Coming of Age?
THE BLUE SCHOLARS ARE HEADLINING THE PARAMOUNT. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR SEATTLE HIP-HOP?
eattle idolizes rock, and with good reason if you look at our track record. But stealthily, under the official rock-loving radar, the city’s hip-hop scene has grown strong and diverse enough to warrant, if not idolatry, some serious attention of its own. Subversive and solid groups like Shabazz Palaces and THEEsatisfaction are primed to make global ripples. Grayskul of Oldominion has gained devoted fans both locally and internationally. And the group many of today’s fans point to as the first Northwest hip-hop group they discovered and loved, the Blue Scholars, is more popular than ever – especially after the release of its fun-loving EP HI-808 last year. It’s becoming downright inconvenient, if not irresponsible, to continue ignoring the burgeoning scene.
So City Arts contacted the Blue Scholars about headlining a show at the Paramount for Heineken City Arts Fest, emcee Geologic and producer Sabzi jumped at the opportunity. It was good timing in terms of their performance schedule, and the cross between the outdoor festival vibe they’ve perfected and the more intimate venues they play during colder months was intriguing. But more than that, the gig would be a chance to make history as the first Northwest hip-hop act to headline at the historic venue. They’ll perform with Minneapolis star Brother Ali as the sole outsider on a bill peppered with some of the city’s greatest talents, with the rest of the lineup consisting of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Fresh Espresso, and Mash Hall.
It’s a new high for the Scholars, both professionally and personally. “I have a whole bunch of older relatives who now suddenly care,” says Sabzi, laughing over a crackling cell phone connection from New York. “We’re playing the Showbox three days in a row, and they’re, like, ‘Oh, that’s nice, whatever that means.’ Now I’m getting phone calls, they’re, like, ‘You’re playing the Paramount? That’s huge!’” “I’ll probably have to get a tuxedo,” adds Geo. The opulent eighty-two-year-old theatre typically books well-known national artists, comedians and successful musicals and plays – not rappers, though that may be changing with the times.
The city’s increased attention to hip-hop is nothing but good news from the perspective of Larry Mizell Jr., hip-hop columnist for the Stranger, a DJ on KEXP and emcee of Mash Hall. “Thanks to acts like Blue Scholars and Grayskul infiltrating the national and international rap consciousness, and a score of local acts packing out rooms and getting onto all the local festivals, people are actually getting it – albeit almost twenty years late,” he says, noting that Fresh Espresso played Sasquatch, the Capitol Hill Block Party and Bumbershoot last summer. “Rap music is artistically and financially viable.”
Hip-hop’s viability in Seattle is not up for debate. This year, in terms of buzz, local hip-hop has been neck-and-neck with the music more traditionally associated with the Northwest, roots and rock. Mayor McGinn, in creating a Seattle Music Commission to help foster a more musician-friendly environment, included two members of the Seattle hip-hop community. Meanwhile, Sub Pop, one of the country’s most well-respected indie labels, signed experimental hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces. Seattle hasn’t quite reached hip-hop mecca status, but the city is moving slowly but surely in that direction. Someone was going to break the hip-hop glass ceiling at the Paramount, and in a town still discovering its musical identity in a new century, it’s fitting that the successful and popular genre-bending Blue Scholars should be the group to do it.
“We’re trying to be a rap group that doesn’t make rap music, but does at the same time,” says Sabzi, who is a jazz-trained pianist. The same could be said for the other artists on the bill at the Paramount that night. Brother Ali is in love with the form of hip-hop but attracts attention for his atypically soulful lyrics. Mash Hall has a punk-rock aesthetic with an eye for the perfect cult movie reference. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, for their part, make deeply confessional, lush tracks without the standard hip-hop braggadocio. And Fresh Espresso has made it clear it’s out to facilitate a good night out rather than to preach about the temple of hip-hop.
The lineup works well together for a deeper reason, too. “Everybody on that bill understands the idea of the do-it-yourself grind, of making something out of nothing,” says Mizell. They’re not quite creating something out of nothing: the building blocks for a successful music career are out there. The Northwest has a lot to offer musicians, with big-name music festivals like Bumbershoot and Sasquatch in its backyard, a populace already trained to purchase and appreciate local music, and dark, rainy winters perfect for holing up to compose.
But hip-hop artists still have to work harder than the typical rock band to get where they want to be. “If you’re a dope rock band, there’s probably somebody out there who’ll put out a record with you,” Mizell says. “If you were once in a band that was well regarded, and you form a new group with other players who were also well regarded, you’ll damn near have a deal of some sort before your second show. Whereas if you rap, who cares? There ain’t shit for you. You have to do it all yourself. Increased attention from Seattle’s traditional venues and figures, such as the mayor, really goes a long way towards legitimizing hip-hop acts to the players in Seattle Rock City.”
Lately, it seems that more emcees and producers are taking the challenge – and the results are exciting. “It’s the whole dichotomy of a city being big enough to foster a cultural vibe and artistry, but small enough that a lot of people know each other,” says Geologic. “There are limited resources. The limited resources force artists to be a lot more creative with what they do.”
Could it be that Seattle’s very limitations will be the elusive X factor in regional industry success? “I don’t know. We might just stay this big; we might have plateaued,” muses Geo. “Or we might become the next Motown.” He tries, he says, not to think about it too much. Obsessing about the big picture doesn’t help him or any other artist to do the best work possible, and, after all, the music is the point.
“It doesn’t matter how big you or anyone else thinks you are. You’re never going to be a king. In the grand scheme of things, you’re just one person in a big world that’s going to keep going with or without you,” says Sabzi, reflecting on how he and Geo have responded personally to the attention they’ve received, which has made them Seattle’s most popular rap group since Sir Mix-A-Lot. “That’s a very good thing to learn.”
It’s a delicate balancing act between humility and the chutzpah it takes to seize the golden moment. The music industry has become a global game. The Blue Scholars have their eye on international markets, and why not? The kids in Spain and Japan could use some good rap, which the Northwest has in such abundance. “Seattle is the originator of a lot of style. Everyone in New York dresses like they’re from Seattle,” says Sabzi, who is currently living in Brooklyn. “If people would take the time to study what’s going on in other places too, keeping an international view while at the same time maintaining a local identity, that would make Seattle even more of a contender in a global market.”
Seattle hip-hop has gained significant traction over the last few years. But there’s more work to do, and change starts at home. Geo points to local businesses like the Hidmo, which have nurtured what he calls a grassroots “political and community support model.” Mizell would like to see more Northwest labels signing hip-hop artists, or, failing that, for local hip-hop artists to figure out how to market and distribute their own art more effectively. “I’m looking forward to seeing more people being active participants in the creation of a local culture. I’d like to see more people just making stuff that’s dope and sharing it with the city,” says Sabzi.
When the Blue Scholars take the stage at the Paramount this month, it will be both in celebration of achievement and in anticipation of greater things to come. Northwest hip-hop has come a long way towards being acknowledged as a legitimate art form, and it has quite a distance to go yet – but it’s hard to imagine what could possibly stop it now. •
BLUE SCHOLARS OCT 20 | 9:30PM | PARAMOUNT