Earlier this month, after completing one of the most emotional (and cinematic) Seattle videos in the history of local hiphop, J.Pinder up and left town for Atlanta—Seattle's opposite in every way: a black city, the capital of the South, with sunny weather and severe droughts.
The video for "Three Words," which is directed by a local graphic designer, Jon Augustavo, is a mini-movie about a Northwest variety of urban loneliness. Though Pinder's rap concerns how one relationship he had with a beautiful lady got tied up with another relationship he had with another equally beautiful lady (to use the words of the Lost Boyz: "I'm in love with two women... and I don't want to let none of them go"), we never see the women who are involved with him. All that is shown are spaces of near-pristine isolation: the sparsely furnished apartment on the waterfront, the almost empty pier in the morning sun, the clear waters of the Sound, a hiphop clothing store that has Pinder as its sole potential customer (and his mind is not on the caps or athletic wear, but "these three words"), a night drive through Seattle's empty streets. As Larry Mizell Jr. put it on Line Out: "It's a cold, lonely world out there."
So before leaving town, Pinder drops not only his best work to date but also a video that's dedicated to Seattle. And it's a beautiful place to be—surrounded by bodies of water, with a core of high-tech high-rises that gleam in the sharply slanted light. Pinder did not leave us with a work of anger, an attack on the scene that in effect failed him (if it had done him right, he would not have left), but with an act of love. A person who did not love Seattle could not have made that video. Also, a person who did not know and feel our city deeply could not have made that video. The three words of the video have to be "I love Seattle."
But at the end of the day, Pinder left the thing he loved for good. He moved to the other side of the continent and moved for reasons that had in part to do with what he perceived as the limits of Seattle, its lack of hiphop opportunities. And he has done so in the middle of one of the most fertile and democratic periods for local hiphop. Just look at the programs for all the big festivals this year (Bumbershoot, Capitol Hill Block Party, Sasquatch!, the new Heineken City Arts Festival)—local hiphop has never had it this good, not even in the heady times of Sir Mix-A-Lot.
Almost all of the major music publications have a writer who is dedicated to covering the scene, and KEXP now seems to spin more local hiphop acts than national ones. At this marvelous moment, in this excellent climate, J.Pinder moved to Altanta because he wants to give his rap career the boost he believes Seattle cannot provide.
This is a big decision. In Atlanta, he will have to start almost from scratch, in a scene that is vastly different from our own; and yet this was preferable to staying in Seattle, where he was one of the elite, one of the city's big promises and investments. Who did not place bets on Pinder's career? Who was not waiting for the project he was working on with Vitamin D and Jake One to drop? Pinder's move is a big deal, and it might tell us a few truths about this bubble we live in.
"Seattle, as far as the hiphop scene goes— and I know a lot of people who disagree with me—is not the place for the things I want to accomplish," explains Pinder over the phone. "It is definitely a hard place to do certain styles of music. Seattle has its own unique style, but there are other styles that get overlooked. Sometimes, when you create the music I create, it may not be the best thing for Seattle as a whole."
"Also," he says a little later on, "I wanted to be closer to the people I'm working with, like Kuddie Fresh, who recently moved here from Seattle. And there are others—Tha Bizness and the Parker Brothaz are in Atlanta now. And, you know, it's just a different energy from Seattle."
What starts to emerge in our conversation is the feeling that Pinder never really connected with or was very close to the scene he was an integral part of, a scene that first learned his name on a compilation released in the mid-'00s by Sportn' Life Records, a label that launched almost all of the current leading black rappers and acts in Seattle—Fatal Lucciauno, D.Black, Spaceman, and Dyme Def. It is this sense of disconnect or distance that is captured so beautifully, even hauntingly, in "Three Words." He loves the city, but he is not a part of what he loves. Pinder drives across downtown when all of its streets are empty.
"I feel like the resources in Seattle are very, very limited when trying to do things that I do. And also, there aren't many people outside of Seattle who are checking what's going on in Seattle. I mean, there are more people talking about Seattle now than ever, but they just have a rough idea of something that's going on—they don't know what is really going on. So the scene is growing, but there is still a point when you just top out. And you have to leave."
Pinder, however, does not see Atlanta as the terminal point of his still-young career; though he likes it there, his mind is set on moving to New York City, and if he can make it there...
