There’s a template bloggers at national music outlets often deploy when writing about rappers from Seattle. It starts off noticing our Upper Left geography, maybe something about our rock pedigree and, with a Macklemore caveat, mentions that the region isn’t really known for hip-hop, but hey, this person’s actually pretty good!
“That’s the opening line of every blog post about me — ‘From a place you would never expect!’ ” said Travis Thompson, a leading figure among the current generation of Seattle rap. The steadily rising emcee was at a Burien skatepark, once an “essential community spot,” he says, for local kids. It’s where Thompson, who released the most ambitious album of his career this summer, saw his first fights, smoked his first blunts and, most importantly, fell in love with hip-hop after having his eyes opened to artists like Mac Dre and Lil Wayne and mixtape culture.
“You can’t blame anyone for it. Like, I get it,” Thompson continued. “It definitely gets under your skin a little bit, because you’re like, ‘Ay bro, you got no clue what’s going on up here.’ … But at the same time, there is a lack of infrastructure. There is a lack of years and years of people making careers out of this and teaching people that come [after] them.”
In terms of hip-hop hotbeds, Seattle might not be Atlanta or Detroit — two cities outside the New York/L.A./Chicago triumvirate whose impact and influence out-punches their population size. But with recent gains from a number of artists like Thompson, isn’t it time to shake that afterthought reputation?
This year alone, three rappers with Western Washington ties landed notable record deals: melody-driven Tacoma fave Lewie, punchy and playful technician Macntaj and Indianapolis transplant Jay Loud, a versatile R&B/hip-hop talent who caught the ear of an industry power player. Others have shared tracks with big-deal national artists, from the Central District’s 28AV teaming with red-hot Memphis rapper Moneybagg Yo to Seattle/L.A. pop rapper Ryan Caraveo connecting with EDM heavyweight Steve Aoki.
Before a second-degree rape charge cast uncertainty on the future of his career, Lil Mosey had become Washington’s first bona fide rap star since Macklemore, notching a top 10 hit with last year’s “Blueberry Faygo.” (Mosey pleaded not guilty and a trial is scheduled for January in Lewis County Superior Court.)
For the first time since signing with Epic Records, Thompson, who plays the Showbox on Nov. 24, solicited a few star cameos on his summer-release “BLVD BOY” LP, including Bay Area star G-Eazy on his West Coast-flavored “Dead Prezis.” It’s Thompson’s first song to have a real radio campaign.
For Seattle hip-hop fans, there’s a deeply satisfying cultural exchange that takes place on the album’s opening track. After a particularly swaggering verse from the always locked-in Thompson (“You ain’t never seen a little Navajo with a hundred thousand in a duffel, huh?”), Southern rap great Juicy J rumbles in with the simple phrase, “I be on that ‘Boulevard Boy’ [expletive].” It’s subtle. But Seattle fans who have followed Thompson since he was a teenager with, in Macklemore’s words, a “Justin Bieber haircut” and “charisma and confidence … from the jump,” know it’s a reference to Ambaum Boulevard, the Burien street Thompson grew up on that’s been a constant symbol of his hometown roots in his music and branding.
So to hear the influential Memphis rapper reference a suburban Seattle thoroughfare on a song is kind of a trip and at least on some level a little validating.
“It was like 8 in the morning,” Thompson said of the first time he heard Juicy J’s verse. “I was playing it in the house. I paused it and, bro, I freaked out — ‘No [expletive] way!’ I was running around the kitchen like, ‘No he didn’t!’ Woke up the whole house, I was FaceTiming everybody. It’s a moment, dude. … This is bigger than me.”
Despite the most recent gains — on top of a host of artists emerging over the past decade and the fact that Washington has quietly become a wellspring for behind-the-scenes producer talent — the aforementioned artists are still developing their profiles outside their home state. But it’s at least somewhat of an industry acknowledgment that there’s talent here, even if there’s still a fairly low awareness. (Dallas Martin, the L.A. exec who signed Jay Loud, admitted he wasn’t too familiar with many artists from the region besides Tacoma’s Clemm Rishad, who has co-writing credits on tracks by a number of big names.)
