Seattle rapper Raz Simone held his first-ever private listening session yesterday at Terminus Studios, a glistening recording space in midtown Manhattan. The occasion was to preview his upcoming album, Cognitive Dissonance, in front of a couple dozen industry people, a select group of fans, and a smattering of music writers and bloggers. Through what felt like an egregious error in guest listing, the homie Jason Chen and I found ourselves among the people standing inside the recording room, formed in a loose semi-circle around Raz as he introduced the ten tracks on his soon-to-be-released LP.
Among our company, a few faces stood out from the crowd: the baby-faced producer and recent O’Dea High School graduate Jake Crocker; the diminutive blonde in the Unstoppable snapback making perpetual and ridiculous rap hands; the Josh Groban lookalike in the velvety maroon three-piece whom, I heard by eavesdropping, was there representing Forbes magazine.
And finally, the tall gentleman with close-cropped silver hair and bespoke suit jacket, perched on a piano bench in the back of the room whom — even though his mingling was kept to a bare minimum despite the fluttering of business cards and tiny torrents of disturbed air created by the flurries of handshakes executed by the rest of us — radiated the type of gravitas generally reserved for revolutionaries, politicians, or, say, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Appropriately, as it turned out, this man was Lyor Cohen.
Earlier this year, Raz Simone announced a “creative partnership” between Mr. Cohen’s new music business venture, 300 Entertainment, and Raz’s own fledgling Black Umbrella record label. This was a big deal. Not only because of who 300’s other founders and underwriters are (similar music industry giants Kevin Liles and Todd Moscowitz; Twitter, Google, and probably some other household name brands), but because of where Raz seems to sit in the context of Seattle’s current hip hop movement and the fact that the rapper is, reportedly, the very first artist signed to 300.
As we listened to Cognitive Dissonance in the dimly lit recording studio, it was appropriate then that the experience of hearing the album was something akin to standing at the edge of a sudden precipice, peering down into the abyss of Raz’s intensely active, devastatingly poetic and very much troubled mind. The songs and videos previously released to the public — “They’ll Speak”, “Don’t Shine” and “Still Mobbin,” all of which appear on the new album — are perfectly representative samples of the rest of Cognitive Dissonance. The production is, in measures, capable, cinematic and consistently emotive, but the greatest instrument here is Raz’s gravelly voice which, like the man himself, manages to express simultaneously a heavy-handed world-weariness and hungry youthful energy.
If you watched the Grammy’s or have turned the internet on once within the last 24 months, it’s easy to understand how the counterpoint to Seattle rap’s current escapade might seemingly be lurking somewhere in the shadows of the Space Needle or Amazon’s sparkling new campus sprawled smack dab in the middle of city. Like any urban center, we have our own sort of cognitive dissonance that occurs between what the Town has come to represent to the outside world and what, as they say, “really goes on.” Raz reminded us yesterday at the listening session that Seattle has a different story to tell: that his version of hip hop “starts in the streets” and that when it comes to embarking on a new type of endeavor — financial or creative, or, in this case, both at once — getting comfortable with the hustle first is paramount. For the majority of the session, Raz had his head bowed and his eyes closed. For some of the songs (memorably “They’ll Speak”) it felt like being in church while a congregant recited his testimonial. For a few hours at Terminus Studios, alighted in a penthouse suite floating above the biggest and brightest hip hop stage in North America, Raz seemed the picture of comfort.
After the final track on Cognitive Dissonance faded out, Lyor Cohen stood to say a few words about the creative partnership between 300 Entertainment and Raz’s small but burgeoning rap commonwealth, Black Umbrella. Over the toast of Jeezy’s favorite Tequila, Avion — a product placed graciously for the guests’ afternoon enjoyment — a pessimist might have qualified the words as mere lip-service. But as Mr. Cohen exited the studio, high-fiving Raz on the way out, that same pessimist would have also felt the pull of a rap industry legend’s influence, tugging Raz and the future of his hometown’s infantile hip hop scene into parts unknown.