On Monday night, Joe Rainey Sr. will debut his new album Niineta at the 7th Street Entry, backed up by his partner on the project, the musician Andrew Broder. It’s a homecoming show for Rainey—he lives on the Oneida Reservation with his wife near Green Bay, a lonely Vikings fan surrounded by cheese. But Rainey grew up in south Minneapolis, in his mom’s house on historic Milwaukee Avenue. He wanted to be a pow wow singer when he was a little boy, recording pow wow singing groups with his GE tape recorder at the American Indian Center on Franklin Ave. His mom enrolled him in a dancing and singing practice with the Little Earth Juniors soon thereafter. As a pre-teen he began hanging out around The Boyz (a legendary Minneapolis drum group) at a house some of them stayed at in the Little Earth projects.
“They knew me as a Little Joey,” he remembers. “As in, ‘Hey I tried to get Little Joey to sit down and sing, but he’s too shy.” By the time he was a teenager, however, he had found enough courage to help start The Boyz Juniors, his first drum group, before going on to sing with Big Cedar, Wolf Spirit, Raining Thunder, and Iron Boy. Eventually, his voice grew strong enough to sing in Midnite Express, a new drum group featuring some of the original Boyz themselves.
Rainey was always just as much of a fan as he was a participant—when he wasn’t at his own drum, he was recording other drums, then studying the tapes when he got home, admiring and cataloging the different singing styles, whether it was Northern Cree, Cozad or Eyabay. With his workhorse Sony tape recorder he was a student of the game, a maven, a bootlegger extraordinaire. On Niineta, Rainey finds himself in between cultures again. This time collaborating with Broder, who brought his multi-instrumentalist, turntablist sensibility to the project. The two of them first met through Justin Vernon—and both of them contributed to the last Bon Iver album before they started discussing the possibility of working together sometime in the future. “At first I didn’t know what I could add to Joe’s incredible recordings,” Broder says. “But eventually I came to understand everything is rooted in the drum—even the songs on our record that have no drum, they’re still rooted in the drum.” Each song started with Broder’s beats, the two of them experimenting with various sounds and tempos, before bringing in other collaborators to orchestrate and recontextualize the ancient pow wow sound in strange, new in-between places. The album pulls from Rainey’s vast sample folder of pow wow recordings, layering and remixing slices of his life spent singing in venues across the upper Midwest and Canada.
Rainey got his title, Niineta, from his drum brother Michael Migizi Sullivan, who suggested a short version of the Ojibwe term, meaning “just me.” But he’s using the term only in the sense that he’s taking sole responsibility for its content. Rainey is protective of pow wow culture—which was outlawed by the United State government for a generation, defiantly maintained in secret by Native elders he deeply respects—while trying to figure out exactly where and how he fits into it on his own terms. “These are all my creations, but they’re pow wow songs, and our language is sacred,” he says. “And I was like, okay, I understand that, so our album is only vocals. I’m not recording when we’re not supposed to and I’m not giving our shit away.”
I met Rainey and Broder on the rooftop of a rehearsal space in Minneapolis and we talked about how much attention their project has already received from international press, how their initial lightbulb moment happened years ago during the Eaux Claires music festival, and about what they expect to happen Monday night.
The album has already been reviewed and previewed by huge mainstream music platforms like the BBC, Pitchfork, and the Guardian. I haven’t read much about how it’s been covered in the Native press yet, but what do you think about how your album has been received?
Rainey: I like how it’s been covered. I was thinking about this, where the roll out has been kind of reversed: If I would have released this into the pow wow world, the Native people would be fucking with it, and the mainstream would’ve probably never picked this up. Now it’s like Native people are kind of picking up on it, but for sure the mainstream people are fucking with it.
Was going to the mainstream music press first a conscious choice?
Rainey: I think it happened organically, because of the way that Broder and I made it—it was just between the two of us. Once we made a few songs we thought, “Okay, this might be something.” That’s when we started to entertain that idea of taking it to a label. I think it might take some time for some Native people to kind of notice, but I’ve been posting things like the Pitchfork and the Guardian stories to my socials. And I think some people are actually surprised on who’s picking this up and where this is going.
Rainey: People who haven’t paid attention to what I was doing. I was, like, “Yeah, I’m going to release this, that’s going to be out there.” I didn’t feel like telling them “Well, it’s going to be, like, released with this person and that person.” I just was like, “Look out for it, whatever.”
And now they’re like, “Wow, Joey: Pitchfork though?”
