On a bad night, Marijuana Deathsquads is a band full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. This is the risk of music that relies heavily not on rote performance but on a kind of high-wire act of endlessly unfolding possibilities driven by a couple of things, including faith, instinct, adrenaline, and Ryan Olson, who for tonight has jumbled and crushed more than 600 slam dunk clips together and set them to MIDI triggers in order to cue and manipulate them while two drummers, an endless procession of MCs, and a half-dozen guys with samplers do their best to burn down the Icehouse in Minneapolis on a rainy Wednesday night.
Olson is just a little concerned. A giant screen hovers above the empty drum kits. TVs dot the stage’s corners and another pull-down screen looms over the room from above the entrance. He’s run it through a couple times, but he doesn’t know exactly who is going to be getting up to freestyle or when. It probably won’t be as smooth as he wants it. There are likely going to be a couple car wrecks along the way, but in my experience, a good night for Marijuana Deathsquads is going to involve some car wrecks. Some bruises. A pitchless humming in your bones.
It begins with Dee Brown endlessly pumping his Reeboks at the dunk contest in 1991. The clip plays forward and backward, and Brown pumps and pumps. I chat with Lazerbeak, a producer with the rap collective Doomtree who’s going to be manning the center stage MPC, wedged between the two drummers. In the background, DJ Plain Ole Bill — spinning between sets — starts endlessly looping a single line from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song: “Shooting some b-ball outside of the school / shooting some b-ball outside of the school / shooting some b-ball outside of the school ... ”
Beak stops me in mid-sentence. “Hang on,” he says. “That’s my cue.”
From his station in front of the stage, Olson gives the high sign and it begins. Drummers J.T. Bates and Ben Ivascu are in place. The screen lights up and players start flying through the air. The beat is chunky and square, punctuated by an “Oh!” from EMF’s “Unbelievable” that lands on — or around — the moment when the ball disappears through the hoop, when hand meets rim. There’s LeBron’s two-handed reverse. There’s Gerald Green’s otherworldly alley-oop windmill against the Rockets from last year. Shawn Kemp’s cock-back dunk contest jam. Too many Vince Carter dunks to count.
As momentum builds and the MCs begin to pile onto the stage, it starts to churn. The dunk clips run back and forth at high speed as the drummers roil. Through their headphones, I would later find out, they hear a click track and Olson shouting commands at them through his mic like, “Get louder! Break!” (And sometimes motivational things like, “You’re playing too much! You’re awful!”) The musicians manning the boxes jab fingers at samplers or pound them with the flats of their hands, breaking and slurring the underlying beat, while Drew Christopherson and Isaac Gale stand at the front of the stage and twist knobs that flatten and warp the vocals of the rappers, who cycle on and off the stage in twos and threes while the dunks just keep coming and coming and coming above them.
After 15, 20 minutes, it begins to feel as if the room itself is wobbling. Stretched into a never-ending stream, and set against the ever-rising momentum of the furious, relentless music onstage, the dunk evolves from a single blast of power to something sustained. By the 30-minute mark, there seems to be no divide between the thunderous din below and the procession of thrown hammers above.
When it finally ends, there’s no climax, no crescendo. There’s no resolution or final chord, no false sense of closure. Instead, we’re left open and exhausted, only understanding it’s over by the palpable change in the musicians — a loosening — and the realization that they’re starting to shake hands, pound each other on the back.