Photos by Hillary Ehlen
Thee United Empire (TUE) is leading the way in Fargo’s underground and misunderstood hip-hop scene.
In the most unlikely of places, there is a movement going on. The popular opinion says that the hip-hop genre is reserved for places like Atlanta or Los Angeles. While those places are valuable hotbeds for the music, Fargo has seen a budding rap scene too. Beneath the usual rock or country groups that peruse Downtown bars, there are rappers putting in work to become a success story. There is no group that epitomizes this grind more than Thee United Empire (TUE). Made up of rap veterans Big Mike and Chorus Joe, the duo has continued to build their stock in rap’s growing corner of Fargo.
The story behind TUE’s inception is still a little muddy to Big Mike and Chorus Joe (C.J. for short). “We immediately had this respect for each other and that just kind of grew over time as a mutual friendship and we started hanging together and we were just bonded brothers right off the bat,” said C.J. “I loved music, but I was never really into really making my own stuff. Mike had a show lined up and he asked me to be his hype man. Later, we had a day where we were just rapping with our boys and I just kept coming up with hooks. And we thought there might be something there.” That took place in late 2009 and early 2010, according to the two.
It was that instance where C.J. (real name Corey) formulated his stage name. “I just kept coming up with choruses,” he said. As for Big Mike, his stage name came pretty naturally. “It’s pretty self-explanatory. I’m a big dude,” he said. As for their group name, that took some thinking. “I was wearing a shirt that said “United We Stand” and I was wearing a hat from the show Empire. One of our friends brought up doing something with the idea of being united,” C.J. said. “Then, Mike looked at my hat and thought “United Empire”. That’s how we are with our with our friends and family too, a united empire. So the name is a reflection of who we are too.”
Since their forming, Big Mike, who is originally from Memphis, and C.J., a native of the Twin Cities, have travelled all over the country to perform. To date, they have had shows in Atlanta, Florida, Houston, the Twin Cities and everywhere in this area.
As far as where they get lyrical and musical inspiration, the duo is quite different from one another. “I am a huge fan of Pac, but I don’t do any of the stuff he did musically. But Pac, 50 Cent, Montana of 3000, Ace Hood, Tech N9ne are all big for me,” Big Mike said. “I am a feel-good, party music sort of guy. So Ludacris was one of the dudes I was always listening to. Nelly, T.I. and when T-Pain got hot, everything they were doing was cool. A lot of people don’t think too much of him, but I love Roscoe Dash too. He’s the kind of person I feel like I am most like musically,” C.J. added. This combination makes for rap songs that feature both quality lyrics while housing a party atmosphere, perfect for the bar scene. It also helps that TUE is exceptionally talented in their “flow” or ability to rhyme their lyrics.
These talents have put TUE on the stage with some of the bigger rap artists to come through the area. They have opened for Gorilla Zoe, rap legends Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and most recently, Tech N9ne in April at Scheels Arena. “Tech N9ne was amazing. The atmosphere was crazy and the love we got afterwards,” Big Mike said. “I’ve never taken so many pictures with random people in my life. People wanted our CDs, they wanted autographs, it was a very surreal moment.”
One thing that is often misunderstood about the Fargo rap scene is how big and popular it is. Much of this has been suppressed due to the poor reputation hip-hop shows have received in the area. However, that reputation is a misrepresentation of the rappers themselves. TUE will be quick to inform that it is not the rappers who start the scuffles at the shows in the area, it is others. “There are people that go to these shows that are there to just hate. They go to certain events just to put people down and ruin things basically,” C.J. said. “People just show up and think ‘Oh, these people aren’t that good, I could be up there.’ I equate it to back in high school when you’re playing football and there is the peanut gallery of certain students who think they could be out there killing it. But you’re not. So why are you talking?”
In reference to a recent fight that broke out a rap show at the Ramada on 13th Avenue, Big Mike and C.J. referred to it as “really unfortunate because it’s unnecessary.” Due to several incidents at various hip-hop shows, venues have stopped booking rappers and rap groups in fear of something happening. “When we first started here, venues were a little bit more open, but then there were a lot of incidents,” said C.J. “It was really bad for a while, no venues were doing anything for hip-hop and it just look a long time for places to give us a chance. We did some things at The Nestor and The Aquarium and when The Hub was still around too. I just think a lot of venues are really eerie of doing hip-hop shows because they don’t want certain crowds of unruly people.”
However, TUE does not support nor condone the unruly behavior at hip-hop shows in the area. “We don’t want that because it ruins the show for us,” said C.J. “We just want everyone to come in and have a good time and vibe to the music because that’s what hip-hop was intended to do. We just want to change that stigma, that’s always what we wanted to do.”
Thanks to social media, the Fargo rap scene has remained big despite venues shutting out the genre. According to TUE, many local rappers will post that they are doing a show and ask others to promote it on their social media channels. That has been a way to work around the lack of bookings at the usual venues in Fargo.
Though C.J. plans to move to Arizona soon, TUE will not stop making music. “We’re not done by any means and we have a ton of tracks that haven’t been released yet too,” he said. “I always want to be able to come back to Fargo and do shows too. I never want to forget where I came from.” In the future, TUE hopes to perform at large festivals like Soundset in St. Paul as well as after-parties for award shows like the BET Awards or the MTV Music Awards. Big Mike also added, “If anyone wants to collaborate: Tigirlilly, 32 Below, Tripwire, whoever. We are willing to do anything with anybody.”
The culture and public perception surrounding rap music has, for the most part, been negative. However, as the layers to the genre are peeled back, many will see the genuine figures behind the microphone. While Fargo’s rap scene continues to try and re-gain its footing in the eyes of the public, Big Mike and Chorus John will continue to be an anchor for hip-hop in Fargo.