What We Learn When Northwest Hiphop Comes Together in One Room
We met at the Eritrean restaurant on 20th Avenue South and South Jackson Street called Hidmo in the middle of the day. At the table sat eight rappers, two journalists, one producer, and a manager. A plate of black cookies moved around the table; the sunny sounds of Bole2Harlem played on the stereo; outside snow fell softly.
What brought these people to the roundtable was The Program, a five-day hiphop bonanza, a first of its kind, a celebration of the region's hiphop culture. Blue Scholars organized the event and headline all five nights.
Back in 1989, Sub Pop threw a weekend-long festival of Seattle's rock bands—from Cat Butt to Love Battery—called the Ultra Lame Fest. The Program is doing something similar with hiphop. As with the Sub Pop show at CoCA, it is a statement of confidence, a statement of arrival.
Geologic, MC of Blue Scholars
Syndel, Sirens Echo from Portland
Vitamin D, Seattle's number-one producer
Karim, the Boom Bap Project, formerly of Seattle now in San Francisco
Can-U, rapper from Tacoma
Neema, Unexpected Arrival of Bellevue
Grynch, rapper from Ballard
RA Scion, MC of Seattle's Common Market
Kyle Kraft, general manager of Vancouver's Battle Axe Records
Thig Natural, rapper for emerging Seattle crew the Physics
The Stranger: Is our scene a young scene?
Vitamin D: Yeah, it's young and getting younger.
Geologic: They're all in high school.
Vitamin D: I don't even know anyone in the hiphop shows. Nobody my age comes out to the shows. [Vitamin is in his 30s.]
Karim: In the Bay, it's a way older crowd.
RA Scion: Why do you think that is? Why is the scene younger?
Vitamin D: Technology probably. We didn't even come up on the internet. You know, to us that was some expensive, privileged shit. That's how my generation still kind of looks at it, especially in the hood. I mean, the older cats don't got Gmail; they don't know nothing about Gmail. And we're not on these chat rooms. I won't be on this—what do they call it?—206 something.
Vitamin D: And the young guys are the ones that promote and stuff, so there's definitely a generation gap.
Vitamin D: I don't think Seattle has a sound at all. I think the whole thing is like us not really being influenced by our own sound. Our problem is we're going for everyone else's sound.
The Stranger: You gotta elaborate on that.
Vitamin D: I'm coming from the studio perspective so I'm kind of watching everybody do their thing. We have a diverse sound—it seems like everyone's going in different directions, and I don't hear it. I don't hear a Seattle beat. Even in the records and stuff, it just sounds like we're emulating other people. That's what I'm saying. And I'm guilty of it too. I'm not excluding myself.
RA Scion: To me it's like this: We hear the beat and think, that's a Vitamin beat, or that's a Jake One beat. And so then we automatically identify it as Northwest, but I don't know what it is about the sound that we are identifying as a Northwest sound.
Karim: I'm sorry, but you listen to Barfly [of the Saturday Knights and Nite Owls] or a Grayskul record, for instance, I don't think anything in the game sounds like that. It's gloomy. I think the gloominess definitely has something to do with where we are. When I wake up every morning in the Bay and it's sunny and I find my demeanor is a little happier—I swear to god.
RA Scion: I'm particularly interested in the concept [of a regional sound] because I'm not from the Northwest and this opens up a whole new challenge for an MC because hiphop is so geocentric. And it's like you have to choose an area to rep, right? Basically, you gotta carry some location—an area code—on your back, right? So, how many people here are not from Seattle? [Almost everyone raises a hand.] Yeah, you see? Neither is Death Cab for Cutie, right? You see what I'm getting at?
Syndel: I get what Vitamin D is saying, that everyone is trying to sound like other people, but I still try to support local guys [in Portland] as much as possible. I'll go to their shows and parties and support even if I don't like their music, just to support.
Vitamin D: Is that keeping it real though?
Geologic: You could do both. You could go to the show and then tell them afterward they need to work on it. I appreciate the people who've done that for me.
Vitamin D: But why should I give support?
Syndel: I'm not saying you should support; that's something that I do. I think if everyone supported everyone it'd be a better community.