Rainey: Yeah. I think it’s better this way. I think the focus was to make it for my family first. So that keeps me grounded.
Andrew, most of these outlets have been interviewing Joe. And in almost every interview he’s talked about how you were like the reluctant prophet—he called you and you didn’t know if you wanted to be involved at first. Are you still reticent to talk about this stuff?
Broder: No. I’m happy to talk about it. But early in the process of making it, I knew it should be Joe’s record, under his name as an artist.
So have you turned down interviews?
Broder: No. You’re the first person that’s wanted to talk to me [laughs], which is fine. I think it’s good that Joe is the first option to describe it. Because the music is about Joe’s story and life. It’s not about my story and life. I’m there to sonically support what Joe is bringing to music. I definitely have a lot of thoughts about it that I’m happy to discuss. But I think what you’re saying about who’s picking up on it, I think the cultural moment works to our advantage a little bit. Like, all the writers and people that are curious about it. I mean, one, I think it’s a deep record, there’s a lot going on. And so it’s kind of fostering this curiosity about Joe’s background. And I think that even like 10 years ago there probably wouldn’t have been as much of a curiosity or as many people wanting to do a deep dive. But I think people now are maybe wanting to show more respect. Like, “Okay. Where does this shit actually come from?” Not just, “Oh, this is an interesting mish-mosh of electronic and pow wow singers.” Or something like that.
This is not like your Girl Talk pow wow mash up project.
Broder: Yeah. It’s not a mash-up. I mean it’s a new sound. And it’s a new way of presenting Indigenous music. But it’s still Indigenous music. I think that was the key.
Even though you’re not Indigenous.
Broder: Even though I am not Indigenous. So, that’s why it’s a bit of a balancing act for me, where I don’t want to be out in the front of it. And I always want to be conscious about that fact. That this is not me telling my story. I’m helping Joe tell his.
This project came out of a set you did in the woods together at Justin Vernon’s second Eaux Claires. There was a moment when our friend, the Native dancer Reuben Crow Feather, who everybody calls Boob, started dancing to some electronic music.
Rainey: It was like a light switch went off.
Broder: So it was a set that I did in the woods.
What were you playing?
Broder: Just my electronic rig: turntable, laptop. Just improvising some remixes of, like, yeah, Phoebe Bridgers singing a song, Julien Baker singing a song, Channy Leaneagh [from Polica] singing a song. And Iron Boy was all there, like, singing in-between. And Boob started dancing.
It was still early in the day.
Broder: It was light out still. People were still a little nervous. Like the drugs hadn’t kicked in yet. And, you know, Boob just went in, and it was just such a cool moment where everybody just moved forward and joined together. And it was just such a vibe for, like, whatever, 40 minutes or however long the set lasted. Having Iron Boy sing in spurts with what I was doing with Phoebe and my own electronic stuff. I think it clued us both in, to like, “Okay. There’s a way to do this that feels natural. That doesn’t feel forced. It’s fun.” It was an early lightbulb moment for what’s possible.
So, your lightbulb moment lead to years worth of conversations between the two of you before working on this project. So Joe, you’ve talked about approaching Broder to ask him to do something together sometime. What was your approach?
Rainey: I mean, it was quarantine time, so I was in school. Broder has always said, just like anyone else who I met through Justin, like, “If you ever need anything, like, dude, don’t ever hesitate.” So I used that to my advantage.
You were taking a music recording and programming class at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay.
Rainey: It was a prerequisite on music recording. We were working on creating different beats. I was working on this like distorted half of a sidestep that I had recorded at a pow wow in Mille Lacs. I distorted this side step and I brought it to Broder. And I just was like “Yo, can you do this?” But he kind of mistook whatever I was trying to ask him.
Broder: He sent me this file of a drum group singing, but over the course of the minute or two that it goes on, the tape that he recorded it on just grows more and more like degraded, and then very clipped. And there’s like a vocal, and then it kind of grows into a different thing. And I was just, like, “Oh wow, this sounds fucking cool on its own.” So initially, I had no idea what to do with it
Rainey: He thought I was talking about the song, but I was just talking more about the actual rhythm of it.
