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Enter Da World of Fantasyania

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#PrayerHandsEmoji

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Ambaum

It’s been quite the year for 21-year old Travis Thompson: Last week he had a Li’L Woody’s burger named after his delightful 2017 record Ambaum. As a result of his involvement with Macklemore’s Gemini album, last month he performed on a little-known late-night TV show called The Tonight Show, and he’s been a regular sidekick on ol’ Mack’s North American tour, playing stadium shows across the country, including this Friday at Key Arena, where he’ll be standing in front of 17,459 people.

Not that long ago I saw him perform at the Crocodile back bar, in front of a dozen people, so congratulations on the big step up to these much bigger stages.

So let’s talk about Ambaum, his mixtape from August 2016. The Tyler Dopps production on the early tracks, and the pop hooks, and the earnest lyrics might leave you the impression that Travis is a worthy Mack-lite protégé. While I suppose he is—three tracks in, during “Born in ’96,” this record begins to defy those expectations. There’s a tonal shift where Travis repeats a self-aware comment that, while this may be his moment to shine, “every day they make another one.”

Indeed, at 21, he’s already questioning when the next generation will be nipping at his heels. And it’s an inflection point that pushes this record in a completely different direction, more serious and inventive, one of proud underdog autobiography.

Here are a couple of moments I love: When on “Candy & Corner Stores” he raps, “Them kids from the back of the class know a lot more about living than anyone.” Any time there’s a smart, sexy guest feature from MistaDC, Nyles Davis, or Parisalexa. The inventive house beat (courtesy of Nima Skeemz) that closes “Party Favors.”

Also on this closing song, Travis jokes that his music covers the “Lifestyles of the broke and rapping.” Perhaps a little less so after this year of success. Hats off to you, man. That Ambaum burger was solid.

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Cool Tricks 2

“Squawk!,” the delightful second track on Michete’s 2016 record, Cool Tricks 2, is a joyful ode to confident absurdity. Few rappers in this town have the courage to be so wildly funny, while at the same time so incisively devastating. Michete takes no prisoners: “Want to know where your career’s headed? Straight to the trash like an unwanted email.” And, as if to demonstrate commanding dominance, in the next verse is making chicken noises. I laugh so much while listening to this fierce flow. It’s definitely very “ill with the jargon,” rhyming obscurities like “Modus operandi” with “Klondike.” Over these eight tracks, you will get very comfortable with the word “pussy,” as both a dis and a statement of feminine power. The electro-funk of “Come Get It, Daddy” is the most-played track on SoundCloud. It’s a confessional spoken word featuring up-and-comer Reverend Dollars—of Darqness fame and thrower of fun queer and trans hip-hop DJ parties. This song probes the ways in which we feel uncomfortable being ourselves while urging an honesty with who we aspire to be. There are many of these insights throughout the album. As on “Tim Nook,” where Michete says, “I hate capitalism, but I’m also really good at it.” What a fascinating listening experience.

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Hear to Heal

On the song “Fly By,” featured lyricist Moka Only raps, “If vinyl could talk, it would probably say, what the fuck? Like why you put me through all the scratching and chops?” We throw around terms like “old school” whenever there are wax and jazz samples and turntable scratching. While those elements are all present here in abundance, there’s nothing old about Hear to Heal, a 2016 release from Ear Dr.Umz The Metrognome. I have OCnotes to thank for turning me on to this record, a 16-track prescription, where The Doctor collaborates with contemporary local cats to derive novel new approaches to boom-bap. This is a who’s who of the Seattle underground, featuring verses and beats from Able FaderSpecswizardSilas BlakMyka 9 and others. A standout track for me is “Whole ‘nother Level” with some special cool flows courtesy of Dex Amora and Zuke Saga, but really this whole record is solid from end-to-end, and a great response to “vinyl” on why all the scratching and chops.

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Stolen from KAOS Vol. 1

Stolen from KAOS Vol. 1 is a beat tape from the Tacoma-based Fish Tank Friends collective. (As in, more crazy great music from the Tac.) One side of this cassette is a live mix from Baloogz and the other side a mix from Crockett King. The latter makes frequent and deft use of delightful tape effects, little gotchas where you think the tape is momentarily stuck in your player about to be stretched and shredded. I had friends over for dinner and this was on in the background and the guests kept asking who this was. I was at a SassyBlack show recently where she said that when you make beats from weird sources, you gotta really love that shit, and it’s clear that Crockett King does: At one point there’s an extended flute solo, mixed with church hymns, while on top a man sings jazz classic “I Put A Spell On You.” The Baloogz side is equally engaging, taking the mix down a path that’s a bit more trap and space goth. I’ve been listening to a lot of cassettes lately and this is one of my current favorites.

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Amadeus

Spending lots of time lately with this weightily-named 2016 beat tape, Amadeus from DJ Ivan, who also goes by the moniker Melonic. At 18 tracks there are lots of intriguing compositions here–jazz pianos, sped up Motown samples, amusing dialogue slices–undoubtedly the product of many studies of the schools of Dilla and Kanye. I keep coming back to this one because of the mix throughout: In an age of floor-shaking low end, there’s an almost complete absence of bass here, which makes for a very fresh sound, with the treble snap in his snare drums is turned way up. This lends a light and airy feel overall, especially on tracks like “How Funky Is Your Chicken?” and a different sort of heavy smack to “Summer Sixteen.” Many of these beats are calling out for someone to rap over them.

