It’s something every musical act strives to achieve. While most bands and artists aim to maintain a long and rewarding career in music, the chances of obtaining that perpetuity remains slim for most. For every band that has been together for decades, there is twice the amount of groups that were together for a few months.
Successfully achieving that longevity can come in a few different forms. On one end there are artists with such sweeping (and beloved) discographies that they command respect and have earned their longevity in music’s eternal catalog (e.g. Rush, Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, etc.). Then, there are the artists that capture lightning in a bottle (sometimes more than once) and earn their longevity through the quality of music in lieu of decades on the road. For example, The Beatles recorded and released all of their studio records in a span of seven years. Obviously, their standing in music history does not need to be explained.
Locally-founded hip-hop band D Mills & The Thrills are chasing that longevity. Given their standing in the Fargo-Moorhead community, it’s hard to deny this six-piece’s claim to Midwest music immortality. Saturday will mark another milestone within the group as they celebrate their 10-year anniversary with a special concert at Sanctuary Events Center.
Fronted by musical virtuosa Diane Miller, D Mills & The Thrills looks to bring a unique musical flavor for listeners. Elements of jazz, reggae, rock, R&B, and of course, hip-hop, are all prevalent in the band’s songs. This amalgamation of sound coupled with Miller’s pinpoint voice and authentic lyrics have truly allowed the band to create a niche all their own. It has also helped in introducing concert-goers and listeners to a ‘new’ style of hip-hop. One that returns to the roots of the genre once laid forth by groups like The Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five.
Saturday will mark the group’s first show in over a year. Miller, who moved to Fargo at age 12, has since moved to Minneapolis. While Miller still holds Fargo close to her and her music, the move to the Twin Cities was a needed one. She was recently awarded the McKnight Artist Fellowships for Musicians administered by MacPhail Center for Music. That fellowship has allowed her to work on her first solo EP, which will be released later this year.
For now, though, Miller’s focus is this milestone in her band’s life. A milestone that cannot be shared by many others.
We discussed Saturday’s show, its importance, longevity and much more with Miller.
Reflect for a moment. 10 years ago, could you have ever foreseen this group performing a 10-year anniversary show?
You start a band and it’s like ‘oh, my gosh, I hope that this lasts’. I remember when the idea was first brought up, I was on board with it immediately. I was dating a guitar player at the time and he was really in a connected scene. He knew some musicians in a reggae band, but we formulated this idea at an impromptu show at the VFW. I signed up for that show because it was focused on hip-hop. I thought I should perform at this because I want to rap and I’m good at it.
Anyway, he brought up the idea of starting a hip-hop band. I immediately said that I wanted to do it because it was such a cool idea. It only helped that it was going to be done with these kickass musicians, too. When we had the first show, I remember it was in the big basement of the VFW and it was so thrown together. What I remember most is people immediately heading towards us and how curious they were in what we were doing. It was a whole setup of a band with female leads, but they’re doing rap music.
I think people were immediately drawn to it because it was so different. After that first show, we kept asking each other if we could keep doing this because we were having so much fun. We didn’t really officially start till like a year later, though. The first show at the VFW was in like 2010 and we didn’t play another show until a year later. We were upstairs in the VFW that time though.
Then we actually started thinking about writing songs and doing band practices. To that point, I had never really led a band so the whole experience was new to me. I mean, I had played gigs with other musicians and stuff, but every time D Mills & The Thrills played, it seemed like people gravitated towards that more. It would always get people’s attention and I think that is because it’s such a novelty. Especially in Fargo, North Dakota, where it’s a smaller town. Obviously, it’s growing very fast and there are cool pockets of culture in Fargo, but a hip-hop band is something you do not expect to see. That’s another thing that made us really kind of special and it made performing feel really special.
As we kept having more and more shows, I noticed how much I really liked doing this. I really wanted to keep doing it and take it seriously, too.
10 years actually does feel like a long time ago. I was such a different person then. Yes, I’ll always be me and I’ll always be the same person, but I have grown so much as a musician in 10 years. Even something simple like collaborating with other musicians is night and day compared to 10 years ago.
Did I think that we would last this long? I think it’s something that when anyone starts a band, of course, they want longevity. They want people to like it, too. If you just really love music then one of the best parts about being in a band is sharing that experience with other people. That is one of the most rewarding things about being in a band and that’s really what kept us going. The more that we kept playing shows, the more I wanted to stick with these guys. Luckily, we’ve been able to stick together this long.
