This weekend we lost a real one. Seattle hiphop artist Jesse "Byrdie" Watson succumbed to complications from a long bout of cancer. If you were checking out what was shaking and baking in the Seattle scene in the early 2000s, there was no missing Pretty Byrdie, a big brother with a smile and a heart to match. Byrdie came into prominence via the Street Level Records group Full Time Soldiers; FTS and SLR's brand of g-rap, including acts that hailed from the Soufend to the North End, sold out of local shops and kept mail orders ringing throughout the country—they were unquestionably some of the most popular local product in the late '90s to early 2000s, and Byrdie was probably the most popular voice among them.
He broke out on his own with 2000's Poetic Epidemic, which featured everybody from his northend FTS comrades to Source of Labor's Wordsayer. Byrdie's "Player's Policy Pt.2" was one of the first local cuts I knew of that got regular rotation on KUBE93—this was a big deal, just listen to astonishment of the hosts of KUBE's old Sunday night show 'Future Flavors' before they play it. (The other ones I remember: Mobb Tyght Hustlers' "Let's Get Toasted" and Unexpected Arrival's "Take Control (Remix)", which featured Byrdie.)
All this feels like fucking ages ago—I know it wasn't, but just listen to the intro of "Dirty Politics," where he spat:
Man I'm so sick and tired of these rappers in Seattle, these so-called emcees. Everybody wants to be divided! There is no rap scene in Seattle! There is no hiphop community! I built a bridge but y'all built it down.
At the time, nobody I knew would've argued with this. I shouldn't have to tell you, this is about 10 country miles from where we are today.
A couple years later, Byrdie would release his N Flight album, his most polished work yet, and that radio love just increased, and he was on big stages rocking. I remember the joint video release party for his "B.Y.R.D.I.E." and the Blue Scholars' first video ("Freewheelin") at the old Vera in 2004.
Last night I happened to catch IFC's Comedy Bang Bang, with one Reggie Watts. Funny, as I had just been watching Byrdie's "Wanted" video, featuring Watts:
Byrdie was born the same year I was, and was one of the first bright lights I knew of from what I identify as my particular generation of this town's hiphop artists. I would see the dude around my old neighborhood, not far from the Canterbury on 15th, maybe smoke, but always we'd have a good chop. He was unfailingly cool, quick with a smile or a good word—just massively supportive and genuine. This was simply not the default mode of Seattle hiphop back then.
Look, a lot of people I know are fucked up over this one. We'll miss you, Byrd. I know your spirit is in flight.