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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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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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Amerika 911

Amerika 911 was a Northwest compilation that dropped in 2002 in response to the increasing hostilities directed towards the Middle East by the US. It’s a brave, gutsy little anti-war testament; as it examines the U.S. motives for engaging in war, and dares to point fingers in directions other than at the obvious motives (i.e. September 11th and Osama Bin Laden). Listen to Kylea’s verse on the first track, “A Call To Arms” for an apt summation of this record’s contents.

If it had been widely distributed it probably would have caused quite a stir among all those of us blinded by pain, bigotry, patriotism, and nationalism. But of course, it didn’t, since it was an unpopular view from an unpopular (at the time) corner of the hip-hop map–and that’s too bad in my opinion.

This compilation is dope on many levels, musically, lyrically, politically, and consciously. Bottom line, we’re all fam. Don’t let any of the powers that be tell you differently. Many notable acts contribute, including Khazm, The Flood, Yirim Seck, Castro, Specs One, Gabriel Teodros, Khingz (back when he was still calling himself Khalil Crisis), Kylea of Beyond Reality, Vitamin D, H-Bomb, Silas Blak, WD4D, E-Real Asim of Black Anger, Surge Spitable, and El Saba, who provides the defining moment with “God Bless Humanity.”

The album is an interesting mix of 2nd and 3rd wave Seattle hip-hop and captures the sound of the Town during that state of evolution. Executive produced by Khazm and G. Teodros, released in part through MADK. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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The Revival

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. For example, check this great live document I slept on. The group is Seattle’s Beyond Reality, playing a hype show from way back in April 2001.

Back then, Source of Labor’s Wordsayer (also the business and romantic partner of Beyond Reality’s Kylea) used to put on a weekly hip-hop workshop and jam session at the local live venue Sit n’ Spin, called Sureshot Sundays. Every Sunday afternoon, the local hip-hop community would congregate at the cafe/club/laundromat(!) to spin, break, emcee, and just get together.

Being the shut-in hermit that I am, I regrettably never attended, although I used to try to screw up my courage every Sunday to head on down the hill from my apartment to the Belltown spot to get my muddy-ass beat tape heard.

However, since I was just starting out I felt like I’d be in over my head amidst all the “true” hip-hoppers…. like I said earlier about hindsight…

In any case, Sureshot Sundays closed up shop probably a decade ago now, but this release is a snapshot of what it must have been like. Kylea is joined on the decks by Topspin and Kamikaze, and Wordsayer joins on the mic here and there. Incredibly live and overflowing with solidarity and positivity (not to mention the stellar flows of Kylea), this album just makes me regret more not getting my burned-out ass down the hill to the Sit n’ Spin to be a part of it all. It’s a dope record, full of tracks never released otherwise, in professional sound quality.

Beyond Reality was supposedly set to drop a studio record in 2001, and as far as I know that never actually happened. Apart from a few early singles and compilation cuts, and the 2008 A Soul’s Journey CD, this is as close as you get to the classic BR sound. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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EMP: Seattle Hip-Hop

This short film about the history of Northwest hip-hop was shot by Darek Mazzone in 2001. It was made to highlight the local scene as part of the “Hip-Hop Nation” exhibit put on by the Experience Music Project in Seattle.

There’s a lot packed into four minutes, including all-too-brief interviews with Sir Mix-A-Lot, DJ Riz, Wordsayer, Mr. Supreme, Kutfather, Piece, and others. They cover off what hip-hop is and whether or not it’s a fad. Supreme explains the four elements, you learn the story of NastyMix and The Emerald Street Boys, and Topspin does some cool scratching.

At one point, DJ Riz shares the most wonderfully Seattle thing ever: “Seattle was there right from the beginning, close to the origins of regular hip-hop.” Go devote the next four minutes to learning some new knowledge about the culture.

