Contrary to what some prominent journalists and bloggers would have you believe, hip-hop in 2009 is not dead. At least not in regions like the Pacific Northwest, areas that aren’t traditionally associated with carrying hip-hop’s proverbial torch. While Seattle’s rock-oriented past certainly qualifies it as one of those regions, in 2009 The Six definitely showed it can at least fan the genre’s flame, if not assume a lead position for helping advance hip-hop even further into the 21st century.
It was not always like this, however. I remember back in 2005, browsing the hip-hop section at the (now defunct) Tower Records on lower Queen Anne and pulling a relatively unspectacular-looking CD from the shelf. That CD was Blue Scholars’ self-titled debut album. I’d never heard of Blue Scholars prior to that chance encounter, and I decided to take a gamble on the record. I hesitantly spent my twelve dollars on the CD (remember those?), basically on a whim and with a sliver of hope that I might find something to help rescue me from the doldrums of mainstream rap. See, I was getting so bored with the genre at the time that I was starting to turn my attention away from hip-hop and more toward indie rock. (As the Thornton brothers would say, “Eeyyyechh!”)
That Blue Scholars album eventually led me to Common Market; which led to Cancer Rising; which led to Abyssinian Creole; which led to Macklemore; which led to Grynch; which led to Dyme Def; which led to Sportn’ Life’; and on and on, eventually to me deciding to start this blog. I still credit that first Blue Scholars album for single-handedly renewing my faith in hip-hop music. Sounds rather dramatic, doesn’t it? Well, it was. In 2005, as far as I was concerned, hip-hop was dead, or dying. I realize now that that simply wasn’t the case. I was just looking for good music in the wrong place. I was spending too much time on MTV and BET, and not nearly enough time in the place where the art form was still being practiced with love and care: the underground.
The most incredible thing about Seattle’s hip-hop movement has been the relative speed at which it’s gained momentum. Blue Scholars dropped their debut in 2005, a mere four years ago. That was essentially the beginning of a sustained explosion. The next two years saw the further rise of Sabzi and Geologic, and then the emergence of others I mentioned above. The culmination of the decade’s Town movement has undoubtedly been 2009. This year we’ve seen an abundance of talented artists rise seemingly from out of nowhere. Who knew there was this much talent lurking under Seattle’s perpetually gray skies?
I credit Seattle’s hip-hop movement for my re-discovery of the art form. What began for me as an infatuation with golden-era NYC hip-hop and Cali-gangsta rap over twenty years ago, has become much more. More than just a pastime or hobby. It’s the music I ingest every day. The soundtrack to my morning commute and when I walk down the street at night. It’s something that I consume. Just as much as coffee in the mornings and football on the weekends, hip-hop music is part of my life. And I’m thankful that artists from my native city are the ones to have brought me back to the beats and rhymes.
Hip-hop: dead in 2009? I say f*ck that. As evidence to the contrary, I now submit the following list of Seattle’s best hip-hop albums of the year. Hip-hop is alive and breathing today — and not only that, it’s progressing. Here are 206UP.COM’s Top 10 reasons why:
10. OOF! EP (Blue Scholars)
An experiment of sorts by Seattle’s most nationally-relevant hip-hop group. I wrote previously that this is what it sounds like when Blue Scholars go on vacation. They accomplish their musical goals with mixed results. “Coo?” and “HI-808” are two of their best songs ever, but I still don’t like “New People” (though it has grown on me a little). Sabzi remains the best hip-hop producer in the Northwest. And Geo is one of the three best emcees. Now, can we have more of the normal Scholars revolution in 2010, please?
9. Songs for Bloggers (GMK)
An offbeat trip down the broadband wire, courtesy of talented up-and-coming rapper/producer, GMK. Songs for Bloggers charms upon repeated listens and verifies the unlimited potential of the Golden Mic King. On Songs, he takes the listener into the World Wide Web, poking fun at bloggers like me who enjoy the luxury of anonymity and the (sometimes) unfair categorization of rappers into niches that conveniently serve to fit our expectations. GMK is unique, though. A dual threat who is capable of going in any number of directions.
