Seattle-born rapper Gabriel Teodros first received notice in 2005 as one half of Abyssinian Creole. The duo's CD, Sexy Beast, was like its name: lush, rich, erotic, exotic. It gave expression to the post-1990s cosmopolitanism that was thriving in the south part of the city. Teodros has roots in East Africa, and his partner Khalil Crisis (AKA Khingz) has roots in the Caribbean; both grew up in neighborhoods that were racially diverse.
"There used to be more Mexicans living up here," explains Teodros, as we walk around Beacon Hill, the neighborhood where he spent his childhood and still calls home. "But you know, when black friends visit me from New York or something and I take them to a Chinese joint, they are shocked that we are in a Chinese joint. They are not used to sitting with other races. But this is something I don't even think about; I'm used to seeing them and they are used to seeing me."
Last year, Teodros joined forces with Mass Line, the label home to local heroes Blue Scholars and Common Market. The Seattle imprint's first major release this year is Teodros's Lovework, a gorgeous work of hiphop produced primarily by Amos Miller with additional beat contributions from Sabzi, Kitone, and Specs One. Packed with lyrics about the black African experience of America, Teodros's first solo effort is far less exotic than Sexy Beast and is primarily influenced by local veteran Vitamin D and the late J Dilla. Dilla's spirit especially infuses the album's third track, "No Label," the first hit to come out of Seattle since Common Market's "Connect Four." (Both tracks are, not surprisingly, produced by Sabzi.)
To get a better sense of Lovework's place in local hiphop, you have to go back to the mid-1990s, to the three or so years that Black Anger, Silas Blak, Jace, and other local heads were releasing hiphop through Calvin Johnson's K Records. At this time, the Seattle sound became jazzier—more melodic, intricate, and atmospheric. It turned away from the gangsta themes and beats that dominated the period and instead focused on progressive politics, utopian aspirations, and an organic connection with black Africa. But where most Afrocentric rappers of the late '80s and early '90s were obsessed with ancient Egypt, Seattle's rappers were inspired by sub-Saharan Africa and the modern black African states—Ghana, South Africa, Kenya. Aesthetically and politically, Lovework descends from that mid-'90s school of conscious hiphop. And though Northwest progressivism runs through the music, Teodros's most formative experience didn't happen locally.
"I wasn't always in Seattle," Teodros explains. "My mother moved to Las Vegas in the '90s, and for a while I attended this crazy high school there called—you won't believe this—Bonanza. It was all-white and that was strange for me because back in Seattle I had attended Garfield High School, which is so mixed. Well, one day I'm walking home from school and this white cop on a bicycle is following me at a distance. It's just weird. I'm by myself on the road and this cop on a bicycle is slowly following me, watching me. Suddenly, he races up to me, handcuffs me, and claims that I had dropped drugs in the desert. He calls backup and all these cops arrive and start looking for imaginary drugs in the desert. I was out there for hours.
"After that experience, my consciousness came alive. I decided to take hiphop seriously and started rapping about real issues."
Teodros's progressive political position is not new to hiphop—that stance goes all the way back to the early '80s and tracks like "The Breaks" and "The Message." These were the first rap songs that went beyond bragging about living larger than large and instead addressed the realities of living in the projects, economic recession, police brutality, and addiction to drugs and mindless entertainment.
What is new about Teodros's politics is his aggressive feminism.
Teodros wants to offer much more than the mere recognition and respect that progressive male rappers have traditionally shown toward women. He wants the destruction of the current state of things and the institution of a whole new relationship that allows women to flourish and excel—even at the price of male privilege. "I want it all to end/the greed, homophobia, and sexism/I want to change what it means to be masculine/and see hiphop grow to raise strong women," he raps in "Warriors." This is the heart of Lovework: the death of a limited progressive male agenda and the realization of a new program that puts "ladies first."
"There are lots of brothers who act like they respect women, but really they are as bad as the rest," Teodros says. "They don't want change; it's all talk. I want brothers to step back and let women lead the way. That's what I'm about."