In recent months, Portland rap has been getting a little shine. Part of this is rightfully credited to Aminé, whose hit single “Caroline” landed him 12th on Billboard’s Hot 100 and an appearance on Jimmy Fallon. But Portland rap is not all Aminé. In truth, the Northwest city has a two-decades old rap scene comprising multi-talented and very hard working artists who are poised to put Portland on the map as an epicenter of hip-hop. In a conversation with Portland rapper Mat Randol, I asked him what was special about the city’s hip-hop, and he was definitive on what makes Portland rap so good:
Everyone is so different, so that’s what sort of makes up the scene for me. I don’t think there should be one type of music coming from Portland. But it seems like when a city is trying to be identified as a “hip-hop city” there is one type of sound everyone runs for. We just got to allow ourselves to create.
Randol’s words ring true. Portland has long been known for its indie music, with names like The Decemberists, Elliott Smith, and Modest Mouse all calling the city home. But until recently, little attention was paid to Portland’s rap music. Lack of media coverage is generally not a great thing; but in the case of Portland, there is a silver lining: it has given time and patience, without judgement, to those artists making music. (Now, I don’t want to seem dense in arguing that lack of media coverage is solely a good thing, I only mean that in some ways it has made Portland rap special. Later, I discuss the racialized reasons why Portland rap has historically not had a national audience.)
In cities like LA, Chicago, and New York, an aspiring rapper can use their city’s “how to make it” formula. Though this has become less evident with the advent of the internet, rappers and producers from the same city tend to gravitate towards beats, flows, and content that have historically been successful in that city. It is an unfair reduction, sure, but the result is a glut of artists all making the same thing. Because Portland doesn’t have a Kendrick or a Gucci or a Kanye it also doesn’t have a “how to make it” formula and so the scene feels more like individual artists bravely exploring their personal aesthetic, making music they think is cool, and working in unison to build something that before didn’t exist. Via email, I asked rapper and lifelong Portlander, Fountaine about the silver lining in lack of press. He was sure to point out the self-trust Portland artists must have: “People [in Portland] who make music don't care about the PR because they know that they're trusting themselves with their art, which is a big valuable asset in the long run. It involves us all coming together for something greater than trying to meet a standard that somebody holds based off a few people making it in the industry.” And so, when Mat Randol says “we just got to allow ourselves to create,” that’s exactly what it seems like Portland is doing.
The Pacific Northwest is ridiculously geographically beautiful. I’ve seen little else in America that compares. Portland hip-hop is then afforded a luxury other cities are not: The Great Northwest aesthetic. From quintessential Portland neighborhoods in Aminé’s Caroline video to Fountaine’s line “Why you on the phone we should go on a hike / let’s get connected / There’s no wifi in the forest / but I’m sure we could find a good connection” on Banana Nut to Donte Thomas’s expansive geographic visuals in Never Know • Fade 2 Gray, The Great Northwest imagery is ever present. Being from Oregon, it’s the sort of imagery that means to me care, wisdom, power, and valuing the outdoors over personal vanity. If I let myself slip into some hippie shit, Portland hip-hop is special partially because the artists who live there have direct access to life outside the human experience. There is wisdom in the trees.
However all that being said, there is an uncomfortable paradox about Portland: many of its residents herald it as progressive and tolerant and yet historically the city has been one of the whitest in America, and intentionally so. In the Atlantic, Alana Semuels wrote an article titled The Racist History of Portland, the Whitest City in America. In the piece, Semuels details Oregon’s founding — “When the state entered the union in 1859 … [it] explicitly forbade black people from living in its borders, the only state to do so,” Portland’s discriminatory housing and financing laws, and ongoing city projects that aim to “revitalize” historically black neighborhoods but ultimately see to longtime residents being pushed out of their homes. Speaking strictly about the numbers, Portland is indeed the whitest big city in America, with black people making up ~6.3% of the population and white people making up ~76%. What’s more, national attention for things like the TV series Portlandia that satirize the lives of white creatives, while at the same time making that particular population even more culturally dominant in the American imagination, further diminish the reach of black art, including rap. Fountaine said it most concisely with “motherfuck Portlandia.”
|Production-Rap Duo Neka & Kahlo in We Out Here Magazine|
But Portland rap hasn’t had a hard go of it solely because America hears “Portland” and thinks Fred Armisen in a wig. Via email, music journalist TJ Love stated that
Oregon’s historical whiteness has a palpable chilling effect on the Hip Hop scene. You have the forces of the state (Portland Police Department and Portland Fire Department) who it seems go out of their way to harass the Hip Hop community here, and other genres don't seem to garner the same amount of attention. To put it bluntly, Oregon as a state has tacitly kind of been seen as a White Utopia, and up to my birth year, 1980, any black person caught in the state could legally be whipped. So we have a state that has been openly hostile to Black people here from the very beginning, and that institutional racism has reared it's head in innumerable ways, from the lash laws that I mentioned, the fact that until 1926 it was illegal for Black people to move here, the Vanport flood, and then, discriminatory housing practices such as redlining....all the way to the present day gentrification of historically Black neighborhoods in North Portland. In short, it's almost exponentially more difficult for a Black art form, Hip Hop, to flourish in an area that historically has treated actual Black people as a continuously persecuted population.