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#TEN

Shout out to DJ Zeta and his ongoing series of All City Chop mixtapes. Pictured here is his latest, #TEN, a sampler of the best the local hip hop scene has to offer, featuring tracks from DoNormaal, Raz Simone, Dex Amora, Nacho Picasso, WIZDUMB and many more. He’s an awesome champion of Seattle hip-hop, has his fingers on the pulse, and has introduced me to more than a few amazing local musicians who were not yet on my radar. Get this sampler free on Bandcamp. Alternately, go see Zeta perform live at Vermillion every third Friday as part of his ongoing “Wild Style” residency.

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The Escape Plan

I’m not tuned-in to the Spokane rap scene, so it was cool when someone tipped me to check out The Escape Plan, a 2016 release from ExZac Change & Matisse. This one’s a concept record about two dudes escaping the rat race, trying to find a life that’s more than just living from paycheck to paycheck. The overarching story is told through a series of classic rap skits, which frames their journey perhaps more as a “quitting our crap jobs to become famous rappers and smoke hella weed” plan. The album fittingly ends with an ode to watching TV, which may be the reality of these characters’ jobless future. But I kid: The verses and the beats here are solid, often ping-ponging between two talented MCs. I enjoyed this record quite a lot. Hopefully, these guys venture westward sometime soon.

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American Boy

Brand new from Mackned, American Boy, is the latest local musical response to this year’s election spectacle. Starting with a Trump sample, here are eight meditations on “Making America Great Again.” Switching between macho posturing and sweetly misunderstood, there’s a broad range of styles on display, and Mackned excels at them all. This is his third release in 2016, after Celebrity Etiquette and Born Rich, the latter of which hasn’t left my car stereo.

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Son of Action Breaks

Son of Action Breaks is a one-track, 28-minute romp from DJ Bles One through dialogue samples and funky-as-hell beats. You will be inspired to throw a house party just so you can play this record at it. And there will definitely be a moment when all your dancing guests will momentarily stop and say, “Does this need more cowbell?” I love Gifted Gab‘s surprise appearance at minute 22. The CD I’m holding is a limited-edition hand screen-printed version available on the Kings Without Crowns website.

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Origin Story

Origin Story is an upbeat six-track hip-hop EP from Kublakai, full of compelling storytelling and short vignettes. “Full Circle” underscores with piano the tale of being discovered, the long road to fame, and the importance of paying it forward. “Thir13en,” tells of coming of age against a backdrop of bizarro beats, concluding with hidden acapella number, “I Am Free.” In “Mixed Messages,” he ponders his biracial upbringing, while backup singers chant “You’re beautiful.” Sweet and inspirational, this EP is 27 effortless minutes of musical joy.

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My Shadow

My Shadow by J-Steez starts out raw, as punch-in-the-face, rock-rap. Listening to the first track, I want to buy a Camero and crank the volume to 11. But there’s also something cathartic here, with songs like “Goin’ Under” hypnotically wringing a wet towel over and over again, or the tick-tick end of “We Will Not Stop.” Mr. J-Steez is a master of the slow-fast-slow and slides into the romantic numbers towards latter tracks. Lotsa sampling here, but I’d love to see a live performance of this album with a full band, Red Hot Chill Pepper style.

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Seattle's Own

On the first track of Seattle’s Own, a 2016 full-length from Draze, he spits, “I’m slept on, that’s why I had to set this alarm.” It’s a welcome clarion call and he’s right.

This album is steeped in Central District hip-hop history: At the end of the first song, he deftly weaves verses around more than 50 town shoutouts from Larry Mizell Jr to Gifted Gab to Raz Simone to Shabazz Palaces to Sir Mix-A-Lot and more. (If you’re local talent, you were probably name-checked here.)

What follows are 13 honest, personal, and intimate Seattle stories. Many of these powerful tracks clock in over 6 minutes and delve into social politics, the gentrification of the CD, and a questionable facelift imposed by outsiders. (Because there “ain’t nobody talking about no real shit.”)

There’s a big, polished sound here with big ambitions, calling to mind the work of Jay-Z and Drake. (The latter of whom my phone’s autocorrect keeps changing Draze’s name to.) Make sure to check out the Zimbabwean-influenced “Children of The Sun,” featuring Nia Hyped.

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Ten & Two and Shun (FRANKi Remix)

This is a release from 300 Club Records. They do limited-edition, short-run vinyl 7″ 45s, with custom spray-painted covers, each copy numbered. (This one is #188.) They really know how to turn every record into a special event. I picked this up from Jason at the Beacon Hill Station Block party: it features two superb solo hip-hop tracks from Onry Ozzborn of Oldominion and Grayskul fame. Side one is about keeping on the straight path, “that ten and two’s what I need.” The bass and drums on the b-side are so addictively good, I just keep putting the needle back to the beginning and playing it over, and over, again. If you’re a hip-hop artist looking to release something special, drop 300 Club Records a DM.

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Distinction Management Essentials 001

This opens with DoNormaal’s “50 Jasper Horses,” (feat. the newly renamed “Rave Holly”), and the placement of that song, first, forces you to hear it anew. The flow into “Dead Rose” by Nightspace is seamless, demonstrating the genre fluidity inherent in Seattle music. (The Deadmics track, with Hekl, The Mad Scientist is a revelation.)