Pinder did make it to the top of local hiphop. In 2006, he left Sportn' Life Records and joined forces with Jonathan Moore, Vitamin D, and Jake One. A young rapper could not make better connections in this city. Beat programmer Vitamin D recently released a string of impressive works, including D.Black's thundering "What I Do" and Choklate's piano-heavy "I'm Sorry," the most slept-on track of 2009. Moore and Vitamin produce Red Bull's Big Tune Beat Battle, are close to the Rhymesayers label, and have worked with numerous national acts. Jake One is in G-Unit's camp of producers and has recently released a collaboration with Freeway, The Stimulus Package, and his own LP, White Van Music, with contributions from MF Doom, Young Buck, Slug, and Busta Rhymes. If it was your dream to expand outside of Seattle, Moore, Vitamin D, and Jake One would be your best shots at realizing that dream.
But by 2009, Pinder, who was 21 at the time, had only released some mixtapes (all excellent—Backpack Wax, No New Taxes, and Pindergarten Mix) and made appearances on a few local joints. The album he'd begun in 2006 seemed to be suspended; people were talking less and less about it. There was nothing: no news, no word on the street, no official announcements. Then, in April of this year, he released the Code Red EP as a free download. This EP contained the Vitamin D–produced "Three Words," Pinder's farewell to Seattle.
Pinder explains what happened to the Moore/Vitamin/Jake project: "I was working on the album and it kind of got squashed, because a lot of things on the business end fell through with labels and stuff like that. Some of the songs from that ended up on Code Red. And I got impatient, sitting on music. I had to go and do it. I got a little bit of ridicule from them [Moore/Vitamin/Jake], but I had to get it out there."
I was unable to contact Moore, Vitamin D, or Jake One to get their side of the story on this collapsed project (Moore, for one, is in Eastern Europe at this time). However, DeVon Manier, founder and co-owner of Sportn' Life, the label that launched Pinder, did have a word or two to say not only about Pinder's situation with Moore but also about his departure from Sportn' Life in 2006. "He is always looking for greener pastures," says Manier. "You know, he left us. Now he left J. Moore. But from what I can tell, and I'm looking from the back end, some artists get a little antsy. If you want your stuff to work, you have to follow protocols. You have to play by certain rules. And certain veterans know what to do, and sometimes the youngsters need a little patience."
When asked for his thoughts on Pinder's move to Atlanta, Manier says: "I mean, in Atlanta he's going to work with Kuddie Fresh, which is a great thing. [Fresh] is a good guy. He has done a lot of production for us. But wherever you are—Philly, L.A., New York, you name it—you are going to come across the same obstacles. And it's not about moving, it's not about 'I'm dope, so people are going to feel me if I move over there.'"
Dave Meinert, who manages Blue Scholars, sees it differently. He thinks it's the best thing in the world for an emerging rapper to get out of Seattle and explore other places. "The fact that he left Seattle makes me take Pinder more seriously," says Meinert. "It means he is serious about his art. He is willing to give up the safety net of this city and try to make it in another place."
Meinert also has a high opinion of Pinder's new city. "Atlanta is a great city for an artist. It has lawyers, agents, voice coaches. It's got a high-end music industry that Seattle does not have and will never have... But it's also great for Pinder because he will make new personal and business connections there. This is something that can only happen if you move to a new place. It can't happen during a tour. [Blue Scholars DJ/producer] Sabzi is living in New York for that reason—to develop connections and also not to play it safe. In Seattle, you can get in the papers or on KEXP and think that's it. But as an artist, you need to expand out of Seattle, and if you come back, you will have great connections in another scene, another market. And I hope Pinder does come back."
To be fair to Pinder, he also points to another big reason for the move to Atlanta. He got tired of the violence in his neighborhood and dealing with the deaths of close friends. Along with new musical opportunities, he wanted a more peaceful and less dangerous environment. "It's not [all about] the music scene that made me leave Seattle. It was more the everyday scene that I was in. I got tired of hearing about friends dying and all the other negative things of that cloth. The best way for me to ensure I wouldn't rot there with nothing to show for it [was to move]."
Pinder's move does hurt Seattle's scene because it subtracts from its diversity. Pinder was original and presented tracks that had a particular kind of sensitivity that you will not find in other local rappers. If Seattle is to be the next home of hiphop—and that is not an impossibility—then it needs a wide spectrum of rappers, modes, and positions. We need gangsters, lesbians, Afro-futurists, hardcore hipsters, and rappers who possess Pinder's sense of the theatrical.
"Everything is Everything," wrote Pinder in an e-mail, "and it will be what it's meant to be. There's no right or wrong or no blueprint for success, Seattle. Everyone travels their own path and writes their own story their own way. I'm just trying to figure it out like the rest of them."