I'm in the closet of an unfurnished condo in Tacoma, witnessing the best rap performance I've seen in forever. The song is called "Oracle," the beat is coming from an iPhone plugged into speakers, and the rapper—22-year-old Ugly Frank of ILLFIGHTYOU—is, as they say, going in.
"Honestly, it's intimidating, hearing somebody rap like that," Frank's 27-year-old bandmate EvergreenOne says of the super-rhythmic and apparently effortless verse. It's a rare compliment among ILLFIGHTYOU, a Tacoma rap trio comprising Ugly Frank, EvergreenOne, and 23-year-old producer/rapper Khris P.—the guys crack on each other constantly in nonstop competition.
ILLFIGHTYOU's Capitol Hill Block Party show will only be their fourth ever, but they don't sound like amateurs. And they don't sound like what Khris refers to as "Washington music." (Meaning hiphop with jazzy beats and socially conscious lyrics—there is none of that here.) But if you have a taste for willful ignorance and bad-man boasts, their self-titled album is a fuckin' party. The songs aren't necessarily about much (doing drugs, having sex, the all-American pastime "fucking shit up"), but they're full of raw style. The beats have a '90s, East Coast underground rap feel with a computery twist. Vocally, it sounds like the guys are a few beers into the night and just letting it rip, which is not to downplay their rapper's-rapper tendencies: alliteration, breath control, wordplay.
The best tracks on ILLFIGHTYOU are the boom-bap brawler "Gertrude" and the ultimate fight anthem of 2013, "Threats"—tracks you might like if you're into Nas and Waka Flocka Flame, which is to say, if you're open-minded enough to enjoy both highly lyrical rapping AND cathartic "I ain't got no lyrics" music. ILLFIGHTYOU know smoothness is the Northwest's sonic history (rap-wise, anyway) and positivity is all the rage, but it's just not them. The record fits into a natural upswing of punk-type rap in this region, but it's also a reaction to the softness we've produced for years.
The guys are at home in Tacoma, though. Actually, the group owes its life to the city. Frank fled here from Utah when he was 16, after he saw a kid savagely beaten with a baseball bat by a bunch of Bloods for a bag of candy. His mom put him on a Greyhound bus on the spur of the moment—no good-bye to friends or teachers. Khris moved to Tacoma from Missouri, after watching a man get shot five times in front of his house. "I like it here," says Khris. "I feel like I can relax." Neither had ever tried making music before coming to the Pacific Northwest, but surrounded by our trees, mountains, and shade, they started rapping two years ago and thrived creatively.
With one album out and another on the way (featuring "Oracle"), Frank and Khris are also prepping a joint album called Mike Tyson. Khris taught himself how to program beats on the FruityLoops software, and he also produces for another active crew called the Sandlot. Frank and Khris warmed up to Tacoma native EvergreenOne after they saw him rapping on the ground at Nectar Lounge in Seattle. "He walks into the middle of the crowd, just sits on the floor," says Frank, "and starts killing it—lays down, still rapping—I was like, Oh, that's EvergreenOne, he's a badass."
Right now, the only thing ILLFIGHTYOU don't have is a large fan base—at least not in real life. On Tumblr, buzz is building. Elsewhere on the internet, there are many likes, many reblogs. The famous UK electronic music producer Zomby tweeted about them, and they had their album reviewed on the revamped version of MySpace. The skateboard shoe brand Supra used "Gertrude" in a video. Perhaps from this online activity, a foothold in "the industry" will materialize in some other city. Maybe, like the Federal Way producer/rapper Keyboard Kid, they'll get a record released by a British record label, or start booking shows in New York City. Something needs to happen for them to start building their name, and it's not going to come from appealing to the tradition of "Washington music."
The funny thing is, this is Washington music, it just pulls from multiple geographies. Which is one thing the internet has done—allowed artists to more easily mix native and nonnative cultures. And maybe that's good for the young generation. Maybe around here, they don't necessarily want softness in their music—at least the ones who aren't listening to Macklemore (no shots). Maybe kids around here will grow up with a bigger picture of the world and their place in it, and maybe they won't deride Tacoma. Maybe they'll be big ILLFIGHTYOU fans. One can dream.
However it shakes out for ILLFIGHTYOU in the long term, the present is looking and sounding good. Clear some hard-drive space and grab the album (freely downloadable at Illfightyou.com), and remember, you heard it here first: When that song "Oracle" finally drops, that shit is gonna be the song of the year.
This article has been updated since its original publication.