This one goes out to you, Mom

TOM HORGEN | Updated 10/4/2012

Hip-hop producer Big Cats! spent years on record his mother would have loved.

Spencer Wirth-Davis sitting in the mixing room at Waterbury Studios.
Kyndell Harkness

Spencer Wirth-Davis didn't leave his house for days after his mom died.

The Minneapolis hip-hop producer was 24 at the time. He had spent the previous three years of his young life by his mother's side, watching as ovarian cancer waged war inside her body. She succumbed to the disease in April 2010, and her son closed himself off from the world.

"Imagine losing the person you can't imagine losing," said close friend Chris Hooks, also known as the rapper TruthBeTold. "He looked hopeless."

But when Wirth-Davis emerged from that funk, the music flowed out of him as if a dam had been opened. He knew what he had to do.

He'd make an album for his mother.

But no rhymes. Just music, just beats. His mom, Christi, loved instrumental music -- she listened to Bach during chemotherapy. While Wirth-Davis is classically trained himself, he planned a different kind of symphony.

The finished album, filled with Motown-inspired soul and dense atmospheric melodies, is called "For My Mother." A release show featuring a 15-piece band is planned for Oct. 11 at Cedar Cultural Center.

His journey to finishing this record is a testament to hip-hop's lemons-make-lemonade ingenuity. Record labels aren't exactly excited to finance wordless rap albums these days. Wirth-Davis' job as an educator at an autism-focused charter school wasn't going to pay for it.

So he applied for a composer's fellowship from the McKnight Foundation worth $25,000.

On his third try, he got it. He was the youngest to ever receive it, and the first hip-hop musician. He quit his job the next day to focus on his album full-time.

Bach v. Ol' Dirty Bastard

Wirth-Davis is one-half of the hip-hop group the Tribe & Big Cats (he's Big Cats). With TruthBeTold on the microphone they are a prolific duo, having released three full-length albums that balance free-spirited party anthems with gritty think pieces.

Hip-hop wasn't his first love. He's played the stand-up bass (both classical and jazz) since he was 9. Growing up in Roseville, his mom shuttled him between daily private lessons. At first, she didn't know what to make of his rap music.

"She threw out a lot of my CDs when I was younger," Wirth-Davis said. "I went through three copies of Wu-Tang's '36 Chambers.'"

Like most traditional hip-hop producers, he started making beats by sampling old records. Sample-based producers extract short snippets from existing songs -- maybe a drum pattern or a piano chord -- to create a collage of sound, and eventually a new song.

His parents started taking his career seriously when, at 21, he landed a beat on indie-rap star Sage Francis' 2007 album "Human the Death Dance."

Around that time, his mom learned she had Stage IV ovarian cancer.

There is no Stage V. Early diagnosis is difficult -- symptoms are subtle, such as stomach pain and nausea.

She was 59 when it ended.

'Make ... money, donate it'

Wirth-Davis doesn't talk about it much, friends say. He just makes music -- lots of music. A month after "For My Mother" hits shelves, he'll release an album with the political rapper Guante called "You Better Weaponize." Guante said he thinks that the catharsis for Wirth-Davis has been in the recording process.

"That's one of our most powerful impulses as human beings," he said, "focusing that loss into something creative."

"For My Mother" is Wirth-Davis' attempt to make a record in the vein of his heroes: DJ Shadow, Madlib, Dilla. Those producers each made albums crafted from layers of samples, like patchwork quilts of sound. Nowadays, this style can be risky. Legal rights to use samples must be secured, and that costs money.

Wirth-Davis still wanted to make a sample-based record, so he hired a band to perform compositions he wrote and then sampled those recordings. The album has an ethereal sound, grounded by hard hip-hop beats.

The studio work called for more money, which he raised, to the tune of $8,290, through a Kickstarter-like website called USA Projects. (This guy should think about becoming a professional fundraiser.) He plans to donate 75 percent of the CD's proceeds to the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance.

The first person to hear the finished album would have been his mother (as was their tradition). In her absence, he shared the record with his 89-year-old grandmother, Geraldine. While dementia had clouded her memory, she never forgot to ask him about his music. She was his mother's mother, after all.

Wirth-Davis played her the album in June. Grandma's two-word review made him smile. "Nice music," she said.

She died a few days later.

But Wirth-Davis isn't staying home anymore. He's been going to the studio every day.