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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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IReality

Kylea comes out strong on this slab of hot wax from 1998. Blessed with one of the smoothest voices in hip-hop, she could be found all over Rain City releases for years, from 14 Fathoms to Choked Up to Stolen Lives–and often times I felt her guest appearances outshone the featured artist. With an impeccable delivery and imagery-filled lyrics, she is definitely an artist in command of her art. This collaborative 12″ features two stellar tracks from Kylea with Negus I on beats (two of his best, in my opinion), and an additional track by Source Of Labor. The A-side, “I reality”, has to be one of my all-time favorite Northwest tracks without a doubt. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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Classic Elements

Classic Elements was released by Olympia’s K Records in 1998. It contains tracks by sixteen Northwest hip hop artists, including some certified legends. The lyrics are consistently excellent throughout the compilation. These are songs for the mind, and many are vignettes in the true sense of the word, a good example being the captivating saga contained in “A.N.I.T.A.” by Nobody. The production on Classic Elements glows softly like a vintage Edison light bulb. DJ Sayeed (Black Anger) and Brian Weber (Dub Narcotic) both play a large role in shaping the sound of this compilation. Mr. Supreme drops a sublime Twin-Peaks-esque beat for Jace on “What’s Ya Definition,” and Topspin captures a tempest in a teapot with his beat for “Sleep” by Sinsemilla. Every track on this compilation is a genuine artistic expression, and that carries some risk because the performers put their feelings out on display which renders them vulnerable to misunderstanding, or worse, indifference. One of the highlights is “Hip Hop Was” by Ghetto Chilldren, which shines with professional polish among some of the dustier tracks. When you include a track by Source of Labor with Beyond Reality, “Aunt Anna,” and a couple of underground heat rocks from Silas Blak, “Only When I’m High,” and “Blak And Blind,” there’s every reason to make sure this compilation is part of your music collection. (Written by Novocaine132.)

Here’s another take:

Like the four leaves on a lucky clover, four ’90s era Seattle compilations showcase the diverse hip-hop collectives in Washington State and with them your windfall of sounds and explorations: Do The Math, 14 Fathoms Deep, Walkman Rotation, and here, Classic Elements (co-released by Impact Entertainment and K Records). Back then getting the handful of cassettes and comps was a great thrill, and the Seattle area offered up the best. Classic Elements was released at a time when the main place to hear local hip-hop was on the street at Westlake Center or on KCMU’s Rap Attack. Like the title, the classics here are Ghetto Chilldren, Source Of Labor, Black Anger, and Tilson, all offering hits that transcend national radio rap and bring a better class of words and thoughts. Some groups won’t be found outside of this collection – Nobody, Jaleel, 5E, Ski, and Arson have songs that play smooth and timeless. Classic Elements is as relevant today as it was twenty-some years ago. Released on cassette, CD, and on an abbreviated LP – Find it, get it. Good! (This review was submitted by reader Brett Sandstrom.)

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Whatever / Overstandings

This split 12″ is the first vinyl release from Beyond Reality and the first post-Blahzay Blah outing from Source of Labor. Beyond Reality’s side features the track “Whatever”, with a hook provided by Felicia Loud. The “Moonlight Remix” of “Whatever” is in my opinion the stronger of the two, which is a sedated, dark trippy gem. On the flip side, Source of Labor represents with the track “Overstandings”, along with its also superior “Wetlands Remix”. What can I say, I’ve always been a fan of the b-side. With this release, Kylea proves to be one of Seattle’s dopest MCs of her era; her flow is impeccably even and on point. In contrast, Wordsayer’s flow is on the dense side, and without Blah he tends to crowd the track a little bit. But he’s an emcee who’s always had a lot to say, and his flow is perfect for his message. Negus I, who produced nearly all the tracks, has always been a dope producer – I love his work with BR and SOL, and consider him one of the best beatmakers out there. He certainly doesn’t disappoint here – Especially the “Moonlight Remix”, which I think is one of his best tracks. Source of Labor, unfortunately, folded after their 2000 album, Stolen Lives. Wordsayer has been successful in managing some notable talent in the new crop of 206 hip-hop, but I can’t find any information on what Negus I has been doing. I sincerely hope he’s still making music. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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14 Fathoms Deep

Exponential growth, part one: Woman gives herself a home permanent. Her hair looks so good that she tells two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on…

Exponential growth, part two: Andre “Dr. Dre” Young gets on with NWA, and goes on to make some of the best beats ever produced. On Dre’s Deep Cover track he employed the velvet-tongued Snoop, who hasn’t looked back since beginning his pursuit of Death Row domination. Once Snoop hit platinum status, he was quick to put Daz and Kurupt on a disc, and from there forward those two certainly haven’t done too shabbily. The point is this: Every artist has friends they want to help out once they themselves have safely achieved success.

