A mouth opens, the blade swings, and a emcee’s head rolls. Or as Minnesota rapper Terrell Woods AKA Carnage The Executioner explains on “Attack of the Show Stealer”, the artist has never been someone you want to follow after a live performance.
That’s because the rapper lives up to his name–a one man assault on the senses with a flow like a swarm of bees over his own bullied, looped beatboxing. To see him live is to see an artist whose integrity has been hard-earned over the last two decades, an independent artist whose talents emanate from his person and not from the glitter of a disposable diamond chain. While not yet a “household name” in the MTV/Billboard Charts sense of the word, Carnage is a name that has for years echoed through the halls of underground hip hop like an impending horror slash. Had you never heard of him before seeing him, he’s not the kind of artist you’d soon forget.
Listening to him produces a similar effect. On his newest release Respect the Name, the emcee manages to bridge the gap between our times and the golden age of hip hop. Sample flourishes and scratching reminiscent of Super Lover Cee provides the bombastic backdrop for his machine-gun tongue, and whether touching on personal subjects of race (“Save My People”), personal insecurities (“Addict”) or his friendship with the late Minnesota emcee Eyedea (“Oneinamillion”), the one theme that radiates above all else is as clear as his live performance: Carnage is not to be fucked with.
After a year that included a new album, a three-week tour with Atmosphere and travels to France where he has developed a steady following both as a solo artist as well as half of the hip hop duo Ill Chemistry, Carnage talked to Joeguerilla about his origins and his distinct live performance.
JOEGUERILLA: When did you first start rapping and beatboxing?
Carnage: Beatboxing was the first thing that I got into as far as physically doing music. And then beatboxing was kind of going out of style by the time I actually got an opportunity to get on some tables and start rapping. I’ve been rapping since 1987, and at first I wasn’t super serious about it and was kind of just fucking around. I had words floating in my head that were really influenced by this one dude named Super Lover Cee. Him and a guy named Casanova Rud did a song called “Do The James” in a style that I’d never heard in rap. It just grabbed me.
But I was only 12 or 13 at the time, so I wasn’t really comprehending exactly what was going on. I just knew that I liked the way he was rapping, and I loved hip hop at the time because it was the thing that was getting me through a lot of shit that I was going through.
I think I committed to being a real MC around 1990-1991. By that time, beatboxing was going out of style, but I always knew how to do it. I taught myself so rigorously when I was young that for me it’s like riding a bike–I’m never going to forget it. So I was always the beatboxing guy at the show or the party. I was always sober, too, because I don’t drink and shit. But everybody else would always get drunk and want to rap, so I’d be the beatboxer. And when I’d do it, eventually enough people would tell me that my shit was dope. It was then I realized that like Dougie Fresh said: “There’s nobody nowhere who doesn’t react to beatboxing.”
Everybody loves it, no matter what year it is, no matter what country you’re in, no matter the sex of the person—it doesn’t matter. Dogs like it. Babies like it. It don’t fucking matter. But when it came time for me to rap at these parties, no one could really beatbox. So I realized it wasn’t something that everyone could do, and that made me feel really good. I stuck that in the back of my mind as a piece of my growing arsenal.
When did you take the skills you developed and bring it to the stage?
I started performing with this artist named Desdamona, who is this female rapper from Minneapolis. Me, her and a group called Ill Chemistry started performing together in (I think) late 2004. Then she got some shows in 2005, but she didn’t really want to do a show with a DJ or band because she couldn’t afford them. So she asked if I’d like to come beatbox for her during her show, and I came and beatboxed and people just flipped the fuck out.
I’ve been known around Minneapolis as a pretty good rapper, but when I played the background during those sets, it showed a whole different side to my capabilities. People were really reacting to what we were doing, so we kept doing it. I would say for two years I probably didn’t even do a solo Carnage set. I was just beatboxing with Des and sort of took a break from rapping because it just seemed like it wasn’t going as far for me as far as popularity. This floodgate of MCs opened at the time, and a lot of people were checking for people who I honestly didn’t think were as good as others who had done it longer. And I’ve always been the kind of guy who will just leave rap completely before I fall off. If people are peeping something else, I’ll step back and say, fine, let them have their spotlight.
At what point did you incorporate the loop pedal into sets? I’m familiar with other artists who use loop pedals during performances, but you were the first hip hop artist I’ve ever seen lay down his own beats and then rap over them.
