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Top 10 Songs

Throughout the ’90s, writer Novocaine132 extensively covered the Seattle hip-hop scene. You’ll find his byline on feature stories and record reviews in both The Rocket and The Stranger, and he contributed to the marketing of several Tribal and Loosegroove releases, too.

Over the past few years, he’s been posting a series on YouTube called Top 10 Songs where he digs deep into the work of a particular Seattle rap legend, surfacing the not-to-be-missed songs from their catalogs. Whether or not you agree with the specific choices, each video provides a great overview of each artist’s career and there are lots of audio samples so you can hear what each song sounds like.

He adds, “The project began in 2017 when I heard that Wordsayer had passed away. At the time I was retired from music and print journalism, and I was concentrating my efforts on documentary filmmaking. When Jon died it hit me very hard, and I had to evaluate my life and my work. He and I were good friends in the 1990s, and he inspired much of my work in the area of hip-hop writing. I made a Top 10 Songs video of Source Of Labor at the end of 2017 to help deal with the pain of losing Wordsayer. Then in 2018, I made one for Ghetto Chilldren, and it started to become a series. I named my enterprise “Overstanding Seattle” to give tribute and honor to Jonathan Moore, one of the most truly amazing musicians I have ever known.”

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Byrd's Eye View

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Romaro Franceswa

The Stranger picked Romaro Franceswa as one of the “Top 5 Albums of 2013,” saying that:

In late spring, the young rapper Romaro Franceswa dropped an excellent self-titled album that was produced by the local veteran BeanOne. The album is about the streets, and the streets that Franceswa is all about are found in Federal Way. The album is good for three reasons: Franceswa’s raps are packed with energy, and this energy is matched by the second reason, BeanOne’s beats (this cat has been in the business since the mid-’90s—probably even earlier than that—and yet he manages to sound as fresh and energetic as a young buck going for broke). Three, Romaro Franceswa kept the streets in the 2013 game. What do I mean by this? With the continued gentrification of Seattle (good-bye, Yesler Terrace), it’s important to keep in mind (and not lose sight of) the life of those who are harassed by racist cops and often have to hustle to make a living in a society that has systematically abandoned them. In short, Franceswa is keeping it real.

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The Blank Canvas

Filmmaker and hip-Hop musician Rafael Flores spent six years making The Blank Canvas: Hip-Hop’s Struggle for Representation in Seattle. The film attempts to document the unique identity of hip-hop culture in Seattle, through interviews with over 100 rappers, producers, DJs, graffiti artists, break-dancers, fashion designers, and promoters from The Town.

It takes us on a journey that investigates the origins of Hip-Hop in the Northwest, the legacy of Sir-Mix-a-Lot, the notorious 1985 Teen Dance Ordinance, Clear-Channel’s dominance over commercial Hip-Hop radio, the increasing popularity of white rappers in Seattle, and hip-hop’s struggle for representation in a seemingly liberal city.

The full 96-minute film is available for rent on Vimeo for $5. Watch the trailer below.

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The Otherside

The Otherside is an hour-long documentary predominantly covering Seattle’s Capitol Hill-centric “third wave” hip-hop scene, circa 2010. This was a time when MP3s and streaming were fairly new and completely reshaping the music industry. Artists like Blue Scholars were experimenting with Kickstarter and direct fan support. Everyone was trying something new.

There’s a wealth of great interviews, concerts, and backstage footage from artists across the Town. There are hella people in this movie. It’s clear the filmmaker tried to talk with anyone and everyone who was willing. There are some great long chats with Jake One, Prometheus Brown, and Sir Mix-A-Lot. There’s also lots of footage of pre-stardom Macklemore & Ryan Lewis as they prepare to drop The Heist.

Larry Mizell Jr. offers up a four-point guide to being successful in the Northwest: “Be truthful to yourself. Be respectful and knowledgeable of what’s going on and what came before you. Be good: Work on your craft. Further the culture at all times.”

The Otherside premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival and was an audience favorite, selling out two consecutive screenings. It was also chosen as “Best of SIFF” by festival programmers.

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Tomorrow People

Today is one of those beautiful Seattle days with infinite blue skies and cool breezes, where all you want to do is lay on the grass or drive to the coast with the top down. The perfect accompaniment is The Physics 2012 album Tomorrow People. Contrasting many laptop-produced hip-hop records, here you have a group of musicians riffing and jamming and rapping together. Laid-back, organic, and gorgeous.