Keeping this in mind, it is with eager anticipation that I await the exponential growth of Seattle’s rap/hip-hop scene following the long-coming release of the new Loosegroove compilation, 14 Fathoms Deep. This record is so heavy it could hang with Tad. Let’s face it: Its weight is just plain ridiculous. This is the kind of music that could inspire 14 empires, build 14 record labels, or, at the very least, boost 14 of Seattle’s hip-hop groups a little bit closer to well-deserved fame and fortune.

Allow me to break it down track by ahead-of-its-time track. Sinsemilla contributes the perfect opener for the compilation, a scherzando club track titled “Drastic Measures.” Verbal twists like, “Down with a criminal Jill we Jack together” can and will get you open extra wide. Next, 22nd Precinct barges in with the unruly honesty of “Great Outdoors”: “It’s a pity the way the city treats the poor” had me thinking of the forgotten and misplaced, huddling over downtown Seattle’s iron steam grates.

“Official Members” by Mad Fanatic (featuring Raychyld) will definitely catch you rewinding. It’s slow and hypnotic, and lyrics like “My rhyme’s deep in the dirt/ Worms can’t find it” beg to be heard twice. DMS furthers the slow groove on “Keep Da Change,” but spiky attitude is the key here: “The six is in the mix so domino motherfucker” rides a keyboard-funk beat.

A powerhouse Source of Labor dazzles with their track, “Cornbread.” It’s all about musical subtlety when lines like “How can you claim to be an MC/When an MC’s what you just can’t be/ You can’t be an MC and not freestyling” make the point undeniable. Ghetto Chilldren get their OJ on with “Court’s in Session,” and Pulp Fiction’s most enduring catchphrase becomes Forrest Gump’s threat to “get medieval on your buttocks.” The sparest of basslines and flute notes flutter prettily behind harsh words like “You stand accused of being wack in the first degree/ Premeditating slang terms for your hardcore soliloquies.” “All Up in the Mix” by Narcotik opens with the most breathtaking sample on 14 Fathoms Deep (“The 206 is in my mix”). The rhyme proceeds to kick some street philosophy with plenty of drinking and smoking thrown in for good measure.

Beginning vinyl side three is Jace (featuring Dionna), with “Ghetto Star.” Its catchy chorus and storyline lyrics ensure this track will be engraved front-and-center in your brain for weeks to come. Beyond Reality–who are listed on the album as Kylin–brings on the spirit of the Jasiri Media Group with their track “Can.” “Let me take your mind on a little mental journey,” invites lead MC Kylea. For the most metaphors per line, look for “Higher Places” by Prose & Concepts, a group that falls into the “survival of the fattest” category.

“Insomniack Museick” by NS of the O.N.E Corporation is probably the moodiest track on the compilation. Dark clouds of drifting keyboards become still more ominous layered behind introspective lyrics such as “Sometimes I’d even trade a nightmare/ Just for 50 winks.” The beat on “Interrogation” by Blind Council bubbles like the scuba gear on the compilation’s cover, and the rhyme is strictly for the connoisseurs out there. Union of Opposites (featuring Shonuph) put down a forward-moving track titled “Continuations”-its relay-style chorus is as fresh as the verses, and the melodic tone moves the disc into another direction entirely. “Wipe off the dust from your mind and recline in my oration.” It’s at once relaxing and educating.

The last cut, also by far the longest, is the most difficult to categorize. The group is the Crew Clockwise and their song, titled “A New Day,” is a heady mix of the many styles showcased on 14 Fathoms Deep. Now I know what Specs meant on Do the Math when he said, “Soon to hit wax I can’t wait.”

So now you know the deal. When these groups start putting their friends on future projects, it may mean more than some heads can handle. 14 Fathoms Deep is not just another hip-hop compilation. In actuality, it’s a promise of even lovelier things to come. Instead of talking about how materialistic and useless today’s rap is, these 14 groups are doing something positive and proactive. Rap music is not dead. Seattle has the Phoenix in the mix. (This review originally appeared in The Stranger in 1997 and was written by Novocaine132.)

