Next Stop, the World
Rapper Gabriel Teodros Talks About His Next Move at the 206's New Place to Be
The Beacon Hill light rail station elevator announcer sounds British. ("Going daa-own." "Going uuup.") Just down the street is another station, a cafe named, fittingly, the Station.
This Station has replaced Hidmo, which closed its doors in December 2010, as the 206's place to be. The cafe contains a row of tables with tiled tops, a handsome counter, and a short set of steps that lead to a clean bathroom and outdoor seating. For those who need a fruity drink, there's sangria or two types of mimosas (with orange juice or with cider—go for the latter); for those who need a delicious jolt, chocolate Mexicano and mocha Mexicano, the cafe's specialty. Across the street sits a big raised gazebo.
Luis Rodriguez, the owner of the cafe, is originally from Baja, Mexico, and most of his employees have solid reputations in Seattle's underground hiphop scene—WD4D (a DJ and producer associated with the Dropping Gems collective), Rob Castro (a producer associated with the Oldominion collective and the Grayskul outfit), Khingz (a rapper associated with Abyssinian Creole). If you go back to 2005, you will find all three playing significant roles on albums that brought Seattle's underground to the attention of a wider audience—Castro contributed to Deadlivers, and WD4D and Khingz contributed to Sexy Beast.
Indeed, the person who introduced me to the Station is Gabriel Teodros ("I used to wash dishes at Hidmo"), one of the two rappers on Sexy Beast. It happened like this: I stepped out of the Beacon Hill Station ("Going daa-own") and began my long walk to work. The sun was out, a plane rumbled overhead, the Cascades rose in the east and the Olympics in the west. As I walked by bamboo trapped in a work of public art, I heard my name in the windless air. Someone was calling me. Someone outside of my head wanted my attention. I turned my attention to the direction of the call and saw in its place Teodros. He proceeded to waste no time in encouraging me to visit the Station. Why? Because the place has revived the vibe that Hidmo once had.
A few months later, I met Teodros at the Station to discuss his new album, Colored People's Time Machine. We sat at one of the four tables. As I prepared my recorder for the interview, I realized what made the Station such a great hiphop joint: There is nothing hiphop about it. The man and woman sitting on the stools by the window spoke with the owner in Spanish. Two middle-aged white women to my left talked about their kids. A black man on my right drank a beer and surfed the web. An Asian man wearing a Peruvian hat walked in and ordered a bowl of porridge. The barista (a cafe's DJ) played the Supremes' biggest hits ("You Keep Me Hanging On" always breaks my heart). There was nothing here that even whispered 206 hiphop. And this is precisely what makes it the coolest 206 joint in the city and why it replaced Hidmo: It represents the fact that hiphop is now so much a part of the culture that it no longer needs to distinguish itself. It could be here, at a cafe owned by a Mexican American, or there, at a restaurant owned by East African Americans. In June, the Station celebrated a year of business with a hiphop show at the gazebo across the street: Geo of Blue Scholars, Khingz, King Khazm, and Onry Ozzborn passed the mic.
Back in the cafe, Teodros says, "I remember my first day in Addis Ababa [Ethiopia]," at the beginning our discussion. "I left the guesthouse I was staying at and started watching the street and thinking, 'Man, this place is like anywhere in the United States.' You know, you see nice buildings and car after car. But then, suddenly, you see a donkey. You know what I mean? There's car, car, then a donkey. And the donkey is moving as fast as the cars." Teodros recently toured his motherland (his mother is black Ethiopian, his father is white American), an experience that transformed him. "I want to spend more time there because I feel I can have a bigger impact in Ethiopia than I do here."
If, say, the talented Ballard rapper Grynch told me he wanted to spend more time in Ethiopia (or Norway, for that matter), I would have been surprised. But coming out of Teodros's mouth, it didn't surprise me, for one simple reason: He is the most global rapper in Seattle. Teodros doesn't really live in one city but six cities at once: Vancouver, BC; the Bay Area; Washington, DC; Brooklyn; Addis Ababa; and, of course, Seattle. A year after releasing his first solo album, Lovework (2007), a Massline classic (the Massline label housed Blue Scholars and Common Market from 2006 to 2009), he lived in Vancouver, BC, hosting hiphop workshops and collaborating with Foundation Radio on Back to the Source, a very popular hiphop night at the Ethiopian restaurant Nyala. In 2009, he lived in Brooklyn and completed the earthy album Air 2 a Bird with Amos Miller, and the superb mixtape GT's Ethiopium: A Jitter Generation Mixtape, and the Lintel Soup EP. In 2011, he spent time in DC, which has the largest Ethiopian community in the United States, and completed an as-of-yet-untitled album ("It's currently on a hard drive in Addis Ababa"). Also in 2011, he spent time in Oakland recording a soon-to-be-released "space opera" called Earthbound with CopperWire—a group project with Burntface and Meklit Hadero.
This brings us to his new solo album, Colored People's Time Machine, which was recorded in Brooklyn and Seattle, features production work from BeanOne and WD4D, contains several slamming tracks, and is a profoundly personal work. Teodros fearlessly reveals the complicated contents of his soul: his problematic relationship with his father, his mother, himself, his cities, his societies, his histories. "I tried to push myself to talk about subjects I was afraid to talk about. I rap about the day I was considering suicide, racism on both sides of my family, domestic violence, the death of my grandmother. It was a healing I had to do."
And why did he call it Colored People's Time Machine? "It came from different places. One is an Ethiopian guy in DC who told a group of us that it wasn't until you moved to the United States that time became a commodity. Here, time is about your society; back home, time is about you. There's also this negative sense of time, CPT. I wanted to embrace all of these senses of time."
And, finally, the Station: "This is my favorite coffee shop in the city. This is the place where my whole city comes through." Indeed, a whole city seems to come in and out of the Station. Beacon Hill is a planet.