Seattle hip-hop blog 206UP picked this record as one of the “Top 10 Albums of 2012,” saying that:

Tomorrow People reaches for a broader context than The Physics’ previous album (last year’s outstanding Love is a Business) without sacrificing any of what makes the group so appealing. Soulful, funky, and beautifully nuanced, TP is 13 tracks of grown-man/woman hip-hop. MCs Thig Nat and Monk Wordsmith are thoughtful, conscious, and raunchy always right when they need to be. And producer Justo and don’t-call-them-back-up singers Malice and Mario Sweet put the finishing touches on each track so they shine at just the right angles. This is a crew with a rare nonchalance that never translates to dull, a sure sign of artists who truly know who they are. There is something for everyone on Tomorrow People. You could play this album for your grandma and she would probably love it, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Similarly, The Stranger selected Tomorrow People as one of the “Top 5 Albums of 2012,” saying that:

“So Funky,” the first track on The Physics’ latest album, Tomorrow People, is, for me, hip-hop in a pure state. It’s spare and it has a big and chunky beat, a raw and rubbery bass, bits of scratching, and no singing or chorus—this is a rapper’s paradise.

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Yuk The World

Seattle hip-hop blog 206UP picked this record as one of the “Top 10 Albums of 2011,” saying that:

Here we have the trio of Brainstorm, S.E.V., and Fearce Villain behaving in the way we’re accustomed to: Mixing top-shelf brag rap with sobering tales about growing up hard in the South End. It’s been over four years since Space Music, the area’s official introduction to the Three Bad Brothas from Renton. Since then, the crew has been missing a key component to their hustle: The production of Bean One, whose lively trunk rattle serves as the perfect delivery vehicle for the three MCs’ sharp witticisms. Thankfully Bean is back here, providing the majority of the framework in which Dyme Def gets busy. One complaint: Yuk The World is too long, but that’s only because Dyme Def’s real voice hasn’t been heard in some time. Consider this a year-ending takeover attempt by one of the SEA’s most important groups in history.

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Panic EP

It’s been a tensely political week in a highly political year. I took a brief break by rolling the clock back to 2009 when the nation’s concerns were recession and house foreclosures and dealing with the great George W. Bush hangover. Obama was a brand new president and we didn’t know what to make of him yet. It’s in this context that Dyme Def released their Panic EP, featuring seven highly political songs from another era. The title track repeats the refrain, “somebody please help me.” Most of the work here is classic boom-bap, with naked drums, sample-heavy riffs, brass hits, and sirens that channel ’90s NYC, like on the captivating “Pick Up A Flow.” There are some great spacey stereo effects on “Foot Up On The Gas” worthy of your headphones. It’s track 3, “Not That Dude,” that most closely contemplates the identity politics of our past week, with a verse that begins, “you’re not like me and I’m not like you.” Let’s hope we can all find common ground regardless. I’m bummed I missed both of their summer ’17 Seattle shows, but hopefully, we’ll hear more from Dyme Def soon.

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A Souls Journey

In the early 1990s, a music and art collective named Jasiri Media Group began to appear on the Seattle rap scene. Jasiri’s first musical release was a 1995 self-titled four-song cassette from Source Of Labor, which began with a track called “Come With We.” Later that year Source Of Labor dropped a three-song vinyl Maxi Single/E.P. titled Sureshotsingles, featuring a remix of “Come With We” with a verse from an MC named Kylea. Kylea soon formed a group called Beyond Reality with another performer named Shelin. Beyond Reality released two 12″ singles on Jasiri, “Whatever” in 1997 and “IReality” in 1998. By 2001, Jasiri was the most influential rap label in Seattle by far and began holding weekly rap gatherings at the Sit & Spin laundry in Belltown. On Easter Sunday, 2001 the Beyond Reality live hip-hop performance at Sit & Spin was recorded and subsequently released as a CD titled The Revival.

2007’s A Souls Journey falls at the end of the Beyond Reality recording career, and it is a perfect exclamation point capping Kylea’s important body of work. The liner notes are a celebration of Kylea’s family with a lot of sepia-tone childhood photos which set a mood of reflection and heritage. Beyond Reality enlists one of Seattle’s top producers on A Souls Journey, the legendary BeanOne. Kuddie and Bubba also make appearances. Bean’s work on the beats is excellent, two highlights are the upbeat track “The 1-2” with its sticky scratching, and the more laid back “Souls Journey” which creates a big sound with horn blasts.

