How Seattle rap crashed the mainstream by swimming against the current
As it celebrates its 50th birthday, we are mapping hip-hop's story on a local level, with more than a dozen city-specific histories of the music and culture. Click here to see the entire list.
It's telling that of the two Seattle music scenes that bubbled up in the late '80s and early '90s to produce massive mainstream hits, only one of them earned the nickname "the Seattle sound." But as much as grunge gets the credit for cementing the Pacific Northwest as that era's locus of counterculture, Seattle's rap scene had a similar fringe sensibility, one that couldn't be pinned to a single sound, vibe or lyrical style. If most artistic movements have cohered around a common approach, the hip-hop from the 206 is, instead, defined by its sprawl.
When local radio veteran Robert L. Scott first played "Rapper's Delight" on KYAC 1250 AM in October 1979, the South Seattle club Lateef's almost immediately became a site of participation and experimentation for the rap-curious. Soon nightclubs, community centers and local events were helping to nurture a vibrant scene that included acts like Jam Delight, Emerald Street Boys (and Girls) and Silver Chain Gang. In 1981, after KYAC became KKFX (KFOX), the station welcomed the DJ 'Nasty' Nes Rodriguez-hosted FreshTracks to Sunday nights, the first rap radio show west of the Mississippi River. In addition to new songs, Nes introduced his "Mastermix," an eclectic 30-minute block that brought live scratching and mixing to Seattle radio for the first time.
After hearing about a series of increasingly popular weekly parties thrown at the Boys & Girls Club in Seattle's historically Black Central District, Nasty Nes met the host, a DJ/rapper going by Sir Mix-A-Lot. Impressed by what he saw, Nes invited Mix-A-Lot to air his material on FreshTracks. Soon after came a new institution, Nastymix Records. Formed in 1985 by Nes and Mix-A-Lot with Ed Locke and Greg Jones, Nastymix became one of the more unlikely success stories in music history: an independent rap label staffed by 10 people, based in Seattle of all places, that released a platinum and a gold record in two years and grew to include breakout acts like Kid Sensation and High Performance on its roster. The trajectory might have continued if not for Mix-A-Lot's litigious departure at the top of the decade, taking his growing fanbase with him.
Nastymix closed in 1992, but its short life had provided a blueprint for how to build a successful, minority-owned rap label, putting out local music with global reach. (The next wave of rap entrepreneurs — J. Prince in Houston, Dr. Dre and Suge Knight in Los Angeles and Master P in New Orleans — was surely taking notes.) Local momentum, however, was stifled by limitations like the Teen Dance Ordinance. Passed by the Seattle City Council in 1985 in response to buzzed-about allegations of drug and sexual abuse at youth events, the TDO put a stranglehold on all-ages concerts, requiring young patrons, rap's primary audience, to be chaperoned. Two off duty cops had to be on the premises, with another outside, and promoters needed $1 million in liability insurance. Though later replaced by the less restrictive All Ages Dance Ordinance in 2002, the TDO was undoubtedly taxing for a burgeoning scene built largely around group participation.
Despite those obstacles, the 1990s brought a wave of new interpretations. The pop appeal of Sensation, the acid-jazz blend of Sharpshooters, the consciousness of Source of Labor and Erika "Kylea" White, and the earthy, organic styles of The Ghetto Children and Tribal Productions all expanded the creative range of rap from Seattle. Ishmael Butler left college to start Digable Planets on the East Coast, bringing an intricate, finely spun approach to rap sampling still heard in Seattle production. "Baby Got Back" made Sir Mix-A-Lot both iconic and infamous, especially after its cartoonishly explicit music video was restricted to evening hours on MTV. Through it all, the scene was held down by Vitamin D, creator of legendary Central District basement recording studio The Pharmacy, and son of Motown legend and Ozone member Herman Brown. KEXP DJ Larry Mizell, Jr. once said he'd nominate the distinguished DJ, producer, and guitarist as Seattle's representative in a worldwide hip-hop Olympics, and he has been as instrumental as anyone in bringing a multiplicity to rap in Seattle and the Northwest.
