Portland Profile: Hip-Hop In Unexpected Places

In conversations about hip-hop, Portland, OR is a region that may never come up. Within the genre’s culture lies the idea that it's an urbanite’s response to things happening to or around them, which could serve as a reason why people don't associate the Northwest area with hip-hop. Most commonly, the region has become synonymous with coffee shops, bookstores and Voodoo Doughnuts, not to mention, IFC Network’s hit skit comedy show Portlandia, which only furthers those ideas that make Portland seem like a very granola-filled landscape. The indie rock scene, also, primarily dominates the soundscape.

“I think Portland in general as a music town is indie rock first and foremost. We have one of the best indie rock scenes in the country and the community’s attention is there; it’s just not that big of a rap fan base in general,” says Fresh Selects curator, Kenny Fresh, of the indie rock influence in Portland. The indie rock scene completely overshadows the hip-hop scene in Portland with more exposure going towards that genre. With a large underground culture devoted to indie rock, the sound that started out of the Boogie Down seems as if it fell upon deaf ears in the City of Roses.

With that being said, Portland’s hip-hop scene is still very alive and active. The scene includes an interesting array of artists like Cassow, who has worked with Danny Brown; Immaculate, who won the World Rap Championship; rapper/producer Stewart Village who collaborated with The Underachivers and Danny Brown; Tope, whose new EP Trouble Man has garnered buzz in and out of the city; as well as Trox, who has produced for 50 Cent and Smoke DZA. Basically put, Portland’s artists are doing their part to help put the region on the hip-hop map.

Although not all of what was produced received national attention, hip-hop acts from Portland have been delivering quality music. Cool Nutz, whom many consider to the godfather of Portland hip-hop, was able to achieve a small amount of notoriety to bait the bigger fish in the hip-hop pond to pay attention to the state.

“Portland isn’t looked at as a hotbed for urban culture. We don’t have a lot of things that are super influential on a national level outside of Nike, Adidas, and Voodoo Donuts,” said Cool Nutz. “I think another thing is things happened in our scene early on that weren’t transmitted out of the city. From 1995 to 2004, you had artists that were drawing a 1,000 people here and we were going outside of the city doing tours in Montana, Wyoming, and Seattle. At the same time, you didn’t have the ability to spread it how it is now with a certain validation. Not to say these are all factors. Things just happen when they are rightfully supposed to happen.

During the peak of his career, Cool Nutz was helping putting Portland on the map by signing record contracts with major labels like Atlantic and Universal. However, he wasn’t the only one helping to mold the sound of the area.

“I feel like a lot of them [the younger artists] have been able to learn and watch. I mean, you have not only myself, but other entities that laid the groundwork for what a lot of people are doing now—not just in Portland, but the entire region,” Cool Nutz added. “Like The Boom Bap Project, Lifesavas, and myself are showing a lot of artists that it’s possible to tour, to be in The Source, and work with national recording artists.

Although the groundwork was already laid, Portland’s hip-hop scene never took off because, realistically, they never had a defined sound. Areas like New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles have distinct sounds and artists whose work have greatly shaped hip-hop and whose influence echoes in thousands of artists attempting to break into the industry. For instance, Detroit has a blue-collar feel, with MCs rapping about their day-to day, while producers are essentially creating a soundscape likening to the city’s grittiness.

In prior years, Portland didn’t really have a sound so it took pieces from its neighbors to create the music of the region. Portland artists were chasing the tails of the Bay Area with the hyphy sound. “In 2013 it’s a very diverse sound. I would say about ten years ago it was very Bay Area influenced,” says producer Trox. “Now, you have the new generation coming.”

Rapper Tope echoes these ideas as well: “It is weird because there isn’t a Portland sound. I think we’ve always drawn from different places like the LA and Bay Area influence and then also we’ve been influenced by Detroit and Dilla.”

