Sir Mix-A-Lot was three gigs into a 30-date tour when it happened. One year ago, clubs across the globe, from Seattle to Sydney, began shutting down as the new coronavirus silently ripped around the world.
Unlike most musicians, who make the bulk of their income touring, these days the Seattle rap forefather earns most of his money off royalties. Most musicians, of course, don’t have two platinum albums and a ubiquitous smash synonymous with its era (“Baby Got Back”) under their belt. But Mix knew what an indefinite closure meant for working artists and the battalion of bouncers, bartenders, talent buyers and other industry workers whose livelihoods depend on live events. Not to mention a vibrant music city’s emerging artists who need stages on which to develop.
“I knew that … if those clubs died, the next generation, they have nowhere to sharpen their skills,” Mix said. “They don’t have anywhere to go and these are small businesses that helped me. For me to stand idly by and watch these clubs go away, I can’t do that.”
Since the pandemic forced music halls into a financial free fall, coalitions of national and local venues — including the Washington Nightlife Music Association (WANMA) — have warned that without aid, some might not make it to the other side. While the live music ban has been lifted in several Washington counties, many club owners have said that reopening is neither economically viable nor socially responsible. Even with targeted federal aid on the way, beleaguered venues aren’t out of the woods just yet.
As WANMA and its fundraising sibling Keep Music Live have waged public awareness and fundraising campaigns, a number of Seattle music’s heavy hitters have pitched in help in various ways. But none have been as committed and hands-on as Sir Mix-A-Lot, who has steadily hosted virtual invite-only fundraisers and emceed corporate holiday parties benefiting Keep Music Live. On March 18, he’ll co-host the group’s Band Together Washington concert, a free-to-the-public (but donations encouraged) virtual event featuring live and archival performances from “iconic” home state artists.
“I was telling Mix the other day, ‘The first time I got to do a show with you I was so excited,’” says Neumos co-owner and WANMA organizer Steven Severin. “Like, ‘I get to meet Sir Mix-A-Lot! This is so awesome. Now I’m on Zooms with you multiple times a week. This is crazy.’”
Behind the scenes, Mix had been a close WANMA ally ever since his buddy who owns the Wild Buffalo in Bellingham called for help, not long after Mix’s scuttled tour. But his role became more public-facing after the formation of Keep Music Live last fall, the fan-led companion organization he co-chairs. Keep Music Live aims to raise $10 million to help see local clubs through their unwanted hibernation.
Since then, the homegrown rap star has been the face of the campaign, working the local TV news circuit to tout indie club stewards as community-driven small-business owners and how, for every concert ticket sold, an average of $32 is spent at neighboring businesses on show nights.
“It’s really an ecosystem, and I have to try to make people understand that it’s not some fat guy in a dark room snorting cocaine,” Mix says of club owners, deploying a go-to line from his save-the-clubs stump speeches. “So many people have that weird old 1970s image of what a nightclub is.”
With more than 30 years of club-rocking experience, Mix is no stranger to working a crowd, and those skills translate to the Zoom room. In those semiprivate Green Room Sessions run by Keep Music Live, and other virtual fundraisers, Mix serves as charismatic host, prompting would-be donors to open their wallets by promising to match their donations. Besides being co-chair, Mix is also Keep Music Live’s top donor, Severin says. Mix estimates he’s kicked in around $30,000 of his own money thus far.
“We’ve done all these different events because we have him,” Severin says. “He’s amazing and as selfless as it gets.”
Since launching last October, Keep Music Live has received more than 2,000 individual donations (Severin declined to give the total amount raised) and has distributed its first round of aid grants to 77 venues across the state while keeping the fundraising train going. Mix has been toying with the idea of doing an “adopt a club” project, creating virtual events around individual venues with proceeds directly benefiting the club.
When the famed rapper who put Seattle hip-hop on the national map during the 1980s and ’90s first got on board, there was talk that maybe it’d be best for him to kick things off with one large donation, call it good. He wanted to be more involved. “You gotta do more than just write a check,” says Mix, who regularly performed at Seattle’s Nectar Lounge and Tractor Tavern in the Before Times. “Yeah, that’s great, but then it’s not a movement. It’s a blip on a radar screen. I want it to be an ongoing thing and I want people to look at these clubs as part of the community, not places where some people went to watch shows.”
If there’s any silver lining to be found in such a difficult year for the local music scene, Mix believes there will be a renewed appreciation for Seattle’s musical legacy — and its future.
“I hate to say it like this, but this may be something that maybe the music community needed,” Mix says, “Because I think it’s been going so good in Seattle for so many years with so many cool grunge bands and rock bands and rappers, you might start taking it for granted.
“But I think that will never happen again. At least not in our lifetimes.”