West Seattleite Nottus Tre’s flow is a slow burn. His The Methadone Musical doesn’t wreck your senses at first listen. Its effect grabs you more like a slowly turning vice grip; the python of recent Seattle hip hop records. “Lights” (featuring Sportn’ Life’s Fatal Lucciauno) is the rapper’s latest video.
[THE SIX is a regular interview feature on 206UP.COM with a simple format: One member of the local hip hop community and six questions. For past editions click here.]
If you’re a fan of Seattle hip hop, you probably wouldn’t know DeVon Manier’s voice if you heard it. You would, however, know his artists’. Manier co-founded the venerable hip hop label Sportn’ Life Records back in 2002 which has grown to be the region’s most successful independent purveyor of local rap and R&B. Co-founder D. Black (now known as Nissim) is a familiar voice; so is Fatal Lucciauno’s; and Spac3man’s. You get the picture.
Manier’s influence on the Town scene is far-reaching but fairly under the radar. He sits on or advises various boards around the city including the City of Seattle Music Commission (founded in 2010), a vital municipal task force dedicated to preserving Seattle’s rich music tradition. To understand the scope of our city’s hip hop heritage, you must at least partially go through DeVon Manier. We’re excited and pleased that he took a few minutes to hop on this week’s edition of THE SIX.
You and your team started Sportn’ Life Records in earnest back in 2002. Talk about the hip hop “environment” in Seattle then. Why did you think it was a good time to start a label?
From my position at the time, the local environment was nice and competitive, but just starting to grow and separate. It felt more like “hip hop” and less like just “rap music.” The business mindset was just starting to settle in with most people. There were a few labels popping up and the biggest names at the time were Boom Bap Project and Byrdie if I remember right.
The number one reason for starting a label at the time was that the talent was staring us right in the face. We had a crop of fresh talent from the CD [Central District] and South End neighborhoods, and I couldn’t wait to take the music “downtown” so to speak, especially since it was a time where music from Seattle’s black communities wasn’t getting much shine. It was also a great time to sell CDs out of the trunk of the car and strive to be like Roc-A-Fella, No Limit, Bad Boy and earn money while making a name on the streets.
“Live For Now” – Nissim (feat. Bonhom)
As a record label owner, is it frustrating these days to have to compete not only against other labels, but the “independent” movement as well? Is the monumental success of someone like Macklemore a death knell for record labels?
It’s probably frustrating to those [who] aren’t willing to embrace new tasks, new business models, and new roles in the industry. Sportn’ Life recognizes our strengths and we’ve recently made a change to do more artist management and consulting, to less label work. It just makes sense for our situation. Overall, I don’t think labels are dead — maybe record companies are. Today some indie artists have a “team” of people doing the work of a label, or a manager; artists are doing the work of a label. Either way you look at it, the work has to get done, things have to be paid for, and fans need to help.
Is there one particular “artist that got away” who sticks out during your time with Sportn’ Life?
Nah, not really. There [are] a few that I wished we had gone further with, or released more material from, but that’s about it. But none that “got away.”
“King Street Freestyle” – Spac3man
Is the Seattle market capable of supporting so many hip hop acts? Do you think the scene will reach an over-saturation point? — Or has it already?
Well, whack stuff has a way of weeding itself out eventually, and that always helps the odds. But just as long as people want to hear, pay for, and go see music live, I think we’ll be fine. Seattle is a mecca of music and creativity, and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon.
What was the last song that played on your iPod (or on your car stereo)? Be honest!
I’m not familiar with the song names yet, but the last album I played was the new Mayer Hawthorne Where Does This Door Go.
Go ahead and plug one or two upcoming projects in the Sportn’ Life pipeline.
Up next from the label would be Spac3man’s EP Beyond the Stars. Then we’ll be releasing a long delayed project from My Life My Love, a collective group consisting of Nissim, Fatal Lucciauno, Spac3man, and Larry Hawkins. As far as artists we manage, people can definitely look out for a new EP from Fly Moon Royalty and the debut project from Larry Hawkins and Davey Jones titled Butterfly Sauce. They’re a new R&B/rap duo who we think will be turning quite a few heads this Summer/Fall.