Tension between the Portland Police Department and the city’s hip-hop artists started getting national attention in 2013/2014 after several shows were shut down or had large police presences that were very dubious in their justification. In an interview with Willamette Week, rap/production duo Neka & Kahlo described the racism circling rap in Portland,
“This is not just a hip-hop issue, it's an equity issue," says Kahlo, who grew up in St. Johns. Neka calls the ambiance in Portland a "quiet racism" in which the hip-hop scene doesn't fit into the image the city would like to portray.
Matthew Singer of the Willamette Week described the climate in the aftermath of a show at the Blue Monk, a jazz club, that saw a disproportionate number of cops due to “capacity issues.” Singer detailed several ways in which the police department suppressed hip-hop in the city, including advising venue owners not to book rappers, solely targeting hip-hop shows at venues that also hosted punk and metal shows, and visiting club owners prior to rap events in order to “warn” owners. Portland musicians — like most artists of any city — of all genres have traditionally found success in gaining a local following. Buoyed by their city, an artist has a better chance of being seen on the national scale. Singer questioned a city’s responsibility to its artists, stating, “[Portland] is a live-music city. How can any artist here expect to develop when promoters and club owners are afraid to book them?” In email, Fountaine touched on the same sentiment, stating that hip-hop shows are often relegated to a select few venues, “I find that disrespectful, how come I can go see a rock show, metal show, punk rock show, and indie pop show in the same area but have to travel super far to a huge venue or go to a super small venue to see hip-hop, we have no in between, reasons why lots of house shows happen underground.”
The city of Portland has taken small steps to rectify the harm done to the hip-hop community. Following the Blue Monk event in 2014, an independent police review was conducted to investigate the relationship between the police bureau and hip-hop artists. Still, the review ultimately was not an indictment of police behavior but a call for better communication in light of the gentrification of historically black Portland neighborhoods. 2015 saw some progress with Mayor Charlie Hales declaring October 15th ‘Portland Hip-Hop Day’. At an event for the day, that featured DJs and live performances, Mayor Hales kicked it off by saying,
Today’s proclamation is not simply about recognizing the importance of hip-hop in Portland. It’s to publicly recognize the beginning efforts of the city of Portland to build better relationships, better systems of communication, accountability with law agencies, better business practices, and overall better support of one another in hopes for making Portland a positive and thriving environment for business and culture of hip-hop.
And to the city’s credit, things do seem to be getting better. Rapper Mic Capes said that he “feel[s] like [police have] been less aggressive and less present [at shows]” and Fountaine was cautiously optimistic via email, “As far as shows go we came a long way from getting shut down [for] having too many people in the show, or the fact that we have to pay 10% more to rent out a venue just to throw a hip-hop show; meanwhile they’re shoulder to shoulder in rock shows, pop shows, comedy shows etc. The scene is definitely changing for the better, I just don't feel like [it] should've took this long to do so, but I'm happy with the progress.”
|L-R: Mic Capes; The Last Artful, Dodgr; Michael Fountaine; Donovan Smith; and Intisar Abioto. Photos by Micelle Lepe, Connor Meyer, Brenda Vaugh, Intisar Abioto, Erika Huffman. Taken from The FADER.|
At some point, though, it feels more helpful to focus on and promote the artists themselves rather than the racist political tension surrounding their art. Ann-Derrick Gaillot recently wrote in The FADER reminding us that “the arts and music scenes in Portland have always been bolstered by African-Americans, such as the musicians and club owners of the ‘50s and ‘60s who turned North Williams Avenue in the historically black Albina neighborhood into the center of a nationally renowned jazz scene.” In the same article, Gaillot spotlights 5 Portland artists and their thoughts on the image of Portland as a white haven and the role of black art in the city. The Last Artful, Dodgr had some words,
You need to dig a little bit deeper and see what’s going on outside of what Portlandia shows you because, yeah, a lot of those skits are real. People wait in line forever for brunch, people stop at the stop sign forever and nobody knows when to go. But understand that there is an epicenter of creatives of color in Portland that are changing how people in the town view us. People eventually will understand that this place has so much more to offer than what’s been shown on television. So much more to offer. And as far as the creatives of color go, there’s a lot of us killing it.
The list of contemporary Portland rappers killing it is long; but we’ve highlighted eight artists, in no particular order, to get you started.