“Literally, I was in a meeting today with the A&R and some other artists from Louisiana and they didn’t even know what was in Washington,” said Lewie, who signed with MoneyMob Records, a subsidiary of Atlanta-based 300 Entertainment, this spring. “They don’t see Washington and California linking, so it’s really like we’re outsiders to the West Coast.”
There was a recurring narrative with Sir Mix-A-Lot and Macklemore — the two biggest rap stars most closely associated with Seattle — that their success could mean a breakthrough for the local scene at large. Although both brought a spotlight to the city and worked with other Washington artists in various ways, the floodgate-opening some hoped for didn’t quite happen.
“That’s just an example of how we had eyes on the city and … the fish didn’t bite the hook,” said Sango, a singular producer and Seattle ambassador in his own right. The artist who grew up between South Seattle and Grand Rapids, Michigan (where he currently resides), commands respect in more underground circles for his genre-blending work in electronic and hip-hop, and pioneering a subgenre of baile funk. A few years ago, experimental R&B/pop star Frank Ocean tapped Sango for an official remix of his song “Cayendo,” a weighty co-sign from one of the most elusive and influential artists of the past decade.
“If our chance comes again … we have to be able to captivate the world and cultivate our sounds,” Sango said. “It’s a small window to do that, too.”
One aspect of Seattle-Tacoma’s hip-hop scene viewed by many (including a certain thrift-shopping Bogey Boy) as one of its greatest strengths could also make it difficult for outsiders, who don’t take the time to look, to easily grasp its identity. Unlike some cities birthing subgenres that seep into the national consciousness, one of Washington’s defining traits is its diversity of styles, from experimental boundary pushers Shabazz Palaces to the soulful sounds of Dave B and Sol, the dark and dirty bars of Nacho Picasso to Macklemore’s clean and crisp pop-raps.
According to Gifted Gab, widely hailed as one of Seattle’s top lyricists, the sonic palette has expanded over the past decade-plus since artists like the seminal Blue Scholars and, subsequently, Macklemore made waves during the indie-rap era of the 2000s and early 2010s.
“For the longest time, if you wanted people to listen to you and pay attention to you, you had to rap like that — boom bap, backpack hip-hop, which is great,” said Gifted Gab, whose duo album with Bay Area emcee Blimes made Uproxx’s list of 2020’s top hip-hop albums. She plays a show at Chop Suey on Thursday. “But we’ve transcended that in the sense that now you can be more creative.”
One of the challenges with having outsiders see a breakthrough artist as the de facto face of a scene so diverse — particularly as hip-hop’s umbrella is constantly expanding in scope — is that it’s nearly impossible for one artist to embody every facet. Taj King, who manages Lewie and Jay Loud, said the spotlight Macklemore brought the city came with an unintended side effect of being typecast.
“Macklemore, he’s a great dude,” King said. “He’s probably the one that really put Washington on the map. … But also, it took away from the urban hip-hop scene. … [People] kinda put a stamp on it like that’s the type of music that’s coming out of Washington.”
“The urban community,” he added, “is still kinda waiting for somebody to come out from here that’s on the urban side that speaks for Hilltop, that speaks for the South End, that speaks for Central District. There’s a lot of artists, but they just haven’t hit that plateau yet.”
That’s one of the reasons the hip-hop community, particularly in the Tacoma area, was elated by the news of Lewie’s record deal. While the focus has often been on Seattle, Tacoma has always had its own vibrant scene, at times at odds with its big brother up I-5, and as gentrification has pushed much of Seattle’s historically Black communities farther south, the center of gravity is shifting.
Amid Lil Mosey’s viral, TikTok-aided ascent, Lewie landed an opening slot on one of his tours. (He was set to join the “Blueberry Faygo” rapper on the road again last year before the pandemic sunk those plans.) In hindsight, it was “a little awkward,” Lewie said, as Mosey’s fan base didn’t relate to his emotionally charged lyrics, which, in the most sobering moments, carry heart-straining reflections on friends he’s lost.
