In another life, Kai Wright is an anthropologist. Or maybe he is in this one.
Since the days of vinyl crate-digging, through the SoundCloud rabbit holes of today, one trait the most authentic and original DJs and producers share is an insatiable curiosity for new sounds and an understanding of their lineage. Perhaps no artist in Seattle’s quietly illustrious producer scene embodies this as much as Wright, better known as renowned hip-hop/electronic artist Sango.
“I’m obsessed with my culture, Black culture, and understanding how things made its way here and there, and why this is happening currently and why this isn’t happening currently,” says Sango, who flirted with an anthropology major at Western Michigan University. “I have a lot of questions as a producer, so I think I’m able to at least research and answer some questions sonically.”
That cultural curiosity, partially stemming from growing up in a diverse South Seattle community, has long coursed through the beatsmith’s work. During a COVID-ravaged 2020, “anthropology through music” became his creative mantra, helping fuel an electrifying and exploratory run of projects reaffirming his status as one of the Northwest’s most visionary producers.
Just before the pandemic shuttered American clubs, Sango had wrapped a tour that included a steamy Neumos date where he kept a diverse crowd moving with a masterfully blended globe-trotting set. Freshly inspired from the road, Sango — who’s bounced between Seattle and Michigan throughout his life — returned to Seattle with ample time to run wild creatively. A collaboration with London-based Afrobeats DJ Juls sparked the desire to continue refracting music from various cultures and continents through his own artistic prism.
Between more traditional Sango solo albums and full-length collabs with Seattle’s Dave B. and R&B singer Xavier Omär, Sango had garnered international acclaim in the 2010s with his “Da Rocinha” series — a trio of albums blending contemporary American hip-hop with baile funk from Brazil. Also known as funk carioca or simply “funk” in Brazil, baile funk is a form of dance music with numerous regional twists informed by Miami bass, an up-tempo strain of ’80s rap popularized by 2 Live Crew. With shutdown-induced time on his hands, Sango fast-tracked future plans to revisit the series for the first time since 2015.
An amuse-bouche EP dubbed “SANGOZINHO” whet appetites for last fall’s “Da Rocinha 4,” which finds Sango imbuing his laid-back take on baile funk with elements of West Coast hip-hop and Detroit techno, reflecting his Northwest and Michigan roots. On the polyrhythmic “Maio,” Sango’s unmistakable bass lines hit like a giant’s work boot on a rain-softened forest floor, sending ripples through alpine lakes. Meanwhile, his sun-shower synths lend an atmospheric mist to a skittering house beat on “Rocinha to King Drive.”
“When I [first] heard funk music, it was really raw. There was no real spin on that sound,” says Sango, who takes credit for spearheading the chill baile subgenre. “You had guys like Diplo and M.I.A. revealing it to the world, but they weren’t really making their own versions of it. It was just showcasing what was going on in Brazil, in Rio.”
Sango’s continent-crossing ventures didn’t stop with “Da Rocinha 4,” released through the tastemaking Soulection Records. An open-minded sampler who’s pulled sounds from around the globe, Sango had noticed over the years he kept returning to African music as source material. In the past, the in-demand producer who’s collaborated with influential stars like Frank Ocean and Kaytranada had shopped around some of the beats without much interest. So over the course of three weeks, he polished off 11 existing tracks and wrote another half dozen for November’s “SHANGO” album, mining samples from roughly 20 different African countries.
“It was really an album to support this ongoing idea I had throughout the year of … anthropology through music,” he says. “That [was] my whole thing of 2020 as far as creating music. I want to show people themselves through my eyes, whether you’re from Ethiopia or Nigeria or Ghana or Brazil or Jamaica.”
For all the audio passport stamps he accrued during a prolific 2020, Sango — who moved back to Grand Rapids mid-pandemic — still managed to close the year on a Seattle note. After months of teasing, Seattle supergroup the Cyanide Syndicate released its long-awaited self-titled debut in December. While not a formal member, Sango’s digital fingerprints mark half of the eight shapeshifting tracks uniting rappers Nacho Picasso and Key Nyata and another acclaimed Seattle producer, Keyboard Kid, best known for his work with Bay Area rapper Lil B.
The crew of Seattle hip-hop luminaries coalesced over a groupchat and while it was the first time the four friends had all worked together, they go back a ways. Keyboard and Sango grew up in the same South Seattle apartment complex and Sango’s dad used to teach Key Nyata at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School.
“I feel like this is how music should be created, man,” Sango says. “Why should we search the world up and down for talent when it’s in our own neighborhoods and family?”
Still, we’re glad Sango can’t be confined to one ZIP code.