Fledgling Seattle record label Mass Line is a natural conclusion to a set of events that have added a whole new moment to local hiphop. At the underground level, post–Sir Mix-A-Lot Seattle has witnessed four consecutive moments, none of which is dead, but all of which continue to radiate, to create: the Silent Lambs Project moment, the Jasiri Media Group moment, the Oldominion moment, and now we have the Mass Line moment. The latter organizes the musical variety of Blue Scholars, Common Market, and Abyssinian Creole into a coherent political and artistic expression that corresponds with social forces that are transforming our city.
Like Mass Line's members, Seattle is becoming increasingly culturally mixed. In 1990, white Americans made up 75 percent of the population; now that figure is close to (or has even passed below) 65 percent. Across the metropolis, from Tacoma to Everett, the number of East Africans and Mexicans has exploded, and the number of Asian Americans, African Americans, and Eastern Europeans continues to grow. The metropolis's cultural mix is mirrored by the ethnicities of the collective, whose DJs and MCs (Iranian American, East-African American, Asian American, white American) will soon begin piping hiphop through Mass Line.
"[Mass Line's] from the masses to the masses," says DJ Sabzi, beat builder for Blue Scholars and Common Market. "The purpose of our music is to be socially relevant to our communities." Sabzi, who now ranks with the city's best producers (Vitamin D, Jake One, Mr. Hill, and Bean One), makes hiphop that is at once traditional and unconventional. For example, "The Water," which he produced in 2004 for RA Scion before they formed Common Market in 2005, has as its base that trusty, dusty "kick, snare, kicks and high-hat" (as Q-Tip put it).
Like most of his creations, DJ Sabzi's "The Water" is faithful to hiphop's essential beat (the beat that severed hiphop's link with disco, the beat many of us heard for the first time in 1982 on Run-D.M.C.'s "Sucker MC's," and since 1997 has been banished to the underground). And yet "The Water" has melodic effects that are, for the genre, unusually free and diaphanous. Fixed to the track's bass line is a tight rotation of bells and chimes that recall DJ Premier's densely processed loops; but above this bass and beat uniformity are echoed, aleatory vibes that drift upward and downward like a cloud of incense. DJ Sabzi's traditional/experimental, order/chaos, past/future, hard/soft binary will inform Mass Line's politics and "science of feeling." (Note: Sabzi and other underground producers with progressive agendas use traditional beats not out of nostalgia, but because current hiphop, a black American form, has lost its revolutionary force. Beats that work best with any commitment to social change are in the past.)
RA Scion says: "Mass Line is the beginning of nothing... It's just a consolidation of what's already there, of what we are already doing. If you want to talk about groundwork, that was done by Vitamin D, Conception Records, Tribal, Ghetto Children..."
Geologic of Blue Scholars says: "We are all involved in some community work of some kind, and we have different fronts on which we do ideological battles—race, class, the environment. Our art reflects that and Mass Line will handle the business side of things." Gabriel Teodros says: "This just didn't happen overnight. Khingz and I released solo records before we hooked up and made Abyssinian Creole. And in 1999 I was in a group called 500 Years. So this is not happening overnight; we've all been part of the scene for a while, and the label will make sense of our music and ideas."
Local club owner/band manager David Meinert's Fuzed Music will manage Mass Line's business end, while Sabzi will control the creative direction. "The idea of the label has been evolving over the year," says Meinert, "and it solidified last month... I wanted to be a part of this because I'm a big fan of Blue Scholars and Common Market, and I agree with their overall political vision."
Mass Line will initially focus on the three primary groups and then eventually expand to include other bands. "We don't want to be big," Meinert concludes. "We just want to direct all of this energy." Mass Line reiterates that Seattle has always been, and will always be, a hiphop town.