Now, artists are developing their own sound, which is going to be a beneficial to helping Portland achieve mainstream success. However, the sound that is emerging from Portland is not one specific sound but more so of a mesh. “I think it’s building and growing and creating its own identity. I love what potential is there because there is a lot of talent the outside world doesn’t know about,” says rapper Wingate. “The sound is turning skillful. Artists seem like they are starting to understand that there is a foundation in this industry and understand that working at refining your craft and skills can help create an identity for the city.”

“I think my music reflects some of the collaborative potential we have in the city. On my last album Skrill Tank, I started to focus on getting local producers to collaborate, bringing in live drums or bass players as well as vocalists to collaborate on one final product,” adds Illmaculate. “It’s a luxury of being surrounded by so many artists. I put my music next to anyone in the city, or world for that matter, and feel good about it.”

Aside from it finally figuring out a way to define its sound, Portland’s scene seems to lack the support necessary to take the region’s sound full throttle. In 2013, blogs drive music. Bloggers are tastemakers these days and due to events like SXSW and A3C, as well as the convincing and immediate factor, bloggers have more of an important role than that of record labels and record executives. With blogs like 2dopeboyz and Illroots shaping what music fans like and support, without a clear lack of representation, people are not being ushered to the Portland music scene.

Despite the lack of blog support, Portland also has a lack of visibility in the media. Although artists like Tope have gotten support from publications, not everyone has been so lucky. It appears that sometimes, these publications will mention the artist, but not necessarily focus on them.

“There is no reason in 2013 to think locally—the internet is your fan base,” claimed Kenny Fresh. “You should have local shows and stuff, but that will come if your name is ringing out and buzzing online and in blogs and on YouTube videos and things like that. Then, people here will find out about you because you’re from Portland. It kind of separates you from some guy who works at a record store that they see all the time that happens to rap. You have to make it real for them. People are skeptical. You have to kind of prove it before they can really be interested.”

If there was local support, Portland’s hip-hop scene wouldn’t need as much support from blogs and other forms of media. “No disrespect, blogs can only take people so far. Some people might disagree with me but it’s all about having your own fanbase in your town. To grow you really have to have the town behind you,” says Trox. “In Portland, that’s really hard because people will not fuck with you out here unless you’re really doing something.

Although the talent is definitely apparent, there seems to be a lack of support not only in the media, but also those who dwell in the city. Unlike Seattle, who has a breakout star like Macklemore, Portland has never had a breakout star to put the region on people’s radar.

“I think the story about Portland is like who will be the breakout artist. I think it’s a widely discussed thing around town kind of how Seattle had two on different levels—Shabazz Palaces with the underground more abstract side, and Macklemore on the huge pop star mainstream shit,” notes Kenny Fresh. “Cool Nutz and Lifesavas were that for us in ’90s and early 2000s, but that’s been ten years.”

Compared to places like California, Portland hasn’t had the same success. California has many breakout artists. In the early days, the region boasted prominent figures in hip-hop like Tupac, Snoop Dogg, and NWA. Today, Cali has Kendrick Lamar, as well as artists like Dom Kennedy and IamSu!. If more breakout artists or at least one from Portland made it out, the press that is necessary for growth from the area would flourish. However, since there hasn’t been one, it’s been rather hard for their to be a light shined on Portland.

“I’m having trouble transitioning to the national blogs that I want like XXL or 2DopeBoyz. Some of that, I think, is because there hasn’t been any Portland artists that have really cracked those blogs as opposed to Macklemore in Seattle,” notes Tope. “He cracked the blog world and then ten other artists from Seattle were able to crack because he did. I guess the national scene blog wise has been harder for me. I don’t know if that’s a testament to my music, but I kind of take it that I need to work harder and make better music. But still, I think it’s partially because our region is so untapped and people are like, I don’t even know who this is.”

With a breakout star, Portland’s hip-hop scene will only benefit. Not only will it force other people to take notice, but also amass support from the region. The talent is there; it’s only a matter of time before the scene pops off.

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