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Word Sound Power

Jasiri Media Group arrived on the Seattle scene in 1993 as the brainchild of Jonathan Moore, a.k.a. Wordsayer. The Jasiri record label was created primarily to express the heritage of African culture and how it developed in the United States. This meant confronting harsh truths about racism and the 400-year history of slavery in America. Jasiri did not dance around these difficult subjects but rather forced the listeners to think about them. Wordsayer even named his group “Source of Labor” to describe how the slave merchants viewed their human cargo. Word, Sound, Power is an ambitious musical project from 1997 which features many artists on the Jasiri label, including Source of Labor and Beyond Reality. “Overstandings” is one highlight track by SOL, and it sums up many of Wordsayer’s philosophies and observations about life. The real dynamo of this compilation is Beyond Reality. On tracks like “I Reality,” “Whatever,” and “333” emcee Kylea drops her typewriter-click-clack lyrical technique that captures the urgency of the group’s message. SOL and BR collaborate on one spectacular track, “SolBr,” which crystallizes the talent and drive of these two groups. Word, Sound, Power is necessary and beautiful, and this compilation is a key part of Seattle’s long hip hop history. (Written by Novocaine132.)

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Choked Up

Here is an entirely terrific album of grooved beats, laidback flows, judiciously selected samples (lots of funky jazz), and first-rate production. The fact that it’s by two locals–Mr. Supreme and Sureshot–means a modern hip-hop collection that it’s the first album to offer the full scope of a Seattle hip-hop band over the course of an entire LP. instead of a narrow glimpse, like those offered on recent Seattle hip-hop comps 14 Fathoms Deep and Do the Math.

Choked Up starts with an absolute wallop as “Lifted,” an organ vamp with a beat, intros the LP. The first real song, “Heavyweight,” features a fat, acid jazz horn chart squatting on top of strong percussion. There’s a taste of entirely palatable turntable work as the first impression hits like a bolt from the blue: Could this be jazz and hip-hop? Could this be really, really good jazzy hip-hop?

The third track establishes the legitimacy of Sharpshooters. They begin with “Analyze,” a drifting, underwater beat just long enough to set the stage for the boss rhymes of Trust (The Soul Trooper). At this point, the album is about perfect. Three fat tracks, not a dud. When Trust drops a thoroughly chilled line about our favorite hoops team, it seems just like hip hop heaven.

The LP rolls, moving easily forward instrumentals dovetailed perfectly wh the raps. The beats are brisk, the horns well-tempered, the flows right on production huge, and the guest appearances (Kylea, Wordsayer, and Mad Fanatic) add to the album while not subtracting from the band.

Presently, there is a load of overhyped hip-hop from which to choose. Much of it, especially from the big-name, big-image rappers, doesn’t measure up. This record delivers. The fact that they’re local and sending shoutouts all over town is just gravy. (This review originally appeared in The Rocket and was written by S. Duda.)

Here’s another take:

Choked Up was originally released on Conception Records and later reissued on New York-based Shadow Records. In the time they were around, Shadow managed to introduce some of the most memorable and enduring acid jazz records to the American audience. DJ Krush had his American debut with his album Krush, as did DJ Cam’s Mad Blunted Jazz. Funki Porcini, 9 Lazy 9, Dj Food, and Up, Bustle, and Out were just a few other notable names on Shadow’s roster. Shadow was distinctive and catered to a specific audience who was into trendy, late-90’s trip-hop and acid jazz. Although the Sharpshooters were a Northwest group, I probably wouldn’t have known about them if they hadn’t been part of the Shadow Records family… Even if I did live in the same city as them.

The Sharpshooters were a duo consisting of Seattle producers Mr. Supreme and DJ Sureshot. Supreme distributed their work on his own indie hip-hop label, Conception Records. And, although they were local, Conception at that time was just starting and had some steam to build still. So, it was through a distribution deal with a label that specialized in waking up American audiences to foreign artists that I heard about a group and label that lived a couple of miles from me. Their sophomore release, Choked Up, is a cool, blunted slab of jazzy hip-hop. Flutes, saxes, and vibes dominate the mix as much as the drum loops do, creating a smoky blend of coffee-house jazz hop. Vocal guests including Four Fifths, Mad Fanatic, and Kylea from Beyond Reality add flavor to a few select tracks.

I have an idea. Do yourself a favor; save this record for the summer. Put this on a playlist along with other like-minded albums of the time (Krush’s self-titled record, Digable Planets’ Blowout Comb, and Guru’s Jazzmatazz vol.2 are good recommendations). Find something pretty to look at. Then sit back in the evening, let the records play, and see where you go. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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