Lyrically there’s no question that Kylea is among the top MCs to ever come from Seattle. She uses a variety of styles to deliver her message of true empowerment. Every track has lyrics that remind you to try your hardest and do your best. Kylea wants you to know your American history, both the good and the bad. Her raps about “knowledge of self” can serve as positive daily affirmations. It’s very different from rap by the top women MCs of 2022 like Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, and Megan Thee Stallion. Those artists made explicit sex a huge part of their brands. Kylea’s style and subject matter were literally the opposite of this, and therefore A Souls Journey can be enjoyed by any age group without shame. It is a beautiful and timeless hip-hop album. (Written by Novocaine132.)

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The Cause & Effect

Today, I’m sharing the history of the 2007 G-Funk debut of D.Black, The Cause & Effect. It dropped descended from a line of hip-hop royalty: The son of James Croone (aka Captain Crunch J Croone) of Emerald Street Boys and Mia Black from Emerald Street Girls. As a youth, D.Black was mentored by Vitamin D, then co-managed by Sir Mix-A-Lot’s manager Ricardo Fraiser and Source of Labor’s J.Moore (RIP).

At age 16, he was a co-founder of legendary Sportn’ Life Records alongside Devon Manier, and a driving force behind one of our town’s most important hip-hop artifacts, the 2003 Sportin’ Life compilation featuring Oldominion, Narcotik, Silent Lambs Project, Frame, and others. The label also launched the careers of Fatal Lucciauno and Spac3eman.

So in the middle of this tornado, 19-year-old D.Black released The Cause & Effect, a debate-ending anvil from a talented prodigy. It features production from hip-hop heavyweights: Bean One, Jake One, Supreme La Rock (as part of The Conmen), Fearce, and Ryan Croone (famous for the funky gangsta sound of Squeek Butty Bug’s excellent Really Cheatin’ from 1997). A bunch of cuts were produced by D.Black himself. Every track oozes confidence and certainty. There are so many gems here.

Like most mid-00 CDs, 19 tracks fill the full 72-minute capacity, and there are features galore from Fatal, Choklate, J. Pinder, Dyme Def, and The Parker Brothaz. This a true Seattle classic available on Spotify and Bandcamp. Go listen today.

Here’s a curious twist to the story: Shortly after releasing this record, D.Black abandoned his gangsta roots and cut ties with this project. Years later, he finally returned to the mic under a new name, Nissim, and a new identity as a black Orthodox Jewish hip-hop artist based in Israel.

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Space Music

Space Music by Dyme Def from 2007 isn’t one to listen to on headphones: Channeling old-school rap, remixing heavyweights like Kurtis Blow and The Beatles, this is the album to bring to the next beach party–preferably on cassette on a ghetto blaster–and play loud while kickin’ it with friends. This is music to be shared. I love the interplay between the three emcees and the way sample hooks are derived from the less obvious parts of the song, like “Clap your hands…” from “The Breaks.” A good soundtrack for summer.

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Love Saves The Day

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Silas Sentinel

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Pleaze Believe

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Reprogram

The Stranger picked Reprogram as one of the “6 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2005” saying:

Karim, Destro, and DJ Scene are Boom Bap Project, and like Grayskul they’re signed to the Minneapolis-based Rhymesayers label. Reprogram is Boom Bap Project’s first full-length CD, and it was designed not to disappoint. Reprogram is packed with contributions from the best in the local and national scene. It has production work from Seattle’s big three: Jake One, Vitamin D, and Bean One. Mr. Hill and Jumbo the Garbage Man (of Lifesavas) also supplied beats, and Gift of Gab (Blackalicious) and Rakaa Iriscience (Dilated Peoples) supplied raps. This record serves as a model for the kind of hip-hop professionalism and ambition that can open the wide world to our mid-sized city.

Boom Bap Project released a fantastic track on Reprogram that exactly compressed a city’s dominant economic mode into a pure code of soul. The track is called “Reprogram,” it was produced by the king of local beat designers, Vitamin D, and brings near-perfect expression to an age, a city that’s dominated by software programmers. (L.A.’s Styles of Beyond have done something similar with their city, by making hip-hop that sounds like big-budget movies.) The music on “Reprogram” is slightly melancholy, melodic, with sound effects that imagine the experience of being inside the World Wide Web, and raps that demand, by reprogramming, the transformation of software consumers into revolutionary subjects. “Reprogram” is the crowning achievement of this album.

