Portland is a little city but in it there are many things: people who wear tight jeans, ironic mustaches, too many indie-rock bands, the Trail Blazers. There are also things about Portland that don't suck. Its hiphop scene, for example.

For most touring "underground" hiphop acts, Portland is a take-it-or-leave-it scenario in between good gigs in the Bay and Seattle. Observers of the Portland scene note dejectedly that the only acts who consistently do well in town are from Quannum or are named Slug; something hippies can plug into their rotation, which gives them cause to say, "I like good hiphop." Portland has its fair share of wack local acts, cats who don't deserve the love they demand in bitter call-and-response routines, but Portland also has its fair share of incredibly talented performers who either don't get the love they deserve or are just starting to now.

DJ Wicked is the consummate professional hiphop DJ. Put simply, he's Portland's Jazzy Jay. He's the Northwest's Roc Raida. If you haven't heard of him, that's your fault, not his. Wicked has been playing shows on a multiple-days-a-week basis in Portland, the Northwest, and the country at large for over a decade and his turntable skills prove it. He's recorded numerous albums and projects—most recently the Fuck the Radio mixtape and a split 12-inch with fellow veteran Portland turntablist DJ Void. Wicked has also toured the nation alongside Seattle scene kings Grayskul. The man is a master. Go online right now, buy Fuck the Radio, and listen to his scratch solo on "Imaginary Scratches"—it's the single-illest, most technically perfect scratch routine you'll ever hear. Seriously.

Wicked might be the single-most talented member of the Portland hiphop scene, but as far as groups who are garnering the most buzz, only one word comes to mind: Sandpeople. A 10-man crew of heavyweights, Sandpeople emerged onto the scene only a few years ago and already have three albums, numerous sold-out shows, and more fans in town than any group besides Lifesavas can boast. Their special relevance is not in their originality—listeners of other "underground" acts will not be surprised by their song topics or styles—but in their prodigious skills. Each member of the crew of nine MCs (two of whom make the beats) and one DJ is talented enough to be a solid solo act in his own right, a distinction reminiscent of a certain legendary hiphop act alongside which Sandpeople will perform this New Year's Eve at Portland's Roseland Theater—Wu-Tang Clan.

Between Wicked and Sandpeople, there's legacy to the PDX hiphop community. It's too brief for a changing of the guard just yet—more like an adding to the old guard with a new guard so that collectively the future of Portland hiphop is, um, well guarded. Graham Barey


Up in Vancouver, British Columbia aka Vancity—a rapper named Web is recording "Live and Direct," the final track of a promotional project he's been working on with Violator All-Stars' DJ Jam-X. The studio he's in is a temporary setup in the back of the Ephin Apparel headquarters, a clothing store equal parts hiphop boutique and skate shop. Graffiti covers the walls. Outside, howling winds spatter the city with rain. It took Web two hours to get to the studio tonight; he's here by default. The last thing he wants is to be called a "Vancouver MC."

"Everything is wrong with [the local scene]," says Web, who first generated buzz as one-half of Vancouver's Usual Suspecs. Though he currently bounces between Toronto, Los Angeles, and New York pursuing a solo career, he's temporarily back in Vancouver for family reasons. "From the talent pool to the way business is conducted... it's kind of perplexing to me how [Canadian media outlets] only support artists that seem to be mimicking [American artists] and doing a really poor job at it, to the point where it's embarrassing."

"It seems that people are struggling to find themselves," says Moka Only, a veteran of the city's hiphop scene. He is, somewhat unwittingly, best known for his affiliation with Swollen Members, with whom he garnered three Junos, the Canadian equivalent to the Grammys. "I can name a bunch of artists here who are doing their thing, but I've heard a lot of unsavory stuff. It ain't a good look, just following trends."

There are pockets of original talent: Rascalz, pioneers since the early '90s and arguably Vancouver's most crucial hiphop group; Sweatshop Union, who explore social and political issues; countless DJs—Kemo, Neoteric, Hedspin, Pluskratch, Wundrkut. Artists like these make Vancouver bleep on the radar of Canadian hiphop and hold a light to the K-OSs and Kardinal Offishalls out east in Toronto. They infuse the local landscape with a sense of potential, but the spark to set the scene ablaze is missing.

Part of the problem is the fact that the Canadian talent pool isn't deep enough to make a splash. Artists who develop their own styles will never be heard by more than a loud minority. "The market is way too small to sell any substantial amount of music," Web says. "You're in a country of 33 million people [compared to the United States' 301 million], so even if you have nationwide distribution, your chance of selling over 100,000 is really slim."

Because of its youth, Vancouver's scene hasn't had time to develop much of an infrastructure. "For me, it was a lack of people and businesses and companies that can help me out with what I'm doing," Web says. "In Los Angeles, the opportunity really is there. You can make your life change within seconds. In Vancouver, you can spend your whole life trying to change the situation but it will never change, strictly because it doesn't have the right people."

Systems implemented to provide that infrastructure and boost the profile of Canadian music are questionable. A government-mandated regulation that requires radio and television broadcasters to play at least 35 percent Canadian content often results in stations fulfilling the quota by playing already-established acts like Avril Lavigne or Alanis Morissette rather than taking a chance on independent music. VideoFACT, funded by the MuchMusic Network (Canada's equivalent to MTV), offers grants of up to $25,000 to improve the quality of Canadian music videos. It has fared better, though the selection process is unpredictable. "VideoFACT turns down every single application that I give them, so I don't put too much faith in VideoFACT at all," Moka says.

Vancouver is an oasis of unmet potential. Today's artists are met with indifference; tomorrow's may never come to be because the scene lacks the resources to aid their development. Artists can learn from the cities south of the border, but they must establish their own identity for anyone outside the region to take notice. Let's call it a work in progress—with the emphasis on work. Andrea Woo

Graham Barey is a freelance writer, beat producer, graphic designer, and monkey trainer living in Portland, Oregon.

Andrea Woo is from Vancouver and lives in a pineapple under the sea.