Seattle's hip-hop scene comes into its own
Special to The Seattle Times
Swagger Fest, with D. Black and his Sportn' Life Records crew; Dyme Def; the Parker Brothaz; DJ Vitamin D; 8 p.m. Wednesday at Chop Suey, 1325 E. Madison, Seattle, $6 (206-324-8000 or www.chopsuey.com).
Blue Scholars release party for "Bayani"; Black Anger; Kidz in the Hall, 8 p.m. May 11-12 at the Showbox, 1426 First Ave., Seattle, $15 (206-628-3151 or www.ticketmaster.com).
Seattle's hip-hop scene
Local artists and recent work:
D. Black, "The Cause & Effect" (Sportn' Life)
The Saturday Knights, "The Saturday Knights" (Light In The Attic)
Dyme Def, "Space Music" (Space Music Recording)
Blue Scholars, "Bayani" (Rawkus/Mass Line)
Gabriel Teodros, "Lovework" (Mass Line)
Where to hear it:
Chop Suey, 1325 E. Madison St., Seattle (206-324-8000 or www.chopsuey.com).
Neumos, 925 E. Pike St., Seattle (206-709-9467 or www.neumos.com).
The Baltic Room, "Steady Mobbin" with DJs Marc Sense, Vitamin D and Jake One, Fridays, 1207 Pine St., Seattle (206-625-4444 or www.thebalticroom.net).
The War Room, "Yo, Son!" with DJs Scene, DV One and Fourcolorzack, Saturdays, 722 E. Pike St., Seattle (206-328-7666 or www.thewarroomseattle.com).
Havana, "Fresh Produce" with rotating DJs, Sundays, 1010 E. Pike St., Seattle (206-323-2822 or www.havanasocial.com).
Ambition. Go to any hip-hop show in Seattle these days, and you can smell it.
Or find it on your windshield.
If you parked your car recently near the Capitol Hill club the War Room, when you came out you would have found a flier on your car advertising one of the city's many hip-hop club nights.
Seattle hip-hop is blossoming.
Blue Scholars, after teaming up with Seattle rappers Common Market and Gabriel Teodros to form the Mass Line collective, got picked up by a nationally recognized New York label, Rawkus Records. Unheralded rapper Unexpected Arrival last month revealed he had sold 10,000 CDs and promptly got signed by Koch Records for a distribution deal. D. Black, 20-year-old co-CEO of Sportn' Life Records, sold more than 4,000 copies of his album hand-to-hand. Local jokers the Saturday Knights just signed with Seattle-based national tastemaker Light In The Attic Records. And Dyme Def, according to its manager, is being courted by major labels.
"It's not the same town it was 10 years ago," says Jake One, longtime Seattle independent hip-hop producer.
Seattle hip-hop will be on full display the next two weeks, first at Swagger Fest, Wednesday at Chop Suey, when D. Black and his Sportn' Life Records crew, plus Dyme Def, the Parker Brothaz and DJ Vitamin D, all perform. The following week at the Showbox, Blue Scholars celebrates the release of its new LP, "Bayani."
Talented hip-hop artists are nothing new to Seattle, but the current sense of possibility has new precision. Though Seattle is regarded as a rock town, hip-hop has lived here since the music began. Over the years, Seattle's rap scene has grown from a disorganized, grass-roots endeavor to a navigable marketplace. Now, artists are behaving like businesses, outsourcing labor to managerial teams, and club and concert promoters are savvier too, building formidable street teams.
The most public breakthrough in recent Seattle memory is the Scholars and their Mass Line collective, a crew of left-leaning, sociopolitical class warriors. Two years ago, when the group crossed over from KEXP's Sunday-night hip-hop show to regular daytime rotation, the Scholars shot to local stardom, immediately winning crossover fans that didn't realize hip-hop spoke to — and maybe for — them. Blue Scholars is the first local hip-hop group to sell out the Showbox since Sir Mix-A-Lot.
Their hip-hop has an underground ethos and gives off a passive-aggressive air that is positively "Seattle."
"The sound of Seattle is ... softer, musically," says Scholars' "sound architect" Sabzi, "but the content isn't necessarily soft."
Blue Scholars is broadly concerned about the state of America in general but zooms in on its people for a more intimate focus. In "Back Home," Sabzi raps, "She says he fought for freedom but she knows it's just a lie, 'cause her father is a veteran with benefits denied."
Blue Scholars' much-anticipated "Bayani" album — easily the best thing the group has recorded — is a week from national release. It's "a step in the process of supporting Seattle," Sabzi says.
Everybody else on Mass Line is pulling their weight, too. Gabriel Teodros' recent album, "Lovework," made a surprising dent on the college music charts; and KEXP morning DJ John Richards said of Common Market's eponymous album, "Common Market might just save the sad state of hip-hop today."
By contrast to the Scholars' earnest communitarianism — a PC version of what's known as "backpack" rap — Dyme Def wants to set the stage on fire with songs about personal arrogance and superstardom.
Dyme Def is three Renton MCs in their 20s — Brainstorm, S.E.V. and Fearce Villain — plus producer Bean One, who release "Space Music" May 1.
For every part respect on "Bayani," Dyme Def — part of the "superstar" scene — offers two parts sneer.
On "Nowadays," Brainstorm spits, "If you was me, and I was you / Wouldn't want to be me cause I'd have to deal with you."
With its hyped-up live show and aggressive arrogance, Dyme Def is like nothing Seattle has seen before, a fact that doesn't elude Fearce Villain.
"We're making people come to us," he says.
With a style similar to but distinct from Dyme Def's, D. Black, who grew up in South Seattle "in a world of violence," he says, presented a Seattle many people won't recognize — full of drugs, guns and gang violence, on his 2006 album "The Cause & Effect."
"Hip-hop in Seattle is just as biased as Seattle media in general," says Black. "I definitely think the more political 'backpack' side is more recognized. That's because people are more prone to listen to whatever represents their lifestyle."
Backpack or superstar, there's a foundation for all this growth on the Seattle hip-hop scene.
Local pillars Jonathan Moore, of KUBE-93's Sunday Night Sound Session, and super-producers Vitamin D, Jake One and Bean One, are sympathetic members of the old guard. Moore was an artist during Seattle hip-hop's formative years and has gone on to found Jasiri Media Group. He recently did his 100th radio show on KUBE-93.
"He's the mayor of Seattle hip-hop," says rising star Macklemore, a 24-year-old MC who will follow up "The Language of My World" with a new album this summer.
"It's so important for people to empower themselves and redefine themselves," says Moore, "And if I can help a young artist with that, I will."
Vitamin D, Jake One and Bean One are called upon often by Seattle hip-hop artists for their sterling beats. Part of Seattle hip-hop, they also sell beats to national stars such as Redman, Busta Rhymes, De La Soul and 50 Cent's G-Unit collective.
To be sure, just because Busta Rhymes is calling Jake One for beats doesn't mean everybody in Seattle is about to blow up. But you could say there's no longer a second-class feel to the Seattle scene.
Why not? What changed?
Jake says 10 years ago, "the guys behind the scenes were the same age as the artists. They had no experience. No real connections. There weren't any elders to help us."
A hip-hop generation later, things have changed, says Marcus Lalario, owner of Capitol Hill hip-hop club the War Room.
"Now, the roads have been paved and the business side is catching," he explains.
The momentum continues to build, with other hotly anticipated national releases from the Saturday Knights, local weirdos Grayskul and other acts on the way this summer. By then, the "local" displays in indie-rock Seattle's record stores will be flooded with hip-hop.
Andrew Matson: firstname.lastname@example.org
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