Distinction Management throw these ultra-hip underground parties, at places with made-up names, where everyone attending is a celebrity and you have to know them, or know of them, to know who and where and when. Last Thursday’s had pop-up clothing shops, Taylar Elizza Beth and Aaron Cohen.

Distinction puts out these coveted mixed CDs–this is the first one… The second one was just released. It’s their collection of who’s hot right now, and they know: nerdy hard rock-tronica from Youngster Jiji, gender-fluid Michete (who’s “Red Rover” kicks some serious team-switching ass), musical chameleon Wolftone and of course Sleep Steady. Anna, Jasmine, Sasha and crew, hats off to you. Of course this CD is great.

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The Alhambra Collabs

The Alhambra Collabs is a 2016 compilation mixtape from Jarv Dee and DJ Rocryte, exclusively streaming on SoundCloud. It collects together a bunch of Jarv’s appearances on other people’s tracks, demonstrating both his dominance on the scene and acting as a who’s who of Seattle hip hop (Featuring Kung Foo Grip, Nacho Picasso, The Physics, Gifted Gab, Katie Kate and many more) Here, Jarv flies in with the superhero verse and is often accompanied by his loyal sidekick, Mary Jane. Rocryte uses his terrific turntablist chops to scratch these tracks into one continuous 45-minute mix. Head over to SoundCloud to hear the magic for yourself.

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Armadilla Lexus

A recent “My Philosophy” column in The Stranger turned me on to Nu Era and their latest Armadilla Lexus. Fresh beats, smooth rhymes, multiple rappers throwing verses, wicked production… This is a record where I get about five songs in and then go back to the beginning and listen to those same songs again. And again. So many standout tracks, especially “More Alice.”

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The Woods

The Woods is the latest EP from prolific Seattle rapper/producer Theomatic, who at only 16 years old, already has two albums and 10 EPs to his credit. (And he just released another one, the Cool & Calm EP a couple of days ago.) He’s closely studying the local rap game–referencing Macklemore’s “Ten Thousand Hours” in the title track, name-dropping neighborhoods, south end pride, Molly Moons, and more. This EP has an easy, breezy “Vibin’ / Chillen” feel, pretty much what you’d expect with palm trees on the cover. Radio play “Famé’s Commercial Break Pt. 2,” makes me laugh every time.

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Hiding Places

Hiding Places is a 2016 gothic trip-hop long-player from Brakebill. He’s appeared as a producer on several of my top recent records, so it’s interesting to hear a whole album of his own singular music. This is the sound of the nocturnal: The deep, distant echoes of traffic when you’re up late, when you can’t sleep, when the night fills an infinitely large canvas. Vocalist Nance adds old soul texture to “Homecoming” and “Portrait,” two of my favorite tracks. Both are drowned in nighttime reverb. Here’s music that meanders at a celebrated unhurried pace, at times reminiscent of the work of Silver Jackson or DoNormaal, the latter of whom is featured on the song “Charisma.” Very appropriate, haunting cover image.

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Concrete Waves

A key moment in Seattle hip-hop happened this summer in the shadow of Capitol Hill Block Party—at the rogue Squadfest event happening next door at Vermillion: Kung Foo Grip’s Greg Cypher mounted the hood of a police car and jumped and rapped some much-needed anthems to an adoring crowd.

The next day, KFG themselves host a sellout rooftop event at 95 Slide, so packed beyond capacity that most of us stood down below on the street, listening the way Londoners did on that fateful day when The Beatles played building-top.

Concrete Waves lives up to the promise of this spectacular summer. Production from SCLY (aka Def Dee) feels like cruising down Broadway in a bouncing lowrider. The beat on the first track, “Low End/96 Shit,” is so undeniably, addictively fresh that you’ll find yourself replaying this one song over and over again before devouring the rest.

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Chemtrails

Kung Foo Grip are a wicked band with an amazing live show, and so I’m damn excited they’re playing this weekend at Barboza. In anticipation, I’ve been spinning their EP Chemtrails, which I always connect with Kylie Jenner for some reason. There’s so much to like here—the epic percussive synth stabs of “Zerkin,” and the guest verse from fellow Cabin Games label-mate Silas Blak on “ANTI-Social,” where the spitting and the beats circle each other in the ring, sparring. “Goin Up, Lookin Down” expresses the band’s frustration with breaking through, repeating the mantra “Gas, Brake, Gas, Brake,” a theme that appears again on “Pyramid” in the lines “break it down and rebuild.”

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DUALGODFLOW 04' (Instrumentals)

It’s time to heap some praise toward Keyboard Kid’s elegant and understated DUALGODFLOW 04’ (Instrumentals). I’ve been playing this in my car, and on headphones while walking, pretty much non-stop for a week. These chill-out vibes are great for when you want to decompress… which probably says as much about my week as anything. The music morphs and evolves at an unhurried pace, reminiscent in some ways of modern classical music, a la Philip Glass. I love it when hip-hop artists have the confidence to release the instrumental backing tracks—Porter Ray did something similar with the B-side of his Nightfall vinyl, and I play that side all the time. Ironically, with this album, I haven’t even gotten around to hearing the non-instrumental, vocal versions of these DUALGODFLOW 04’ tracks yet. The instrumental versions on their own are that captivating.

