High respects

St. Paul rap group Heiruspecs is a posse of whimsical wordsmiths and community philanthropists

​Heiruspecs headlined Barbette's Bastille Day Block Party on Sunday. Heiruspecs met and formed at St. Paul's Central High School, an institution they still give back to.

​Heiruspecs headlined Barbette's Bastille Day Block Party on Sunday. Heiruspecs met and formed at St. Paul's Central High School, an institution they still give back to.

Grant Tillery

“Midway was always a little nicer than Frogtown, except by Snelling and University,” Wilbourn said. “Me and my homeboys would be by Grotto and Edmund — one block [on] the other side of University. We would throw house parties in their old house after it got condemned. We had to be like, ‘Don’t fall in that hole in the floor.’ We had people like DJ Abilities come play — it was no small thing. We got it cracking in there.”

That was St. Paul circa 1997 — the year lead emcee Wilbourn and bassist Sean “Twinkie Jiggles” McPherson formed Heiruspecs.

They were classmates at Central High School, an institution all of the six-man crew attended around the turn of the millennium. Drummer Leggett, emcee Muad’dib, keyboardist dVRG and guitarist Josh Peterson are the other alumni.

Wilbourn and McPherson met in their high school sound engineering class. The class list was a who’s who of the early 2000s local rap scene, including St. Paul Slim and Mastermind.

“You’d have your class period, and the first bit the teacher read music theory,” Wilbourn said. “If you did your assignment, you’d get to go jam. They had a room called the jazz room with an old Fender Rhodes keyboard, a couple amps and a drum kit. I would be freestyling with St. Paul Slim. Sean came when I was in my sophomore year, and he ended up being the bass player that was always in the room with us. That morphed into a thing.”

The direct result of the now 17-year-old “thing” is six albums, the most recent of which, “Night Falls,” came out in April.

The newest effort marks a departure from Heiruspecs’ previous work via rock-oriented beats. Yet, thanks to strong funk backbeats and lyrics that emphasize social consciousness, the album avoids the pitfalls of most rock-oriented rap.

Think of “Night Falls” as a more vehement counterpart to Michael Franti — exemplified on back-to-back tracks “WATF” and “Power.” These showcase Wilbourn’s in-your-face urgency and articulate cadence. They’re also vehicles for the band’s uncanny ability to lay down killer live beats, accomplishing the rare feat of matching the Roots’ instrumental prowess. 

A ubiquitous live presence cemented Heiruspecs’ style. They played 250 gigs a year at one point, but they trimmed their national touring schedule as band members pursued day jobs and started families. Though the road is kind to Heiruspecs, one tour fiasco served partly as the impetus for a brief break in 2005.

A trip home from Boise, Idaho, turned into a full-blown calamity when McPherson totaled the band van. He had received his first speeding ticket earlier that day, and he took the wheel from Wilbourn in an attempt at redemption. McPherson hit a patch of black ice, and the van rolled over.

There were no injuries, save Wilbourn’s butt. The trailer unhitched itself and rolled down the road to safety, Wilbourn said. Wilbourn’s seatbelt malfunctioned, and he landed posterior-first in the van’s broken back window.

The accident led Heiruspecs to reassess their priorities. After regrouping, they recorded a new album, 2008’s “Heiruspecs,” instead of returning to the touring lifestyle. The posse began playing around town more and are now increasing their album output. Wilbourn and Leggett hinted at another album due next year.

More time at home also allowed Heiruspecs to reacquaint themselves with their roots. They established a scholarship fund geared toward kids with artistic talent. They’ve also headlined the “Touch the Sun” benefit concerts for several years at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall, and they’ll do so again Saturday.

The concert proceeds go to the Devin Smith Scholarship Foundation.  Smith — who was a Central High School and New York University graduate, a musician and a poet — died in a boating accident in 2011.

“We see a natural tie with our own work we’ve done with our scholarship at Central High School,” Leggett said. “The foundation is focused on a lot of the same values that compelled us.”

“Ultimately we look at it and we say, ‘I may not have known Devin Smith on a personal level, but anybody who came out of Central with the same passion and fire I had, I have to give a nod to,’” Wilbourn said. “How could we not be supportive?”

For Heiruspecs, St. Paul is where it begins and where it ends.

“I look at the Twin Cities scene in my possibly skewed lens,” Wilbourn said. “In high school, Twin Cities hip-hop was about St. Paul to me. It just so happened that all the clubs and venues were in Minneapolis. But the kids who went to those places were all St. Paul.”

 

What: Heiruspecs (headlining “Touch the Sun”)
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Amsterdam Bar and Hall, 6 W. Sixth St., St. Paul
Cost: $8–10
Age: 21+