206UP turned five years old on July 5th. Can you believe it? What started as a lark — a mere glimmer in the apple of my internet eye — has grown into the most popular Seattle hip-hop blog in existence. (I’m not tooting my own horn here, do the Googling and see for yourself … Okay, maybe there’s a little bit of tooting going on.)
Some quick history: 206UP began as an alternative creative outlet a couple of years after I moved to New York City. For a time, I was keeping one of those very self-indulgent, personal blogs about my new life in NYC — very uninteresting stuff to anyone other than my mom. After I put the kibosh on that, it only took about 20 minutes to decide I wanted to try something different. 206UP was basically borne out of an instantaneous decision; there was really no planning involved, which probably explains why the very name of the site was hijacked (subconsciously, I swear) from a sub-heading on Larry Mizell’s now-defunct — and definite source of inspiration — Raindrophustla.
I still live, work, and write and manage the blog from New York City, which keeps me once or twice removed from the local scene at all times. But in some ways that separation is preferable: 206UP prides itself on maintaining a critical edge which would be tough to preserve if I were sitting down to coffee with these rappers every weekend. In the end, this site strives to provide an exhaustive, discerning look at the dedicated and well-deserving Town artists putting in work in the name of hip-hop music. We keep this site going because we care, just like the artists we feature.
To celebrate the five-year milestone, regularly scheduled programming is being preempted for the next few days in order to bring you some special features. First up is a list: 206UP’s Top 25 Seattle Hip-Hop Tracks of the last five years*. These are the songs the site kept coming back to time and again. The ones that made immediate impressions when heard for the first time and, more often than not, the ones that endured and actually got better as time passed. These tracks also tend to stand alone, as singular, well-rounded examples of the artists that created them. If you were to name the single most important factor in determining if a song made it onto this list, it’s probably that one.
As always, you might disagree. You will disagree. And 206UP’s own opinion is subject to change. In fact it probably already has. The list begins after the jump.
*7/5/09 through 7/5/14
25. “Thrift Shop” – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
The track that spurred the Macklemore Phenomenon, converting a low-key backpacker career into the capital LLC we know (and loathe?) today. Dispensing with the track’s ubiquity and cultural baggage — which is difficult to do, to be sure — “Thrift Shop” remains a triumph of instant pop gratification that transcends the pop-rap status quo like few other Billboard-toppers of recent years. The production is delightfully throwback, the rapping is capable and charming, and the message — while philosophically bankrupt in the context of what Macklemore has done with his career since its release — at least portends consumer consciousness. Plus the kiddies love it.
24. “Sweat” – THEESatisfaction
“Sweat” – THEESatisfaction
A slinky, kitschy move through a night on the town by Sub Pop “QueenS” THEESatisfaction. Awe Naturale explored themes of feminism and blackness in equal parts solemnity and levity; “Sweat” was, by far, the most fun jam on the record.
23. “Cash Rules!” – Sol
Nearly all of Sol’s music post-The Ride has aimed for broad appeal, but “Cash Rules!,” the standout track from his first Dear Friends EP, is how 206UP prefers the rapper also known as Solzilla. This cut extracts the maximum from only three elements: a spare, tightly-wound breakbeat; tense Asian strings; and Sol’s hard-as-diamonds lyricism concerning the parallels between all forms of money making.
22. “What Up Pimpin'” – Draze (feat. Parker, Da Association & Yirim Seck)
“What Up Pimpin'” – Draze (feat. Parker, Da Association & Yirim Seck)
Draze and a few friends crafted a textbook posse cut with “What Up Pimpin,” a spin around the South End block set to Just Blaze-like horns. It’s bombastic and cocky, but stabilized by the grindstone hustle of studied veterans Draze, Parker and Yirim Seck. “What Up Pimpin” finds joy in the art of bullshittin’ and the simple pleasures of politicin’ with your brothers.
