CAMERA READY Is Yo-Dot poised for fame?
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
Thousands of onlookers stand atop aluminum benches, braving the unseasonable blanket of cool temperatures to watch determined rapper Yo-Dot deliver a frantic, lively performance during this year’s Summerfest. Passion and enthusiasm seep through every pore of the Sherman Park word-slinger – with a little sweat, since he’s racing across the ends of the stage in a furious strut, acting as his own hype man. He routinely switches course, playing to the masses one minute, blazing through his notoriously gritty street rap the next and then relinquishing the reigns to his DJ, who sprinkles in some mainstream radio bangers. A wide-smiling Yo-Dot appears in top form.
But other than the handful of dedicated voices mimicking every one of his verses, the crowd seems to be passing the time until the next performer, who just so happens to be Ludacris.
Yo-Dot, born Demetrius Bennett, spent the rest of the summer in similar circumstances, warming up for the biggest rappers that came through town – an achievement he credits to being extremely assertive with promoters. A month before the spastic Summerfest show, he opened for Atlanta’s “No Hands” rapper, Waka Flocka Flame, and in May, he graced the stage before Kanye West protégé Big Sean. But, like so many other local artists, Yo-Dot has begun, well, rapping his knuckles on hip-hop’s glass ceiling. He’s established enough to play the big gigs, but not popular enough to headline them.
Bennett’s musical career began at the age of 14, under the influence of the duo Kris Kross. His seriousness would ratchet up the city’s freestyle battle scene, where he made an indelible imprint in his late teens. Then, he and fellow rapper Prophetic went on to form a label, Umbrella Music Group, around 2006, which has put out almost 20 releases to date. The one that landed Yo-Dot his first real taste of critical acclaim was 2012’s Red Mist, an old-school hip-hop album describing the hardships plaguing Milwaukee’s poorest areas.
His latest project, Burleigh Bodega, emerges as Yo-Dot’s most eclectic, genre-spanning effort yet, a notable departure from the clear-cut and fierce street rap of his immediate past.
“I feel like I’m evolving into an all-around artist,” Bennett says of the expanded direction. “I want to capture every emotion aside from being the aggressive-toned, gritty rapper. It’s not something I downplay or stray away from, but in regards to giving the consumer the overall, complete package, I’ve been concentrating on creating that balance between underground and having that laid-back, contemporary sound. I definitely want to tie in that balance so I don’t get put into a box.”
It’s common for an artist to employ a different producer to create the beat for each song on an album, but Bennett teamed up exclusively with South Side producer Michael Cerda, who goes by CameOne, for Burleigh Bodega. The collaboration meshes Yo-Dot’s urban realism with CameOne’s layered beat-making, which incorporates a touch of rhythmic Latin music.
“I bring a different sound to what he’s normally doing,” Cerda says. “He’s been doing a lot of 808, trap-type beats. I’m more the real hip-hop, like boom bap, but with synthesizers and crazier samples. I play over my stuff so it’s not just the sample and the drums. I like to have texture.”
The more accessible sound should advance Yo-Dot’s slow ascent and continue him along a path that could see him as Milwaukee’s first nationwide rap star since Coo Coo Cal, who had the 2001 radio hit “My Projects.” Bennett says music industry professionals consistently overlook the city, and often inaccurately conclude that we lack a distinctive identity. “I have an obligation to establish that [identity] and really exploit that to people,” he says. “I think Milwaukee has an influence on my music, and I really want to be one of those pioneers that bring our distinctive culture to everybody.”
Milwaukee’s exclusion from mainstream hip-hop doesn’t mean that the city isn’t churning out admirable rappers. Alongside Yo-Dot, there’s a seemingly endless swath of up-and-coming emcees, including AUTOmatic, WebsterX, Pizzle, Klassik, Bliss & Alice, Wave Chappelle and many more. “Every city has somebody on the national scale,” says Tyrone Miller, known as DJ Bizzon, a hip-hop blogger for JSOnline.com and radio host on WMSE. “Or will have.”
Whether that somebody turns out to be Yo-Dot remains to be seen, but the ambitious rapper is certainly marking his territory. ■
Yo-Dot’s album release show is on Oct. 25 at Mad Planet, 533 E. Center St., mad-planet.net