“This Way That Way” – Larry Hawkins & Davey Jones
More Town goodness from the last 365 days.
Today concludes our year end list of the Best Seattle Hip-Hop Albums of 2012. Yesterday was the Honorable Mentions and today is the Top 10. Holler at me in the Comments section or on Twitter. Expanding the debate is part of democracy. Just remember: I’m right and you’re wrong. Happy New Year!
(Click on the album covers for links to purchase or free download, where available.)
10. Fleeta Partee – Lifemuzik
Sportn’ Life Records co-founder and OG in the Central District rap game Fleeta Partee (real name, no gimmicks) enlisted the two best area producers for the majority of Lifemuzik, an 8-song EP full of hard-worn street knowledge. Vitamin D lends board work for over half the tracks, his keyboards and drums on “Inception” and “Part of the Game” sounding bigger and deffer than everyone else’s, except for maybe Jake One’s whose “Apathy (No Love)” captures a blues feeling in boom-bap form. As far as the well-traveled Fleeta Partee goes, his free-wheeling, old-school flow rejuvenates rap purists’ earholes the way a pair of fresh laces lends new life to sneakers. Are you feeling bogged down by all the vapid swag excursions through chattering high-hats and cheap synth? Lifemuzik is the remedy.
9. Nacho Picasso & Blue Sky Black Death – Exalted
There’s a small part of me that worries Nacho Picasso’s Exalted made this top 10 because of other blogs that put it on their year-end lists. The power of group think is a motherfucker. After all, let’s face it: over the course of four mixtapes Nacho has become somewhat of a one-trick pony. But damn what a trick it is. There’s certainly no one else in the Town that does what he does: the monotonic nihilism accented with wicked one-liners, all pulled to a degenerate end by the wobbly, hazy renderings by production partners Blue Sky Black Death. For Seattle, Nacho is the vital counterpoint to the easy party-rocking optimism of the city’s most visible rap stars. Macklemore is an expert jokester, sure, but like all great comics Nacho finds his humor in the dark recesses of his own psyche. When the pathos is threatening to overtake your soul, sometimes smoking, fucking and, of course, laughing, make for the only true medicine.
On Sol’s Bandcamp page, the rapper dedicates Yours Truly to “the human pursuit of deep understanding,” an endeavor the MC is no doubt currently pursuing on a post-college graduation trip around the world. Most of this album — the culmination of a series of shorter, free EP releases — is an attempt at universal appeal, heavy on the pop hooks and R&B melodies which serve to make it all just feel very…easy. But when you consider Yours Truly in the context of the artist’s statement, it makes sense: we’re more immediately bonded together when our commonalities are highlighted, hence the depth of understanding we can find when enjoying an album like Yours Truly together. This may sound annoyingly meta and shit, but the threads that connect us through musical experience don’t exist at the surface of listening, which is true even when an album as easily enjoyable as this comes along.
7. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist
I’m super hyper-critical of Macklemore. Mostly because his puritanical rhymes are written and delivered so evidently as to diminish that vital trait which separates good poets from great ones: nuance. Then again, I agree with virtually everything the MC has to say on The Heist about marriage equality, white privilege and artistic integrity, three poignant topics that are sadly absent from about 90% of all other hip-hop I listen to. Plus producer Ryan Lewis conveys pop sensibilities in a manner that no other Seattle-birthed rap album featured so expertly this year, or perhaps ever.
I nitpick Ben Haggerty’s rap game in the same way I fixed upon every full-count, two-out, man-on-second strikeout by Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997 — you know, the year dude hit 56 home runs and won the AL MVP award. My criticisms of Macklemore are undeniable in the same way “Thrift Shop” undeniably moves butts and endears fans all over the globe. Is The Heist polarizing for a lot of rap heads? Sure. But the fact that this duo is killing the game right now while simultaneously causing haters to chatter is proof that they’re doing something right.
