually, for us is going to be not being able to really get in and rehearse with them a lot,” Desdemona said.

Ill Chemistry’s busy performance schedule prevents them from rehearsing frequently with the dancers, so Ballet Minnesota uses their recorded tracks for practice. The hip-hop pair will have to recreate their recordings very closely because of this, which is a departure from the improvisational tone of their concerts.

Cultural diffusion won’t just occur on stage at the Fitz. The audience, tempted by the offer of free admission to all of the ballet’s showings, will probably represent a diversity of ages and musical preferences, too.

Children and their parents, hip-hop fans, dancers, Black Dog patrons and older people who support the arts will most likely all attend, Carnage said.

“I think it’ll be a really diverse crowd,” he said. “And not necessarily a hip-hop crowd, either.”

The hip-hop group isn’t worried about this diversity, though.

Just as they proved on that fateful day in July, they are ready to play whenever, wherever, and win people over in the process.