(Illustration by artist Meryl Rowin)
Hordes of riot grrrl disciples stood before the bright lights of New York's Terminal 5 last month, waiting for their goddesses -- the women of Sleater-Kinney -- to take the stage. Most fans (including myself) eagerly arrived hours before the headliners were set to play, with plenty of time to catch the single-name artist opening up the night, an act by the name of Lizzo.
Lizzo is a self-professed southern rapstress from Minneapolis. Those of us in the audience who didn't know her before the historic Sleater-Kinney show, have likely since found it hard to stop recommending her name. From the moment a DJ rig emblazoned with the words "BIG GRRRL" teased someone with at least a grammatical connection to the '90s punk movement, to the second its corresponding DJ stepped out to prepare us, spinning bits of the Runaways here and Bikini Kill there, the audience was at home in a riot-grrrl-meets-hip-hop paradise.
And then Lizzo started singing. And rapping. And dancing. And doling out cookies in a twee apron.
To attempt to situate Lizzo, of GRRRL PRTY and The Chalice, solely inside the genre of hip-hop does a disservice to her ability to seamlessly move from one corner of indie ballad-making to the depths of R&B to the fringes of hardcore. Take her baked goods-infused performance of "Batches and Cookies." She and her DJ, Sophia Eris, left the stage to their drummer, Ryan McMahon, who throttled through a gritty solo while the women changed into kitchen-appropriate attire. The duo returned with desserts in hand, only to toss them out at hungry show-goers. Moving in choreographed motions, the women rapped lyrics like, "Magic as all hell, we livin', never ever will we give in/To a wack beat fuck with Lazerbeak in these mad streets" (a sly reference to underground Minneapolis producer). The beats behind them wove a vortex of sound, dizzy like funk and soul.
Lizzo is infectious, a grrrl rapper who bottles body positivity and empowerment in a way Kathleen Hannah and Carrie Brownstein would find familiar. She might not be of the riot grrrl generation -- she's only 26 -- but she channels its intensity in eight count bursts that cross genre boundaries. We checked in with the artist named Melissa Jefferson to talk about the past, present and future that is Lizzo.
(Photo via Facebook/Annette Navarro)
Before you answered the phone, I made a split-second decision in my head to ask for Lizzo instead of Melissa. Did I make the right choice?
Yeah [laughs]. It's a nickname that kind of turned into a stage name. So I'm very comfortable with it.
Where does it come from?
Houston. My formative years were in Houston. I was in middle school and everyone was dropping the last half of their names and adding an "o" to the end. My little crew that I had, we were an all-female rap group, and everyone had an "o" at the end of their name. I was Lisso. Then this dude started getting lazy with it, saying Lizzo. And that was it.
So you were born in Detroit, but you grew up in Houston, and now you live in Minneapolis.
Yup, I do.
Do you identify with any one of these cities in particular?
It's funny, because I feel very much a part of all of them. There's a lot of influences that I have from Detroit that are subliminal. I mean, I spent the first 10 years of my life there. My mom and dad were born and raised there, so a lot of that rubbed off on me. When I get angry, sometimes a Detroit accent comes out. I got some Detroit tendencies. But Houston was so crucial to me; Houston was what shaped me. So I feel very indebted to Houston, at least for the music.
And then Minneapolis just embraced me. There are a lot of weirdos here. It's awesome, because I'm a weirdo. Thankfully the city embraced me with open arms. A lot about Minneapolis helped carve my musicality, and open my eyes. The whole town is so open-minded compared to like, you know, Texas.
So how do the various music scenes differ?
When I was in Detroit, I was a baby. I did play there once more recently, at the Magic Stick with Polica, but I didn't really get to hang out. So I'm not really sure what the music scene is like now. But Houston -- the city is so big. Things are kind of leaning on the density of the city. Things are so spread out, so people aren't as connected to each other. There are two major players; I wouldn't call them major labels, but I'd call them major musical players. And in Minneapolis, there's this void of a major label, so the mentality of the "blow-up" is different. There are people who want to just blow up in industry cities like Houston. But in Minneapolis, the blow-up isn't really something people think about. It's more about, "Hey bro, let's make art!" [Laughs.] So it's kind of cool that way.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
I was raised on gospel. I remember hip-hop and rock music were secular, so basically for my first ten years living in Detroit, I was on gospel. But when I moved to Houston, that's when I got to open up my musical horizons. I'm a flute player, so I listed to classical music, like "The Man with the Golden Flute" [James Galway]. And my oldest sister was really into Radiohead and Bjork, and my brother was into Mars Volta, so that would flood into my world. Then there was hip-hop. Being the youngest, I kind of had to let hip-hop find me. And it did, through radio in Houston. There would be the freestylers and the Sunday night crew. Really, I had this crazy melting pot of musical influences that I was kind of always aware of and would come into my world in random ways. It was a lot.
