206UP FIVE YEAR (2009-14): The Top 25 Tracks

FIVE clear

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

206UP 5 Year Anniversary Best Of Lists Features

206UP.COM’s Top 10 SEA Hip-Hop Albums of 2011: #5 through 1

206UP.COM’s Top 10 Seattle Hip-Hop Albums of 2011 concludes today with the list below, the blog’s five favorite local releases of the year. I hope you enjoyed the list and that it generates an active response in your brain — that’s really the sole reason we do these year-end list things, anyway. Everything is up for conjecture. If you have something to say, I want to hear it — the Comments section is there for you to use. As before, links to download or purchase are included, just click on the album covers.

5. The Good Sin & 10.4 Rog – Late

Producer 10.4 Rog’s beatific sense of rhythm and electronic adornments made for the perfect counterpoint to The Good Sin’s grounded, low-pitched raps on getting by financially and romantically when success with both endeavors seems fleeting. I recall downloading this free album right around the time Odd Future’s proverbial cream was rising to the top and, upon listening, was happy to experience a different type of hip-hop escape: Finding a relatable and comfortable space of existence between Rog’s airy atmospherics and Sinseer’s lyrics on the everyday struggle. For most listeners in Seattle, this was a formal introduction to both producer and MC. Late set an incredibly high standard for these promising young artists whose stars are still rising.

4. Khingz – Liberation of the Monster

A relocation to Vancouver, BC has not changed the allegiance or focus in subject matter of the South End’s most self-aware rapper, Khingz. Liberation of the Monster was the best collection of tracks the MC has released since 2009’s remarkable From Slaveships to Spaceships. Canadian producer Rel!g!on was responsible for all of the beats, a Pacific Northwest re-working of the SoCal gangsta aesthetic found on 1990s albums like Dogg Food. While Khingz may forever associate himself with that style of rap nostalgically (like many us who came-of-age in the 90s), he’s decidedly more responsible and progressive in his rhymes. His course is set on a better future, a destination borne from a dubious past. On tracks like “Monster’s Lib” and “Hard to Say,” the MC is so diffuse in his rhyming it’s hard to keep up with the words. You would be too if you had the rare combination of artistic acumen and social enlightenment of this rapper.

3. Blue Scholars – Cinemetropolis

Even Shabazz Palaces’ debut LP Black Up didn’t ignite the local hip-hop landscape initially the way Blue Scholars did with their third full-length album, Cinemetropolis. Behind the strength of a Kickstarter campaign that generated a pre-album release $62,000 in donations in six weeks and a subsequent 33-date national headlining tour, Geo and Sabzi remained Seattle rap’s sentimental favorite (until the next Macklemore drops, anyway).

Producer Sabzi developed a new sound for the group: A bass-heavy mix of heady synth and tropical rhythms. And MC Geo wove his love for cinema and social justice into conceptual lyrics that succeeded in entertaining and provoking thought. As the members of Blue Scholars age, it seems like their fans are getting younger, which bodes well for the future. If the youth are independently choosing to support acts like this, then maybe there is hope for the coming generation.

2. The Physics – Love is a Business

A giant leap forward for Seattle hip-hop (and R&B for that matter). The Physics’ Love is a Business was the long-awaited follow-up to the group’s first LP, Future Talk, a record that held many promises for those heads still living in rap’s Golden Era. Love is a Business did have much in common with its predecessor, but also moved beyond with a wholly-conceived sound that was more soulful and refined thanks especially to don’t-call-them-back-up singers, Malice and Mario Sweet.

LIAB represents Seattle hip-hop in its most fully-grown incarnation. Thig Natural, Monk Wordsmith and Justo placed themselves contextually in that realm of maturity where one is still young enough to enjoy a Tuesday night jump-off encounter, but not without a hint of regret at having to face the coming work day on little to no sleep. In these mens’ lives, the intersection of their art, professional careers and romantic engagements are inseparable, each one informs the other. If there’s any justice in the musical universe someday The Physics will make beats and rhymes for a living, and this album’s description of their current existence will serve as a fond reminder to them of when life was a little less charmed.

1. Shabazz Palaces – Black Up

At this moment in time, it’s impossible to place Black Up into appropriate hip-hop context. But that’s because (and any theoretical physicist will tell you this) time itself is merely an illusion. Similar to the career of Shabazz Palaces’ primary motivating force, Palaceer Lazaro (earthly name: Ishmael Butler), the sounds on Black Up ascend to the stratosphere, only to dissipate and fall invisibly to the terra firma where the music is reformed into new lyrical notions and sonic movements. The sounds here are transient, but everything in Butler’s past seems to have been pointing to this moment.