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Lucid

It’s all about the drums on Lucid, a new release from Kazadi. As he says in the first track, he’s got them on cruise control: simple, stripped-down, repetitive, hypnotic… but here and there, the tiniest changes speak volumes. The way the beats come apart in “Falling” or in “The Tale of 4 Women” when you’ll find yourself transfixed, like a deer in headlights as the beats move in directions you never thought possible and while guitars crash down all around, and then the clouds part and it’s just you and some peaceful blippy bloops. Kazadi moved here from South Dakota to be part of the Seattle hip-hop scene, and his sound is a very welcome addition to the local mosaic.

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Potato

Potato from J’Von is a EP of melancholy breakup music from a man misunderstood. He raps on one song, “she misses the old me,” in a laid-back flow sometimes reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar, delivering rambling talk-raps and meditations on race and relationships against a backdrop of off-kilter beats, handclaps, and finger snaps. These songs contain the voyeuristic thrill of reading love letters that aren’t written to you. These are the thoughts and feelings of a man at home alone, writing odes of solitude like “Seattle Girl” and “Soda Can” to someone who doesn’t even listen to his music and will never hear these songs. It’s such a treat that we get to.

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As Saffroniaa

Otherworldly and sensual, JusMoni’s solo release As Saffroniaa is dreamy, sultry intergalactic make-out music, washed in infinite hip-hop reverb. JusMoni’s sweet and tender voice calls to mind classic jazz divas while also sounding uniquely not at all like any of them. (“Saffroniaa” is a character from a Nina Simone song who is trapped between two worlds.) I love the extensive vocal sampling and the bubbling, gurgling beats throughout, including some fine work from producer 10.4 ROG, who also contributed sensational production to Jarv Dee’s The Red Eye Jedi this year. Close readers will note that JusMoni herself has been a key contributor to a few of my other top records this year, including those from Porter Ray and Tay Sean.

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HOME

Bruce Leroy makes ALL CAPS rap. He says as much in one line on HOME, a 2016 release from this Tacoma rapper, a collaboration with producer 1stBorn. Drums on this record are prominent, and often naked, punctuating tracks like exclamation marks. But it’s their smooth, percussive interplay with the verses, especially when Leroy hits the accelerator pedal, kicking his raps into sixth gear… it will leave you completely breathless. Or two minutes into “PREMIUM UNLEADED” when everything flips around and moves backwards. Gorgeous guest verses from Porter Ray, Jarv Dee, Khris P, Phinisey and others. Full confession: More than one smart person DM’d me to say I should write about this album, and let me tell you all those people were damn right. The more I listen to this record, the more there is to love.

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Friends, Funk & Liquor

There’s an easy, happy vibe that you find in most of the records of Sam Lachow that I just love. Sam’s latest one, Friends, Funk & Liquor, further demonstrates the evolution of his career from young wine to fine port: here are seven slick and stylish songs that slide by in the most satisfying way. Sam is a presence that vibes throughout this record, but he often steps back to give lead mic to one of his many talented contributors, including Ariana DeBoo, Gifted Gab, B. Skeez, and others. Dave B is featured on three tracks here. The third track, “Absolutely” will have you jumping around your living room. This is party music, the sound of hanging out with your friends, and Sam’s many friends and collaborators are featured on the cover. What a party.

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This Unruly Mess I've Made

This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis is defiantly uncool; celebrating hair metal, failed resolutions, books on tape and herbal tea. Few records from 2016 are more eccentric and audacious. At a time when seeming cool holds such a premium, Unruly Mess walks in the opposite direction and consequently sounds like nothing else. It’s also the only local hip-hop record this year that made me cry. Regardless of mega-star status, this record is still grounded in Seattle’s DIY ethic: self-released and supported on tour by local talents Dave B, Raz Simone, Budo and others. I always laugh at the line, “Give me the Macklemore haircut!” because Ben and I have been the same Capitol Hill barber. How Seattle is that? If you haven’t spun this one recently, go back and listen to it again.

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LGEP2: Day & Night

Each song on producer Luna God’s six-track Lgep2: Day & Night pairs his beats with a different Seattle vocalist, creating a whos-who of the latest and greatest that Seattle hip-hop has on offer. You will jump up and down to the sonic maximalism/eardrum massage of “Booty Bounce,” featuring ZELLi, and that’s reason enough to check this one out. But it’s the small moments that are the most sublime: The closing bridge of “Managing,” featuring Taylar Elizza Beth catches me by surprise each time as it deconstructs, or the ringing phone at the end of the first track, featuring Campana, that always has me pulling my phone out of my pocket thinking it’s ringing. The closing track “Don’t You Search For Nobody Else” could be a lost bonus track off Beyoncé’s Lemonade. It’s no surprise that KEXP recently included this one in their best-of-the-year list.

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The Red Eye Jedi

Today, on the day after the election, we woke up to the crummy and terrifying news of Trump’s victory, and so this morning I’m finding solace in the vibe of Jarv Dee’s latest The Red Eye Jedi, especially the opening songs, “M.I.A.” and “Lay Low” that espouse the virtues of turning off your phone to wait for better news. Thank you Jarv for shining relevant intelligence and humor on this otherwise stupid, dark day. Fav track “Joog Phone” liberally apes a certain Drake Hotline, transmogrifying the source material into an anthem for secret nocturnal hookups. And oh, the many singalong hooks on this record! Singing aloud is supposedly a proven method to feel more positive, so I’m trying it: “Same ol’ bullshit… Something’s gotta give… My day can’t get worse than this.” Stay strong people. There’s lots still to do.