“It doesn’t shine a light on us,” Lewie said of Washington artists like Mosey having pop crossover hits. “I’m not gonna say Seattle and Tacoma have, like, the ruggedest parts. … But nah, I have a lot of friends who are dead. I have a lot of peers who are dead. That’s just the stuff that we’ll go through and it’s not a pop lifestyle.”
There’s a longstanding feeling among Seattle street rappers, whose lyrics reflect real-world experiences of growing up in underserved communities, or who don’t fit a certain sonic mold, that they don’t receive the same institutional support as some of their peers. Count Macntaj among them.
“I feel like there’s more of an appreciation for the Travis Thompsons and the Sols and the Dave Bs than there are the Macntajs and the Mafi Ds, and the other artists that maybe have experienced the grittier sides of Seattle,” Macntaj said. “There’s more of an appreciation, more opportunities for cats like that to get on festivals, more opportunities to get on KEXP.”
In August, the category-defying rapper who’s turned heads with a stream of strong videos released “Big Bloc Meign,” his first project since signing with a new label run by Sacramento artist X-Raided this spring. The album feels distinctly West Coast without riding L.A. or Bay Area trends, his lyrics ranging from did-he-just-say-that punchlines to heartfelt reflections on violence he was exposed to growing up.
Macntaj said he’s been denied certain platforms that at times have gone to artists with smaller draws and profiles, “because of the stigma I feel people attach to my brand.” While “race plays a small part of it,” Macntaj said, the core issue is ignorance.
“For certain promoters and festival curators to assume because my music embodies a lifestyle that I grew up in and experienced firsthand — because that’s literally what hip-hop is, it’s the voice of the oppressed,” Macntaj said. “For me to express that and make a certain type of music and still be denied opportunities just because that lifestyle is foreign to promoters that claim to be advocates of our culture is just crazy. So I had to leave to make a wave.”
Daudi Abe literally wrote the book on Seattle hip-hop. The Seattle-based college professor’s well-received “Emerald Street: A History of Hip Hop in Seattle,” published last year, is an essential document spanning 40 years of Seattle history. In an interview last year, Abe said Seattle hip-hop has had a greater impact than “we give ourselves credit for.”
“Seattle notoriously has low self-esteem in some ways and is sometimes reluctant to give itself credit,” Abe said. “But the thing that is the hallmark or the trademark, at least as I see it, is the willingness to be different and take artistic risks. … We think about the artists who have ‘made it,’ the artists from here who have won the rap Grammy, all of them did so by not following traditional hip-hop paths or going with what was popular at the time.”
For a music community, across genres, that’s long prided itself on its individuality, to what extent should we care about external validation or acknowledgment? Especially in the internet age when an artist’s area code matters less?
The music industry has changed considerably since artists like Macklemore and Blue Scholars built careers on regional growth, winning fans one show at a time and branching out. Lil Mosey took off with a viral video that introduced him to the world while he was still unknown in his hometown. After establishing herself as a Seattle favorite, Gifted Gab similarly earned wider acclaim with an unexpected viral moment.
As Travis Thompson sees it, he’s “right in the cusp” of those two generations. The 25-year-old has built his career brick by brick, equally through regional shows and events like renting out skateparks for local fans, as well as creating an online presence, cranking out quality videos.
“I saw Macklemore and Blue Scholars use that hometown growth, playing college show lane,” Thompson said, “but we’re in the internet age now and I think it’s going to take a whole new generation to teach kids here how to make a name for themselves.”
Thompson’s split on how much that outside recognition matters. On one hand, the tools are there to build a “real movement” regardless of whether “a publication puts a stamp on it,” he said. But on the other, “we need a shift of being a part of the conversations” to continue paving a road for future generations.
“For a long time I felt like we needed to prove ourselves,” Thompson said. “But at this point, bro, Seattle is cool as hell. I don’t feel like we need to prove ourselves to anybody. … We make good music and it’s fire up here.”