206UP.COM YEAR END: The Best Seattle Hip Hop Albums of 2013 – The Top 10

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Today concludes 206UP’s Year End feature on the Best Seattle Hip Hop Albums of 2013. Below the jump you’ll find the blog’s Top 10 Albums of the Year (including a master list of all the albums considered at the very bottom of the post). Click on the album artwork or artist-titles for links to download or purchase.

Thanks so much for checking out the site! In 2014 there are some new features and — hopefully — big surprises to come, so keep visiting 206UP.COM throughout the New Year.

Peace, family!

Best of 2013 Best Of Lists

NEW MUSIC: Zenith – Grayskul

Grayskul - Zenith

There’s a full album review coming soon, written by yours truly, and hopefully to appear on some national music outlet foolish enough to give me space for a few hundred ill-conceived words. It will probably say something about how Grayskul makes better hip hop music than Macklemore and is an overall more accurate representation of the “Seattle rap ethos.” Or some similar malarkey.

Yeah, it’ll definitely have the word “malarkey.”

In the meantime, the fuck are you waiting for? Act like you’ve been here before and go get Zenith via Fake Four Inc. (Oh, and I meant it: Grayskul is better than Macklemore.)

Audio

NEW MUSIC: “Zenith” – Grayskul (prod. by Smoke)

Grayskul - Zenith

Oldominion crew pioneers Grayskul (Onry Ozzborn + JFK) have jumped the good ship Rhymesayers for the just-as-reputable indie darling Fake Four Inc. That doesn’t mean the group’s upcoming Zenith (due September 17) is any less anticipated, though. Here we have the title track which premiered today on Complex. The album version will feature Wu legend Raekwon (with whom I recently had a memorable encounter in Toronto — see below).

And now, 206UP.COM story time…

Traveling back to NYC from Toronto this past Sunday, my fiancée and I had an entertaining run-in with Raekwon the Chef. Dude was waiting patiently in the Porter Airlines lounge at TO’s downtown Billy Bishop airport. No crew. Just him, this Herschel camo duffle, and some girl who couldn’t have been a day older than 21. Whatever.

So, as I’m geeking out, we’re walking down the concourse to board the plane and my girl spies a Borden (that’s Canadian for a Benjamin) just lying there on the floor. She picks it up. We deliberate on who might’ve dropped it. The only person between us and Rae is a middle-aged white lady wearing a fanny pack — the type of lady still spending travelers checks from 1993 — the hunny clearly does not belong to her. So Claire (that’s my future wife) asks the Chef (that’s the rapper from Wu-Tang): “Excuse me, Mr. Raekwon, but is it possible you might’ve dropped some cash?” (That’s not how she asked — she used way more tact — but you get the picture.) Rae said something about, “If it was a hundred, then it was probably me,” and then proceeds to pull a wad of Canadian guap the size of Shaq’s fist from his over-sized sweatpants pocket.

Dude shakes his head. And then, “These sweatpants, man, I keep dropping everything. Receipts, cash… Thank you, thank you.” (Flashes his fronts at Claire.)

I thought about making a Plaxico Burress joke, thought better of it (thank God), and just nodded my head and grinned like the Wu fanboy I am. Fun times in the T-dot.

Also, we saw Parker Posey on the flight over, and bumped into Michael Cera in a bar last Saturday. You know we major.

206UP Story Time Audio

REVIEW: “Building Wings on the Way Down” (JFK)

JFK is an emcee who seems like he’s perpetually on the verge of becoming unhinged. It’s a self-inflicted condition caused by the combination of his frantic, usually rapid-paced flow and his penchant for spitting about all the bad sh-t that happens in life (or death, as is often the case when he’s traversing the spiritual world’s subsurface as one half of Grayskul, the rapper’s well-established collaborative endeavor with fellow Oldominion cohort Onry Ozzborn). On JFK’s solo debut, Building Wings on the Way Down, the man also known as Ninjaface settles into a comfortable space (at least for him) composed of personal reflection, adept societal observations, and relatable relationship anecdotes. Based on JFK’s subject matter, and despite the album’s title, the rapper seems grounded here–in a good way.