TJ Love stated in the Willamette Week that “Jon Belz can rap his ass off...he's got an almost preternatural gift for this rhyming thing” and it’s so true. One of my favorite things about Jon Belz’s recent album, Free Agency, is his penchant for turning simple, yet cutting phrases like “I ain’t into talking people / That’s for small minds” and “I don’t really need jokes / I need commas for my people” and “We ain’t got no future Ciara, what’s goodie?” In an interview with The Blowup, Jon Belz described the impetus for his career: “I used to write chapter books in my early elementary days. My imagination was wild, and I could read at college level by the age of 8. I listened to a Weird AL song in third grade, and decided to do that instead. Eventually funny songs led to rap battles, which landed me in a studio writing like I do today.”
My personal introduction to Portland hip-hop, Fountaine, raps and produces music that is diligent, fun, and replete with anime allusions. After the release of his 2015 EP Black $ushi, Fountaine cites his influence for the project: “personal struggle best mirrored by the battle between Piccolo JR and Goku (two key characters from the hit anime, Dragonball Z, established in 1980).” His latest project, Wisteria, blends nicely jazz instrumentals and oddities, traditional rap tropes and emotional incite, and anime and Portland imagery. Fountaine is a technically solid rapper, too. Always with the beat.
Part of the EYRST label — along with fellow Portlanders The Last Artful, Dodgr, Myke Bogan, Blossom, and others — Maze Koroma has a penchant for psychedelic-technological-dissonant rap. His recent EP, It's Complicated, It's All Happening so Fast, Even Though I Can't Keep up with You, You'll Always Be My Sunshine is an exercise in pairing ominous technological sounds with vocal play and lyrical oddity. Listening to Maze Koroma puts me in a slightly shifted mind state, one I cannot readily identify. When he raps “I see you got something kinda fishy like halibut / Unrealistic you need to snap out of it / Unrealistic did you not get the jist of it,” I am first thrown by the halibut reference, then I think “are you talking to me?” followed by the thought “no, I didn’t get the jist of it.” It’s a challenging listen for sure, but if you enjoy the process of listening again and again until you understand, you will enjoy Maze Koroma.
The Willamette Week described the production/singer and rap duo as “more than a music project. As an interracial lesbian couple making hip-hop together, the pair's mission statement is to help us see ourselves as the multilayered, weird-as-hell Venn diagrams we truly are.” The two may be “more than a music project” but their music stands strongly front and center. Their 2015 EP, Fridays in May, features deep bass and seamless production by Neka under Kahlo rapping lines like I’m feeling kind of homeless / trying to nail down the focus / starting to get a little notice / critics is kids with the magnifying glass / and I’m the ant getting roasted.
The rapper released his debut album, Grayscale, this past August. The opening track, Come From, shouts out Portland at the outset and clues you into Thomas’s technical ability with enunciated lines like, “we could’ve told you / I’ve been cooking up this soul food / I’ve been beating up the Pro Tools / went from playing like a freshman to kicking it old school.” The rapper recently released a video for two tracks off the album, Never Know and Fade 2 Gray, featuring Thomas in both a city setting and the great outdoors. In Plug Society, Tracy Smith described Thomas’s sound as capturing the spirit of contemporary greats like Kendrick and Kanye all while giving life to his own form of hip-hop.
Born and raised in Portland’s St. Johns neighborhood, Mat Randol has been on the Portland rap scene for a while now. Co-founder of Neu Beginin Global, a creative network, the rapper is all about the artistic journey: “I like the odyssey of it. The quest. I just like to show the real experience of being an artist and hopefully that connects with people and it can be something I can do to support my kid. I am on the journey and I just want people to be on this ride with me.” His last EP, Alignment, cites his son as a major inspiration. The rapper released his most recent EP, Libero, today (12/21/2016) with producer Snugsworth; you can trust that it is worth the listen.
In an interview with Patch, Bogan described why he's dubbed himself a lyrical architect: "[I] really do take time to write each and every bar and make sure that there are no bars wasted. Even ones that are more simple are there for a reason and very well thought out." In listening to his most recent solo EP, Casino Carpet, you can hear it. With lines like “I was banging beats while I tried to roll a backwood / Spilt a little weed on the keyboard of the macbook” and “And always smoke weed on their work break / Me, I’m at work late, workin’ on it/ Marijaunie I promise to tarnish, you the bombest / To be honest I’m haunted upon us / No pun intended this is my mission / And swear to god I’m losing my girl along with religion” Bogan’s careful diligence with wordplay and sentence structure is clear. Likely sometime in the spring of 2017 the rapper will be releasing his next project, HFS, under Portland label EYRST.
Logistics: All the artists above have Twitter, so follow them to keep tabs on forthcoming projects. If I've missed your favorite Portland rapper/artist, let me know via Twitter or email@example.com. Special thanks to TJ Love, Fountaine, and Snailbot.