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Black Trash White House

The first track off of Guayaba’s EP, Black Trash White House ends with this beautiful statement of truth: “I promise that I’m honest, and I promise I’m sincere, and I’m fucked up in the head and I am fat and I am queer, and I am poor and black and may even be ugly, but I’m here.” I first discovered her confident, experimental, Latin-flavored hip-hop at a Moksha show in November, and she’s a great live performer with an acrobatic voice. There’s a bit of Nikki Minaj in her multiple personality rapping style, used to full effect on songs like “Brown Recluse.” Commanding production throughout from Luna God. This record concludes with “Paloma,” an unexpectedly sweet, soft Spanish acoustic guitar ballad.

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Gab The Most High Swishahouse Remix

I’ll confess that I wasn’t super hip to the whole Screwed and Chopped scene before Gifted Gab started hyping this record and the unique remixing style of DJ Michael “5000” Watts. Starting with Gab’s startlingly great release Gab The Most High, Watts slows down every track by 1/3, and then introduces skips and repeats and scratches. Anyone who knows me already knows how much I love the source material, and here, slowing the music down illuminates the tiny musical details, and the repeats put the focus on the nuances of Gab’s lyrics and wordplay. Listening to these remixes makes me love the original album even more. (And this isn’t just a few tracks—Watts remixed the whole damn album.) This Swishahouse remix confirms Gab’s right to serve as Queen of Seattle. Please give her the Royal Warrant pronto.

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Gab The Most High

This artist needs no intro. I’m assuming y’all already big fans of the self-proclaimed “queen of Seattle,” Gifted Gab. Throughout the year I’ve had love affairs with other records, but it’s Gab The Most High, released in May, that I’ve consistently returned to again and again. Few records have felt so confident, demonstrating such complete command of instruments, writing, rapping, vocal sampling, and on. Gab is a magpie, collecting threads from multiple genres: funk, R&B, and reggae; and then layering in new textures, including showing off a soulful singing voice. The album release party featured a full Motown-style backing band.

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#MURIKKKA

Released on November 5, only a couple of days before we all headed to the polls, MadShroom MC’s #MURIKKKA is a surgical nuclear strike, delivering potent, aggressive anthems that it feels like we need. This brash EP is a commanding solo work from the co-founder of the Black Magic Noize collective and FFU. It follows a long tradition of smart political commentary rap, a la classic Public Enemy. #MURIKKKA is a pessimistic assessment of a government obsessed with money and war. Track 3, “War Machine,” is one you’ll want to play LOUD. On the OCnotes-produced “Dance Party BullShit” MadShroom MC offers up the following salve: “Don’t worry about shit y’all. Just dance. Like it’s your only solution.”

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Born Rich

Born Rich by Mackned is ideal music to accompany your next solo, introspective, nighttime drive. When I bought this record I also picked up Drake’s Views, and have been listening to both together at random. In my mind they’re commingled, and it’s easy to see why: both artists are drawn toward auto-tuned singing raps, minimal drums, and luxury brooding. However, Born Rich is the one I spin more often, with standout tracks like “Dope Man” and ’80’s throwback “Fanta Blue.” At only nine short tracks, it’s the sort of record you listen to all the way through and then restart and listen to every track again.

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Disco Christ

Disco Christ, from Raven Matthews, is quite possibly my favorite album of the year. Channeling some of the spirits of Beck’s anti-folk Loser era, this creative and wide-ranging record is an endlessly inventive musical playground. Rambunctiously mixing hip-hop with grunge and pop and EDM, Matthews sings and raps sweetly. You rarely anticipate where the next track is going to take you, but it’s always someplace amazing. Take, for example, the gurgling, carbonated bubble pop of “Soda,” the relentless forward drive of “Don’t Stop Baby,” or the musical round of “Bikini Bottom,” featuring DoNormaal. With each track, I think “This is my new favorite song.” I saw him at The Crocodile a few weeks ago and he was a radical, committed live performer. Go see him if he’s playing near you.

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I Quit

I Quit is a seven-track EP from Bujemane. He’s got a cool, slow, loose spitting style that sounds a bit like freestyle, backed by minimal, unobtrusive beats playing through broken speakers, distorted tape, and recording machinery that keeps running out of batteries. These are short bursts: most songs here clock in under two minutes. Both “Long Sleeve” and “Pants” starts at half speed, and experiment with speed and expectations. The track I keep coming back to is the hypnotically repetitive “Red Zone” and its dancing piano. Inventive stuff here.

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Mirror

I have one of Romaro Franceswa’s “NO ENEMIES” shirts that I wear all the time. In the current climate, it’s a message I like to project. His latest release, Mirror, strives for a certain audio maximalism, There’s an unrelenting quality, rarely a quiet moment. It’s like you’re in the mind of Romaro’s cover protagonist, worked up, nervous, twitchy, steeling oneself with liquor, afraid to look up. The opening of “Forgive Me” starts with a few mumbled lines and then there’s a joke I always laugh at about Kanye getting back to making records. On headphones, there’s lots to listen to, multiple instruments constantly moving in multiple directions. Some great collaborators here: Parisalexa, Ryan Caraveo, Warm Gun, and Ariana DeBoo. A great release from the always stellar Black Umbrella collective.

