Seattle Blows Up with Local Hiphop
The Return of the Artists in 2005
For local hiphop, 2005 was an extraordinary year. The quality of the contributions from both veterans and new jacks was unusually high, their work driven by the kind of ambition that in the past was found only on occasional releases. As examples, in 2004, Specs One's Return of the Artist and the Blue Scholars' Blue Scholars had all of the energy and drive; the year before that it was Silent Lambs Project's Street Talkin'... Survival, which, sadly, was hard to find and received little or no airplay. But this year we witnessed a half-dozen outstanding hiphop albums, three of which are local masterpieces.
Two of the main forces behind this year's productive explosion are managers Jonathan Moore and Marc Matsui. Moore manages Bean One, Choklate, Boom Bap Project, and Grayskul; Matsui manages the most visible hiphop group of the moment, Blue Scholars. Not only have the two managers pushed their acts aggressively, they've also connected them to local rock clubs and the music scene at large. Their consistent efforts have resulted in a steady stream of music that has a distinct sound and source. Not all of the best CDs of 2005 came from Moore's and Matsui's camps—in fact, Specs One's Mega EP was sold out of a backpack—but they centralized hiphop in an unprecedented way, giving our hiphop scene more coherence and a wider audience. Matsui and particularly Moore have circulated rap acts, and cohered Seattle's hiphop; the economic fact of the matter is South Seattle's serious hiphop has to connect with Capitol Hill's indie-rock scene to survive.
Another factor in our favor: Props must go to KEXP for liberating local hiphop from the ghetto of its long-running rap show, Street Sounds (Sundays, 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.—the deadest hours on a dead night). Most of our great local groups can be heard regularly on KEXP, which has a strong listenership within and beyond our city limits, thanks to a robust web presence. In the past, local rappers tried to get their work on KUBE, but that proved to be a waste of time. A more direct link to listeners worldwide—and a greater appreciation for local artists—can be found through KEXP. Cancer Rising, for example, frequently receive e-mails from around the world thanks to their song "Play It Again" being in regular KEXP rotation.
Real praise also has to go to the beat designers, who made music that's world-class in its production and its artistry. Principally, Jake One, Bean One, and Vitamin D raised the level of the game and achieved national profiles—Jake One has worked the G-Unit; Vitamin D has worked Gift of Gab; Bean One has worked with members of Jurassic 5. Seattle can have 100 Rakims but without one Eric B. the scene wouldn't amount to a hill of beans.
Framework is the street name for Keith Russell. Hello World is his debut CD, and it stands as this year's highest achievement in hiphop. Not since Silent Lambs Project's Soul Liquor has there been a recording that erupts with so much creativity—in both senses of the word: innovation and procreation. There are 20 tracks packed into this CD, and all are rich, thick, and fecund. Hello World gives the distinct impression that Framework, the rapper, and Bean One, the producer, could easily go beyond the physical limits of the CD, and add 20 more equally superb tracks. When Bean One and Framework connect, the results are volcanic.
Hello World was recorded in Bean One's house in the University District. "It took 31 days to make," explains Bean One. "I gave Framework seven CDs of beats. He took them home, wrote stuff, and then he started coming around to my place at 12 at night to record. He was always on time, and wouldn't be drunk or high but ready for some go-get-it shit. And that's the kind of professionalism I admire. Some rappers come to my place and they are so high they don't know what they're doing, and begin wasting my time. Framework was there on time and ready to work."
Framework's raps are about street life—thugging for a living, hustling hard drugs, dealing with obdurate cops, going in and out of America's bloated prison system. "I'm from the streets where it's scandalous/don't be feeling scared while teenagers that be acting mannish," raps Framework, who was recently released from King County Regional Justice Center, where he spent a good part of this hiphop-splendid year. "I don't always agree with what he has to say," explains Bean One, "but he has the natural elements that make an emcee: elements of cadence, chrism, and imagination. And that is why I have to work with him. There are people who say things that I agree with but they sound like shit. And I can't work with them."