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Hello World

The Stranger picked Hello World as one of the “6 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2005” saying:

Framework is the street name for Keith Russell. Hello World is his debut CD, and it stands as this year’s highest achievement in hip-hop. Not since Silent Lambs Project’s Soul Liquor has there been a recording that erupts with so much creativity—in both senses of the word: innovation and procreation. There are 20 tracks packed into this CD, and all are rich, thick, and fecund. Hello World gives the distinct impression that Framework, the rapper, and Bean One, the producer, could easily go beyond the physical limits of the CD, and add 20 more equally superb tracks. When Bean One and Framework connect, the results are volcanic.

Hello World was recorded in Bean One’s house in the University District. “It took 31 days to make,” explains Bean One. “I gave Framework seven CDs of beats. He took them home, wrote stuff, and then he started coming around to my place at 12 at night to record. He was always on time, and wouldn’t be drunk or high but ready for some go-get-it shit. And that’s the kind of professionalism I admire. Some rappers come to my place and they are so high they don’t know what they’re doing, and begin wasting my time. Framework was there on time and ready to work.”

Framework’s raps are about street life—thugging for a living, hustling hard drugs, dealing with obdurate cops, going in and out of America’s bloated prison system. “I’m from the streets where it’s scandalous/don’t be feeling scared while teenagers that be acting mannish,” raps Framework, who was recently released from King County Regional Justice Center, where he spent a good part of this hip-hop-splendid year. “I don’t always agree with what he has to say,” explains Bean One, “but he has the natural elements that make an emcee: elements of cadence, chrism, and imagination. And that is why I have to work with him. There are people who say things that I agree with but they sound like shit. And I can’t work with them.”

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Deadlivers

Oldominion was a hip-hop collective that rose to prominence in the Northwest right around Y2K. Comprised of more than twenty members, the group’s debut album One was released in 2000 to critical acclaim. A few years after One, a side project emerged from Oldominion titled Grayskul that included three members: Onry Ozzborn, JFK, and Rob Castro. Grayskul would go on to record at least ten albums together, but their greatest work remains Deadlivers, released in 2005. Deadlivers is a masterwork of rap theater in the same vein as a Prince Paul hip hop opera. Grayskul paints elaborate pictures in your mind using archetypal good vs. evil battles to illuminate their concepts and bring them to life. “This is the birth of miracle, magic, and majesty,” raps Ozzborn on “Behold,” transforming a cute little line from Paul Simon’s Graceland into a vaguely ominous warning. Both “Vixen” and “After Hours” bring an accessible, fun balance to the album’s generally more dark themes. “Adversarial Theater Of Justice,” and “Action Figure Of Speech,” both appear near the beginning of the LP and display the nimble poetry and twisted imagery conjured by Grayskul on this project. Deadlivers is a hauntingly beautiful fugue, and by daring to stray from tired rap stereotypes, The album achieves true greatness. A 206 classic! (Written by Novocaine132.)

Here’s another take:

The Stranger selected Deadlivers as one of the “Top 6 Hip-Hop Albums of 2005,” saying:

If the Northwest Oldominion crew has an artistic peak, it’s Grayskul’s Deadlivers, which has one of the greatest opening lines of our (post-9-11) times: “If ever there was a time in your life to be afraid/I think this qualifies as the most terrifying of days” (“Behold”). Released by Rhymesayers Entertainment, Deadlivers is relentlessly dark and menacing, with flawless production. More than any other Oldominion record, Grayskul’s sound is both cinematic and architectural. Listening to Deadlivers is much like watching the shadow of a man—a murderer? a superhero? a vampire?—walking through wet, windswept streets. The beats are built big with splendid gothic details, and above black rushing clouds, is a moon that is silver and monstrously pregnant. In Deadlivers the horror/crime/sci-fi image is translated into sonic forms.