21. “Sun & Breeze” – Gabriel Teodros (feat. Amos Miller & Meklit Hadero)
This addictive, soulful cut from Gabriel Teodros’ Colored People’s Time Machine is a cure-all for ill moods and cloudy demeanors. The pristine, airy vocals of Meklit Hadero and the upbeat guitar plucks are a soundtrack for lying in the park under sun filtered through swaying tree branches. Even when social conditions got him down, GT plays the eternal optimist and guest MC Amos Miller and producer Justo are his unflappable allies.
20. “Coobreeze” – Candidt (feat. Xperience & Maya Jenkins)
Candidt pumped his 2010 21-track opus Sweatsuit & Churchshoes full of positivity, and “Coolbreeze” was the joint assigned to shake haters and harbingers of violence to the side with dramatic synth and body-moving rhythm. The Oldominion MC possesses one of the three most recognizable voices in Seattle rap, and he uses it here to freeze would-be contrarians in fly b-boy poses.
19. “The Three Rules” – Art Vandelay
Ricky Pharoe and Mack Formway dispense knowledge about the “industry” that no starry-eyed dreamer of Bugatti dreams ever wants to hear. Closed doors, unreturned emails and checks that never arrive are enough to send most upstart rappers back to flipping burgers and pulling shots. But when you enter the rap game with cynicism as part of your modus operandi, as Art Vandelay have done, you’re already forged for a lengthier battle with the industry snakes. “The Three Rules” is too jaded to fail.
18. “Midnight Special” – Brothers From Another (feat. Vitamin D)
Brothers From Another have carved a nice lane for themselves as rappers who are very much of-the-moment but with a learned hip-hop sensibility that could only have been gleaned by time spent studying hip-hop trailblazers from decades past (A Tribe Called Quest, Souls Of Mischief, Wu Tang, et al). “Midnight Special” corresponds to BFA’s ethos, making explicit their influences over a golden era, jazz-infused beat. The track concludes with a dope cameo from the big homie Vitamin D who wraps the proceedings with an official BFA co-sign. Thus, the future of Seattle hip-hop is in good hands for as long as this crew is around.
17. “Blackberry Kush” – Porter Ray
A blunted, casually slouched flow belies Porter Ray’s sixth sense for gifted (and lifted) lyricism on “Blackberry Kush,” the standout track from his vital BLK GLD debut. This is one of those tracks where your mind ends up in a different place from where it began, all because of PR’s flurry of couplets that bend, twist and ease you into a submissive state. Producer B. Roc perks up boom-bap revivalist ears with a vehicle that kicks up hip-hop dust lying around since ’92.
16. “Beg” / “Borrow” / “Steal” – RA Scion
Technically three tracks on an eponymous EP, I’m cheating a little here and treating the trilogy as the single body of work that it really is. RA Scion summarizes, in his typical arcane fashion, the post-Great Recession fallout for the working class and the conditions wrought by Big Banking that ultimately lead to the Anonymous and Occupy movements. Producers MTK, DJ Phinisey and Dawhud provide the grainy soundtrack over which Ryan Abeo goes harder than we’ve ever heard.
15. “Klingon” – Jarv Dee
A club joint so enjoyably ratchet that even Worf would shake to it. “Klingon” broadcasts the swagger and high technical ability of Jarv Dee, a comically under-appreciated artist in Seattle rap. Can party rap also function as high hip-hop, as defined by the stuffy-headed Sennheiser geeks purporting to hold all of rap music’s answers? Jarv Dee could bridge that gap.
14. “Never No” – J. Pinder (feat. Dice)
The single on which J. Pinder, still a budding national star, sounded bigger than his humble Backpack Wax roots. Kuddie Fresh sliced through his own cathedral organ and heavy percussion with triumphant horns that announced J as a statewide hip-hop presence. On Careless, he elegantly asked the question: “Is all of this really worth it?” But on “Never No” he didn’t seem in doubt. Dice oversees the proceedings with her grounded, smoky vocals.