As Common Market, RA Scion and DJ Sabzi released a CD that is rock solid. Unlike Framework's hypercreative Hello World, which bubbles and froths wonderfully all over the place, Common Market is clean, clear, and shaped by precious patience. Very little is wasted on this CD—which was recorded over four months in Sabzi's Beacon Hill studio. Every beat and its matching rap is the product of what DJ Premier famously called "deep concentration." DJ Sabzi and RA Scion first worked together on two tracks on RA Scion's Live & Learn, and soon after the CD was released the two decided to renew and widen their relationship to a full-length CD. In the way that Mobb Deep's single "Shook Ones Pt. II" was expanded into the greatest rap CD of the '90s, Hell on Earth, Live and Learn's "The Water" was expanded into Common Market.
"RA Scion is older than me, and he has a style that really comes out of the early '90s," explains Sabzi. "Not that it's out of date or anything. It allowed me to think about hiphop from a historical perspective. I had to mine sounds and samples that could work with his flow. RA Scion is a conscious rapper and [the early '90s] was the period of conscious rapping."
If white rappers are to make a real contribution to hiphop, it is to connect the music with the global, anti-capitalist movement. And this is precisely what RA Scion does so impressively. For him, it's not about "elephants and asses" but getting down with "activists"—those who were on the streets in 1999 protesting WTO, those who are against the current war in Iraq, who are against corporate exploitation of Third World labor. Hiphop must be plugged into these new, post-fordist revolutionary flows.
Although his knowledge of rapping is impeccable—as demonstrated on the CD's concluding track "Doors"—RA Scion's moralizing can get a bit heavy at times. In "Every Last One," Common Market's best track, he states that the world would be a better place if we changed liquor stores into art galleries. (The problem with this proposition is there's more good wine in this city than there is good art, and adding new galleries is not going to change that fact.) But then again, RA Scion descends from a long and vital hiphop tradition of teaching the youth ("for me emcee means mentor the child," he raps on "Doors"), which is why his hero is KRS-One, the father of hiphop moralizing ("I don't eat goat or ham or hamburger, because for me that's self-murder"—from "My Philosophy," the record that tops RA Scion's eternal hiphop list).
If the Northwest Oldominion crew has an artistic peak, it's Grayskul's Deadlivers, which has one of the greatest opening lines of our (post-9-11) times: "If ever there was a time in your life to be afraid/I think this qualifies as the most terrifying of days" ("Behold"). Released by Rhymesayers Entertainment, Deadlivers is relentlessly dark and menacing, with flawless production. More than any other Oldominion record, Grayskul's sound is both cinematic and architectural. Listening to Deadlivers is much like watching the shadow of a man—a murderer? a superhero? a vampire?—walking through wet, windswept streets. The beats are built big with splendid gothic details, and above black rushing clouds, is a moon that is silver and monstrously pregnant. In Deadlivers the horror/crime/sci-fi image is translated into sonic forms.
"We did about 50 songs," explains Mr. Hill, who provided most of the beats for Deadlivers. "Castro, Onry, JFK came up with the idea of Grayskul and they wanted to use my style of music. Critics often describe it as dark, sinister, or theatrical, but to me it just sounds normal. I never think it's that dark; it's just my ear, the way I like to hear things. Some of the beats we used were made as far back as 1999, but most were made while we were putting the record together." Grayskul's core is Onry Ozzborn, who plays a character named Reason, and JFK, who plays Recluse, and their rhymes are twisted like a madman's mind, heavier than a tombstone, and as shadowy as the evil eyes of Bela Lugosi. Mr. Hill's music complements Grayskul's grave fiction. In fact, if there is one producer who has really helped define the region's somber aesthetic, it is Mr. Hill, who contributed four beats to Silent Lambs Project's darkling Street Talkin'... Survival and will contribute two beats to Kool Keith's next Dr. Octagon CD.
"The thing about hiphop," Mr. Hill explains, "is it takes 30 minutes or two days to make, so it's all about each song. But once I make a beat [Grayskul] go into the studio, and while putting the track together things begin to change. What we start with is never what we end with."
