Central District MC Porter Ray Has the Goods and the GLD
On Aurora Avenue, in the remodeled house/marijuana dispensary called "Cesar's Salad," hiphop music plays loudly, and a circle of engineers, producers, rappers, and DJs huddle around Porter Ray like he's a light. Taking in the attention, the 25-year-old Central District MC with the high-pitched voice does glow, a little. The circle huddles because Porter Ray Sullivan, or simply Porter Ray (rap name equals real name), is playing new, unreleased music for the first time. And when it comes to this rapper, whom Seattle hiphop god Ishmael Butler calls "the golden child," that's an event.
Porter's debut album, BLK GLD, came out last spring, and it is one of the must-downloads of Seattle rap music in 2013 (I would argue it is the main must-download, along with ILLFIGHTYOU's debut album). It's an online song bundle that holds together as a complete musical thought, beats working with the rhymes, to showcase Porter's sparkling voice—a light, slangy, and relaxed instrument he should be thanking the stars he doesn't have to go to the trouble of putting on. He has a gift. In conversation, it's the same voice. That's just the way Porter sounds. The highlight of BLK GLD is "Blackberry Kush," a song that's trippy and rainy like Seattle, and deep and compassionate like Porter. You have already heard it if you listen to KEXP's Street Sounds, where he did an in-studio performance and was interviewed by host Larry Mizell Jr. Porter's double EP WHT GLD/RSE GLD—out October 18—sounds just like BLK GLD because it's from the same recording sessions two years ago, and thou shalt download that, too. It's all excellent fall music, jazzy and muted in an underground 1990s fashion—truly something to carve your pumpkin to.
"People say I sound like Nas in Ish's voice," says Porter, meaning Butler, "who are the people I've been modeling my style after my whole life."
He also sounds a lot like Central District hiphop from the 1990s, which is where/when he grew up. The neighborhood is a cradle of Seattle hiphop with an ancient history that includes Sir Mix-A-Lot doing shows at the Boys & Girls Club in the 1980s. But Porter's Central District influence is the heady '90s era, marked by Tribal Productions' Do the Math album and groups like Ghetto Children and Narkotik, which created a special, sample-based haze. "I'm a good listener," Porter says. He's also a minor historian of his home area, since that's all throwback music to him.
In the studio, Porter plays several other albums he's working on, in various stages of completion. All of them come back to his voice, which never fails to twankle and glisten. And his diction is dope; he picks good words. As he sits back with his MacBook, the inner circle quotes lines. Cesar Clemente III—proprietor, artist, supplier of the studio—shakes his head, reciting raps from an untitled, unreleased song he heard for the first time seconds ago: "I think bro had his phone tapped/Feds turning homies into known rats/Selling dope on his iPhone/Either end up booked or get his dome blapped."
This is where hiphop evolves in Seattle: unknown MCs rapping in secret studios over beats by unheard-of producers. Everybody vibing. It's a level that will always exist. But now, major label A&Rs are interested. Where's the next Macklemore? (Hint: There is no next Macklemore. Sub-hint: The next Macklemore is hiding in a bunker with the next Kurt Cobain.) Managers are jumping out of the woodwork. Speculators are speculating. Labels are offering deals (ask your rapper friends). Porter has been approached, and although he's flattered by that, he's playing it cool for now—staying in the studio surrounded by old-school homies. "I'm really just working on my craft," he says.
A possible model for that could be THEESatisfaction, the recently ascendant and prolific duo that released several albums and mixtapes independently before signing to Sub Pop, and still continue to do it themselves from time to time (they featured Porter at one of their seasonal Black Weirdo parties). In an interview on the Sway's Universe website, Porter said he respects Macklemore's hustle because "he's a great example of an artist that isn't relying on the major labels."
Porter is recording all the time now, but historically, slowness has been a part of his process. He rapped casually since birth and didn't take music seriously until he was 21, when his brother Aaron John Sullivan (the graffiti writer "Orke," then 18) was murdered in Leschi after a disagreement: "That lit the fire under my ass. I was hella depressed, but it gave me hella shit to talk about."
Using tiny, precise penmanship, Porter penned 800 pages of lyrics and ideas in black-and-white notebooks (800 pages, people)—material he would use for the GLD sessions. What kind of young person writes 800 pages longhand? A person with great dedication who spends time alone and is trying to process something. One of the songs from BLK GLD, "5950s," is about people getting shot in Seattle. Porter's coping mechanism is to be neutral and stoned: "Everybody beefin'/I just ride around chiefin'."
He tends to rap about crime and violence through the window of a car. Since the GLD material comes from this long gestation period, and because Porter is such a close listener to his surroundings, his perspective is different than more shallow rappers. Also, he's different in general. A romantic, you could say. Porter is uncommonly sentimental about the breeze blowing ashes off girls' North Face fleeces, for instance (in the song "Float"). On "Prolly," he raps with odd compassion: "My managers look at me and see dollar signs/I look at them and I see that we all can shine." Porter looks at individuals and sees "us."
The craziest new music he shares in the Cesar's Salad studio is sci-fi electronic, a project in progress with Seattle/San Francisco producer Tele Fresco. It's very 2013—with notes of producers like Arca, Burial, and Clams Casino—proof that Porter is not stuck in his '90s bubble. One song features autobiography: "In middle school, I was passing fiends/Walking home through these active streets/Central District they trapping deep/Officers quick to blast their heat/Snitches talk, watch how you speak/Floating eighths and blasting beats/Everyone out here trying to eat/The difference is we took a leap/And that's what makes us so unique."