13. “They’ll Speak” – Raz Simone
Raz Simone lays his lyrical roots bare on “They’ll Speak,” a series of bars spit spoken-word style over a Hans Zimmer Inception instrumental. There is no beat, no hook, and no frills. “This is what emotions sound like,” murmurs Raz before launching into a devastating series of lyrical vignettes filled with thuggery and pain. Cognitive Dissonance nearly collapsed under its own tormented weight, and to open the album with “They’ll Speak” was an exercise in hip-hop non-conformity. There is nowhere to go but up for Raz Simone.
12. “Naked Lunch” – Nacho Picasso & Blue Sky Black Death
“Naked Lunch,” Nacho Picasso’s psychoactive trip down the rabbit hole of his own troubled mind, gets its name from the William S. Borroughs literary classic. “All the drugs I abused and I’m still not amused,” is Nacho’s mantra here and it functions as both a badge of honor and shameful epithet. Blue Sky Black Death lace the track with cloudy synth and a creeping (and creepy) bass line. The rapper also known as the Tat in the Hat has already given opiate jockeys a lifetime’s worth of music to smoke to, but “Naked Lunch” is the most ominous.
11. “UK Grime” – Avatar Darko
Fight music. Avatar’s “UK Grime” blasts ear-splitting claps and horns in front of turbid drum and bass courtesy of producer Chizzy. The disparate elements piss you off in the best way possible. Even Av’s low-key racist line, “Slanted eyes, I go Japan on ‘em,” is tolerable because this track was made strictly to rouse your anger.
10. “War” – Fatal Lucciauno
Kuddie Fresh channels the good Dr. Dre himself behind the boards with this creeping, ominous banger that uses police sirens as instruments and piano keys heavy as bricks to assert Fatal Lucciauno’s street dominance. The former Sportn’ Life artist not so much raps as smites his way through the dark alleys and back channels of the less-than-sunny side of Seattle rap.
9. “FVCKV9TA5” – Kung Foo Grip
We called this the best Seattle beat of 2012 and we stand by that statement. Giorgio Momurda adheres to his moniker and effectively kills it. “FVCKV9TA5” starts innocently enough: slightly pitched bongos bubbling somewhere off in the distance. But then, the wallop: a mass of gurgling bass and muted explosions all at once, as if the producer wrapped all of the effects in a burlap sack and whacked the control board with it. KFG’s Greg Cypher and Eff Is H deliver admirably, as usual, but the mastermind here is Giorgio.
8. “Are You… Can You… Were You? (Felt)” – Shabazz Palaces
A warm, sweeping, electronic epic on an album that feels densely inhabited but frustratingly inaccessible, “Are You… Can You… Were You? (Felt)” contains at least two musical movements through which Palaceer Lazaro hints at romantic notions. The entirety of Black Up operates on a different plane than most hip-hop music, so it makes sense that this love song hovers among the ethereal.
7. “Fresher In My Kicks” – Dyme Def
A song about sneakers that’s not really about sneakers. “Fresher In My Kicks” could be fresher in my sunglasses, hooded sweatshirts, jewelry, hell, mumus even — any item that’s used to adorn the body but deflect away the insecurities and daily strife that we all face. Bean One laces the track with a familiar piano sample, and Fearce, S.E.V. and Brain recount their adolescent lives through cultural touchstones that double as footwear. “Fresher” is a deft coming-of-age ballad disguised as sneaker worship. Macklemore’s “Wings” aimed for a similar thing, but drowned itself in melodrama.
6. “So Cool” – Eight4 Fly
As is often the case, Eighty4 Fly comes up short in the lyric department on “So Fly,” the still undeniable single from the rapper’s debut EP, The Eight4 Fly Project. But what it lacks in cleverness is made up for in perfect pop construction and unadulterated swagger. This is the anthem of the fly robots, spun down to earthly radio waves for humans to ride and smoke to.
5. “Just So You Know” – Helladope
Cloud Nice has spawned a grip of Seattle’s best rappers and “Just So You Know” is the track that best introduced the clique to the city’s greater music community. Helladope is Tay Sean and Jerm, two of CN’s unofficial leaders, and their 2010 single is equal parts funky and smoothed out, ala California G-funk (which I’m guessing partially inspired it). The counter-intuitive truth to great party music is that a large chunk of time must be spent in isolation crafting it. “Just So You Know” reflects that axiom by sounding simultaneously turnt-down and turnt-up. This is that rare joint that allows you to act accordingly.