Boom Bap Project
Karim, Destro, and DJ Scene are Boom Bap Project, and like Grayskul they're signed to the Minneapolis-based Rhymesayers label. Reprogram is Boom Bap Project's first full-length CD, and it was designed not to disappoint. Reprogram is packed with contributions from the best in the local and national scene. It has production work from Seattle's big three: Jake One, Vitamin D, and Bean One. Mr. Hill and Jumbo the Garbage Man (of Lifesavas) also supplied beats, and Gift of Gab (Blackalicious) and Rakaa Iriscience (Dilated Peoples) supplied raps. This record serves as a model for the kind of hiphop professionalism and ambition that can open the wide world to our mid-sized city.
Boom Bap Project released a fantastic track on Reprogram that exactly compressed a city's dominant economic mode into a pure code of soul. The track is called "Reprogram," it was produced by the king of local beat designers, Vitamin D, and brings near-perfect expression to an age, a city that's dominated by software programmers. (L.A.'s Styles of Beyond have done something similar with their city, by making hiphop that sounds like big budget movies.) The music on "Reprogram" is slightly melancholy, melodic, with sound effects that imagine the experience of being inside the World Wide Web, and raps that demand, by reprogramming, the transformation of software consumers into revolutionary subjects. "Reprogram" is the crowning achievement of the CD.
Cancer Rising's Search for the Cure represents a clear break from Seattle's hiphop continuum. Grayskul can be traced all the way back to the mid '90s, to the political gloom of Black Anger; Boom Bap Project can be traced back to Source of Labor; Framework can be traced back to Kid Sensation (and also Criminal Nation). No such link exists for the rappers Judas, Gatsby (AKA Larry Mizell Jr., who pens The Stranger's "My Philosophy" column), and DJ Tiles One, who make up Cancer Rising. A big reason for this is the music itself, which was produced by Manat MacLeod and Matt Wong, the Defkidz.
"When we started," explains MacLeod, "we thought it would be quick and simple, but then it got more creative. I would come up with crazy stuff and [the rappers] would match it. I had the green light to do whatever I wanted. And the reason why the record sounds unusual is because I don't listen to hiphop anymore. I love hiphop. I love the Def Jux stuff and the Roots, but the music is not adventurous. What I'm listening to is the Flaming Lips, stuff like the Secret Machines, and I took that to the music side, where I was coming up with beats." The rock element in Search for the Cure is strong but not enough to make it a rock record; it's still solid hiphop. And hiphop has always taken large chunks from rock, reggae, classical music—anything that worked with what Q-Tip famously called "that old boom bap."
"Local producers like Vitamin D and Jake One are my favorites," MacLeod explains, "but I decided to pay my respects to them by doing something totally different."
To end the excellent year, Blue Scholars released an EP with eight melancholy tracks that match the mood of late fall, with its denuded trees and low grey clouds. Against Sabzi's slow and soulful beats, Geologic digs deep into his life, his troubled upbringing, his education, his labors, and his anger with the wage (slave) system. Unlike the duo's positive debut, Blue Scholars, there's now a hint of defeat in Geologic's voice and raps, as he tries to figure out ways to overcome capitalist exploitation, and unify the realities of workers in Peru (for example) with the realities of workers in South Seattle. He wants to topple what Public Enemy once called "the power," but how in the world can this happen? In the song "La Botella," Geologic goes to a bar and drowns these difficulties in happy-hour drinks. For this reason, Blue Scholar's sophisticated brand of music, gloom, booze, and radical politics can be described as Maker's Marxism.
On to the Future
Finally, there are two more CDs that deserve mention: Macklemore's The Language of My World, and Specs One's Mega EP... A new and hungry cat created the former; one of the most consistent underground headz in the Pacific Northwest made the latter. All in all, these artists helped make 2005 the year that earned Seattle a big "Hiphop hooray.../ho.../hey.../ho..."
Blue Scholars' CD release shows are Sat Dec 3 at Chop Suey, w/Masta Ace & Wordsworth, two shows: w/Boom Bap Project, Abyssinian Creole, DJ Jonce & Marc Sense (5 pm, $8, all ages); w/Vitamin D, Cancer Rising, J-Tyme & Marc Sense (9:30 pm, $12, 21+).