6. Gabriel Teodros – Colored People’s Time Machine
Seatown rappers went certified worldwide in 2012 and that’s word. But none of them in the fashion of Abyssinian Creole teammate, Gabriel Teodros. His Colored People’s Time Machine cuts a broad cultural swath with guest rappers from different countries rhyming in their native languages (English, Spanish, Arabic, and Tagalog, by my count).
While home is the central theme on CPTM, Teodros fashions the concept on his own terms, grappling with the intricacies of identity as a person of color and the realization that just because you were born in a specific place, it doesn’t mean that locale represents your cultural center. As always, the MC dons a critical, analytical cap, dropping piercing knowledge but always with love and a deft touch. As an ambassador to the rest of the rap world, Seattle can’t do much better than the homie GT.
5. THEESatisfaction – Awe Naturale
Cat and Stas of THEESatisfaction are no longer the Costco-employed “starving artists” of their earliest mixtapes, That’s Weird and Snow Motion. Both of those quirky hip-hop/R&B low-fi’s were recorded in the comfort of their own bedroom closet-turned recording studio and it endearingly showed. Neither is THEESatisfaction the little sister act of Shabazz Palaces, though the two forward-thinking groups do share a label home (Sub Pop) and a decidedly left-of-center musical spirituality. Awe Naturale was THEESatisfaction’s official debut and it garnered a ton of praise from both local and national outlets, much of it due to the quiet confidence of the group’s two members who are double threats in both rhyme and song. “Queens” is a funky, heady feminist groove that doesn’t name itself as such and was winning enough to garner a video treatment by the venerable dream hampton. Awe Naturale stands out, like Shabazz’s records, because it doesn’t sound like anything else in hip-hop.
4. The Physics – Tomorrow People
Tomorrow People reaches for a broader context than The Physics’ previous album (last year’s outstanding Love is a Business) without sacrificing any of what makes the group so appealing. Soulful, funky and beautifully nuanced, TP is 13 tracks of grown-man/woman hip-hop. MCs Thig Nat and Monk Wordsmith are thoughtful, conscious and raunchy always right when they need to be. And producer Justo and don’t-call-them-back-up singers Malice and Mario Sweet put the finishing touches on each track so they shine at just the right angles. This is a crew with a rare nonchalance that never translates to dull, a sure sign of artists who truly know who they are. There is something for everyone on Tomorrow People. You could play this album for your grandma and she would probably love it, and I mean that in the best way possible.
3. Fatal Lucciauno – Respect
Fatal Lucciauno’s stubborn refusal of the Seattle rap status quo is probably one of the most important statements made in the local arts. In a city home to the nation’s annual White Privilege Conference, it’s no surprise that the gregarious Macklemore has become Seattle hip-hop’s envoy to the rest of the world. That shit happened basically by default.
On the colder end of town, however, is where Fatal stages his operations. Hardcore and unforgiving to a fault, Respect is the other side of Seattle rap’s truth. It rejects even the militant-light stylings of acts like Blue Scholars and Gabriel Teodros, preferring to cast flickering reds and blues on the folks too preoccupied with basic survival than to be troubled with thoughts of the revolution. And in a year when we viewed all local rap through a Heist-colored lens, it’s important to ask ourselves: What percentage of those “Thrift Shop”-ers actually understood how their discovery of joy in a dirty bargain bin can be construed as yet another ironic luxury borne out of privilege?
It’s true we’re all better people when re-purposing perfectly useable disposed goods, feeding our souls with something truer than what is marketed to us. But Fatal’s Respect speaks on a different type of hunger: the one for things untarnished after a lifetime of languishing at the bottom.
2. Kingdom Crumbs – Kingdom Crumbs
Cloud Nice teammates formed like Voltron for Kingdom Crumbs, a hazy, danceable, electro-funk departure which was by far the most fun Seattle hip-hop release of the year. Jarv Dee, Mikey Nice, Jerm, and creative mastermind Tay Sean managed to find unique swag in a diverse array of funk compositions, from the hippie smoke session “Evoking Spirits” to the stuttering swankfest “Ridinonthestrength.”
