Andy Bothwell, better known as Astronautalis, has been at it too long to suggest a move to Minneapolis finally catapulted his career. The freshly localized rapper has been plowing away for a decade-plus in the underground hip-hop trenches.
Still, the vagabond MC has been enjoying unprecedented success ever since he relocated here last summer. He says album sales and fan attendance in the Twin Cities have both doubled his previous bests. Now he's nabbed a slot at Soundset, the massive indie hip-hop festival that lands at Canterbury Park Sunday for a fifth year.
"I'm in the best place I've been in," he said last week at Kramarczuk's deli in Minneapolis. "I'm on the crux right here; I could tip over in one direction or I could tip back."
Two traits could help push Astronautalis forward. First, the man is blessed with prodigious rapping ability. Attend a show or watch a YouTube clip and you'll see. His signature stunt -- soliciting several words from the audience and twisting them into an eight-minute freestyle -- looks effortless, with Bothwell batting around bars and twisting diction like it's no big deal.
Secondly, Astronautalis now sits at the coolest table in the Twin Cities music cafeteria. He's pally with Doomtree, and he's tight with tastemaking label Totally Gross National Product (Poliça, Marijuana Deathsquads). TGNP co-founder (and Gayngs honcho) Ryan Olson was drawn to Bothwell's skill set, and together with some dude namd Bon Iver, they recently formed a still-under-wraps band.
"He can do things that very few people in our scene can really do," Olson said, comparing Astronautalis' ability to that of the late Eyedea. "He can rap his fucking pants off."
Before the scenester-hobnobbing and supergroup-forming, though, Astronautalis was just a shy kid on a farm. Bothwell, 30, grew up in a 100-year-old farmhouse 45 minutes outside of Baltimore with an Amtrak executive father and a photographer mother. There were only 100 kids in his middle school, just one of them black, he says. Thankfully, his older brother, Seth Phillips, served as a wellspring of musical knowledge, turning the rural pup into a premature hipster. "I was listening to the Clash in second grade," he said. "I knew all the words to every Smiths song when everyone was listening to New Kids on the Block."
His family moved to suburban Jacksonville, Fla., when he was 12. Bothwell didn't immediately take to his eventual trade; he confesses that "RAP SUCKS" was scrawled on his eighth-grade binder. That same year, though, his brother -- by then a DJ in the burgeoning U.S. rave scene -- introduced him to East Coast rap royalty such as Gang Starr, Big L and Lord Finesse.
That same year, Bothwell started freestyling. "When I started out, I was as bad any other white kid," he recalled. "I would do it every night when I walked my dog." For the high school theater geek, the performance and improv elements of hip-hop were an immediate draw. Friends introduced him to skateboarding videos that combined rap and indie-rock soundtracks, a genre cocktail that would later inform Astronautalis.
Jacksonville, a city with a Navy base and sizable Amtrak depot, also turned out to be an improbable hip-hop incubator. "Military bases add this huge influx of minority groups -- there's tons of black people and Filipinos," Bothwell said. "The train yard adds this other element: When there's a lot of trains, there's a lot of graffiti; when there's a lot of graffiti, there's a lot of rap music."
The young MC would tag along with his brother to DJ nights, freestyling for the bouncers before and after shows. "To be a white rapper, there were no open mikes; it wasn't like today," he said, claiming his first rap battles came against older, often unsavory rappers fresh off the rails. "I was like 'I just got done with theater practice -- let's battle!'"