After listening to seven unreleased tracks by local hiphop act Grayskul in Rob Castro's bedroom/recording studio this past Halloween, I became certain that they would be next year's main hiphop event in the Pacific Northwest. This year that title was unquestionably held by Portland's Lifesavas, who are signed to San Francisco's Quannum Projects; for 2004, though, it will be Grayskul, who are currently connected with Under the Needle Recordings but are drawing interest from some of the biggest underground hiphop labels in the nation.

Castro plays bass and is a sound engineer for Grayskul, which, like Norman, is less a group and more a concept, designed by Seattle's Onry Ozzborn and Everett's JFK (Ozzborn plays the role of Reason and JFK plays Fiddleback Recluse, a poisonous spider). Both Onry and JFK are longtime members of Oldominion--a massive collective of rappers and producers who are based primarily in Portland and Seattle. For the past two or so years, members and offshoots of Oldominion (Boom Bap Project, Norman, Snafu) have been managed by Jonathan Moore's Jasiri Artist Management and distributed by Marcus Lalario's UTNR. As a whole, the collective represents the most visible and influential underground hiphop movement in Seattle.

Despite being produced by and featuring the same rappers who worked on Onry Ozzborn's 2003 release The Grey Area and exploring similar themes (madness, existential alienation, inner demons) and ending up colored by the same gothic grays, Shostakovichian gloom, and expressionistic shadows, Grayskul sounds and feels like a whole new experiment, a new direction for Oldominion. "We [Onry and JFK] have known each other for eight years and always planned to do something together," explains JFK. "But it's when we heard Cannibal Ox a year or so ago--the way they sounded, the way they took it back to Company Flow--that inspired me and Onry to get our shit done."

It's hard to pinpoint what it is that makes their collaboration stand out against the excellent tradition of hiphop that Oldominion has established over the years--but whatever it is, the result is one of confidence in both the delivery of their raps and the arrangement of their music. Indeed, they have the very same sense of certainty and mission that made Cannibal Ox's first (and now only, as they recently broke up) CD, The Cold Vein, stand out against all the great stuff that their label, Def Jux, released in the late '90s and shortly after the turn of the millennium.

Because of the confidence in their hiphop, big independent labels of Def Jux's stature have started courting Grayskul. As expected, there was a dark rumor that UTNR, which was created for the sole purpose of distributing and marketing Oldominion's CDs, was a little concerned about losing what might turn out to be its best act yet to a more established label. But Lalario dispels that rumor on the spot, telling me that UTNR was very excited about the prospect of Grayskul going to a bigger label. "[Grayskul] is just one project that Onry and JFK are putting out amongst others. So if [Grayskul] goes to a different label that's fine, since [UTNR] has JFK's solo album, which we can follow [Grayskul] up with. And we've got Onry's solo project that we can follow that up with, too. It would be a benefit to us for them to get national attention on a more prominent underground hiphop label... I'm not hating, I'm happy about it."

But still, if Grayskul were to be signed to, say, Def Jux, they might be recognized as a New York group, in the way that Lifesavas, despite being from Portland, are considered to be part of the Bay Area due to their connection with Quannum Projects. To release Grayskul elsewhere is to lose a little of the local magic. Lalario, however, is certain that whatever happens to Ozzborn's and JFK's invention, it is a win-win situation for UTNR. "We're not worried... I mean, we've only been around two years, and we have accomplished more in two years than other labels have in eight years. We've got a great distribution deal, we get quality marketing, and we have a great publicist. Give us the time and we will be as big as the other indie labels."