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Goretex and Wool

Opening with samples from Seattle weather reports and the sound of a torrential deluge, Goretex and Wool serves as an ideal soundtrack for PNW winter and for a day like today. Throughout this 2016 beat tape, Diogenes slowly builds up layers of samples and drums and then adds wintertime environmental sounds, and then, equally slowly, peels those layers away again, especially effective on a song like “what love (will do)” that is more than once overtaken by a downpour. Mostly instrumental, there’s extensive and creative use of vocal sampling, and a couple of tracks feature guest vocals from Bishop Gaddafi and STSY. For those with a boom box, this one may still be available for purchase as a limited-edition cassette from Bandcamp.

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Leftlanin' My Lifestyle

As the cover suggests, Leftlanin’ My Lifestyle, a long-player from Ralphy Davis benefits from the correct listening context: I was blaring this on my car speakers the other day while bombing along I-5 on my way home from Portland and it left me feeling like a baller. As with Ralphy’s other music, the focus is on fame and money and achieving the champagne lifestyle. At 16 tracks, there’s lots of room for narrative flow: The first few songs set the mood before bringing on the straight-up bangers. “Countin’ Money Witta Bad Bitch” surprises with a sweet piano loop, and two tracks later, I love the squishy bass line of “How It Go.” Between the two, “Wym” dazzles. It’s this centerpiece trifecta that I replay most often, and repeatedly.

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Influence

Influence, released this summer, is a stellar side project from former Nu Era member Blaine Davis and guitarist Joseph Comin. They’ve sampled recognizable riffs from Seattle’s rock and grunge greatest hits, and then magically transformed well-loved songs into hip-hop bangers—each one sounds completely new and fresh. The opening track “Cobain” lifts the haunting strains of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” into a loop before veering in unexpected directions. It’s a revelation, as is “Hendrix” and “Miller.” Blaine’s verses throughout are powerful and deep, questions of gentrification and the changing city. Let me simply say this: Go get this record on Bandcamp. The many references to local legends should land this album on every Seattle publication’s record-of-the-year shortlist.

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Hoodie Season

It’s time to shine serious praise toward Hoodie Season, a ten-song record from Tacoma rapper Noo. This album has an effortless sound that comes from intense hard work—hours in the studio getting every note right—but comes across with the ease of a freestyle storyteller. Opening with the addictive “No Chorus,” you’re led through a set of nuanced and catchy meandering stories punctuated by abstract loops. Example: The hella great, deceivingly simple, beats on “Reckless.” If I had to provide a reference point, Hoodie Season is the unlikely blend of Porter Ray and Sam Lachow. This is my current favorite record. Noo’s output is prolific, however, so maybe there’s a new favorite on the bubble. Lately, he’s been releasing a new song every week. Great illustrative paste-up cover art.

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The Damn Gina Tape

In the TV show Martin, star Martin Lawrence would often express, “Awww Daammnn Gina” when something in his world was absurd, shocking, or upsettingly great. A thing that’s on fire. It’s no coincidence that New Track City’s latest is called The Damn Gina Tape, and it’s not just the sensational single “Ain’t the Same” with the menacing midsection and a vibe that will have you moving and then drops you into “HustleMan.” This record is spectacular. On the fifth track, “The Secret to Happiness” they rap: “Everything You Cling To Is Dead Weight.” It’s a great description of everything you’ve heard before this. Here’s a crew flexing some brand new muscle on the local scene. Great f-ing drums on this one. I always listen to the last track “A Groove” twice. What an amazing beat! It’s mind-bending. Wait, three times!

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Northern Natives

I’ve been spending some time lately with the gorgeous and sensual Northern Natives self-titled five-track EP. This one unfurls like smoke curls in slow motion… It’s a showcase of five songs by five artists, and as a compilation is a surprisingly cohesive work, with R&B and pop influences, big synths and dance floor shaking tracks from Samurai Del, Soultanz, CiDi, DNZ and Sendai Era. If I’ve learned anything from these record write-ups, it’s how deeply talented and interconnected the Seattle scene is. City Arts declared this “Album of the month” in December and I’m not surprised. These amazing producers and contributors represent the future of our scene and hip-hop at large.

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Tomorrow

At some point this year I stuck a sticky note on the front of this CD that says, “Killer tracks: #2, 3.” Later, I went back and added the numbers for pretty much every other track on this record. Tomorrow is an album built around all the amazing things Dave B can do with his voice, with phrases and verses providing all the momentum here, constantly pivoting forward, fast, slow, in reverse. On this release, his voice stands alone in Sango’s stripped-down ambient environment: distant synths enveloping the verses, and ever-present washes of reverb. I love the sounds of rain falling throughout the opening of “Cold Weather.” The “Rainier Beach Station” announcement from a Link light rail car grounds this record in a place: It’s the sound of Seattle’s south end, magic and multicultural.