If you had to pinpoint an origin for Black Up, you would say its spirit is rooted most firmly in Africa. The Palaceer’s words stay tethered to a motherland but course off in many directions, just like peoples disseminated (by choice and by force) across the globe. As I type this, Shabazz Palaces is spreading its ethereal sound across parts of Europe, and will likely move beyond that continent. How fortunate we are in Seattle then, to be able to call our city SP’s corporeal home. I don’t think many people in The Town realized a spirit like Shabazz’s existed in their midst. Seattleites (and the world), take note: If that’s cream you’re putting in your coffee — don’t. Better to drink the elixir Black.

Album Reviews Best of 2011 Downloads

206UP.COM’s Top 10 SEA Hip-Hop Albums of 2011: #10 through 6

Today continues 206UP.COM’s countdown of the Top 10 Seattle Hip-Hop Albums of 2011. See yesterday’s post for the Introduction and three standout releases that didn’t quite make the cut. Today’s post features albums 10 through 6. Tomorrow (Thursday, 12.22.11) we’ll post 5 through 1. Thanks for reading!

(Click on the album covers for links to download or purchase.)

10. Dyme Def – Yuk The World

Here we have the trio of Brainstorm, S.E.V. and Fearce Villain behaving in the way we’re accustomed: Mixing top-shelf brag rap with sobering tales about growing up hard in the South End. It’s been over four years since Space Music, the area’s official introduction to the Three Bad Brothas from Renton. Since then, the crew has been missing a key component to their hustle: The production of BeanOne, whose lively trunk rattle serves as the perfect delivery vehicle for the three MCs’ sharp witticisms. Thankfully Bean is back here, providing the majority of the framework in which Dyme Def gets busy. One complaint: Yuk The World is too long, but that’s only because Dyme Def’s real voice hasn’t been heard in some time. Consider this a year-ending takeover attempt by one of the SEA’s most important groups in history.

9. Nacho Picasso – For The Glory

Emerging from a Cloud (Nice, that is) of weed smoke and comic book sound effects is Nacho Picasso. Even blazed-up and squinty-eyed this dude is more clever than your average MC, dropping punchlines quippy enough to win the affection of both your girlfriend and high-brow music publications. For The Glory‘s arrival on the scene correlates perfectly with the sonic trends going on in the greater rap arena. Production duties were handled by Blue Sky Black Death, whose hazy take on the Cloud Rap aesthetic fits in nicely next to the genre’s currently favored albums. The star here is inarguably Nacho himself, though. Holding a Marvel comic book in one hand and a Dessert Eagle in the other, the man otherwise known as The Tat in the Hat is poised to introduce his specific branch of Seattle rap to the rest of the nation.

8. Art Vandelay – They’ve Got My Number Down At The Post Office

MC Ricky Pharoe and producer Mack Formway are Art Vandelay, an affiliate of the left-of-center Black Lab Productions camp. On They’ve Got My Number Down At The Post Office they question the honesty of our government, point shotguns at their televisions and generally wonder indignantly how anyone in their right mind could see worldly goings-on as anything but a degradation of all that is beautiful and just. “Art Vandelay” is a self-delusion perpetuated by Seinfeld‘s George Costanza — a lie in the form of a heroic archetype that helps George feel better about his otherwise mundane existence. Pharoe is calling us the liars on They’ve Got My Number: We’re fools to think for even a second that anything is all good. Oh well, at least when the world begins crumbling down around us we’ll have Art Vandelay’s soundtrack playing in the background, telling us so.

7. Onry Ozzborn – Hold on for Dear Life

I think Seattle forgets how great an MC Onry Ozzborn is. That’s probably because his creative output sneaks by in the same way his monotonic flow inserts subversive social commentary and unique turns-of-phrases into our collective unconscious. Last year’s Dark Time Sunshine project with Chicago producer Zavala was the region’s rap genius lurking in the proverbial shadows. DTS was the one laughing at silly rappers driving by in rented whips, the fakers’ who used their own beautiful sisters and cousins as stand-ins for video models too expensive for their shallow pocketbooks.

Onry might not be a rich man himself, but when it comes to industry respect he has an abundance. From a musical standpoint, Hold on for Dear Life was the most experimental release from the MC to date. It played in bright electronica, post-dubstep pop and the familiar gothic gloom specific to Onry’s infamous crew, Grayskul. If and when the Seattle hip-hop weather affects other regions on a greater scale, it will be OG MC’s like Onry Ozzborn casting the tell-tale Northwest cloud cover.