8. Ali’Yah (D. Black)
Ali’Yah represented a shift in tone and lifestyle for Sportn’ Life lead dog, D. Black. A man whose rap career began with aggressive, street-oriented rhyming seems to have made a 180-degree turn. He’s still aggressive and street-oriented but now moving in a different direction, urging his fellow soldiers to step away from the drugs and guns and toward the redeeming light of personal and social responsibility. There was a lot of uplifting hip-hop in Seattle this year and D. Black’s Ali’Yah proudly led the way.
7. Panic EP (Dyme Def)
The best Emerald City sh*t talk always comes courtesy the three bad brothas of Dyme Def. On this album, however, it’s sh*t talk with a purpose. Normally as confident as tigers in a room full of injured gazelles, Brain, SEV, and Fearce Vil are filled with a little trepidation given the condition of America’s financial system. The seven tracks on Panic are loosely built around a recession theme. They urge us to ease our “Foot up off the Gas” to save some scratch. But, in true Dyme Def fashion, they never tell us to stop partying.
6. Glamour (Fresh Espresso)
Easy to hate on and equally as easy to dance to, Glamour simultaneously represents all that is right and wrong with hip-hop. P Smoov and Rik Rude’s hipster musical stylings bring more folks into the 206’s glorious hip-hop sphere — and this is a good thing. The duo have virtually nothing of substance to say, however — and this is a bad thing. Doesn’t matter, though. The relevance of Fresh Espresso is firmly established in The Town, so soapbox bloggers like me can step the f*ck off, I guess. Plus, P Smoov’s already prodigious talent and still-to-be realized potential are undeniable.
5. Hear Me Out (Yirim Seck)
The most underrated Seattle hip-hop album of the year. An unexpected dose of raw and real, Yirim Seck is an everyman emcee that just happens to be more talented than, well, almost every man in the local rap game. Like an expanded and Northwest-relocated version of ATCQ’s “8 Millions Stories”, Yid Seck experiences more lows than highs on his debut album, yet still perseveres like a champion. Hear Me Out neatly captures the pathos of the struggling working class as well as the current unbounded optimism of the local hip-hop movement.
4. High Society EP (The Physics)
The trio of Thig Natural, Monk Wordsmith, and Justo captured lightning in a bottle on this EP. Simply put, they found sonic perfection for seven whole tracks. There isn’t another album in Seattle, let alone the entire country, that had me craving more after I got to the end than The Physics’ High Society. If their sophomore full-length delivers the way HS did, we might be looking at the group that could carry Seattle hip-hop (popularity wise) higher and further than any other.
3. From Slaveships to Spaceships (Khingz)
To listen to From Slaveships to Spaceships is to hear a man being liberated from his paranoia, self-deceit, doubt, and culturally-imposed expectations of who he “should” be. That’s all. Probably the most intensely personal hip-hop album of these ten, it’s a brave exercise in therapy on wax for Khingz, an artist who is always thinking of ways to express personal growth in his music.
2. Graymaker (Grayskul)
The duo of JFK and Onry Ozzborn prove yet again that they are light years ahead of most other hip-hop groups. It’s difficult to keep pace when their philosophies and creative eccentricities are coming at you in so many scattered images and metaphorical tangents. Paired this time with producer Maker, a Chicago native, Grayskul unites the Northwest and the Midwest in a way only they are capable of. The moody production and dark-themed rhymes belie a hint of optimism that isn’t readily apparent but is ultimately responsible for some of the most lively hip-hop out of Seattle, ever.
1. Of Light/Self-Titled (Shabazz Palaces)
One of the five most creative and forward-thinking hip-hop albums of the decade. Everything about this album seems like it was pre-meditated. From the esoteric packaging, to the intentionally-veiled identity of the project’s main participant, to the deliberate pace of its “marketing” roll-out. Shabazz Palaces represents everything that is good about hip-hop. It casts a dark shadow over the genre’s vapid and disposable popular product, and illuminates hip-hop’s unlimited potential as a subversive course to self-awareness and urban pedagogy.
Three more for good measure…
Snow Motion (THEESatisfaction)
Self-Titled (Champagne Champagne)
The VS. EP (Macklemore and Ryan Lewis)
(And finally, a shout-out to They Live! I’m sure They LA Soul is dope, but I didn’t hear it in time for this list. Surely it’ll be a best of 2010…)
That’s all she wrote for 2009! More to come from 206UP.COM in the ’10.