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Off The Ground

Off the Ground is a release from Aaron Cohen that finds him in a contemplative mood, wondering whether the hustle is really worth it, and dissing other rappers (on “A Cosmic Sense of Humor”) for wearing Crocs and driving Teslas. I bump a lot of music in my car, but this one has a different vibe­­—these are tunes to wander and meander to. Listen closely to this eight-track EP and you’ll be rewarded with some lovely auditory ear massage—xylophones and environmental noises incorporated into the beats, like the crackling campfire that opens the record, or the infinite snare rolls in “Grey Soul.” Cohen recently returned from touring Korea.

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Unmixed Nuts Vol. 2 & 3

This is one of my favorite beat tapes from 2016: Unmixed Nuts, Vol 2 & 3 from Chocolate Chuck. He knows how to tap the feelings of zeitgeist nostalgia, merging classic soul and Saturday morning cartoon humor with floor-shaking repetitive danceability akin to Daft Punk. On the weekend, I attempted to play this album while assembling furniture, but the music was simply too engaging to be in the background: I kept stopping my work to just listen and absorb the many resplendently distorted combinations of samples and vibes. Every time I look at this cover, it makes me laugh—at least it did until the November elections—though the contents have little to do with party politics. Save this one for your “best of 2016” lists.

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Girlz With Gunz

Girlz With Gunz is the second album from Shabazz Palaces side-project Chimurenga Renaissance. This is hip-hop unlike much else: Songs built up from dense layers of African instruments and shimmering guitars, then broken down and then built back up again. Sometimes this happens more than once. For a group named after Zimbabwe’s revolutionary struggle, Girlz is an incredibly joyous record—a celebration of the bawdy, brash and cheerful women who fought for independence. Mirroring this theme, male vocals from Tendai Maraire often hand the mic to contributions from a few of Seattle’s finest female voices: Nyoka, JusMoni, Moon and SassyBlack. This release is a slow burn… with every spin it reveals further secrets. My current fav track is “Prepare To Shoot,” but it changes with every listen.

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Electric Rain

Electric Rain, a summer release from Porter Ray opens with dialogue from a movie. It’s the type of sample you find on many of his records, but here it’s a murder scene and followed by some completely unexpected synth-heavy production courtesy of Tele Fresco. It’s hard not to see this transition as symbolic, as with this cover, with its imminently devouring sharp teeth… This album is one of reincarnation. Old Porter is giving way to something new. This is Porter Ray making addictive, sexy-as-hell Seattle-style dance music. “Cognac Aphrodisiac” is a must-listen, where an idyllic birds-chirping scene gives way to a full-fledged anime laser battle. JusMoni appears on five of these ten tracks, most notably on the entrancing “Bed Lion.” I’ve had this record on repeat for most of the year. You get to the luxurious floating piano on the closing song and then right back and start the journey all over again.

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Dreams & Reality

Dreams & Reality is the latest release from Ricky Pharoe. He’s been at this rap game for a while now, first as Art Vandelay and now under his own name. Right from bitter opener “Dorks,” this record is an ode to disillusionment: The realities of aging after too much life, cynical at the music industry and the lucky breaks of his contemporaries, eating cup noodles, working from check to check… But far from being a sad sack, the music is damn good and the verses hella funny, like in “Lies” when he proudly raps about how his bank account has oh so many zeroes, no, wait, it’s all just zeros… Heavy use of rock samples left me comparing this album to the work of Raven Hollywood—a live show pairing I’d love to see happen. Mixed/mastered by Spekulation. The “Die Hard” dialogue sprinkled throughout will have you nostalgically wanting to watch the film. Cool cover photo of Seattle from the air.

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A Million Ways To Live

A Million Ways To Live, a full-length album from Estevan Rodrigo, opens with an upbeat, Dilla-esque jazz sample and verses that pledges to help you “Get Through The Day.” This is late-afternoon, chill-out, sun-setting rap, where you can just let your mind wander as the sky changes colors. From the earth-shaking deep pianos on “Money Makes A Good Man” to the irregular, inventive, evolving beat of “PWK” there’s much to explore and be lost in here. The verses are mixed low and kinda float, adding texture. And the backing vocal loop on “Like A Photograph” is simply divine, as are the unexplained animal coos throughout the instrumental closer.

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Remember Face

During winter in Seattle, days are short and dark, and it’s always raining. Joy Division and The XX. Names not usually associated with hip-hop, however, Remember Face’s self-titled debut brings to mind their bleak, goth moodiness, and that’s definitely how I’m feeling lately. “My Tigers Name Is Lion,” with its massive industrial synths could be mistaken for something new from Depeche Mode. That is until Chimaroke Abuachi starts spitting on top, sometimes singing, directing the mood bleaker still. Andrew Savoie of Home Slice fame is responsible for the production and the keys. The mood builds in intensity, over these 10 short, intense tracks, broken just before the end with “Take Shelter” and its humorous pirate ending. Also, breathtaking cover.

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Quadruple Funk

The name Mario Casalini first turned up for me in the production credits of exceptional songs by Raven Hollywood and DoNormaal. I was therefore very excited to discover Quadruple Funk, an 8-song release from the man himself. His music taps into a nostalgia for a time that never was, a sort of space-age ‘70s dance funk mixed with perverted video game music, 8-bit, reversed, turned way up on the low end. Fav track “Temporary Girl” has a Daft Punk feel and the opening of “Too Much Heart” may blow out your speakers. Welcome vocal support on some tracks from Donte Peace, DoNormaal, Ill Skyy, Forza, Planet 39, Munky Do and others. Certifiably fresh. This one sounds like little else.

