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.


Album Reviews Views From the Peanut Gallery

REVIEW: Hear Me Out (Yirim Seck)

Hear Me Out (Yirim Seck)

Yirim Seck raps like most people drink water. Or breathe. You know those normal human activities we all do with such mandatory repetition that we forget we’re doing them? Some artists paint pictures, some authors write novels, and some athletes play sports in the same fashion. It just comes naturally. Those folks have muscles that most people don’t. Yirim Seck just happens to have the Emcee Muscle.

Which is why, considering how intensely hungry the 206 hip-hop scene is for music these days, it comes as a surprise (at least to this blogger) that it’s taken this long for Yirim Seck to release a full-length album. He’s mostly known around town as one-third of (now defunct?) Pyrate Radio, an act that, surprisingly for all its considerable talent, has also never released an album (at least to my knowledge). I’m sure the inner-workings of a hip-hop group are fraught with a myriad of reasons why they can’t get their collective act together (Pearl Dragon, after all, has got a pretty good thing going with Champagne Champagne), but the release of a Pyrate Radio record would be cause for celebration for many underground fans.

Instead, we get Hear Me Out from Yirim Seck. And, trust, it’s enough. Here Yirim separates himself, talent-wise, from his Pyrate Radio brethren. In fact, he separates himself from most local rappers completely. Dude is talented. The first time I heard him spit was on the Pyrate Radio track, “Hey You Say You” where I was struck by his effortless, nonchalant flow and clever wordplay. There’s even more of that on Hear Me Out. Yirim possesses that rare rapper’s ability to effectively express himself without sounding like he’s working very hard. It’s a style that draws you in naturally to the music, a voice that complements hip-hop’s indigenous breaks and boom-bap perfectly.

On the album, he puts his talent to good-use. Yirim wants listeners to know he’s a fully-arrived solo emcee who’s legit (“Check”). He also makes clear that his life is filled with very ordinary circumstances, from the unexpected birth of his first child (“Rebirth”), to the struggle of trying to make a living off his art (“Run It”), to the sexual temptations that f*ck-up relationships (“Trust”). Hear Me Out‘s main character is an everyman who says, “See, I have some of the same problems you do.” That this everyman can tell his stories and present his particular ethos more lyrically than others is to the benefit of hip-hop fans everywhere.

The production is generally straight-forward, traditional hip-hop. There are no grand histrionic sonic arrangements or overwrought musical experiments. What it lacks in relative spectacular-ness, it makes up for in well-executed convention, mostly a mixture of DJ Premier-cloned beats with straight-laced underground sensibilities. Yirim Seck doesn’t need fancy sh*t anyway, there’s enough raw personality and talent here to announce a welcome (re-)arrival of this emcee without superfluous musical flourish.

Just because the general public doesn’t know who Yirim Seck is, doesn’t mean he’s an unknown among the members of Seattle’s hip-hop community. He’s been down with The Physics and Gabriel Teodros for years. They all came up rapping together. To fans, however, he appears to be that dude on the low, waiting for an opportunity. Like the ballplayer who’s kicked around the minors for a few years developing his skills, and then all of a sudden he’s in the majors batting .350.

In actuality, Yirim Seck’s just been busy living real life. Very few local artists eat off rap, and those lucky enough to do so are probably both greatly thankful for the opportunity but tired from the constant and necessary grind. Yirim Seck is already worn-out from the hustle, and he hasn’t even “made it” in the music business yet. It’s cats like these, the hard-working underdogs whose talent often makes them more-deserving than those above them, that hip-hop roots for.

Album Reviews

My Hip-Hop Ear Glut


Real quick: I was making a list tonight of 206 hip-hop albums that I haven’t had a chance to really spend quality time with. Here’s what it looks like so far…

THEESatisfaction – Snow Motion

Grieves – 88 Keys & Counting

Gabriel Teodros – Westlake Class of ’99

Shabazz Palaces – Shabazz Palaces and Of Light

Champagne Champagne – Champagne Champagne

Yirim Seck – Hear Me Out

And that’s not even including new D. Black, Macklemore, and The Physics. (Whenever that’s dropping, which I hope is soon — I consider that CD the last possible ray of sunlight in summer ’09, but I have a feeling it will be more like the first drop of winter slush in 2010. No matter, it will still be absolute fire, I can’t f*cking wait! Physics are about to own hip-hop in this town, and you can put that in your savings account and collect interest on it, fools!)

Now, I listen to a ton of hip-hop; so much hip-hop that I feel like my Elton John CDs are starting to feel neglected. And if you think I’m wack for liking Elton John, just listen to “Kiss The Ring” off OB4CL2 and go ahead and f*ck off.

My point is, there is a glut of hip-hop swirling around the belly of the 206 and it’s a full-time job just listening to all of it. And I don’t mean just putting it on as background music while you Dustbuster your apartment. I mean really spend quality time with the sh*t, which, if you’re even interested at all in appreciating these artists’ grinds and hustles, you will do out of sheer deference.

Anyway, this rant is basically meant as a shout-out to those artists putting in work for the love of the music. As fans, we appreciate it, and we are paying attention. Stay up and keep making music like your lives depend on it.


Views From the Peanut Gallery

Back In The Sea

As expected, my coffee intake has increased at least three-fold since arriving in Seattle on Wednesday evening. I’m perpetually caffeinated now — not that my state of consciousness in NYC isn’t usually thrown off-kilter by the country’s most dangerous legal stimulant, but I’m just sayin’, out here, fresh espresso (for better or worse) is a way of life. (Ha! Get it?! Fresh Espresso/fresh espresso — a way of life for better or worse?!…Uhh yeah, so anyway, moving on…)

The weather, thus far, hasn’t exactly been conducive to summer riding. In fact, I don’t think I’ve rolled down the window once yet in my 1984 Toyota 4WD wagon (the whip that I’m currently pushing [actually more like gently coaxing] through the city — thanks to my Lady’s parents for providing me with yet another reason to be self-conscious as I drive through Downtown, Fremont, and New Ballard).

Anyway, all this to say, it’s good to be back in The Town! Good to be gorging myself at breakfast at Portage Bay Cafe, good to be eating a Dick’s Deluxe with Bill Gates at 10:00 at night (no joke, he was really there at 45th Street on Wednesday), good to be sinking my teeth into a Paseo grilled pork sandwich yesterday afternoon. (There seems to be a theme developing here.)

And good, of course, to be back in the city where the hip-hop movement is as fresh and optimistic as a box of newborn kittens.

So, if you see an idiot in the front row at Yirim Seck’s album release party who seems to be on some sort of bad drug trip, don’t worry. That’s just over-caffeinated me, enjoying the realness.

Views From the Peanut Gallery

Yirim Seck’s Solo Debut

Yirim-HearMeOut-flyer-back1Damn, this show will be off the hook*: Yirim Seck‘s album release party featuring The Physics and Fresh Espresso. This makes for a DO. NOT. MISS. event at the Chop!

(*Do the kids say “off the hook” these days?…I don’t care, I’m still usin’ it…)

From the (slightly) Back-In-The-Day Files, here’s a clip from Pyrate Radio, “Hey You Say You.”

(Another shout to Ian, director-extraordinaire, for the visuals!)

Live Coverage Video