Was Riot Grrrl a part of your musical upbringing at all?
No! Oddly enough. I think it was before my time. But when we decided to name our crew GRRRL PRTY [consisting of Sophia Eris, Manchita and Lizzo], we put three r's in it because there were three of us. Our manager was like, "You guys understand that is a nod to the riot grrrl movement, right?" He started sending us a ton of material, and it turned out our DJ Shannon Blowtorch was a part of the movement. She told me I had to watch "The Punk Singer." And I did. I thought, "What!? This is crazy!" But it all worked out. Because a few years later, Sleater-Kinney was like, "Hey! What's up?"
Right! So how did that happen? How did you end up opening for Sleater-Kinney?
Man, it's just a small world. I met someone who liked my music, who got a chance to play with Sleater-Kinney and then played them my music. And they liked that. It's just, you know, a small world. It's awesome.
What’s been the best thing about the tour? Any crazy moments?
The tour ended in Toronto two days ago, so I'm back in Minneapolis. The tour was incredible. I don't know if there were crazy moments, other than the partying. The shows we did in D.C. and New York -- those four nights were insane. I just remember that Carrie [Brownstein] had lost her voice and that didn't stop us all from sitting in the 9:30 club till the cows came home, just drinking prosecco and talking. It was crazy. We had so much fun on this tour.
Now that the tour is over, I’m sure you’ve been asked to characterize your music about a thousand times over. If you could come up with your own genre for your music, what would it be?
My favorite description I've heard is actually no-genre hip-hop, which is cool because that gives me this mobility within hip-hop. Hip-hop has evolved so much. A lot of people have given me nods to Missy Elliot too.
Yeah, I can definitely see that.
She influenced me a lot. But yeah, I don't know. I'm just a weird indie rapper chick, you know? [Laughs]
Billboard labeled you a body-positive rapper in a recent headline. Does this sound about right?
Yeah, I mean, I'm super body-positive. But that doesn't mean I'm, like, the Jesus Christ of body-positive music! There are songs that just... uplift myself. But that only came about in my recent music. They kind of took my excitement about my new music and said, "You know what? Then that's what she is." And I'm like, yes, my new music is super body-positive. I'm going to stand firm in that, and that's something I want to represent. But if you listen to my back catalogue... I'm not self-hating, but I just came to this epiphany, just discovered who I want to be on this record. And she is body-positive.
I don't know if that's a genre though, right?
[Laughs] True. I think people talk a lot about body positivity and empowerment in music without really defining what those terms mean to them. What does empowerment in music mean to you?
I think empowerment in music [for the listener] is the ability to step inside that artist's skin, pretend that you wrote that song, and allow it to affect and elevate your mood. Like, I can only describe it in the way that I used to see it, when I would sing Beyonce. I would think, I am Beyonce right now. I feel like Beyonce. And that is powerful. If I can write a song about loving myself that can make someone, you know, hug their arms and feel good about themselves for even a moment, then it's a success. It's empowering.
You definitely got the crowd hugging themselves with "Batches and Cookies" in New York. Which was really cool to watch because there’s so much choreography in that performance -- really, throughout your whole show. It’s subtle but it immediately connects with the audience. How much practice goes into a performance like that?
Thanks. Thank you. It's been a long journey to become the on-stage artist that you want to be. Performance-wise, I started out in rock. So at first, I would just be, like, super scream-y [starts screaming]. Just recently, we got this guy, John Mark, and he's an amazing choreographer. Sophia Eris and I were always doing stuff on stage. But we weren't choreographers. We're just girls who like to dance. So we wanted to find someone who could take these dance moves we made and make them bigger. I found John Mark and he did four small segments of four songs with me and Sophia. And from there it taught me the awareness of my body so much more. He taught me a little eight-count in one song, and that eight-count influenced the next song and the song after that, so that I now have these built-in moves.
