"Hood niggas," explains Raz Simone, "don't listen to Talib Kweli. Hood niggas don't listen to Common. They respect Kendrick—but they're actually bumpin' Future... Gucci... Sosa."
We're heading north from the King County Regional Justice Center, where a mutual friend's sentencing trial just went a lot better than expected. Raz was kind enough to offer me a ride up I-5 in his spanking white Tesla, a distinctly Northwest take on the baller rapper-car.
"So," he continues, "you could have all the best intentions, but what does it mean? Are you trying to be looked at as the GOAT, the king, the most skillful rapper—or are you actually trying to create change?"
Solomon Samuel "Raz" Simone is a Seattle rapper who in another life would've probably been a preacher or a bluesman—his penchant for gold jewelry would befit either. His recorded voice creaks like an unoiled barn door, his stark lyrics, dark subject matter, and musical arrangements lend him a gravitas both worldly and consecrated. Raz's raps are unfailingly dead-serious and personal, sharply ricocheting off race, gentrification, and gun violence (just to pick a few) on the way to the hook. His forthrightness on the issues this city is going through give his words an urgency that's lacking throughout the scene. His tendency toward big, string-heavy orchestral backdrops reminds one of a couple other well-known Seattleites; there's Kurt Cobain—in particular the pained covers of Lead Belly and Meat Puppets from the MTV Unplugged performance—and, of course, Macklemore.
Raz, a local fan favorite with a growing national following, went hard against the grain in 2015, spending a lot of it shaking up Seattle rap's mostly picturesque snow globe by actively targeting Macklemore and Sol, the vanguard of local posi-rap. In addition to the full-length Cognitive Dissonance Part II and the mixtape Baby Jesus, he released an EP called Macklemore Privilege & Chief on Keef Violence, taking explicit aim at the town's biggest act, asking what he was doing to reach back. After Sol took exception to being named on that EP's controversial "Same Problems"—a broad critique of how race affected different artists in the local scene differently, definitely meant to get people talking—he put a couple lines about Simone in his "Ain't Gon' Stop." This in turn resulted in Raz's "Charged Up," one of Seattle hiphop's most withering dis tracks to date.
"Whoever wins the war," Raz also tells me, "writes the history."
Speaking of history: I met Raz five or so years back outside the Umoja PEACE Center in the Central District. He was still going by Razpy then, and with his rap-rock band the Vigilantes, which included future "Can't Hold Us" vocalist Ray Dalton, he'd made a name for himself in the 2009 EMP Sound Off! competition (where he'd competed with the just-emerging Sol). It wasn't until the 2012 video for his solo song "They'll Speak," though, that I understood his potential. If you haven't heard any of Raz's work, start here—and if you can, find the original video, not the "Official" remake. Something about the no-budget visuals of the first one matches the rawness of his lyrics.
"How do we fly, why do we lie," asks Raz, clad in a Nirvana tee, "where do us bad people go when we die?" (Unplugged's "Lake of Fire," obviously.) There's no beat, no hook, but still it's one of the most gripping songs Seattle rap has ever produced. Not that Raz would cosign that. He isn't a student of local rap or hiphop in general. "I don't know all about the history," he says, "but I care about people and about culture, so I respect it—and I'm a nigga, so I look at nigga problems. And I always been a person that roots for the underdog, the people who are oppressed."
Raz Simone founded the Black Umbrella label to release his own music and that of another local fan favorite, Sam Lachow. The label has a partnership with 300 Entertainment, the upstart label founded by record industry mogul Lyor Cohen and others, home to Young Thug, Migos, and the record-breaking pop-rapper Fetty Wap. Black Umbrella's roster has since grown to include Tacoma's King Leez and Seattle's "Only Forgotten Son," Fatal Lucciauno.
If there was ever an underdog in this scene, it's Fatal—a massively talented MC who was knocked off of a promising trajectory after being blackballed because of a 2009 shooting at Chop Suey he had nothing to do with. At the time, the way local industry let Fatal swing in the breeze was a big wake-up call.
"When I see that this person's getting counted out," Raz tells me, "that this person's getting sidelined, that they're getting the black-rapper-in-Seattle treatment, I want to use my platform to help. I've always been big on the idea of justice. My mom used to tell me 'Justice' should be my nickname. I would see things and say, 'That is not right. This is not fair.' I understood that life isn't fair. I got that. But somebody's gotta check this. And if nobody's gonna check it, it's gotta be me."
We talk about 2Pac, naturally, how he explicitly made it his mission not to be a mere rapper but to literally embody black struggle, to serve as an example, to inspire (hence his promise that he would "spark the brain that will change the world").
"2Pac was gettin' down on people's level," Raz agrees. "But he had to really get on his greasy. Like, yeah, this is what niggas look like, this is what thug looks like, this is what it stands for—but still making positive things cool at the same time as he was saying, 'I don't give a fuck.'"
Raz asserts that Pac adopted these trappings in an effort to relate to what he calls the "least of these"—as in Matthew 25:40. ("The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'")
"But now the 'least of these' is who I'm trying to relate to," he adds, "like, really to meet people where they're at. I have to go very low and be very, very fucking creative to be able to be sure that this is heard, that this is working." When Raz says "least of these," he's not just thinking about black folks, either. He's no All Lives Matter dude, but his drive to bring people together has informed his music from the jump.
"Since I was a kid," Raz recalls, "I was literally taught to be like Jesus. And I'm still doing it on accident." He laughs, pulling up to my block. "I'm hanging out with the prostitutes and the racketeers. So I'm not trying to be the greatest rapper of all time—I really want to get in the heads and the hearts and the souls of the people who need it the most, starting up from the bottom. Hierarchies of needs. I'm trying to give a fuck about the people in the bottom bracket who are thinking about food and shelter, who can't even think straight, not even thinking logical thoughts from desperation, forced into making bad moves to survive for a little longer. 'Cause I been there... and to an extent, I still am."