Around 2006, before I dropped my first official solo album, I had met a couple of singers [Molly Dean and Debra G.] who were using loop pedals to loop their harmonies while they were playing guitar and singing. I saw that shit and remember thinking, “ Whoa. That’s some OTHER shit right there. “ So I started peeping that, and I figured if I could get the pedal, then I could make myself into an instrument. I mean, I can do bass lines, and I make other sounds like hitting highs and doing vocal scratches. So I thought that if I got the pedal, I could really become a one-man band.
But I wasn’t really thinking about doing it for myself at first. I was thinking about how I could use it for what me and Desdamona were doing to really step up the live show. It was going to be a way to try and emulate the MC/DJ camaraderie.
So I saw these singers with these pedals, and I was like: “Look: ya’ll are killin’ this shit. If I get one of these pedals, could you show me how to do it?” And they were super cool because they knew what I did, so they told me the kind of pedal and I needed to get and said to get back at them and they’d teach me how to work it.
Were there any challenges in learning how to use the pedal and devising this method of performance?
You know, I just kind of marinated on the idea of using the pedal for a while, and I remember talking to a DJ I was working with at the time named Jimmy Two Times about it. And he was like, “Man, I got the pedal.” And I was like, “What kind?” And he told me and I was like, “OHHHH, that’s the onnnnee I neeeed!!!” [Laughs.] He let me come over and play around on that bitch, and one day he said, “Fuck it. I need some rent money. I’ll sell you the motherfucker for $150.” And I was like, “You will?” So I got the pedal.
It was intimidating at first, because when you’re trying to move to the next level, you can sometimes become cautious about failure. I’m one of those people. I don’t like to try shit if I think I’m not going to be good at it, which is stupid. You’re playing your own mind game when what you should do is jump your ass in it and learn along the way. I had the pedal for a while, and I’d honestly just sit there and look at it. I’d look at it everyday and be like, “Ooo, the pedal. One day I’m going to learn you! [Laughs.]
I always compare it to the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, how when they’d open it the golden light would shine out of it. Nobody knew what the fuck it was. It could have been somebody’s soul or some money or a light bulb, who fucking knows. But every time I looked at the pedal my mind took me to that scene. I drove around with that motherfucker in my trunk for like five months. I’d pop the trunk sometimes and then it’d be like [in angelic voice]: “The pedddalll!!!” So I was intimidated at the time, and I’d take it around with me everywhere just in case I got the nuts one day to do it.
Then one night I was in the studio with [Minnesota rapper] Eyedea—rest in peace—who was recording my album for me. I had the pedal in my car and had just done a little beatbox interlude for one of my songs, and he was like, “Dude, you should do way more shit with beatboxing on your record.” And I said, “Well, you know, I’ve got this loop pedal in my car, and I’m wondering if you’d mind if after you go to bed I hook my pedal up and just practice in your basement for a bit?” And he said, “Whatever man. I’m going to bed, so just turn the computer off when your done.” So he set up the shit and I went and got my pedal, and then sat in his basement for two hours teaching myself how to work it. And then the next day, I called Desdamona because we had a show that night, and I said that at the show I was gonna bring the pedal.
How was that first show with the pedal?
It kinda threw Desdamona off at first, because while we perform, we sort of feel out the vibe in the room and adjust the tempo to whatever we’re feeling. So sometimes we’ll start slow, and then it’ll naturally go faster. But with the pedal, the pedal don’t lie, because when you loop it that mother fucker just keeps going at the same tempo and doesn’t alter. So at first, Desdamona felt constrained, because she couldn’t change up what she was doing. Sometimes she’d wave her hand and just have me turn it off.
That happened at two or three shows, and finally I just had to tell her that I was trying to take the beatboxing shit to another level, so we needed to both learn how to deal with the fact that I was going to be experimenting with this pedal. She understood completely; she just wanted to practice with it and get used to it. But we didn’t really have time for that. I said to her, “I feel you, but I think we should just jump in feet first and see what happens. That’s the way we’d always done it, so I was wondering: why over-practice now?” After talking to her about it, she agreed and that became the norm. Then I started doing solo shows after my album came out, and it was about 2008 that I figured I’d been using the pedal at shows with Desdamona, so why not try it with myself?
Like I said before, it’s not something you see many artists doing, hip hop or otherwise
Right. I figured I’d reach into my arsenal and pull that out, because every other rapper at the time was just a rapper. You had your iPod, your CD, or your DJ and there wasn’t much more to it than that. The first time I used my pedal during a solo show actually was in Madison. [Madison hip hop group] The Crest were doing something, so they asked me to come and open up the show. So I hooked up my pedal and was just doing beats from other people I knew, like the David Banner beat “Like a Pimp.” I beatboxed the beat, rapped over it, got some crowd participation, and was like, “Okay, that went well. Let me try something else.”