“We did about 50 songs,” explains Mr. Hill, who provided most of the beats for Deadlivers. “Castro, Onry, JFK came up with the idea of Grayskul and they wanted to use my style of music. Critics often describe it as dark, sinister, or theatrical, but to me, it just sounds normal. I never think it’s that dark; it’s just my ear, the way I like to hear things. Some of the beats we used were made as far back as 1999, but most were made while we were putting the record together.” Grayskul’s core is Onry Ozzborn, who plays a character named Reason, and JFK, who plays Recluse, and their rhymes are twisted like a madman’s mind, heavier than a tombstone, and as shadowy as the evil eyes of Bela Lugosi. Mr. Hill’s music complements Grayskul’s grave fiction. In fact, if there is one producer who has really helped define the region’s somber aesthetic, it is Mr. Hill, who contributed four beats to Silent Lambs Project’s darkling Street Talkin’… Survival and will contribute two beats to Kool Keith’s next Dr. Octagon CD.

“The thing about hip-hop,” Mr. Hill explains, “is it takes 30 minutes or two days to make, so it’s all about each song. But once I make a beat [Grayskul] go into the studio, and while putting the track together things begin to change. What we start with is never what we end with.”

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The Long Awaited Mega EP

Here’s a rare vinyl pressing of Specswizard’s The Long Awaited Mega EP from 2005. It’s a sample-heavy release, but it’s all analog, with no computers or quantization, so everything’s a little squishy. This music swings. On the first side, “Unusual” breathes new life into a famous Tom Jones sample, while “Finer Things” samples a harpsichord from a Bach fugue, and then reverses it. The lyrics try to convince you that next year when he’s finally “making all kinds of dough” that he’ll finally be that classy dude. It’s towards the end of this track, when Specs starts repeating “H2O” that you notice there’s a bit of Jenga happening: On the second side is a short track called “H2O,” and it’s a long roll-call of local 2005-era hip-hop greats: Jake One, Silver Shadow D, Wordsayer, Sir Mix-A-Lot, Nasty Nes, and more. My fav track, “Concrete,” is also on side two. It’s a deceptively funky number, one that finds its head-bobbing grove after a short burn-in period. There are also two instrumentals (of “Unusual” and “Concrete”) to close out the vinyl. They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Here’s another take:

Back when I lived in the city, I used to see Specs lurking around Capitol Hill now and again. Tall, dressed in the Northwest signature strata of thrift-score layers, seemingly taller even due to his lankiness, with nappy hair and a Fu Manchu mustache, the man struck an immediate image: instantly memorable, a little off-kilter, but with everything impeccably in its place. The same can be seen in his visual artworks and heard here in his music and poetry. The man is an artist, let there be no doubt, but moreover, you could say HE is art, and his work is just an extension of the man. In everything I’ve ever encountered regarding him, there is a rock-solid deliberateness and a deep sense of craft. Listen to any of his records, it’s easy to hear if you’re looking for it. Just the fact that he makes all his own beats, and has few, if any, guests is a testament to his unique vision. And let there be no doubt, Specs has a vision, regarding hip-hop and most likely beyond, and he has no interest in diluting it or becoming more mainstream. I get the feeling he really doesn’t care if you feel what he’s doing or not. It just has to come out; he just has to lay it down. Not that his music is inaccessible at all. It may be rough and scratchy (purposefully of course), but the music Specs makes is instantly memorable, with unanticipated hooks and steady, head-nod-ic beats. His vocal delivery is likewise steady, mellow, confident, and immediately likable. And no other release of his demonstrates this like this one: 2005’s The Long Awaited Mega EP. From the intro track “North Again”, to its closing Reprise “H2O” this vinyl is the smoothest and most even Specs has ever put down. The signature off-kilter beats, vinyl pops, and tape hiss present in all his music are copiously heard here as well, but the noise is curbed a little, and the layers of sound go deeper and sound cleaner… Thanks to engineer Bean One, I’d imagine. “North Again” is a fitting opener, with its low organ loop, sustained synth note, and rain and bong hits in the background. Specs waxes over the sporadic beat, laying down who and what he’s about. “It’s all future with the outlaw Buddha,” he speaks quietly about, and probably to himself, before launching into a name-check of many of his NW hip-hop compatriots, that continues until the song fades out (the list continues with the fade-in of “H20” on side B). The most frenetic track, and also the most difficult to listen to, is the follow-up to the hypnotic opener. “Unusual” features Stymie, Specs’ hype man, (who Charles Mudede says is the size of a G.I. Joe) doing what he does over a short, hiccuping track, and is probably placed in the coveted 2nd spot on the record to keep the listener on his toes and guessing. “Regular Ish” follows, which has to be one of the most infectious tracks Specs has ever made (and also, at two minutes long, one of the most criminally short). Somewhere between Paul Horn and Omid, the song is a heavy, Doc Marten-stomping, psychedelic celebration. Perhaps the most standard song in Specs entire catalog, “Finer Things”, is his take on the classic hip-hop cliche about blowing up, making money, and spending it on his girl, except when I listen to this, the personal nature of his music makes me feel like he’s talking in the mirror here. Side two opens with the sinister Atari-instrumental “2k5”, before breaking in with the seriously danceable low-fi masterpiece “Concrete”. The music sounds like it’s coming from a film strip (remember watching those slide shows in elementary school? I’m dating myself here); even the drums sound empty and warbly, but I swear nothing has ever been more groovy. I could put this on loop and listen all day. If I could dance worth a damn, I’d do that, too. “H20” follows, and acts as the bookend to the album, followed by instrumentals of “Unusual” and “Concrete”. All told the EP is just over 24 minutes in length, but what a strong set of songs it is! I can’t believe he limited this to only 500 copies. After this smooth, relatively clean-sounding record–an aesthetic in common with its predecessor, Return of the Artist–Specs turned over a couple of pages and came back deliberately more psychedelic and spaced-out for the incredible Original Space Neighbors album (under the alias Mic Mulligan and S. Future). His following work has delved even more into the abstract, rough, scratchy, well-worn sound, which fits the man perfectly. Listening to his aged loops and his whispered delivery, it’s obvious he wants the listener to cue in and be explicitly aware of the history behind the sound, the history of the art of hip-hop as he sees it, and the history of the man presenting it. After being in the industry for more than twenty years, Specs is the rarest of cats: one that has consistently stayed true to his vision, and kept his signature sound, while constantly changing and ever-progressing. Perhaps he accomplished this because he never subscribed to a particular genre or niche in hip-hop. Specs One has always just sounded like Specs One. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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B.Y.R.D.I.E.

