New York. Atlanta. Los Angeles. It’s easy to conjure the signature sound of each hip-hop hotbed, but what exactly is the Seattle sound?
Though Seattle has never exactly been known for its rap scene, there are a number of notable artists who call the area home, including Sir Mix-A-Lot, Macklemore and Shabazz Palaces. Yet for the musical sleuth trying to detect a pattern among the three, there are precious few similarities in lyrical style or beat construction like is often found when comparing rappers from other cities.
If Seattle’s sound is still a work in progress, it will be left to young rappers like Highway and Charlieonnafriday — who both recently released their major-label debuts — to continue to shape it.
Highway is a 23-year-old rapper from South Seattle who has worked as a producer for artists like Chief Keef.
Greenlake’s Charlieonnafriday, 19, is more than just a viral sensation, though his video for the celebratory pop anthem “After Hours” does have 9.5 million views on YouTube and he’s a TikTok star with more than 940,000 subscribers. He’s set to headline his first show at Barboza on July 27.
These two young Seattle-born artists are set to reach wider audiences and are determined to play their parts in defining Seattle rap.
Ask Highway to describe Seattle’s rap sound, and he pauses and smiles before acknowledging what anyone with a keen ear might already have figured: We borrow from everywhere.
“It’s very unique because Seattle isn’t up there with cities that are more prominent in rap music, but it’s growing and it has a lot to offer,” said Highway, whose real name is Mekhi Rogers. “The Seattle sound is more influenced from other places more than anything. We have our own spin on it but it hasn’t been one primary sound. It’s a spinoff of what’s happening in the West Coast, the Bay Area and what’s going on in mainstream radio.”
On Highway’s self-titled major-label debut for Victor Victor, released in June, the mainstream influence is clear in the drippy, melodic autotuned vocals that sound straight out of Atlanta.
Dig deeper and there’s something truly unique about the album’s jazzy, dreamy beats and Highway’s laconic, laid-back flow.
“My goal is to create something more distinct where you can say, ‘We know for sure, whoever this is with this sound, we know he’s from Seattle,’ ” Highway said. “[I want to] kind of be a pioneer in that in my own way, creating the influence to let people feel like they can follow along and kind of see the blueprint.”
Those big goals started at a young age. Highway said he was 3 or 4 years old the first time he started to record himself using a toy voice recorder.
As a naturally creative kid, Highway would take things apart and learn to put them back together again, draw, create clothing for himself, write — anything he could do to express himself. He was even a star on the baseball diamond, but it was music that kept piquing his interest.
“When I was like 5 or 6, I begged my auntie to give me a keyboard so I could bang around on the keys,” he said. “At every age, it was something to try out. Once I was like 10 or 11, I was able to use laptops to figure out how to actually make a beat. Every age it a step-by-step growth, closer and closer to being able to be serious about music.”
Charlieonnafriday, whose real name is Charlie Finch, was a junior in high school when COVID-19 hit and the world stopped. Though it “robbed him” of the safety and routine he had known up to that point in his life, it was a chance for the teen, who counts Macklemore and Justin Bieber as his biggest influences, to delve into his music and discover what was really important to him.
“My life completely changed, it went from being with my friends every day and laughing and having a great time to just being alone in my room,” he said. “It gave me a lot of time to think and be by myself, which is something I hadn’t done a lot of. When I was alone in my room, I realized not everything is promised.”
Charlieonnafriday decided that when the quarantine ended, he was going to live the life he wanted. He continued to grind creating music and eventually had enough material to release his eight-song major-label debut album “Onnafriday” with Island Records in April.
“That’s where the ‘live everyday like it’s a Friday’ thing comes from,” he said. “[I was thinking] ‘When I get out of here, I’m going to live every single day to the fullest,’ and I really want to make music that captures that. I want to push people to live the exact life they want to and to not waste any time, and to just have a good time.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that Charlie’s biggest hit off “Onnafriday,” “After Hours,” is a rumination on living the good life with friends and was recorded in the same atmosphere it celebrates.
“My parents were out of town and I invited all my friends over, and we literally just set up a studio in the living room and made ‘After Hours’ line-by-line,” he said. “There’s been times I made a lot of great songs by myself, but with ‘After Hours,’ it wouldn’t have been the same without the environment I made it in.”
The collaborative bug runs deep for Charlie, who got his start in the eighth grade rapping over beats made by Ethan Sargent, the older brother of his friend Cole.
“We were playing video games and I heard bass knocking from the other side of the wall super loud,” Charlie said. “He had a whole music studio in there, guitars, microphones and ways to record music. I asked him if I could hop on one of his beats and we made our first song that day. I think every single day after that we continued to make music for like two years straight.”
After Ethan went to college, Charlieonnafriday kept his dream alive on his own. Even after enduring the pandemic, his passion for bringing his music to the masses has only grown stronger. “We only have 4,000 weeks on this earth, roughly, and I want to use every single day to the fullest,” he said.