One block separates century-old Washington Hall from the Children and Family Justice Center construction site in Seattle’s Central District. The latter, more colloquially known as the Youth Jail, is a prison. The former, by contrast, is a liberator for youth, no more so than today as the home base for 206 Zulu, a former chapter of the Universal Zulu Nation hip-hop collective whose roots stretch back to the culture’s founding in the South Bronx of the late 1970s.
Over its 111 year history, the historic brick edifice has been home to Danish fraternal clubs, Yiddish theatre, Filipino youth dances, boxing matches, jazz concerts, and punk shows. This weekend, it will host the 15th anniversary of 206 Zulu.
The anniversary kicks off tonight at The Crocodile with a headline performance by Bay Area hip-hop legends Souls of Mischief.
The concert is just the beginning of a weekend of deep dives inside the hallowed walls of Washington Hall with esteemed hip-hop royalty from around the country. San Francisco turntable champion DJ QBert, Los Angeles electro pioneer Egyptian Lover, and New York sample connoisseur BreakBeat Lou will offer master classes on Saturday and Sunday. A breakdance competition will give out $2,000 in prizes. Nationally renowned dancers Asia One, Popmaster Fabel, and Alien Ness will teach dance workshops for aspiring bboys and bgirls alike. A community dinner will keep it real on Sunday night, then the afterparty moves to Sugar Hill for vinyl sessions with some of the aforementioned luminaries.
How did a grassroots hip-hop organization in Seattle land enough talent to stack an event good enough for a Rock the Bells lineup?
“It’s just a blessing—the combination of having a vibrant community that is willing to come together, having a lot of infrastructure, big ideas, and being willing to learn from mistakes,” says King Khazm, a world touring local rapper who co-founded 206Zulu.
Khazm has been humbled by the response from hip-hop stalwarts nationwide who see a flourishing Zulu chapter as something worth supporting not just with a performance but also a chance to teach, learn, and discuss.
This weekend’s festivities are a testament to the day-to-day work that 206 Zulu operates largely under the radar of Seattle’s music scene. With fully equipped audio and video production studios inside Washington Hall, the group offers a 12-week hip-hop production after-school class called Beats to the Rhyme. The current class of 10 or so students will perform this weekend. The work week starts off with Soulful Mondays, an all-ages open freestyle dance session. Night owls can tune in to Zulu Radio on KBCS 91.3 FM from 2-5 am on Sunday mornings. Summertime you can make your way to one of Zulu’s roving outdoor Park Jams or kick it on the street for a graffiti-soaked block party that transforms a nearby alley with larger-than-life murals and street art.
Importantly, 206 Zulu has managed to maintain grassroots credibility while forging key partnerships for funding and access to public space from a constellation of local agencies like Seattle’s Office of Arts Culture, Department of Neighborhoods, and Department of Parks and Recreation, as well as King County’s 4Culture. 206 Zulu was also instrumental in lobbying for the 2009 acquisition and renovation of Washington Hall by Historic Seattle, saving the structure from the wrecking ball.
The crew’s ability to navigate the halls of power while staying true to its roots has proven a model for Zulu chapters around the world from Malta to Malaysia to the Middle East, all of whom have looked to Seattle for inspiration and advice on how to start a chapter. The Universal Zulu Nation went through a difficult period in 2016 when child sexual abuse allegations surfaced against its founder, hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa. Although the chapters operate independently, the association was damaging and many closed. 206 weathered the storm and used the opportunity to reexamine its own policies and practices for vetting teaching artists who work with youth.
Khazm, now 40 years old, has seen hip-hop culture, sound, and aesthetics evolve considerably in the last decade and a half. He relishes the opportunity to teach the fundamentals—DJing, MCing, graffiti, breakdancing, and knowledge—to today’s youth while also remaining receptive to the latest trends the crew’s youngest acolytes bring to the table, from trap beats to new YouTube dance crazes.
“It’s important for the older guard to remember that [hip-hop] was forged by young people and their creative freedom to express their own individuality,” he says. “You’ve got to always remain a student.”
While many have passed through 206 Zulu’s doors over the last 15 years, Khazm is particularly proud of Julie-C, Orbitron, and Aurelio Valdez. The latter started in Beats to the Rhyme and later secured a spot in Macklemore’s Residency program.
Despite the changes that 15 years can bring, Khazm sees a thread tying together the city’s fervent hip-hop underground.
“Seattle has always been pretty unique in the sense that it hasn’t been so much tainted by the industry or having any visions of grandeur of wanting to accommodate its sound to something more popular that might sell well,” he says.
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated 206 Zulu is a current chapter of the Universal Zulu Nation. They are no longer a chapter, and became independent and unaffiliated after the Afrika Bambaataa scandal in 2016.