Seattle used to be known for a handful of clichés: rain, coffee, Frasier, passive-aggression. And, of course, grunge. For a minute back in the era of George Herbert Walker Bush, Seattle was the hot spot for label scouts to discover the next Nirvana, the next Pearl Jam, the next Alice in Chains. This led to some bizarre bedfellows, as well as the beginning of a hesitant and ongoing intermingling of the mainstream that continues unabated two decades on. Nowadays, we're on the national radar for other more insidious things: Amazon, gentrification, and income inequality. And just as the early 1990s brought us an explosion of searing and scarred Gen-X rock, the beginning of our young millennium has produced a sea change in the music of the Emerald City. Along with the eternal barrage of garage bands and the steadily thriving electronic scene, Seattle's hiphop artists have taken to Bandcamp, SoundCloud, and other DIY methods of getting the word out, as astral interlocutors trade stages with lean-sipping burners and young, wide-eyed crossover potentials. Here are a few developments that led to the current state of Seattle rap, the dominant musical export for a few years running.
Gotta Get Fresh: Nasty Nes and Mix-A-Lot Plant the Seeds
The godfather of the local rap scene, along with Sir Mix-A-Lot (more on him in a moment), was unquestionably radio DJ Nasty Nes, whose Fresh Tracks program on KFOX showcased early 1980s rap from locals alongside nationally known entities like Run-D.M.C. and the Sugarhill Gang. And 1985 saw the release of Mix-A-Lot's "Square Dance Rap" as the debut record from Nastymix Records, which paved the way for his future success and marked the first stab at national recognition for the fledgling Northwest hiphop scene.
That Song About Butts
There was plenty of Seattle hiphop before Sir Mix-A-Lot turned himself into an ambassador for 206 rap in 1992, with the still-ubiquitous ass anthem "Baby Got Back." But it was that grunge-era cut, along with his Capitol Hill ode "Posse on Broadway" (off 1988's Swass), that truly put Seattle on the map, rap-wise. Indeed, the influence of "Baby Got Back" is such that Nicki Minaj can reinterpret the track into one of the biggest rap singles of the past half-decade, with "Anaconda." Sir Mix-A-Lot remains in town, until recently hosting local pop/rap hub KUBE 93.3's Old Skool Lunch, whose definition expanded from Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy to include Nelly's "Ride Wit Me" and Eminem's "Lose Yourself" if you want to feel old. It's also worth noting that Mix-A-Lot curated the Seattle: The Dark Side compilation a year after "Baby" broke, capitalizing on his popularity to boost a bunch of underground locals, including Jay-Skee, whose "Menace Crook" was a furious blast of record scratching and shit talk.
The Underground Seattle Tour
The rise of Blue Scholars (the duo of MC Geologic and DJ/producer Sabzi) roughly coincided with the true ascension of "backpacker rap" nationally, with underground labels like Rhymesayers and Def Jux providing turn-of-the-millennium platforms for artists to explore the stranger, more personal side of hiphop. Geologic's lyrics were socially conscious and nakedly vulnerable, albeit delivered with an underdog battle rapper's hunger, while Sabzi's beats were organic, lush, and understated, like the sunlight through autumn leaves. Oldominion, a sprawling hiphop collective consisting of scene stalwarts like Onry Ozzborn and Sleep, released their era-defining album One in 2000, with members going on to a variety of solo projects and Ozzborn forming dark rap crew Grayskul with Rob Castro and fellow MC JFK for a series of gravelly, growling releases in the aughts.
"Thrift Shop" and the Macklash
We may as well come to the white elephant in the room: When the majority of America hears the phrase "Seattle rap," the name that immediately pops into their mind is Macklemore. "Thrift Shop," that janky slice of pop-hop about cheap threads and "cold-ass honkies," inexplicably dominated the radio in 2012, becoming the albatross around local hiphop's neck. The attention it brought to the town's rap scene was welcome, while the track's obvious wackness (and Macklemore's subsequent Grammy win for album of the year instead of Kendrick Lamar's masterful Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City) brought no small amount of shame. Which takes us to...
XXL's "15 Seattle Rappers You Should Know"
This list, released in the spring of 2013 and written by one of the few national print magazines still devoted to hiphop culture, caused quite a stir upon its release, with certain local heads feeling burnt about their non-inclusion. Looking back, certain entries appear entirely on-point (Fatal Lucciauno, Jarv Dee), while others have yet to capitalize on the increased attention (Mack E, Eighty4 Fly), but the importance of the spotlight created in the wake of Macklemore's unlikely ascension is tough to overstate. Nevertheless, the snubs are notable: Gifted Gab and Silas Blak were both absent, for example.