Cloud Nice have evolved into one of the most diverse and reliable rap collectives in Town and much of that is owed to Tay Sean’s virtuosic keyboard and drum programming. Kingdom Crumbs rides on the strength of its accessibility (dreaded word, I know) and its musical intellect, the two factors that most often determine the level of quality in pop music. In a year when pop stylings thoroughly influenced Seattle rap, determining the best release of the last 365 days often came down to a single question: Which album would I rather listen to on repeat? More often than not Kingdom Crumbs was the answer.
1. Dark Time Sunshine – ANX
You could never accuse Dark Time Sunshine’s music of being cheery, but on the group’s third album, ANX, Chicago producer Zavala allows enough cracks in his heavy, electro-organic compositions to let a little bit of sunshine in. Onry Ozzborn’s deadpan science drops are illuminated by tad brighter synths, driving breakbeats (which were all but absent on DTS’s previous two albums, Believeyoume and Vessel), and a few well-placed cameos (vocalist Reva DeVito on “Never Cry Wolf” and a livewire Swamburger on “Take My Hand”, for example).
ANX is also less claustrophobic than its predecessors, its aesthetic welcoming well-equalized car stereo speakers rather than just the strict confines of headphone cans. Dark Time Sunshine’s music has always aurally represented the variations in weather of the group member’s home cities: the frigid wind of Chicago, the lidded grey Seattle sky. But finally with ANX we have tunes that go equally well with our Town’s de facto cloud cover and this past September’s exquisite atmospherics.
Don’t get me wrong, everything that makes Dark Time Sunshine one of the best hip-hop crews working today is still here; much of ANX still heaves and sighs like a concrete robot and Onry hasn’t lost a touch of his scathing pessimism. But that glow you see underneath an electronic heart is evidence of an evolved sentience. ANX can be cold to the touch, but the soul under the surface gives off uncommon warmth. It’s this new layer of complexity that elevates ANX above Dark Time’s great past work and places it in a superior class over every other Seattle hip-hop album of 2012.
A couple of big things are happening in the Sportn’ Life camp in the coming months. First off, the label celebrates its first decade in business with a blowout party at Barboza on November 21 (check for more details here). Secondly, you knew D. Black couldn’t stay away for long didn’t you? Real MCs gotta spit, it’s the laws of physics, and the man formerly known as Black has an eight-song EP in the works for a February 2013 release. Catch him as Nissim on this new joint, “Tell Me”, and the upcoming album, My Life My Love.
The venerable Sportn’ Life Records will be celebrating its 10 year anniversary on October 18 at Barboza. In commemoration of the milestone, Devon Manier and Co. are dropping two unreleased tracks per week as a lead-up to the event. This week’s offerings:
I love the slow crawling menace of this track (those heavy keys and stabbing synth are courtesy of producer Kuddie Fresh). Is Respect the best Seattle hip-hop album of the year thus far? The answer’s “Yes” for my money.
Goods news for fans of Sportn’ Life lead dog Fatal Lucciauno: his 2007 SnL debut, The Only Forgotten Son, is available free of monetary encumbrances for a short five days only. Click here, above or below to grab it now. And go here to read what 206UP.COM had to say about his recent album, Respect.
Sportn’ Life Records; 2012
Score (Potholes In My Blog scale): 4/5
Fatal Lucciauno dropped his sophomore full-length, Respect, yesterday via Sportn’ Life Records. I won’t say much here since a full album review by me is coming soon (via Potholes In My Blog), except that this record is vastly different than what most fans of Seattle rap are used to. It’s underground as hell, but not in the skater/backpacker aesthetic that most hip-hop in the city trends toward.
Fatal’s is a perspective that Seattle likes to pretend doesn’t exist, the pathos of a man familiar to most through fictionalized accounts on HBO and sensationalized blather on the local news. Respect is realer, rawer and more vital than the status quo this city tries so hard to maintain. There’s dirt in your own backyard, Seattle. Shit that no amount of new food co-ops or neighborhood clean-up days can wipe clean.