I can see how that’d be more freeing than having a DJ. You can control on a dime where you want your show to go.
Exactly. And I’m going to tell you this epiphany I had around that time, courtesy of Jack Cracker [of The Crest] and Eyedea. The control of it and the way it controlled the crowd was something to see. Because I’d beatbox and use the pedal, and then I’d move onto some other shit, and people from the crowd would be yelling: “Beatbox! Beatbox!” So after the set, I sold a decent amount of CDs and people were going crazy about the beatboxing shit. And it was weird for me, because people had always known me as a rapper.
So about a week after that, I was talking to Jack Cracker, and he said, “Yo man. Your shit is fucking ill, but let me give you some advice: I think you should do your whole set beatboxing.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “I noticed that when you were beatboxing, you had the total attention of everyone in the club. No one would move, leave, nothing. Then when you started doing your CD tracks, a few people left, but when you started beatboxing again, those same people rushed back. There’s something about that beatboxing thing that not a lot of people can do, so when you do it as well as you do, you get a lot more attention.”
That tripped me out for a second, the idea of doing a whole show where I was responsible for everything from the beats to the rapping. Then I was talking to Eyedea one day, and I told him what Jack [Cracker] said, and he was like, “Dude, do you realize nobody fucks with your beatboxing? There’re people who can do it, but I don’t see them doing what you do. What you do is like Jazz.” So I had two people who I really respected who said that I had some next-level shit going on with my beatboxing.
At what point did controlling every aspect of the show become the norm?
At first I thought about doing it that way over an extended period of time, and thought I’d gradually move into it. I practiced a lot and started memorizing a few beats, and I realized that like a mash-up DJ, I could lay down almost anyone’s beat and rap my own lyrics over them. So then my sets became (in part) manipulating beats from people who I liked. It was a gradual process, but then like before, I noticed that a lot of people were really reacting to it.
When I completely dedicated myself to that kind of show, it had the benefit of making me sharper as an artist, because I had to constantly be controlling every aspect of the show. It also turned people on to my music who may not have known about it before. So I started doing beatbox covers, and the first thing that came to me was “Paul Revere” by The Beastie Boys. That was an easy one for me, and I’d never heard anyone do that before. And people flipped out.
Around that time I remember hearing people incorporate more beatboxing on their albums as well
It’s funny, because I’d then see other people start beatboxing “Paul Revere”, and I’d be like, “Ah hah!” I knew I was on some cutting-edge shit if people were starting to emulate it. These beatboxing crews started popping up everywhere and artists started incorporating more beatboxing into their sets, and people were coming up to me and asking me about the pedal. And I’d tell people about it, because I didn’t invent the shit or nothing. If the singers had turned me away when I asked them about it, then it would have never gotten to where it went for me. I’m trying to help advance the art form, so I’ll tell anyone who asks how it works. It’s an empowering thing to do, to take whatever leadership you have and pass it on to someone else. If they then blow up and do some crazy shit, you have the knowledge that you in some way helped spark it. That was the beginning of a lot of opportunities for me.
People will now ask me to come to a show and beatbox, or come to a show and do cover songs, or come to a show and do my own material. There are just so many hats I can wear now that I’ve opened up that can of worms of beatboxing. It was probably one of the best things I could have done, because I’ve made more money off of that than anything else. I’m in three groups, and I get paid to teach beatboxing classes on the side. As an independent musician who does this full time, 75% of my income comes from that.
As an independent artist, is there the pressure of always bringing your A-game every time you perform?
I always set out to make my shows as engaging as possible because it could be the first or last time someone comes out to see me, and if they don’t have a record of mine, hopefully they’ll leave talking about me. So all I have is that one opportunity to show them I’m worthy. And if I lose that by doing a whack ass set, they’ll probably never listen to me again. I set out to make believers out of motherfuckers, without the advantage of a record deal or people hyping me ahead of time. And the way I’ve discovered to do that is to just come out with original shit and blow motherfucker’s minds right from the jump. That’s my definition of a great artist: someone who can go in front of a crowd who may not know who they are and just rock motherfuckers. That’s the ultimate artist.
Check out Carnage The Executioner’s new album Respect The Name below: