With the fog around us, we entered a dark street (or was it an alley?) somewhere on Capitol Hill. I was with a friend. We were looking for FUCC, a pirate radio station that had moved to this location from Belltown. This was the time before internet radio, a time when the airwaves still captured our political and cultural imaginations. Keith, the friend walking with me, was young but already balding. He wore a brown sports jacket and white shoes. In his hands were jazz records he wanted to play on the air. We finally found the place and knocked on the door. It was opened by a handsome, almost tall, and very relaxed black man—he was the DJ that night. We entered the room. It was small and had a couple of chairs, a couple of record crates, and a table that supported the radio equipment. This was FUCC.
The DJ was DeVon Manier. I had never met him before in my life, but Keith had nothing but nice things to say about him—his great taste in music, his connections, his intelligent way of thinking about life and Seattle. That night, Manier played mostly soul records, a few old skool hiphop records (at that time, 3 Feet High and Rising and Straight out the Jungle were already old skool, already in the distant past, and hiphop's dark, underground moment was right around the corner). I had one request for Manier, Loose Ends' "Hangin' on a String," which he located in his crate, removed from its sleeve, placed on the turntable, and played on the airwaves.
In 2002, Manier started, with the help of some friends (particularly Fleeta Partee and BeanOne), a record label called Sportn' Life Records. But before getting into that, let's take a quick pass through Manier's past. He was born in Los Angeles, was raised in the Seattle area, and developed an interest in the city's music and club culture in the late 1980s. He was not indifferent to the then-growing grunge world; indeed, he was close to the heart of it. "In that time, I really liked Mother Love Bone, and also Green Apple Quick Step were some of my best friends. I go back to Tacoma with those guys," he explained during a recent conversation. "Some of the guys from Green Apple are still my good friends to this day." But Manier's real roots are in the black indie funk bands of the 1990s. "Imij and Action Buddy, that's what I was really into. You know—it was really exciting hearing that music. There was a whole wave of black funk bands that Action Buddy was spearheading." If Action Buddy or Imij received the recognition they deserved, they would be something like TV on the Radio.
Sportn' Life Records began with the vinyl of Last Man Standing's "We Are" and Danger's "You Need a Thug" (Danger is now called Nissim but is best known as D.Black) in 2002. Both songs were produced and recorded by Vitamin D, a much-respected producer whose studio, the Pharmacy, operated for a moment in Nissim's house. The label had a mission: find young talent in the hood (Central District and Rainier Valley), record it, and promote it not only in the hood but in the city's centers. "After we opened the studio, we opened our doors to the young people on the block," explained Manier. "If you were raw and had talent, we just opened the door and let you into the studio. And D.Black had a world of friends—young friends. That's how we meet Dyme Def, J. Pinder, Spac3man. Some stuck with the program, some didn't. But that's what we were about; we focused on young talent coming out of the hood. It was a demographic that wasn't being represented or focused on in Seattle. And if it was, it was kind of generic, and it definitely wasn't reaching Capitol Hill or downtown. We thought, let's get the good stuff and take it downtown."
The label's first big record was D.Black's The Cause & Effect in 2006, but things didn't really start snapping until the 2009 release of D.Black's second record, Ali'Yah. "That album and D.Black's appearance on Jake One's White Van Music on the track 'God Like' was the turning point for the label," Manier remembered. "After that album and Jake One's track, people who would not answer calls or e-mails started returning calls and answering e-mails. I could call Rhymesayers Entertainment and they'd actually pick up the phone. Babygrande knew who I was. And DJ Premier knew who D.Black was. Everything changed." The next big moment for the label was signing Fly Moon Royalty in 2010, a producer/singer duo (Action Jackson and Adra Boo) that's been generating a lot of praise and excitement. "They were another turning point for us. When I first saw them perform at an event thrown by my girlfriend and her friends, I saw that they could fill something that was missing from Seattle's scene. You know, we really didn't have an electro soul act. I snatched them right up. I've been working with them for two years, and it's been great. Just great."
Altogether, Sportn' Life Records has released 57 singles, 11 full projects, and three local classics (Fatal Lucciauno's The Only Forgotten Son, Fly Moon Royalty's Dimensions, and D.Black's Ali'Yah) in a decade. This, considering the prevailing hiphop climate, is impressive. Manier mused: "You know, Macklemore used to open for D.Black. Now look where he is. Now D.Black opens for him. That's fine. All I want is to keep in the business and keep developing acts we like."