Stefon Alexander is nothing if not magnanimous. As a core member of Minneapolis’s Doomtree hip-hop collective, and a member of noise and punk bands like Marijuana Deathsquads, even his solo records—under the name P.O.S—feel like community efforts. So it felt like a huge blow when news surfaced that the rapper would have to undergo a kidney transplant, which kept him in the hospital instead of the studio. There wasn’t a lot of time between his 2012 fan-favorite We Don’t Even Live Here and his return to the stage less than two years later, yet Alexander had to spend a significant amount of time wrestling with both the illness that made touring unfeasible and the recuperation that took a toll on his energy and creativity.
Chill, dummy, his first solo release on Doomtree Records since his 2004 debut Ipecac Neat, sees the firebrand a bit more willing to reflect. Still, Alexander’s piercing voice and fist-to-sheetrock resistance maintain their well-established power.
Sociologically, this has felt like a moment where your personal and political views are inseparable. That’s always felt present in your music, but has anything really changed or come into deeper focus these last couple years?
Yeah, honestly the last couple years have been [focused on] coming out of the kidney transplant and the personal isolation that comes from being sick in a way your friends don’t really understand. I’ve tried to come out of that in a healthy way. It’s definitely a heavier record in personal-life stuff than my earlier records. The big difference from this record to some of my older stuff is the level of intensity is more personal. The politics still remain, but it’s less of a directly political record than I usually make, and a lot more about going through things—politically, emotionally, with friends and family, things like that.
That’s one thing that stands out: It feels like you’ve built up a strong repertoire of collaborators over the last five or so years. A lot of them are local peers—like Lizzo and Allan Kingdom—but you’ve made connections to L.A. vets like Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle. You got Kathleen Hanna to appear on “sleepdrone/superposition.” What was it like building those alliances once you recovered?
I tried to keep most of my previous collaborations limited to friends and actual relationships that I had with people. The big difference on this record is Kathleen Hanna, coming in to do, like, a backup vocal. She did a lot of tracks of spoken word that didn’t quite make the record, [but] that didn’t bum her out. As far as working with someone I don’t know well for the first time, she has been really supportive of the song. She asked me to send all the lyrics of the song so she would agree to be on it. Then she wrote back, saying she really felt inspired by the lyrics. She was happy to be on the track. [Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle] are two of the best rappers there are, and definitely friends of mine. I look at Busdriver as a legend—he’s not [a lot] older than me, but he’s been part of this scene and this community for long enough that when I came in, he was already making moves, making noise, and he’s always been somebody I’ve looked up to. So for him to be a peer and friend of mine now is kind of unreal.
What was it like to go in and just write while you were in this isolation? I know you’ve hinted about how it was difficult to keep connections with friends and collaborators, but was it also a matter of trying to shake the rust off?
Definitely. Some people go through really trying times and it makes them kind of bloom—like, a sad or hard time will be a good, creative time for artists. It was like that with me to an extent, but maybe more so. It creates ideas. I write down the ideas, but it doesn’t make me feel terribly creative. Mostly when I get sad, and I get totally stunted creatively. I just can’t write down ideas. I gotta get past what I’m going through in order for the art to come out naturally.
So how did you start getting your words back?
I don’t know! [laughs] I don’t think there’s any key or rules or way that art works. A lot of people feel like you’ve gotta sit and suffer as an artist, and then the struggle comes out. Some of that is true, but also you’ve just gotta fuck around and treat it like a job. I was in a big creative slump and not really super-productive, and then it was like, ‘OK, now we got a release date. So now you gotta go ahead and finish this ’cause we can’t wait anymore.’ When Lazerbeak says, ‘Hey, here’s the release date window we’re shooting for,’ then it just turns into, ‘Well, fuck, I am stuck, but y’know what? I’m just gonna turn the computer on every day and treat it like a day job.’ And then it comes surprisingly easy.”
“Wearing a Bear” has that ‘mistake’ bit near the end where you have to keep redoing a complicated delivery. Do you like to show the seams of the creative process like that, like a reminder of the process and what it takes to get to where you are?
I think when I was younger I used to. In my earlier records, you hear me talking with the engineer, calling out things, making mistakes. I think I’ve refined a lot, so there’s a lot less chit-chat on the tracks. But on “Wearing a Bear,” which is intended to be a fun song despite all the words, I feel like it’s an appropriate thing if I don’t stick the delivery, but I really like how the rest of the take came out. I’m not the best rapper, and I think I’m past even the era when people talked about being the best rapper. I do my best to be the best rapper I can be, and I feel like I rap circles around tons of people out there. But even using mistakes feels more real, and I still kinda kill it. [laughs]
How did your production choices come together? There’s a few moments of heavy instrumental intensity and noise on the album, but a lot of it sounds like your forceful voice running roughshod over some more introspective beats. The instrumental version of this album would be a lot calmer on its own than any of the previous records. Were you looking for that kind of contrast?
You know, I really wanted to make a super heavy record, but the songs that ended up being the best songs were some of the slower, more low-key kinds of songs. I’ve never had a record like that before, so I just kind of embraced it. So then I had a record that was maybe six, seven songs long … and those were Cory Grindberg productions. I love his beats, he’s a younger dude, and he’s just really good, and he doesn’t mind if you go through and dirty stuff up and add things. So I was just loving the songs I had over those beats.
Then, I realized when I was trying to finish the record, that it wasn’t matching in tone as far as what I wanted to do versus what I was making, I just decided to embrace that, and then the rest of the production that I made—there are five Cory beats, five of my beats, one Lazerbeak beat he made with Ryan Olson, and one Makr beat. I feel like it weighed out really nicely. It’s called Chill, dummy for a reason—it’s talking to me, calling me a dummy, and also, it’s the first ‘chill’ record I feel I’ve ever made—even if it’s not all the way chill. That wasn’t by design, it’s just what I wrote. You get a little outside of what you do. I feel like I do a lot of intense over-planning of what I want something to be. But at the end, when it’s time to turn the record in, it’s not what you wanted to make, it’s what you made. That ends up being honest music, true to self. And that’s how it is.