Nearly half a decade ago, Blue Scholars released a self- titled CD that launched Seattle's new generation, its second wave, of hiphop. Before the duo appeared, the post–Sir Mix-A-Lot underground was defined by the music and politics of Silent Lambs Project, Black Anger, Source of Labor, and Oldominion. The first wave had its center in the Central District, the city's historical black neighborhood; the second has its center in Beacon Hill, a dense and multiracial neighborhood (or, to use the language of Georgetown University professor Sheryll Cashin, a multiracial island). What Blue Scholars, Common Market, and Abyssinian Creole brought to the scene in 2005 was the diversity of the immigrant experience—not only stories and realities from other countries but also from other states. RA Scion, for example, raps about tobacco plantations in Kentucky, a world that is as far from Seattle's economic and social environment as the Philippines that Geologic describes in some of his raps.
Now, before we look at the future of the leaders of the second wave, Blue Scholars, and the possible leaders of a third wave of hiphop that has its center on Capitol Hill, I want to make a point that I've failed to make in other articles. With the local scene, a distinction must be made between the crews that continue the mainstream approach to hiphop from its national level to a local one. These groups tend to be black and receive almost no press in this and other publications unless, of course, someone is shot at their shows or parties. The recent explosion of press about the local scene does not include artists and promoters like Ghetto Prez, Gameboy, Funkdaddy, and Skuntdunanna. They have their own network of venues (like Vito's—where a man was recently shot) and publicity nodes (Seaspot.com). They want nothing to do with KEXP and have placed their eggs all in one basket, KUBE. These commercially oriented crews exist alongside but very much apart from Seattle's currently successful second wave.
One last point to make before turning to what's new with Blue Scholars. Another major difference between the first and second waves of Seattle hiphop is the economic and political climates from which they came. The first was submerged in the prosperous Clinton years, and its gloominess—say, the dark tones and themes of Black Anger—sharply contrasted the terrific prosperity of the period. As for the second wave, the music is a little more hopeful, while the political and social climate is bleak. In the '00s, America is lost in the wilderness of two wars, one of its major cities is wiped out by the lethal combination of natural forces and human incompetence, and the president does his desperate best to break the back of democracy. We cannot separate the Bush years from the music of Blue Scholars.
"As much as we are a product of those times, our focus has never been about Bush but the issues," Geo, the rapper for Blue Scholars, says over the phone (he is in San Diego for a show). "I mean, really, we only mentioned him a few times on our records. It was not Bush that concerned us but the issues. They took greater prominence over just a person or a presidency." I have to agree with Geo about this. His raps are not analytical or even directly critical; they are instead documents of a way of life, a way of being in the city, in a family, in oneself. Geo does not expose lies or show us the way to truth. He is not a teacher or a cultural decoder but a narrator. He simply tells it like it is.
But what kind of stories will he tell in a world that is shaped by Obama? Can we expect the same kinds of experiences, voices, difficulties? "There is no doubt there is a shift away from neocons running shit," says Geo. "Those with progressive views finally have some breathing space. But the bogeyman is no longer out there for the armchair liberal to point a finger at. There is more work to be done as a progressive. You see, Bush made it easy for us. Now we have to do more than just pointing a finger at one guy...."
"I have been hearing a lot about this," says Sabzi, Blue Scholars' DJ/producer, in another phone conversation (he is at home cooking with his roommates). "'Now that Obama is the president, what are you going to rap about now?' What the fuck are you talking about? We didn't start a band about Bush. It's about life, and the last time I checked, life is still happening!" Later in the conversation: "The real issue is some people have a very narrow idea of what politics is. You know what I mean? Now, I don't want to run away from our protest songs. But, really, my identity is not based on complaining about things. That is a sad identity."
That settled, I turn to the question of the day: Mad Rad. The trio recently released a CD that begins with hiphop but ends at a completely different place and register. Here is my position on the group: Mad Rad represent a new third wave of local hiphop. Whereas Seattle's first wave was based in the CD, the second on Beacon Hill, the next wave's epicenter looks to be Capitol Hill. More than that, as the first wave emerged in the Clinton years, the second in the Bush, Mad Rad's looks like it will emerge in the age of Obama. Mad Rad, who weirdly enough are closer to the commercial side of local hiphop (crunk beats, glam rap, gangsta bling) than the second wave, might be the crew that best express the situation of an America that's heading toward a postracial society. Whatever the case may be, they are causing a lot of noise, confusion, and controversy.
"I acknowledge the polarizing aspect of that group," says Geo, "We can relate to that. We might have a different approach, but when a group comes around, ignites the scene, and has people debating the form of hiphop and its content.... Is that the theme of '09? Is it 'no more of the same'? It doesn't matter what I think. I say yes!" As for Sabzi? No real opinion yet. "I heard the album once. I'm looking forward to seeing the live show. Either way, I'm excited to perform with them."