And it wasn't only the music that was growing: During that period, the wider culture of hip-hop continued to extend its roots more deeply through the city and its satellites. Fever One, of the seminal NYC B-boys Rock Steady Crew, returned home and mentored eventual two-time world champion breaking crew Massive Monkees, who then opened a studio of their own. Natives Tony Shellman and Lando Felix co-founded the hip-hop fashion brands MECCA and ENYCE. By the 2000s, the graffiti supply store and exhibition space Art Primo had opened, and the non-profit 206 Zulu was using hip-hop as an educational tool to engage and empower Seattle's low-income communities of color. Eventually, in 2014, November became Hip-Hop History Month in Washington state.
With time, the divergent strains of Seattle rap have only gotten more wide-ranging. Butler's experimental duo Shabazz Palaces, signed to Sub Pop, engage in futuristic, genre-defying experiments. Nacho Picasso and Gifted Gab, both from the collective Moor Gang, swing in different directions — the former injecting a sinister, chaotic energy into Seattle street rap, and the latter delivering tumbling, irked bars from beyond a blown high. Travis Thompson, a part-Navajo rapper from the southern Seattle suburb of Burien, furnishes expressive beats with shrill flows and rousing bits of introspection. And Lil Mosey, from the northern suburb of Mountlake Terrace, is on a different planet entirely; the crooner, who began posting his music on SoundCloud in 2016, makes subdued auto-tuned songs like the breezy, crisp "Blueberry Faygo."
If there's a through line in all of this, it's that the Seattle-bred artists who infiltrate mainstream rap have done so despite running counter to mainstream narratives. In his 1987 breakout hit "Posse on Broadway," Mix-A-Lot reversed field on the rising popularity of gun-toting, super-macho West Coast gangsta rap, calling out domestic violence with a tale about using mace to defend a woman from her abusive boyfriend. "Baby Got Back" went No. 1 in 1992 pushing back against Eurocentric beauty standards. The following year, Digable Planets, who cited philosophers and name-checked Roe v. Wade in the pro-choice anthem "La Femme Fétal," topped the Billboard rap charts with "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," now a jazz-rap standard. Vitamin D's protégé Jake One, once a member of the G-Unit production team and later an extended member of the Rhymesayers family, would work with local luminaries like Fatal Lucciauno and Grynch and stay true to a soulful boom-bap sound, even as his laundry list of credits came to include E-40, T.I., Snoop Dogg, Future, Travis Scott and Drake.
And then, of course, there is Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' The Heist, whose massive singles "Thrift Shop" and "Same Love" challenged two of hip-hop's oldest norms: an obsession with expensive, extravagant things, and a persistent strain of homophobia. The record conquered the Grammys with an over-the-top performance and a win over best rap album favorite Kendrick Lamar (for which Macklemore would make an uneasy public apology), and its success reignited discourse around queer rights in hip-hop and beyond (building on the work of artists like THEESatisfaction). For some, this was the cap on an underdog story, a Seattle longshot with genuine talent rising to the highest reaches of the industry. For others, the optics of a white artist beating out a Black rapper's intensely autobiographical album and then making a scene of his guilt felt tone deaf. But whatever you thought of him, Macklemore personified a lot about Seattle: its workhorse ethos, its extensive grassroots scene, and an ability to manifest outsider stars that the wider world never saw coming.
In 2013, Seattle-based critic Charles Mudede wrote in The Stranger: "As Sir Mix-A-Lot raps only like Sir Mix-A-Lot, Macklemore raps only like Macklemore. Indeed, many of the comments on his YouTube videos compare him to Tupac, not because they sound similar, but because they share a style that feels honest and direct." That, in a nutshell, is the story of the scene: honest and direct, witty and benevolent, performed for its fans, possessed of its own thematic concerns, its artists a throng of nonconformists each doing their own thing.
Where to start with Seattle rap:
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