The lineup has changed slightly over the years, but you guys haven’t played a concert in over a year. What does a long layoff like that do for a band? Or is there natural chemistry that exists that gets rid of any “rust”?
One of the things about this band is that we have been doing it for 10 years. It’s almost like when you play the songs again, it’s like riding a bike and it comes back. Take rap music because there are just so many lyrics and you’d think that I would forget all of them, but no, they’re all still up there. I don’t know, there’s something about music where I think melodies can help re-ignite your memory.
Of course, we’ll be a little rusty because we don’t play as often. However, all the musicians are so talented and really competent that I have zero doubt. I know we’re all going to play amazing. The more and more you play, the tighter you get, but again, these guys have all been in bands for so many years. Not just D-Mills & The Thrills, but other local bands and they are professionals at what they do. I feel very fortunate to work with such an amazing group of musicians, for sure.
You are based in Minneapolis now. That Twin Cities area is well-known for its eclectic music scene. How has that move positively impacted your work as an artist?
In every which way I’ve grown because for one, I’m a talent buyer by day. So I go out to see live shows all the time and I get to experience artistry on this world-class level. Being able to experience that firsthand is motivating and inspiring. It makes you want to write more and it has driven me to step outside my comfort zone with lyrics. It’s made me want to reach new heights with music.
The talent pool out here is extraordinary, too. I’ve been able to play with some really amazing, top-notch musicians, including people that have played with world-class musicians across the country. Now, that is not to say that Fargo’s talent pool is not amazing. It is amazing on so many different levels.
The big difference about the scene in Minneapolis is that it has more resources for musicians where you can actually make a living doing it. There are more recording studios, more venues, more of an audience, more sound people, more record labels and then of course, more radio stations that have a committed listenership.
I figured, why not keep growing my experiences as a musician? If this is what I love doing, why not try to make it something that consumes most of my time? I feel like I had gained enough confidence in myself where I felt like I could make that jump to a bigger area. Moving to Minneapolis only affirmed me more and it showed me that I could make music my career.
You bring up affirmation. This year, you were one of four people to receive the 2020-2021 McKnight Artist Fellowships for Musicians administered by MacPhail Center for Music. How did that further affirm you?
That’s like the greatest affirmation I’ve ever received in my life. It was such an honor. Being a musician is expensive and you find yourself spending more than you earn especially with equipment and recording and all that stuff. It requires so many resources so to be afforded a grant and be recognized in that way, was extremely affirming and rewarding. Because of that, I get to create and release my first solo EP. I cannot wait to share it with people, too.
Where does Fargo factor into this journey? I have to imagine your Fargo experiences helped you get acclimated to the Twin Cities scene?
Fargo, of course, factors into it because that is where I have lived most of my life. It’s kind of where I cut my teeth and where I really started to gain a following. Fargo will always be a part of me and my music. I know how some artists disregard their small-town roots after moving to a bigger city. I’m the opposite because I’m proud of my roots in Fargo. I think it makes me unique in a certain way.
I was lucky enough to work for The Aquarium and High Plains Reader when I did live in Fargo. A lot of the work that I did with both The Aquarium and HPR connected me with the Minneapolis music scene and that’s one reason why I was afforded a really cool talent buying job in Minneapolis. I was already interconnected with Minneapolis in a lot of ways, whether through opening for bands from Minneapolis or writing somewhere. It was a good, natural transition for me to move to Minneapolis and go to a bigger market.
I wanted to ask you about hip-hop and rap as a genre. I believe it is one of those genres (along with heavy/extreme metal) that is so criminally misunderstood from a musical and cultural standpoint. It’s so often taken at face value and it negatively skews people’s opinions of the music. In a region (like Fargo) where hip-hop/rap is still relatively “underground”, how do you go about championing the genre? And how can we change negative perceptions of the genre?
I grew up with hip-hop. One reason why I gravitated towards it is that I grew up in a really white neighborhood. Hip-hop almost felt like an escape for me in many ways. It gave me something to cling to. I do identify as a person of color and my mom was born and raised in the Philippines. I am half white, too, but being a person of color, I feel like hip-hop gave me something to identify with. Even though I’m not black and hip-hop is very much an African American genre of music, I still connected with it.
At its core, it’s music that comes from the streets. It’s music that comes from struggle and oppression. While I am a person of color, I also grew up as a tomboy and queer. I had all these things that made me feel like I didn’t fit in. I looked to rap music and I would hear it and I would feel empowered and I would feel strong. For me, I take the heart of hip-hop, the sound of it, the struggle in it and the emotion of it and use it to create. I channel those things through my music.
