Several local hip-hop acts have been getting attention from Seattle media this year, notably capacity crowd specialists Blue Scholars, the...
Several local hip-hop acts have been getting attention from Seattle media this year, notably capacity crowd specialists Blue Scholars, the hypermachine Dyme Def, socially charged Common Market and heavy hitter D. Black.
But guess who’s on tour?
Guess who’s on a national label?
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Guess who’s getting national reviews?
Guess who’s on MTV?
While others are maximizing attention on the local level, Grayskul — Jeffrey “JFK” Bautista and Michael “Onry Ozzborn” Martinez — has long been looking beyond the Seattle scene to get national play. This duo has paid its dues over the last five years, touring extensively and slowly building a national audience, one show at a time.
Their slow elevator ride took a jump up several levels during Grayskul’s current tour, pumped up by MTV playing the video to “Scarecrow,” and respectful reviews for their new album, “Bloody Radio.”
Yet where the likes of Blue Scholars can sell out the spacious Showbox, Grayskul has its homecoming show at the relatively cozy Chop Suey tonight.
“Our problem is, we don’t sit there and rap about Seattle — groups that get all the love in Seattle all rap about Seattle or politics,” Martinez philosophized over the phone on a tour stop in Minneapolis. “We don’t talk about that; we just do our own thing,” he said.
“We’re trying to expand and really get it going worldwide. We had 500 people at the [‘Bloody Radio’] release. Our focus is not to make Seattle happy — I have a 6-year-old I’m trying to raise.”
And the way to make a living in the music business is not to hang around your hometown, but to pay your dues on the road, and build up a national audience.
“Seattle is all about Common Market and Blue Scholars — we can’t [draw] half the crowd they do. But when you get out of Seattle, no one’s heard of them — I’m not trying to dis them, but we’re known worldwide.”
And Martinez isn’t exaggerating: The MTV channels seen internationally have played the “Scarecrow” video, which was shot a few months ago at Neumo’s. The video imagery is nice, but nothing spectacular. It’s the song itself that is carrying Grayskul like a Thanksgiving float.
“Scarecrow” is powered by a thundering beat that Martinez says was created by a fellow member of Oldominion, a collective of some 20 Seattle rappers and producers.
“It was weird — I was at my friend’s house, a producer name Smoke, and he was going through some beats. I heard that beat — I hadn’t ever heard a time signature like that.”
Smoke gave him a copy of the music, and Martinez played it on the drive home from Everett to Lynnwood. “By the time I got home, I had that chorus in my head.” He says he wasn’t even sure what “a scarecrow comes once, twice” meant. “I guess scaring away all the fake hip-hop out today.”
After crafting more lyrics, he called Bautista and said, “I got the craziest beat, and the craziest hook.” Not long after, they went to the Oldominion studio in Portland and put together “Scarecrow,” which was the genesis for “Bloody Radio.”
“Bloody Radio” was released two months ago by Rhymesayers Entertainment, a label that also is home to Seattle’s Boom Bap Project, as well as Brother Ali and Atmosphere. Grayskul has been on tour with Atmosphere, and credits Rhymesayers with getting the “Scarecrow” video looked at by MTV.
“Scarecrow” was recently a top-10 video on MTV, and “Bloody Radio” cracked the CMJ hip-hop chart for independent radio stations.
Alternative Press recently gave “Bloody Radio” a 4-star (out of 5) review, calling it “one of the best indie-rap records this year.” The review singled out the cut “Missing,” featuring former Pretty Girls Make Graves singer Andrea Zollo. Martinez said Grayskul and Zollo are planning a video shoot for “Missing” in Seattle.
It’s been a decade since Martinez moved here from New Mexico. Not long after a visit to Seattle turned permanent, he met Virginia Beach native Bautista during an open-mic night at the Rainbow, a little club in the U District. Even after forming the Oldominion crew, Martinez wanted to start a duo with Bautista, sensing their differing styles would click.
“He’s a little more animated; I’m a little more kicked back,” Martinez said.
The two are known around Seattle as JFK and Onry Ozzborn, but come up with new names and personas for each Grayskul album. For “Bloody Radio,” Bautista is Count Magnus, and Martinez calls himself Count Draven. “It’s a different character for a deeper mood … a little spookier tone to it,” said Martinez, who went by Reason on the last Grayskul recording.
Though Grayskul has taken some huge leaps in the past few months, Martinez has not forgotten his first Seattle crew. “Slowly but surely, we’re working on an Oldominion record. We used to all live in the same house, now everybody’s spread out, got kids and stuff.”
Tom Scanlon: firstname.lastname@example.org