6. Prometheus Brown & Bambu – Walk into a Bar

What began on mostly a freebie lark ultimately turned into this 10-track for-profit album with some of the best production value around. Prometheus Brown (known traditionally to Seattle as Geo, of course) and Los Angeles’ Bambu pay homage to their island origination on Walk into a Bar which was released on Bambu’s label (Beatrock Music) and aimed squarely at the Hawaiian Islands, a favorite tour destination for the two MCs. As per standard, Geo and Bambu choose their words carefully always using them to uplift and inform rather than degrade and dispirit. “National Treasure,” for example, is important commentary on gender politics and features a beat from Vitamin D whose drums somehow always sound bigger than everyone else’s.

Album Reviews Best of 2011 Downloads

206UP.COM’S Top SEA Hip-Hop Albums of 2011: Introduction & Honorable Mentions

Image by Emma Looney.

The calendar tells me it’s nearing the end of December and hence begins 206UP.COM’s countdown of the best Seattle-area hip-hop albums of the last twelve months. Today the blog features the requisite Honorable Mentions. (Which we all know is just a mechanism designed to appease indecisiveness and waffling on behalf of the writer — guilty as charged.) Tomorrow the blog will feature the 10 through 6 positions, and on Thursday it will conclude with 5 through 1. If you’re a frequent reader of this blog, there should be no surprise as to the record that will top this list. (Hint: I am undoubtedly not the only one who will place it at the apex…)

The crew that occupies the top spot is indicative of one important signifier regarding 206 hip-hop: The artists who have been doing it the longest in this Town are still the ones doing it the best. Recently Seattle has had two acts embark on wildly successful national-headlining tours, both featuring 30+ dates each. But there’s only one act currently holding down an international tour, and it’s the dazzling brainchild of one of the city’s “old heads.” This bodes well for us. Seattle is a location with relatively little rap tradition, but the last five years have seen exponential growth to the point where there are too many acts to fill venues and not enough interested listeners to promise success for everyone. We’ve reached the musical equivalent of what chemists call “supersaturation.”

Seattle rap must now grow outward in order to truly succeed, and the man doing it the biggest is the only one the local community should trust to carry the torch (regardless of what Sir Mix-A-Lot says). His is a demeanor that perfectly represents what Seattle is about, his point-of-view one that is vastly under-represented (both in Town and out of), and his creative acumen advanced enough to stay relevant in an ever-shifting musical landscape that requires deft alterations in sound and a healthy dose of intrigue to hold listeners’ short attention spans.

Younger rappers, take heed: This sh-t right here is a marathon, not a sprint, regardless of what these flash-in-the-internet-pan MC’s are telling you. You’d be wise to tie up your laces, keep your proverbial powder dry, and turn off that internal metronome for just a moment for some good old-fashioned note-taking. Time for you to listen to Black.

And with that, here are 206UP.COM’s (OTHER) Top Seattle Hip-Hop Albums of 2011 (the Honorable Mentions):

(Note: Links to purchase or download are included. Just click the album cover image.)

Avatar Young Blaze – The Iron Curtain

With each subsequent release, Avatar Young Blaze shows the promise that lurking somewhere in his ever-plotting mind is a top-notch trap masterwork waiting to be unleashed. Not to say that The Iron Curtain isn’t excellent. It is. And it’s the best he’s ever sounded on the mic. With more optimism in his lyrics (living in sunny SoCal will do that to you) and an expanding musical palette, Av has become a valuable Central District representative to the West Coast and beyond. Check out the track “UK Grime,” which sounds like it was concocted in a basement out in East London. It’s the only Seattle rap song of 2011 that made me want to break sh-t.

Kung Foo Grip – Capitalize

From the land of pristine suburbia (otherwise known as Kirkland) comes Kung Foo Grip and their decidedly un-sterilized update on underground Golden Era rap. The term “old soul” can’t be more aptly applied to these two underage MC’s (Greg Cypher and F is H) who found upstart success as on-the-scene battle rappers. They’ve since moved beyond the corner into high-quality studio productions like Capitalize‘s get-lifted “Def Yoda pt. 3,” a celebration of youth and their own unequivocal dopeness.

Hi-Life Soundsystem – Hi-Life Soundsystem

MC Khingz has been doing it for more than a minute around Town and everyone knows him as the thoughtful, science fiction-loving word-nerd (I mean that in a good way). He’s as comfortable embracing his own high-level mic prowess as he is learning the city’s populace on how f-cked up their racial and gender constructs are.