Broder: Yeah. Joe was just sending me a vibe. So I sat with it for a while and I was like, “Man, this just sounds great on its own. I don’t know what the hell I can add that’s going to make it any cooler.” And I had gone to a couple pow wows at that point. I’d seen him with Iron Boy, and Midnite Express. And I was already just blown away with what they did. You know, it’s just fucking voice and drum. I was just, like, this shit is fucking incredible. Like, what do I have to add? But I wasn’t like “No, thank you.” [Laughs] We’re friends so we just kept talking about it. And we had a Dropbox folder, and Joe would keep adding things to it. And I would get a notification every time Joe would throw more shit in there from his archive of pow wow recordings. Keeps adding stuff, keeps adding stuff, just different pow wow samples, and different rhythms. And then he would talk about, “Oh, this is this kind of a rhythm. This is that kind of a rhythm.” I didn’t know it at the time, but he was taking me to school and teaching me about this music about which I’m completely ignorant. And eventually, I tried to tinker around and add stuff on top of his recordings and it just felt wrong. It just felt like I was doing a shitty electro remix that didn’t need to exist. So, I thought about it and thought about it. We kept talking and eventually I was like “Let me be the drum.”
Let me give you a beat.
Broder: Let me just make some beats for you, just rhythms. And that’s where we finally clicked on what he wanted from me. Just make me some rhythm tracks to sing over. I didn’t like, grab my tom-tom and record. I was, like, okay I’ll do it in my way, using turntables, and loops, and records—my own little handmade DIY process. Made these loops and just let them go for, you know, five, six minutes or whatever, and sent them to Joe. And that’s how the songs emerged. Because Joe would send me back fully thought-out melodies and the places where he put them over the rhythms were like fascinating, with these cool-ass structures that I was like, “Oh, okay. These are going to be songs.”
You’re living out in Green Bay, Joe, on the Oneida Reservation, and you’re enrolled in Red Lake, but you’re a Minneapolis guy, born and raised. After we first met at April Base, I met you out at the SMSC pow wow in Shakopee. There was a vibe hanging out with your drum group, Midnite Express. First of all, it’s a competitive environment, so there’s going to be some shit talking, respectfully, about some of the other drums, or about the judges, because it’s a competitive environment with money on the line.
Rainey: Game faces are on.
Game faces are on. And we would talk about the game within a game in between sets. And we talked about how Midnite Express, you guys were the city Indians, the cool kids from the south side of Minneapolis. One of the guys in the group is directly related to AIM founding legend Clyde Bellecourt—and Clyde was sitting in a folding chair behind you as you all sang. So you brought the politics of the city and the attitude of the city out to Shakopee. And that’s how you were received by your fellow competitors and the judges, both for better and for worse.
Rainey: I feel like, you know, it’s almost the same amount of hours between Red Lake and Minneapolis, and Oneida and Minneapolis. So, I mean, if I were to live on Red Lake I feel like I would be visiting Minneapolis just as frequently.
Broder: One of the coolest things about how much this project has been written about for me, has been learning about Joe as an urban person. I don’t think that that’s a dynamic that has been really talked about or thought about a lot. On the surface it seems like he’s taking a sort of wild, new approach to this music. But I think people tend to place pow wow culture and pow wow singing and stuff like that in a certain context.
Like the context of only hearing it when you’re on a reservation?
Broder: This idea that pow wow music is removed from being embedded in day-to-day life in the way that, say, like hip-hop music is embedded in the day-to-day life of Black people living in the city. I think what I’ve learned through Joe is that pow wow isn’t necessarily a rural thing, or a rez thing, or an up north thing—you can be from anywhere and still feel a part of that culture. And the music is more adaptable than what people have realized to this point. There’s obviously been efforts at hybridizing Native music in all kinds of ways, whether it’s with folk, or country or, you know, going back to Buffy Saint-Marie. I’m not saying we’re the first to, sort of incorporate these inventions. Remember when we went to the thing at Little Earth that Boob put together?
During the summer of 2020? Man I’ll never forget that. The mini pow wow that was held outside. We hadn’t been around people for five months.
Broder: That was a big lightbulb moment for me with the record because of the sound of the singing: their voices were bouncing off of the buildings in Little Earth, and the natural echo and reverb—that’s how I wanted to produce Joe’s vocals in the record. It gave me the green light to be like this is naturally psychedelic music. That the relationship of the voice to its environment is so big.
True. Hearing voices on top of a hill in Shakopee, your mind immediately goes to 500 years ago. Listening to pow wow singers in the middle of Little Earth? It’s, like, oh, this is like a cipher.