Seattle emcee Byrdie released this 12″ back in 2004, along with his album N Flight. Boasting production from the legendary Vitamin D and Bean One, this sampling of what the album has to offer is head-nodding and infectious.

The A-Side, “B.Y.R.D.I.E.”, with its minimal and angular beat, gives Byrdie’s flow ample room to slither and wrap itself around the corners. The B-Side, “Scattin'”, is more of a high-energy club cut. Layers of horns, percussion, vocal samples, and synth lines jump around, with Byrdie shouting to be heard over the cacophony. Entertaining stuff from this Northwest stalwart. Besides album cuts, instrumentals and acapellas are included as well. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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N Flight

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Red Scribe Pages

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Return of The Artist

Return of The Artist is an album that will always be ahead of its time. Specs One is a producer and rapper mixed into one person, a hip-hop genius straight from the 206. The CD begins with three solid vocal tracks “Open,” “The S,” and “Attack Of The Clones,” then the instrumental vibe of “North” cleanses your mental palate. The chorus of track five, “Who Is He?” comes in like hot green peppers, and your toes will definitely be tapping. “Who Is He?” is bonkers, simultaneously rough and smooth. “Rap Stuff” follows, then two more instrumentals, “Travel Addict” and “Home Suite.” While “North” and “Home Suite” could be described as musical interludes, “Travel Addict” is a full-length instrumental track that shows Specs One’s talent at constructing multi-layered soundscapes that constantly surprise and delight the listener. After a short love song titled “Only You” comes a skit, “Finding Mic” which leads right into track eleven, “Ode To Mics.” “Ode To Mics” is another signature Specs One slam dunk from this all-around superb release. Instrumental “The Block” sneaks by, then “Done” fades the album out to the last track, the wistfully sentimental “Wide World.” (Written by Novocaine132.)

Here’s another take:

Specs One, the mastermind behind the legendary 206 acts the Elevators, The Crew Clockwise, and many others, dropped this album in 2004. Return of the Artist is a fitting name for this album, as it heralded a rebirth of Specs as a rhyme artist and producer. For years Specs had been legendary as the most underground of underground heads in Seattle, releasing shit at shows and at the mom and pop stores on cassette and through mail order. This was his first widespread release (on CD!), as far as I know. Released on the Abduction label, this was also a change stylistically from his previous projects. On his various tracks from his salad days (Numerology, American Music, Balcony,etc) his work had a distinctly experimental vibe, allowing the tracks to stretch out and grow on their own. I revere this early stuff with something close to adoration. Everything I’ve ever found by Specs has been a treasure. Here, Specs goes as straight-ahead hip-hop as Specs gets, which means it’s still underground, scratchy, and experimental as most cats never dare to go, but it’s all systems ahead with beats to make the head nod and lyrics that are always engaging. No track ever lasts too long, and there’s never any lag between the musical/lyrical action. The songs are solid, distilled to the prime elements, and no-nonsense. This is a classic Northwest selection, ranked at the top. Long live the Green Lover! (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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Reigncraft, Volume 4: The Labor

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The Streetz Iz Enough

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The Sport-N-Life Compilation Vol. 1

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C.I.