Dark Stars Rising: The Moor Gang
Of the rappers mentioned on XXL's list, it must be noted that two (Nacho Picasso and Jarv Dee) count themselves among members of the Moor Gang, along with the aforementioned missing Moor link Gifted Gab and frequent Gang collaborator Avatar Darko. They are an ambitious crew of knuckleheads whose nihilistic sound, drug-numbed personas, and blank-eyed charisma mark them miles distant from the up-with-people mentality proffered by Macklemore and his ilk. Inspired by Cam'ron's syllable-twisting internal rhymes and a nocturnal, electronic tint to his beats, Picasso's been the most visible, with a Bart Simpson–esque "I didn't do it" vibe to his id-navigated stream-of-consciousness flows. But don't discount other clutch members: the afore-mentioned Avatar Darko and Jarv, as well as serial fire-spitter Gifted Gab, whose Girl Rap provided a welcome dose of non-fuck-giving to the horror that was 2015.
Black Constellation: Shabazz Palaces and Porter Ray Sign to Sub Pop
Perhaps nothing has shifted Seattle's axis from the flannel-fied mid-'90s to our polyglot, globalized present than the iconic indie label Sub Pop (Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney) signing its first hiphop act, Shabazz Palaces, in 2014. Grammy-winning rapper Ishmael Butler, already a man prone to star-gazing proclivities, exited his celebrated former trio Digable Planets for even further-reaching sonic explorations with the multi-instrumentalist Tendai Maraire, in the process crafting a sonic cosmology as obscure and obtuse as it is addictive. Shabazz Palaces' first album, the obsidian artifact Black Up, only laid the groundwork for arguable masterpiece Lese Majesty, which, appropriately, first entered public consciousness through a mind-fuck of a laser show at the Pacific Science Center. Butler then got the effortlessly smooth and ebullient rap memoirist Porter Ray signed to Sub Pop as well, setting the stage for a newly diversified lineup in the coming years.
THEESatisfaction and the Black Weirdos
Coming up simultaneously with cosmic compatriots Shabazz Palaces, Afrofuturist rap/R&B group THEESatisfaction, made up of SassyBlack and Stas Thee Boss, started getting love immediately after their fantastic awE naturalE came out, bolstered by single "QueenS," a filter disco slice of ass-shaking self-affirmation. The duo leveraged their considerable local impact into a far-reaching and wildly successful series of "Black Weirdo" parties, stretching to Minnesota and New York and spreading the gospel of black weirdness everywhere they landed.
Taking the warped and prismatic flow of viral legend/punch line/possible genius Lil B in more strange and obscure directions, rapper/producer Mackned has managed to fuse a sound as weird as it is engaging, recruiting a West Coast contingent of like-minded introverts under the collective title Thraxxhouse. Mackned's hot streak was unparalleled in 2015: releases like Female and Celebrity Etiquette cemented his status as a bizarre antidote to the anonymous and bland rap offered by too many of the Northwest's hiphop artists. Ned and the equally #based Key Nyata have garnered huge fan support with their dreamlike compositions and oddly angled approach to "street music."
Future Flow: DoNormaal
The newest wunderkind around town is DoNormaal, aka Christianne Karefa-Johnson, whose album Jump or Die grabbed the local hiphopnescenti by the lapels late last year with its surreally catchy flows bouncing around futurist, bass-laden productions. It's an incredibly assured collection of serpentine, squirming bangers, equally as likely to burrow an earworm into your brain as it is to blow out your speakers. One can only hope the new year will bring more fried and tactile brilliance from this decidedly un-Normaal California transplant.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the hordes of DJs, writers, record-store owners, breakdancers, beatsmiths, and other heads who have long contributed to the city's rich hiphop tradition, so here, in no particular order and with advance apology for any omission, are just a few of the other folks who keep the scene humming in the face of gentrification, police bullshit, and other hurdles: Stranger My Philosophy columnist and KEXP DJ Larry Mizell Jr., whose Street Sounds program has long carried the torch of local rap; Stranger writer Charles Mudede, who's covered the scene for more than a decade; breakdancing crew the Massive Monkees; all the cats at the Station; former Rocket writer Glen Boyd; and Dr. Daudi Abe, whose primer on Seattle rap's early days "Going Way Back"—to which this article owes a debt—appeared in this paper in 2006.