(Click here to continue reading at Seattle Show Gal…)

Album Reviews Seattle Show Gal Cross-Post

206UP.COM’s Top 10 Seattle Hip-Hop Albums of 2009

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.

Peace!

Album Reviews Views From the Peanut Gallery

REVIEW: Graymaker (Grayskul)

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

Grayskul are the Northwest’s proudest bastions of hip-hop non-conformity. Unlike many other left-of-center groups that constantly remind listeners of their otherworldly origins, Grayskul’s genesis is rooted more firmly in earth’s terra firma. They’re too human to be aliens, too lively to be zombies. Think of them as creatures more highly-evolved than their fellow rap brethren. Emcees JFK and Onry Ozzborn have mic cords for tendons and kick-drum rhythms for heartbeats. It’s as if they crawled from hip-hop’s primordial ooze in a slightly more advanced state than other humans. A freaky genetic mutation of the hip-hop gene have allowed them to represent a true artistic advancement in the genre.

The last two Grayskul albums (Deadlivers and Bloody Radio) were so consistently excellent it’s hard to put their newest release, Graymaker, into proper context. Listened to end-to-end, the three albums blend together into an extended experience rather than separate distinct collections. Deadlivers remains their most fully-realized conceptual achievement, a sprawling descent into hip-hop madness and the dawning of the emcees’ dark superhero antics. On Bloody Radio, the group returns to daylight, a little less abstraction on their minds and on a mission to rid hip-hop’s landscape of its perceived wackness. And now, on Graymaker, the duo flashes signs of even more normalcy (though I use the term loosely), with what amounts to probably their most consistent and well-rounded album to date.

All of the production on this go-round is handled by Maker (hence the album’s title), a Chicago-based producer whose dark, moody soundscapes immediately reflect the cold, stony winter weather and Gothic architecture of his native Chi. Not surprisingly, the music matches Grayskul’s rhyme aesthetic perfectly. It’s a match made in hip-hop heaven (or hell, as the case may be). “Mars Voltage” takes a crazy horn lick and makes sense of it amidst an ominous bassline and live-sounding drums. “Bread And Wine” hypnotizes with hazy, layered vocals, lackadaisical guitar plucks, and a soul-sample turned eerie. “Bloodwork” is an addictive head-nodder, but in an atypical RZA-esque fashion. The most interesting track is “Machine,” which sounds like the organized ambient noise from an assembly-line plant. It churns and spits and goes in different directions, but never loses focus, much like the entire album. Maker’s production is perfectly anomalous, never veering into total weirdness, yet never boring.

Best of all, Maker lets JFK and Onry do them. One of Grayskul’s defining characteristics has always been the two rappers’ drastically contrasted styles — a This Is So Crazy It Just Might Work-type experiment in hip-hop chemistry. JFK’s controlled rants make him seem perpetually on the verge of a vocal meltdown, whereas Onry’s delivery is so understated that when he says some crazy sh*t, the listener begins to nod and understand that the rapper just might be so crazy. The standard Grayskul fare is here on Graymaker: vocal abstractions spit at rapid-fire pace so as to sound like the blustery ravings of lunatics (“Crazy Talk”), and sh*t talk elevated to such an extraordinarily advanced degree that other rappers might as well not even try to respond (“In the Know”).

The secret of JFK and Onry is that they are experts at narrating the horrors of this world with a poets’ trenchant. What sounds like free-associative wordplay, might actually be social commentary. What sounds like outright dismissal of religion and positive acknowledgment of the occult, might actually be a suggestion to find commonality in our ideas about who God is. The challenge for us listeners is to transcend our tendency to indulge our ADHD (which a lot of hip-hop encourages) to the point where we can recognize Grayskul’s sly wit. When that happens, you can see those sneaking rays of optimism that shine through the group’s pessimistic cloud. Listen closely and you might understand that the joke is on all of us. Souls so dark couldn’t possibly be responsible for hip-hop with this much life.

Album Reviews