Tales of a rural rapper

Editor’s Note: This piece by Nikki Tundel is part of a series called Minnesota Mix. Minnesota Mix is a project of Minnesota Public Radio News that examines the way youth and ethnic diversity are influencing Minnesota arts. Enjoy…

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Rapper NikeeJS lays down some lyrics in the back room of Wishy Washy Laundromat.

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Jackson, Minn. — When the rapper Nikee JS started recording rhymes at 14, his lyrics relied mostly on beamers and bling.

But 12 years later, he’s flipped the script. Instead of rapping of fast cars, flashy jewelry and champagne, Nikee JS now draws inspiration from the cornfields of his native Jackson. He aims to bring a small-town sensibility to the rap scene.

When the tattooed Asian-American artist is ready to practice his rhymes, he often has to wait until the spin cycle stops and all the fluff drying is done at Wishy Washy. His recording studio is in the backroom of the Laundromat owned by his brother, Chant Singvongsa.

“We used to record in my buddy’s shower just so we had a good sound booth,” the rapper laughed. “So we moved up a little bit!”

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Rapper NikeeJS (right) and his brother Chant Singvongsa joke around at the Wishy Washy in Jackson, Minn., on February 16, 2012. The siblings record music in the laundromat’s back room.

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

A step into his office reveals a mix of laundry detergent and audio equipment. When the day’s washing and drying are done, Singvongsa transitions to audio engineer.

After planting a microphone next to the color-safe bleach, Nikee filled the room with his voice.

“It’s just a lot of listening to yourself over and over to see if you need to improve on this part or a little less on this part,” he said during a break. “It’s like cooking. You don’t want salt or too much pepper. You want the right amount in there to make it taste good.”

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“I love ink,” says rapper NikeeJS. “I’ve got a tattoo of a treble clef on my arm and an outline of the state of Minnesota. Those are two things that I love — music and Minnesota.”

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Though steeped in the hip-hop tradition of rhymes and urban beats, Nikee is also very much a product of Jackson.

“The normal thing that rappers talk about — money or cars or whatever — I could do that in one song and that’d be it,” he explained. “I’d be happy with that song and probably never write about it again. I like to be able to bring up situations that other people I know would have you know, like we don’t have no rent money or something like that or we got into an argument with someone they love and just take that story and put it in a song.”

Nikee’s mother grew up in Minnesota; his father is from Laos. People often assume his songs will showcase his Asian-American identity.

But to hear Nikee tell it, he’s all country — and he’s much more interested in rapping about rural life.

“I like the small towns where there’s only like two red lights in a town and if you’re late, it’s your fault,” he said. “It’s not the traffic’s fault. You need to be on time down here.”

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Rapper NikeeJS and his brother Chant Singvongsa walk through downtown Jackson, Minn., on February 16, 2012. Nikee says the small town made him who he is today and his music is inspired by the place and its people.

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

As he makes his way through Jackson, a community of 3,500, Nikee waves at everyone who passes by. He’s as happy talking corn with farmers as he is discussing cars with the local mechanic.

“This is where I’m from, what made me and helped to mold me,” he said. “I just like people, seeing how their lives are and what they go through.”

The stories make their way into Nikee’s songs.

“You kinda be a musical therapist,” he explained. “When you write a song about a certain situation that somebody might be going through and then they take that three minutes or whatever to listen to that song, you kinda did take that pain away for that three minutes and they get to forget about their problems by listening to our songs.”

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NikeeJS (right) listens as his brother (and audio engineer) plays back vocal tracks he’s recorded into the computer. The two make music alongside laundry detergent and fabric softener sheets.

MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

People around town are always asking Nikee when he’s going to make it big, when some record label’s going to snatch him up. But the rapper says fame is the last thing on his mind.

“We had just as much fun not being signed. I just think it brings more problems if you have that.” he mused. “More money, more problems, like rapper Biggie Smalls said. I like being a normal guy and slipping back into Clark Kent mode instead of Superman, you know.”

For now, Nikee JS is happy making music at the Wishy Washy. Its sweet fabric softener scent does wonders for his flow of ideas.

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