4. “Blastit” – Shabazz Palaces
At a scant running time of two minutes and thirty seven seconds, “Blastit” is barely there before it’s gone, but the shit contains multitudes. Start with the first notes, played with delicate precision on the mbira by Tendai Maraire, the Shabazz crew member with deep musical bloodlines that run pure and true to his Zimbabwean roots; has there ever been a more soothing sound in Seattle rap? And then, the wig split: cracking, piercing high-hats which, if heard through a halfway decent pair of headphones or speakers, will separate body from soul, leaving a crumpled shell of flesh and bone to rattle to ashes by the track’s impossibly deep 808 whop.
This is Shabazz bridging ancient and new, peaceful and warlike, rap music and motherfucking DNA. We get one brief verse from the Palaceer: it concerns chains and freedom, and riding the cultural frequency wave of hip-hop with such impenetrability and dissent that, when the song’s unidentified protagonists at its beginning and end suggest there can be reconciliation through a presidential assassination, you immediately believe them. “Blastit,” like the group that spawned it, disrupts the system.
3. “Back Track” – The Physics (feat. Language Arts)
In the ubiquity of “back in the day” hip-hop tracks, very few ever stand out. That has something to do with how well the author of a song connects the listener to his or her nostalgia. “Back Track” is the best answer Seattle has to Ahmad’s “Back In The Day,” and it connects on the strength of Justo’s whimsical schoolyard production, the Gishuru brothers’ detailed descriptions of their earliest rap lives, and of course La’s (then known as Language Arts) “Life’s A Bitch”-inspired verse, a head-spinning genius of autobiographical bars that qualifies as one of the best verses in the history of Seattle hip-hop.
2. “HI-808” – Blue Scholars
This single marked the full transition by Sabzi from sample-based throwback production to synth-focused, tropical boom-bap. “HI-808” rocks every time, and it’s best played at high volume from the bed of a rusted-out pick-up truck, preferably somewhere near a Hawaiian shore. The synth is so deep that it effectively functions as bass and, along with Geo’s bars about his formative Hawaiian upbringing, conjures the humidity and steam of the Big Island’s Volcanoes National Park.
1. “A Mess” – Shabazz Palaces
The most traditionally crafted rap song from either of Shabazz Palaces’ debut EPs, Eagles Soar, Oil Flows and The Seven New, “A Mess” is the best Seattle hip-hop track of the last five years for the same reason that that duo of extended players are two of the best albums of the same period: it exists both above and below you, to serve the greater rap (and human) consciousness by patronizing and agitating whack MCs in both familiar and clandestine fashions.
The instrumental — a shuddering giant’s step of wobbly bass, deliberate percussion and funk guitar — is ear-catching, but simple; you’re drawn in by its clarity and modesty. Ishmael’s flow matches the musical backdrop, but his lyrics are coded accusations and rejoinders, flirting with explicitness when he senses the simple-minded won’t get the picture: “But when you say it’s for us, why’s it only ‘bout you?” is directed at “rap n-ggas” pimping the game in the name of cultural ceremony. From Ish’s perspective, all of hip-hop’s progenitors lose when that happens. I’m inclined to agree with him. “We all go” is the choral chant slipped between verses, but the presumed destination varies. At once it’s tangible (Seattle’s Central District), another time existential and finally, perhaps, spiritual.
“A Mess” is how Shabazz Palaces might describe the contemporary rap landscape. Hip-hop is losing its identity because it is becoming the primary version of all popular culture, no longer an isolated body but the well-trampled mainland. Questlove spelled all of this out eloquently in his series of New York Magazine essays. Ironically, Seattle has functioned as a ground zero for this phenomenon. Hip-hop is a roiling, poisoned crucible that needs a solvent. Dress yourself in a sharkskin jacket and dive in for the hunt, say Shabazz Palaces.