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Grind And Shine: A Guide To Seattle's Rap Scene

A shot of a free wall in the SoDo neighborhood of Seattle.MoreCloseclosemore
A shot of a free wall in the SoDo neighborhood of Seattle.

As Ann Powers wrote in her intro to Grind and Shine, the series of interviews and portraits of Jet City rappers we've been running the past five days, she's no stranger to Seattle. But she remembered the place as a rock town, and now that our hip-hop scene is breaking out as one of the best in the country, she asked me to spend a week showing her around. We met with rappers and producers at coffee shops in an attempt to get to know a different scene, in a classically Seattle context.

As a local who covers music for a living, I took it as my personal mission to introduce Ann to iconoclastic Seattle acts like Shabazz Palaces, THEESatisfaction and Metal Chocolates. They make some of the most vital music in town, of any genre. I also wanted her to see the kind of intense hometown pride a group like The Physics has, and hear about changing times from Blue Scholars, who saw rap become the new rock in Seattle over the course of the last decade — and from Jake One, a local rap historian if there ever was one.

There was a line in Seattle hip-hop in the early '90s, with West Coast keyboard funk on one side, and East Coast jazz-sample production rap on the other. The way it's been told to me, if you listened to one, you dropped out of high school. If you listened to the other, you immediately earned a graduate degree from the University of Washington. That general division still exists: the streets versus self-appointed culture soldiers. Either sound can seem all-encompassing or immaterial, depending on your stance. You can hear echoes from the past in Seattle's current space-y, non-conservative hip-hop, which reflects the regional history of grunge and indie rock, espousing an anti-star ethos and rejecting all labels.

The overarching lesson I learned in these coffee shop convos: Seattle is a city of musical tidepools, segregated by various things — race, class, style, self-image. The way Jake One came of age oblivious to grunge, even though he played basketball with Pearl Jam's bass player. The way OC Notes (of Metal Chocolates) doesn't know who Fleet Foxes is, even though it's currently the biggest group in Seattle, and Notes is a musical omnivore. Robin Pecknold from Fleet Foxes has told me he's a big Shabazz Palaces fan, but in general, Seattle hip-hop and our also-booming neo-folk movement are parallel forces that don't overlap. There's a lot happening — and a lot has happened — in Seattle. It doesn't all necessarily cross over.

Seattle hip-hop is a scene worth exploring. Ideally, in person, at a concert. Or rolling down leafy Rainier Avenue some Sunday evening, blasting either of the town's two major rap radio shows, Street Sounds on KEXP or Sunday Night Sound Sessions on KUBE. If you don't live here, both shows are online. Links to those, and to various artist sites and fan blogs are below. It is an inadequate list. Click around and you'll find more.

Weekly radio shows:

Street Sounds — Larry Mizell, Jr. writes a rap column for local alt weekly The Stranger and hosts this show every Sunday, which frequently breaks barriers between hipster rap and more street styles. He brings local artists on the air for in-studio performances.

Sunday Night Sound Session — J. Moore is the longstanding Mayor of Seattle rap — he holds forth with DJ Hyphen Sunday nights, doing interviews and playing current hip-hop many listeners actually listen to, instead of the regular Top 40 radio feed.

Central Sounds — Jonathan Cunningham and Rich Jensen broadcast from Seattle's Central District every Wednesday night, aiming to play music from or around the neighborhood, with artists dropping by.

Weekly rap nights and venues:

"Jet Set," Mondays at Capitol Club — DJs play and sometimes local acts pick up the mic. Feels like a living room.

Mondays at Contour — DJs play and sometimes local acts pick up the mic. Scene is noticeably more black than at "Jet Set," which is more mixed. Rap in a cosmopolitan setting.

"Stop Biting," Tuesdays at Lo-Fi — DJs play, b-boys do their thing, freestyles are rapped. Has a bohemian energy.

Blogs, websites and a message board: — Larry Mizell, Jr.'s blog: local rap 'n' stuff — My blog: emerging Seattle music, with much rap — local DJs' blog — Hyphen (and others') blog — rap news — message board

For the truly obsessed:

Cloud Nice's site, an excellent up-and-coming crew from Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood:

Macklemore's blog:

Local record label, throwers of the "Jet Set" night:

Seattle producer Keyboard Kid, works a lot with Lil B:

Fan account of loving old-school Seattle crew Tribal Productions:

Seattle DJs who make films:

Seattle rappers who skate:

Copyright NPR 2018.

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