Having grown up with hip-hop and being such a fan of it, I had to sort of tackle those negative assumptions and dispel them the best I can. I think where D Mills & The Thrills differ from more mainstream rap is our sound. People would come to our shows and many of them probably were not hip-hop fans. Yet, we would always hear ‘I’ve never heard this style of hip-hop’. Additionally, to see a female vocalist doing it along with a full band of talented musicians gives it a different feel. A lot of times you see rap music and it’s backed by a DJ, you don’t see the whole band. There’s an appreciation that was developed because you could actually see the music being made right before your eyes.
One of the ways that we were able to establish this connection was to spotlight accessible music. Yes, we create original music and then we cover music by legendary hip-hop acts like OutKast, Jay-Z, TLC, Lauryn Hill and so many more. That is music that invaded popular culture and people knew, recognized and got excited about it because no other group was covering these acts. I also write my own lyrics which is special because I feel heard.
I’m sure your overall sound has also helped in that regard? I mean, you could take the vocal off any D Mills & The Thrills track and a listener might think they’re listening to a freeform jazz or reggae album. On the flip side, drop the instruments and you have rap. How did the band come together and arrange the unique sound we hear today?
One of my biggest core values and how I like to create art is just to be original and authentic to who I am. When you collaborate with musicians in a band, I think it is vital to really harness the talent they bring and allow it to flourish. Every musician in a band has their own personality, musical tastes and upbringing. It’s only natural that our guitar player will have those elements in his sound and that may translate to a jazzy sound. The same goes for every other musician in the group. Our other vocalist has a background in jazz and R&B. Our bassist is from the south and grew up on reggae music. Those things create the band’s sound.
When you’re working with six different musicians, that can be challenging. I didn’t want to be rigid about our sound. Sure, there are instances where you want to fight for something because you think it sounds so good. However, every band member will have a preference and a vision. Part of being a bandleader is bringing all of those preferences together and creating a solidified sound. Sometimes the easiest way is to just let people play and feel out a song’s sound. That’s how a lot of our songs were written.
How special is it for you to return to Fargo for this show and help bring live music back into the community post-pandemic?
It’s so exciting. I love it. I can’t wait.
I’ve been looking forward to this for a while. I love coming home and reconnecting with people because I just love Fargo. I hope it gets people really excited about going out to see live music. I’m really looking forward to this and just seeing old friends and bands. Of course, the milestone of 10 years is worth celebrating, too. 10 years is not an easy point to get to in any band and I am really proud of the work that we’ve done.
Obviously, playing in front of an audience is the sweet spot for musicians. Losing that element during the pandemic had to sting. However, were there any advantages to being a musician during the pandemic?
I’ve had more time to create. For me, writing music requires time and the same goes for practicing. I’ve been able to become a way better guitar player than I ever dreamed. That came through the advantage of just having so much extra time on my hands. The McKnight fellowship helped with that because I was able to rent an apartment where I can just have free time to myself and not have to bother anyone.
10 years is a milestone to be celebrated. What are some the things you are most proud of in your time with D Mills & The Thrills?
To provide a vessel for people to hear music is a gift. I feel like music has healing properties. In turn, music allows you to reflect, get in touch with your emotions and you develop a lot of empathy through music. There is also a lot of self-reflection in music and it allows you to connect with people who are going through the same things as you. Even being able to write a song about universal themes is quite important. I think musicians hold a lot of insight into society in general.
The human aspect of being a musician and being able to share my talents with a community is important, too. That helps the community grow in many ways.
I’m most proud of being able to be onstage, look people in the eye and see their faces. When I’m performing, it’s like one of the most powerful things for me. Sharing the moment of live music elevates a community.
For those who are thinking about taking in the show on Saturday, what they should be expecting?
Expect to have a lot of fun, expect to dance a lot and forget about your troubles for a while. To just be out and experiencing music is what it’s all about. Prepare to be frickin’ entertained and prepare to be swept away. Overall, it’s going to be a real good time.
What else should our readers be aware of?
I will be releasing my first solo EP this year, but I don’t know when just yet. It’s going to be a six-song EP and is going to be featuring six different Minneapolis-based producers and musicians. Be on the lookout for it. I’m going to be releasing a music video as well so I’ll likely have a premiere show for that.
D Mills & The Thrills will be celebrating their 10-year anniversary on Saturday, May 8 at Sanctuary Events Center. The doors open at 7 p.m. with the show beginning at 8 p.m. Learn more about the event here and purchase tickets here.
Stay up to date with the latest releases by connecting with Diane.