Central Intelligence was a five MC hip-hop group from the 206 active at the turn of the millennium. Their sole album, C.I., was released in 2002. It’s bars upon bars upon bars, handing the mic between Citizen Cain, Dialect, Diopolis, LowKey, and SeaJay, backed with beats from Vitamin D and Bean One Everyone’s at the top of their game here. The track “Handle These Deeds” is a rapped autobiography, detailing how the group came together and how five opinionated emcees came to a consensus. “Dear Poppa” explores a child’s anger at an absentee father. “Real Estate” is a hidden track and a biting criticism of the gentrification of the Central District: “Watch the city rezone my hood and change its name—forced to sell the land we can’t afford to maintain… Waking up to the smell of a new Starbucks smack dab in the CD.” The whole C.I. record is one of powerful opinions, and an urgent call to action, like on “Call It As I See It,” that confronts the history taught in school, voicing that “blacks are often left without a past to trace.” With five emcees trading verses, there’s a lot to digest here. Vita and Bean keep the beats simple so the bars can shine. But it’s also not all life lessons. As the group spits on one track, “When you need that ass droppin’, the beats hard-knockin’, you’re left with one option. Who do you call? C.I.!” The song “Move!” with guitars from H-Bomb is particularly poppin’.

Here’s another take:

Criminally overlooked, Central Intelligence was among the greatest Seattle hip hop acts in the ’90s and early ’00s. Similar in sound and style to Black Anger, Source Of Labor, and Narcotik, these five emcees spit knowledge in styles that were concrete, definitive, and mature. The subject matter on this self-titled album from 2002 ranges from the personal to the political, spoken in 5 distinct, articulate voices. With like-minded beats from two of the major architects of the sound, Vitamin D and Bean One, this album is a hidden classic of the Tribal era. Besides this album, CI also contributed to the crucial Sportn’Life Compilation from 2003. They also were reputed to put on a mean live set. A slim but 100% quality legacy. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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Sedated Thoughts

From 2000, this is the sophomore 12″ by Seattle emcee Nomad da Nomadic. This is one of my personal favorites in the 206 section. Nomad is a Northwest cat through and through–his flow is heavy-footed and grimey, and the top-notch beats on these three tracks (by Jake One, Bean One, and Proh Mic) are mid-tempo, dusty, and rough.

There are no tricks here. No ironic raps in double-time, no clever pop-culture samples, no guests emcees to dilute what he has to say. Nomad delivers his message straight to your head in plain language. This release sums up what I love about the old-school Northwest scene: In an era of hip-hop known for its unchecked expansion and wild experimentation, this record remains understated, direct, and wholly refreshing because of it. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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H.O.R.

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Stolen Lives

Source of Labor’s Stolen Lives, from 2000, is a masterpiece of Seattle hip-hop. Source Of Labor was unlike any other rap group before or since. Everyone should have this in their collection. I can’t speak highly enough about this contribution to our city’s musical canon. (It’s oft-cited as the record that inspired a young Macklemore to begin rapping, FWIW.)

If you’ve never heard of this record, go seek it out immediately. Pictured here is the 19-track double vinyl. As Wordsayer raps on the opener, it’s an “out-of-body audio excursion.” If you can’t snag the vinyl, there’s also a CD version, with a different cover.

Source of Labor was primarily the work of emcee Wordsayer (the late, great Jonathan Moore) and Negus I, with contributions from Vitamin D and MC Kylea, aka Beyond Reality. Stolen Lives was the long-anticipated debut full-length album from a group whose influence is hard to measure. And they deliver here an album that is viscerally emotional, expansive, and experimental, sometimes with a careening rap flow that feels like a car accelerating down a very large hill without brakes. It’s thrilling.

The album is also defiantly proud of its Seattle roots, with civic anthems like “Wetlands,” or there’s “Sunshowers,” which opens with an audio clip that suggests that the people of Seattle think that “the sun is evil.” (LOL.)