Hi-Life Soundsystem is the collaborative endeavor (with MC B-Flat and producer Crispy) that sought to temporarily shed the dreaded “conscious” label that’s been attached to Khingz in favor of his strobe-lit party-rocking sensibilities. “Death of the Party” was the best Seattle club jam of the year. It consistently brought the house down on the dance floor but Khingz and B-Flat couldn’t help turning their verses into something of a cautionary tale directed at folks who perpetually overdo it. This is music for party-goers who can appreciate their festivities without needing to overindulge.

Album Reviews Best of 2011 Downloads

REVIEW: Cold Hearted In Cloud City (Khingz)

Cold Hearted In Cloud City (Khingz)

(Note: This review also appears on national hip-hop blog abovegroundmagazine.com.)

In previous posts I’ve championed Khingz and his music because of the overarching sentimentality that drives it. Whether it’s an unabashed embrace of his sci-fi nerd tendencies, fastidious examination of his race, or total lack of fear over expressing the fact that he’s in love (be it with the woman of his dreams, or a fraternal love with his homies — minus the bullsh*t “no homo”/”pause” bigotry that poisons the hip-hop lexicon). Honesty in music breeds quality product. This has been the consistent ethic throughout Khingz’s career, and to his credit he’s achieved it without ever coming off as self-righteous. He’s walking a tightrope over mainstream hip-hop with his self-respect, principles, and integrity balanced on his back; and he seems to be doing it with ease.

Khingz is also having the most prolific year, musically, he’s ever had. From Slaveships to Spaceships jumped out of hyperspace in the first half of the year to a hungry Seattle hip-hop scene that I personally don’t think was ready for an album of such heavy-handedness. Folks around The Six were too busy taking their clothes off at Mad Rad and Fresh Espresso concerts, acts that feed the debaucheric tendencies of Seattle’s most over-caffeinated scenesters. Not saying there isn’t a time and place for that, but in a town that prides itself on being “conscious” and “progressive,” you’d hope an album like Slaveships would be gobbled up by those same scenesters who are, by-day, members of the supposed coffee-shop intelligentsia. Endless ruminations followed by due shine in the local press would hopefully have followed. In the Weekly’s Best of Seattle Reader’s Poll, Khingz was named “Best MC,” which is certainly a strong statement considering how saturated the local hip-hop market is, but simply being dubbed “one of Seattle’s wittier wordsmiths” in the brief write-up didn’t exactly speak to the complexities of Khingz’s album. No matter. If hip-hop culture trends toward justice (and I believe it does), From S to S will endure the test of time and ultimately be realized as a local hip-hop classic.

Now enter the follow-up to From Slaveships to Spaceships, Cold Hearted in Cloud City. While not as fully realized conceptually as From S to S (a Star Wars/Khingz-as-the-Blaq-Han-Solo theme loosely holds the sci-fi element together), this record may represent more of a transition in musical styles for the emcee. Gone is the frantic urgency of previous beats, and taking that place is a far mellower vibe. It is, dare I say, more sonically “accessible.” The fact that his rhyme style still meshes well with the more delicate production, only confirms my argument that Khingz is one of the most versatile emcees currently active in Seattle. (Though to be fully accurate, I should qualify that statement by acknowledging he’s since relocated to Vancouver, BC.)

The shift in musical styles is also accompanied by a slight shift in subject matter. Gone is the powerful declaration of liberation, which Khingz presumably nurtured to fruition on Slaveships. Cold Hearted finds Khingz getting more comfortable with his current place in the rap game. He shows he can body wack rappers with ease on “Carbonite Flow;” he confidently declares his journey through hip-hop has been unlike any other on “Kessel Run;” and shows he will gladly rock a party if motherf*ckas just wanna dance on “Devilish Grin.” It’s all done with an undercurrent of trepidation, however, which never allows levity to fully embrace the record. Khingz knows there’s a poison goin’ on (in the world and the rap game; see: “Hybernation Siccness”), and he’s too much of an introspective soul to allow himself to forget it, even for a moment.

On his blog, Khingz says he’s still searching for his “true” sound. It seems Cold Hearted is a brief stopover on that trip. My impression of his last two albums is that he’s found his proper voice, but perhaps his creative muse hasn’t shown him/herself yet. Or, could be that Khingz will realize an entire career with various collaborators and never get comfortable with one particular “sound.” That would be okay with this listener. For a genre that so prides itself on progression and “changing the game,” it possesses few artists that actually deliver on those maxims. In Khingz, it seems hip-hop has found someone that can truly, and willingly, carry that banner.

Album Reviews