Broder: And it’s equally powerful in either context. And in the context of this record. I wanted to feel, like, this, kind of, natural slap back echo thing that sounds like you’re surrounded by buildings, like the place where you live, the heart of the Native community. And this shit can hit super hard, you know. Like you’re hearing the singing in Little Earth and then you’re hearing a car drive by with rap coming out of it really loud. So, that fit what this record could kind of feel like. Joe, who’s the dude that you put on the mixtape? Nevad Brave?
Rainey: Nevad Brave.
Broder: Nevad Brave. He was the one that came up with calling it “Space Traditional,” Right?
Rainey: He’s a rapper from South Dakota. And I sent the mix to him through a mutual friend. I sent it to his cousin or his close friend. And his friend was playing it while they were smoking, and by the time they got to “bezhigo” Nevad’s like, this sound is Space Traditional.
Haha. Meaning like galactic space?
I mean, one of the things that I’ve always been struck by whenever I’m reporting on Native American culture, is there’s often a lot of trepidation about sharing certain practices and culture with white people, just because of the history of cultural practices being misappropriated or maybe even outright banned, right? There is a lingering distrust. You avoided using any sacred ceremonial words in this album, right?
Rainey: Yeah. The Ojibwe language itself is sacred. So, like, the actual words are sacred.
How many of your pow wow songs are sung in Ojibwe language?
Rainey: It varies. Like, there’s maybe a handful but a lot of those songs are also using vocables. There are contemporary drum groups that sing other words. So, it kind of splits up between original and contemporary. I just wanted to sing original pow wow style and not use any words. I wanted it to be something that couldn’t be argued about, like, “Oh, he’s using the language.” I wasn’t thinking about that when I recorded it. I let go of that far before I was, like, “Okay. Broder, let’s do this.” But when it was starting to come out, I’m like, “Well, they can’t say shit if I’m just doing vocables.”
But you do use language, pretty ingeniously, in the album title and the song titles.
Rainey: Niineta means “just me” in Ojibwe. And I thought with the song titles, I could communicate different information inaudibly. It was just a different way for me to get that shit out. Where it’s an insight into who I am and what I pay attention to. I just had to think about, “Well, what could I name them to where it would be double meaning type shit, where I could have conversations about it or for people to learn?”
Broder: I think there’s a lot of poetry in the titles, and the samples, and like once we were deep into making the record and I had a better sense of what it could be about, I started thinking about my favorite rap records. And there’s so many parallels to what rap records can do with samples, or skits or just people talking in the background. You learn about the artist that way. It’s such a cool thing about rap music, whether it’s Doom, or Nas on Illmatic, or Mobb Deep records. You learn about these guys’ lives through the shit-talking, and their friends, and their friends who died. You get this whole backstory told sonically, and that’s what was so cool about Joe’s sample archive: from the pow wow announcers, to the samples of his friends, to the phone call from jail. All of it is just like fleshing out this bigger picture.
You know, like, I’ve known you from the get as this proud Vikings fan living in Green Bay. So you get team sports—and a lot of that comes from your own history playing organized basketball, and being a basketball coach, and of course pow wow has this strong team competition aspect to it. So, I think one of the things that you’ve shown is great humility about, like, I’m not the only guy who plays music like this. And you’ve used this press to turn your audience onto different Native artists that you love.
Rainey: Yeah, I wasn’t going to be a gatekeeper. The way it’s been amplified, I think it’s just like pushing me out there. Because you rarely see Indigenous artists being amplified in the way I’ve been featured. It’s very new for people to see that. I think we found some of that with that Mixtape. So we might go down that avenue a little bit more and start doing things like that. There’s just tons of other people out there. But the BBC Mixtape itself was exactly what I wanted to do.
One of the artists on the mixtape is opening for you at the Entry.
Rainey: Endonnis LaChapelle. But she goes by The Don. She’s a rapper. She’s a friend of the families. She’s in the neighborhood and the families know each other. My sister Marie is good friends with some of her aunties and her cousins. My sister Marie shared her on SoundCloud and I checked her out and I was like “Damn.” I was like, that’s like nothing I’ve heard in a minute.
Who else is playing the show?
Broder: FPA Priya and Ness Nite. So, it’ll be a nice well-rounded Minneapolis vibe.
So what do you hope happens at the show?
Rainey: I want it to feel physical. I want it to hear it in their bones. Like, I want them to immerse themselves in what they’re hearing. I’m not going to be doing much, I’m not much of an MC Hammer up there. Not much dancing. I don’t think I’ll be talking or nothing like that. You’re not there to hear me talk. I want them to close their eyes if they want and just listen to what they’re hearing.