Vitamin D: If everyone chose who they supported, I think the community would be better. Our filter system is gone. You know what I mean? There used to be a filter system. At I-Spy [a dead, downtown club], I used to see fools get thrown offstage. Suckers were told: "Get off the mic, punk!" It used to go down like that. That kind of changed around 2000. There wasn't consequences for wackness.
Karim: There's no parameters on what it takes to be an artist these days. You go and download Fruity Loops or something, you got your little mic, you mail yourself a CD in a padded envelope like, "Hey, I got myself a record label."
Grynch: There was this dude selling his CD the other day; it looked really nice. I was like, "Okay, it looks cool," so I bought it, popped it in, and I was like, this guy recorded this on a computer mic or something. It just killed me.
Can-U: You have to pay your dues but sometimes you just get hated on. For no reason, people will neglect you. And for some, it's been like that since day one. But then eventually somebody tells them about you, things improve, and you get on the bandwagon.
RA Scion: Out of one side of our mouth we talk about no opportunities, and the solution to that is create your own opportunity, and then we got these young kids that throw their own shows and we're like, fuck that, you can't do a show because you suck.
Kraft: We're talking about Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, but we're leaving out a lot of towns that actually started coming up regionally, like...
Geologic: Bend, Oregon!
Kraft: Yeah—you could go to Bend, Oregon, and it'll pop. At small-ass tertiary markets, I feel bad sending these guys out there and they come back like, yo, 200 people came out and we got our rent paid.
Geologic: That's something that people in the bigger cities do not recognize at all. They hear Bellingham: "Oh you're going to Bellingham? Good luck with that show." And I'm like, dude it's our sixth time back this year; this show's going to be packed.
Karim: Sure, but it doesn't extend to Bozeman [Montana].
Kraft: It doesn't?
Karim: Bozeman sucks.
Karim: Boom Bap Project and Grayskul [were on tour] and we didn't get our permits for a show in Vancouver. We went up there with a shitload of merch in our car and lied about what we were doing. The border people looked in the car, the saw the merch, and then went online to the Rhymesayers website. They got a big flashing "Grayskul, Boom Bap in Vancouver, Show Tonight!" So we spent five hours at the border and were banned from touring in Canada for five years. But there used to be a bridge between Seattle and Vancouver, and we'd cross it all the time. Swollen Members would come down, Moka Only would come down.... There was way more of a bridge like 2000 to 2003.
Kraft: Vancouver doesn't have a lot of culture. It's got a lot of multicultural diversity, different people from different places, but it doesn't have much culture, and I'm not really sure why. In Vancouver, the Georgia Straight, which is the equivalent of The Stranger, is a lot less of an entertainment publication than it has been in the past. On the back page of the Georgia Straight there used to be an ad for a local record store. It advertised all the new releases, and things like that. The back cover has now been replaced by the latest condo developments, and the Georgia Straight is largely getting its ad revenues not from entertainment and shows but from real-estate development. That has an effect on the culture of the city.
The real estate is through the roof. Everyone and their dog is investing in real estate. I can't afford to buy a place in Vancouver. I could buy somewhere and not be happy with where I'm living. So I keep renting. On a similar line, as far as condos changing the face of the city, the development threatens concert venues, the physical spaces for music to happen.
Neema: Hey, Durant relates to hiphop. All the sports and hiphop, they go together hand in hand, I promise you. It might not be literally, but it brings the city's morale up when you see your hometown sports team doing well. It's a factual statement. And when they say, "Save our Sonics," there's more to it than just saving our Sonics. They're really saying, "Save the community." They want people to get involved. I mean it; I will go that deep on it.
Tues Dec 18, all ages
Blue Scholars with Big World Breaks, Swollen Members, Unexpected Arrival, Sirens Echo, DJ DV One
Wed Dec 19, all ages
Blue Scholars, Common Market, D.Black, Sleep of Oldominion, Can-U, DJ Vitamin D
Thurs Dec 20, all ages
Blue Scholars, the Saturday Knights, Khingz, Grynch, DJ B-Mello
Fri Dec 21, all ages
Blue Scholars with Big World Breaks, Dyme Def, J.Pinder, GMK, DJ Jake One
Sat Dec 22, 21+
Blue Scholars, Ohmega Watts, Cancer Rising, the Physics, djblesOne