The songs often incorporate live performance recordings, which I have to say groups today don’t do enough. I especially love Side 4 and the song “Invaded Lands”, featuring Beyond Reality, which I’ll confess I’ve often had on repeat, playing just that one side over and over again. Treat yourself and seek this own out today.

Here’s another take:

Source of Labor’s prominence on the local hip-hop scene is growing in accordance with the effort the group (and Jasiri Media as a whole) keeps pourin’ into it. If you’ll pardon the play on words, the labor that goes into the source of this sound is massive: From their regular, high-energy shows in Seattle to Stolen Lives, their new full-length album, Source of Labor are working hard to carve a distinct niche for themselves in a corner of the country that still isn’t recognized for the quality hip-hop that keeps sprouting up out of the region’s soggy, intellectual thought-generating climate.

It’s precisely that climate that Source of Labor keep paying tribute to on songs like “Emerald City,” “Sunshower” and “Wetlands,” a catchy song released last year as a 12-inch single. (Anyone else want to get “Wetlands” nominated as the city’s honorary theme song?)

Razor-sharp turntablism, an assortment of humorous, Northwest-specific samples and nice mixing touches make for a strong, original album, and Wordsayer (vocalist and songwriter Jonathan Moore) has got an unquestionable knack for loose, flowing, historically and socially grounded microphone poeticism. To be sure, not every track is particularly memorable-or even seems designed to be-but songs like “Easy” are standout cuts by any standard. Opening with a live version and segueing smoothly into the studio recording, “Easy” rushes you off on a kind of laidback, intergalactic journey, and stops along the way for some schoolin’ on the importance of a positively conscious lifestyle in word, intent, and deed. That’s the kind of message that we could all stand to incorporate more fully into our lives. (This review originally appeared in The Rocket and was written by Silja J.A. Talvi.)

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Soul Liquor

I always thought that if this album dropped in any other city it would have been a huge, huge hit. Likewise, if it had dropped a couple of years after its release. But in 2000, Seattle was still off the hip-hop radar, and The Silent Lambs Project (Jace and Blak) was unfortunately just too far ahead of their time.

You can hear their voices on the early Seattle compilations, over the grey, murky, rainy musical backdrop, but when they joined forces as The Silent Lambs, they took that bleak, damp atmosphere to a whole new level.

Soul Liquor is a dark album. Dark and ominous. Jace’s rhymes are sedated and deadpan like he hasn’t seen the sun in months, while Blak’s deep-bass voice growls and stutters on the offbeat like some sick troll under a bridge.

Producer King Otto (along with Mr. Hill and Bean One) provides the perfect sonic backdrop. Listen to the string section straining for a resolution that never comes on “H.O.R.”, or the disjointed piano loop from “Original Conviction.” Or the empty, cave-like quality of the live cuts. This is a dark record.

Whereas Seattle compatriots Oldominion tend to glorify and romanticize the dark side of existence, The Silent Lambs give it to you straight. There’s no glorification here. Every metaphor is spoken in a monotone, like a grocery list, making the blasted aural landscape even bleaker. So I guess this album wouldn’t have been a hit in another city, as it is so definitely a Northwest record. And if it had come out later, it might have just been dismissed as another act cashing in on the “Northwest Sound” credited to Oldominion. It’s too bad because The Silent Lambs Project deserves to be recognized as one of the great inspirational acts in the underground hip-hop constellation. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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The Year Two Gee

This came out in ’99, the same year Bean One also dropped the Footprints’ project Operation Raw. This record boasts a much cleaner and crisper sound. I have no idea what Page3 and X.Troydinare have been up to since. This is a solid 18 tracks worth of classic and heavily slept-on Seattle hip-hopery. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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Operation Raw

Here’s an early lo-fi release from Seattle producer Bean One. After I found out about his project Doublevision, I picked up this dope tape back in the day from local music supporter Orpheum Records on Broadway. It’s a great snapshot of some obviously talented artists in their early days. Although Bean has become a household name in the underground hip-hop community (producing tracks for such notables as Charlie 2Na and Trife Da God), I’m not really sure what Proh Mic has been up to. Any info would be appreciated. Other names that appear on this tape include Putney Swope, Verse Omega, Kylea from Beyond Reality, and Mr. Hill (later to be found all over Oldominion releases). Over an hour of classic grimy and lo-fi goodness from ’99. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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