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Eviction Notice

Pour yourself a tall glass of Hennessy, curl up on a comfortable couch, and digest this album like you would a theatrical production. With Eviction Notice, Campana brings forth a deeply personal and emotional, autobiographical full-length offering, underscored by the loss of a friend and musical homie Thee Ruin, whose name is featured on the cover, spelled out in stars above a dark desert road. For a record so much about the loss of direction, this music has such a grounded sense of place. Such physicality in the instruments. The knocks we face in life teach us lessons, and on tracks like “Look Around” with its pop chorus, Campana comes out swinging, and on “Organics” he’s shaking the dance floor.

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See All

If you have the chance to see Call perform, you should go. He has an electrifying live show, deeply committed, a man possessed. My expectations were high when I first pressed play on See All, and this seven-song release delivers: Every single song is a note-perfect banger. Call’s bare, emotional verses are technically precise, inventive, and playful. He is completely captivating. Vocalist Falon Sierra contributes texture on two essential tracks, the downtempo “Heal You” and the singalong “The Ghost.” In the beats and production throughout there’s a sense of motion that I love, where some elements are moving a double time and others at half-speed, like you’re running and sitting still at the same time—a pretty good metaphor for the lyrical content throughout. Gorgeous cover from Ari Glass.

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We Are All Fucked

We Are All Fucked comes with a warning: This is “not a happy summer album.” Listening to it in the darkest of November is an especially dangerous pairing. The oppressively bleak mood, like a wet rain that you feel in your bones, is exemplified here by blown speaker sounds, twitchy beats that refuse to follow a click and skip, taps, vocals, and samples twisted and distorted beyond recognition. I read an interview in Seattle Weekly where he referenced Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” as one of his all-time fave songs. We all have moments when we feel ugly and stupid and this album goes deeply PNW with songs like “Suicide capital” and “Slit my wrist by the ocean.” But there’s also catharsis here, and a beauty you can commiserate with, and a production playground that constantly pushes into new terrain.

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Leavings

Tay Sean has such a way with beats, and the variety of ways he moves a song forward, rarely what you’d expect, yet ideal in hindsight. While listening to his masterwork Leavings, I found myself semi-unconsciously cataloging all the percussive sounds, their variety and range, and all the off notes and the ones that are right on. (And losing count…) Find the groove and you’re bobbing your head throughout. When I first heard “Supramundane,” I kept picking up the needle, putting it back a track, and listening again and again. The interplay of rap and singing and vocal samples deepens further, particularly when the voices themselves are providing the momentum. Gorgeously dense, there are many more layers yet to peel from this alien onion.

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No More Weak Dates

Listening to the new solo record from SassyBlack today. No More Weak Dates is the best sort of nouveau disco—strange, soulful music with snappy beats that you might initially feel shouldn’t work, but it does, and later you realize you’ve been humming along. Her lyrics pull from a wide range of personal themes: Star Trek, throwing shade, the dating scene, and dairy obsession. (Trust me: You’ll love that song.) One of my favorites is the slow-burn relationship realization described in “Forest of Desire.” As an advocate of the Seattle hip-hop scene, Cat is very inspiring to me: I often see her out at shows supporting other artists, standing in the cheering section. She’s active in the scene, hustles her butt off, and turns her beliefs into action. And she’s one hell of a musician, and innovative beat maker, too.

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Cool Mike: The Untold Story

What I love about Specswizard is how he “keeps raps organic” with a deep commitment to using vintage gear. On this six-track EP Cool Mike: The Untold Story, each song is formed from a single intriguing, looping sample, where throughout he finds small ways to change it, pulling in snippets of dialogue, environment sounds, even the clicks and clacks of the sampling machinery. The Wizard has been at this a while and his production is masterfully lo-fi. He’s “from the town where it’s drizzling…” and he’s come to show us how it’s done. “Sheets” has a beat moving at odds with verses that talk about the daily grind of excellence, while on “NHB,” he’s on a beach, drinking a Mai Tai, laughing in a flow that feels effortless, at the rest of us and our silly, quantized, auto-tuned computers.

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Golden Eagle ep

The 20 minute, six-track Golden Eagle ep from Specswizard is exactly the same length as my morning commute; this week that’s been a happy coincidence: I’ve been loving this one. “The Wizard” has an easy-speaking, back-to-basics delivery and a smoldering voice, covering topics from the fallacy of success, dissing fakers, and comic books. (All three coming together in “Giant Man vs Ant Man”) The beats recall Bomb Squad production, combining wide-ranging musical sample textures and dialogue with sirens and harsher sounds. In addition to being a talented musician, Specs is also an artist and painter, though this EP features a cover photo by fellow musician Astro King Phoenix.

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Transform

At a time when we could all use some, Keasha Beard delivers a little well-timed faith with Transform. This is a solid rap record with smart verses and deft production from Moshae Beats. These 15-tracks seek truth and God and demonstrate defiance against hardship. A lot of them are also damn catchy celebrations of positivity, as the second track that chants “I MADE IT,” as a mantra of certainty. I remember listening to this on headphones and laying on the lawn at Volunteer Park, making shapes and figures from the wondrous clouds, and finding these narratives were speaking right to me. An eye-catching cover, too. It’s worth seeking this one out.

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