With "Batches and Cookies," leaving and getting the cookies was an idea that I had when I was sitting and imagining the tour set. I thought, okay, Sleater-Kinney tour. It was a "That's So Raven" moment. Like, if you zoomed into my eyeball, on the outside I looked like a zombie, but on the inside of my head, I was going through the entire set. I saw our drummer doing a solo. We'd run off and grab the cookies. We'd come back out and we'd throw those cookies into the audience. That vision just happened to work out. A lot of that stuff is from Sophia Eris and I just vibing on stage for nights in a row.
Tell me about the rest of the band.
Yeah! Sophia Eris -- she's my best friend. She's a DJ and from day one, three years ago, she and I just clicked. I remember this one time we were together, we were so broke, and we were just wondering if we could eat that day. We were hoping someone would call us and tell us they were having a barbecue or something. So we were those kids. "Please, sir, can we have some more?" We have just been rolling and accepting the waves of the universe. All the way until now. When we started, we were two people in a rental car with a DJ rig. Now we've started to develop this band and this team. I'm super proud of her. She's a great rapper and a fabulous human being. I'm very lucky to have her.
Then there's Ryan McMahon, who is a drummer for Sean Tillmann and Har Mar Superstar. I met him on the Har Mar Superstar tour. He's a really chill human being who was just like, "Hey. Your songs are kind of cool. Can I play on some of them?" I was like, "Yes!" So he learned them over the course of the tour and started playing some songs with me on stage. From then, he said if I ever needed a drummer I should holler at him. Only recently, with this Sleater-Kinney tour, was I like, I can't go without him. So Ryan is now in the band and he is fantastic. He adds this crazy, almost metal drumming.
Ah, yes, that's the feel.
Yeah! He gives us this edge. We're going to be opening up for My Morning Jacket on tour for a bit. He's going to fill that gap. He's a sprinkle of that no-genre in the no-genre hip-hop. I'm lucky to have him as well. We have a few more people in our crew, like Asha Efia, who does photography.
That was a really interesting part of the show. To see her come out and actually dance with you guys, in what I assume was a choreographed segment.
Yeah, I know! And Quinn Wilson, who does make-up. They both come out and dance. You should see us in the back. We're all great dancers, you know what I mean? Why deny the world Quinn and Asha? And then we have my brother Mikey who was doing the merch. He's very much a part of the band. And we have our tour dog, Pepper.
(Photo via Facebook)
What kind of dog is Pepper?
Pepper is a shih tzu-poodle. I think. She's a shit-poo.
I don't think you really see this kind of crew in indie music, especially with women artists.
It's something that you have to build. You can't force a crew. You look up and you're crewed out somehow. I'm lucky that these people are down for the dream and down for the vision.
Alright, so you said you're opening for My Morning Jacket. Is that what's next?
That's this summer, probably not what's next though. I'm putting my feelers out into the energy for something really cool to happen this spring, on top of the festival gigs that we have.
Which festivals are you heading to?
We're playing Firefly. We're playing SunFest with Lenny Kravitz. We're playing... what's that festival in the Gorge?
Sasquatch! Yes. I mean, last year was the year we wanted to get our feet wet with huge festivals. This year, we want to play, like, Eau Claires fest with Justin Vernon. That'll be exciting. We're doing the festivals that feel right. Just performing and vibing out, and next year we might do a festival tour with the new music. You know, just play a bunch and just never shower.
Right? The dream is to never shower. But yeah, this year we're just taking what comes.
I know you yourself have already worked with Prince. Is there a dream collaboration beyond that? Does anything beat Prince?
[At this point, Lizzo sings the words "dream collaborations."] I don't want to say an obvious person because I'm going to look back and be like, crap! I should have said so-and-so. Who's Drake's producer? Noah "40" [Shebib]. That guy. That guy is incredible. Drake's mixtape that came out, it's so sonically pleasing. It's really, really inspiring. That dude. Yeah... holla at me!
Also, I think everyone says who inspired them growing up. So Missy Elliott. It'd be awesome to get in the studio with her. Dream big!
Who are you listening to right now?
Ummm, besides Drake's "If You're Reading This It's Too Late"? Because that's literally all I've been listening to. Just listening to it, slapping my knee. Hmmm. I have to give a lot of credit to Sophia Eris, because she plays a lot of music for me. You know who just dropped a really cool song? It's called "Subway Art." It's by Tish. She reminds me of Lauryn Hill. And not many people can remind you of Lauryn Hill. What else? Besides Drake. I mean, have you listened to Drake? It's insane.