Melissa Czarnik vs. the "dress-me-half-naked thing"
The Milwaukee rapper goes with personal songs over sexy flash
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Melissa Czarnik has forged her own path as one of the most recognizable names in local hip-hop, and she’s done it emphasizing smart, autobiographical songwriting over club-banging flash. Making her name on the open-mic and slam-poetry circuit, Czarnik first turned heads with the organic, rootsy hip-hop of her 2009 debut, Strawberry Cadillac, which she recently supported with a short European tour. Now Czarnik is back with her second record, Raspberry Jesus, which delves into the ups and downs of her romantic life. Before her CD-release show July 31 at Stonefly Brewery, Czarnik spoke with The A.V. Club about the new album and why you shouldn’t think of her strictly as a female MC.
The A.V. Club: Your first album is called Strawberry Cadillac, and the follow-up is Raspberry Jesus. What’s with the berry theme?
Melissa Czarnik: They really have nothing to do with each other. The name of the first album just kind of came to me one day. With Raspberry Jesus, it came about when I was in France eating these raspberry cookies. I grew up Catholic, and this cookie tasted like the Eucharist, so I was like, “This tastes like a Raspberry Jesus!” My producer Eric Mire was there; a couple weeks later he says, "You should name your record Raspberry Jesus."
AVC: You recently returned from playing a couple of shows in Europe. What’s it like for indie hip-hop overseas?
MC: In terms of getting shows, it depends on where you are. London is hard. Brussels is pretty easy because they’re really open to hip-hop there. When we did an open mic in France, people were singing mostly American songs, a lot of R&B and folk songs. It was interesting to me that they were clinging to American music and culture like that. I stayed with someone with Anattitude Magazine, which is a women-in-hip-hop magazine, and she’s doing a London issue right now. I met her last year in France; she was living in Brussels at the time, and she interviewed me. It came about that she was looking for editing work in English, because she does interviews in a lot of different languages. I ended up joining the editing team for the last issue.
AVC: What's it like being a woman creating and performing in a genre of music that’s predominantly a man’s game?
MC: Mostly people are pretty respectful. When I first started, I was kind of promoting myself as a female MC. Like, hey, I’m a female MC, that makes me stand out a little bit more. But I don’t want to use that anymore. I just want to be an MC. Also the way I dress, I don’t want to be like a lot of women in mainstream hip-hop who play into this over-sexualized, dress-me-half-naked thing. So there’s a feeling where I’m always going back and forth. Should I dress not very provocative and sexy because I don’t want that kind of attention? If I do dress sexy, like in a little tank top or something, certain guys come up to me after a show and try to hit on me and not talk to me about the music.
AVC: In Milwaukee especially it seems like women are underrepresented in hip-hop. There’s you and Element Everest but that’s about it. Why do you suppose that is?
MC: There’s also SigNif, but she’s in between New York and here. But I don’t know. Maybe there’s not enough support? Or maybe women don’t think they’re capable of MCing? I know why I do it, but I don’t know why other people wouldn’t do it. So I really can’t say. I think Milwaukee is really good about supporting artists, men and women. I was brought into the community really well. I mean, there’s so many men doing it, there’s gotta be women doing it as well.
AVC: There are lots of personal songs on the record, particularly the track “Say Goodbye.” Who is that about?
MC: “Say Goodbye” is about a lot of people. Every third line is about someone different. It starts with people I grew up with in grade school, high school—best friends, people I was with all day, every day, but now don’t see each other any more. It’s the idea of how you say goodbye or sometimes don’t say it, and instead you just drift apart.
AVC: You perform and record with a live band, which is something that’s become more and more common in hip-hop. Why has live music replaced the DJ and turntables?
MC: I feel like people are yearning for an organic sound. When I go to a hip-hop show and a DJ is spinning straight instrumentals, especially if there’s no mixing or beat-juggling, it’s boring. Things like Serato made DJs lazier, like it’s easy for anyone to be a DJ and it doesn’t have the energy that it once did when DJs were the center of attention and MCs were just there to hype up the crowd.