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Watercolor

Someone said the slow-burn groove of Porter Ray’s 2017 Sub Pop release, Watercolor was “decidedly wavy.” It’s a good descriptor of the push-pull forces at work here: just as songs begin to take off, they slow down again. It’s this ongoing tension that makes the record so fascinating and so perplexing.

This is headphone music, demanding your attention, full of hushed lyrics, buried voices under the verses, mumbles deep in the mix, and smooth ass bass lines. (Shout out to BRoc on the production.)

I’m a huge fan of Porter’s back catalog of mixtapes, but even then, it took me a dozen listens to make sense of this 18-track double vinyl. We live in a time of five-second sound bites and snap judgments, and this record defiantly rejects both. It builds slowly. It demands investment and patience.

Watercolor starts to kick into gear around track 4, “Past Life” (feat. Ca$htro), before easing down again into an instrumental interlude.

Watercolor slowly primes you to achieve that moment where you’re ready to receive bold truths. This record is musical yoga, held in stasis, where the smallest movements are rendered epic, practice through repetition, recurring themes, and verses throughout multiple songs and MCs. Just breathe. Those bangers come later: “Lightro,” “Beautiful,” “Sacred Geometry”—all on the latter half of the record—deliver in spades. The longer you spend in this dream space, the deeper the dream goes. Lay in corpse pose. It’ll come to you.

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Town Biz Mixtape

No list of essential Seattle hip-hop compilations would be complete without the inclusion of Jake One’s 27-track opus, the Town Biz Mixtape. He dug deep into the crates, surfacing lost hits, deep cuts, and the finest local hip-hop spanning more than 20 years. (From 1989 to 2010, when this CD was released.)

The mixtape is an essential playlist that surfaces forgotten gems and unexpected bangers. My favorite track here is Vitamin D’s “Who That??” feat. The Note (from Narcotik), but there are so, so many solid tracks. Everyone’s on this, from Blind Council to Mash Hall, The Physics, Tay Sean, J. Pinder, and Shabazz Palaces. Listening to Town Biz will leave you realizing how blessed we are to have so much musical talent in our own backyard. But we knew that already, didn’t we? Thanks to Jake One for compiling this so we can spin it on a sunny summer afternoon and feel hella proud.

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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. The compilation’s record release party was held on March 15, 1997 at Ground Zero in Bellevue, Washington.)

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Do The Math

Here’s one of many local archeological gems: Tribal Music’s Do The Math, from 1996, is an appropriate start, with collegiate cover, that is an essential part of any Seattle musical education. Damn is this record great.

This compilation was primarily compiled and produced by Vitamin D. It also features several cuts from his underappreciated supergroup, Ghetto Chilldren. Tribal Music was an important ’90s label that we should thank for cataloging our city’s golden boom-bap era, all those jazz samples and scratching, at a time when Seattle was awash in grunge hangover. Do The Math arrow-points to the origins of our uniquely laid-back upper-left sound, summarizing the underground roots of today’s scene. You can find this record for free on Bandcamp. If you have any interest or involvement in local hip-hop, you owe it to the many Duwamish ghosts to go listen to this today. The cover photo was taken by Diana Adams of Vermillion fame.

Here’s another take:

The giant that all Northwest acts have had to measure up to: The Do The Math compilation. Sounding only marginally more professional than their earlier tapes, the Tribal artists deliver with track after track of murky, jazzidelic perfection. Vitamin D and DJ Topspin are the obvious stars of the show, setting the gray, rainy tone for an expanded array of talent to rhyme over. Phat Mob, Ghetto Children, Sinsemilla, Union of Opposites, and the rest of the Tribal family are joined by such artists as the Silent Lamb’s Silas Blak, Source of Labor’s Wordsayer, and the Elevators’ Specs, rounding out the sound more than on Untranslated Prescriptions. I kid you not; this is a heavy release. To put it into perspective, this is to Seattle what the Project Blowed comp is to LA. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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Intro To Da Central

One night at the Coolin’ at Havana, Porter Ray and I got to talking about 1995’s Intro To Da Central by Narcotik. He was saying how important it was as a kid that instead of hearing raps about Brooklyn or The Bronx or L.A., he was hearing rhymes about the Central District, in Seattle, where he lived, and that hearing this record was a big inspiration for him and his career. Narcotik were the rap duo of Tizzy T (R.I.P.) and MC C-Note aka The Notework. Intro To Da Central was originally released on cassette by Tribal Productions and was produced by Vitamin D and Topspin: There’s much magic at work in the wide stereo space, the left-right interplay, beats set to the back, the guitars, the long outros, all relaxed and hella charming. Musically, this one’s an ear-tickling journey. There’s often some slightly odd looping sample buried in the mix that it takes you a while to notice—like a door hinge—but when you do, it makes you laugh. When this record spins, let me say, the couch is very comfortable. Back in the mid-‘90s, in The Rocket, Payton Carter described Intro as having that “laid-back, West Coast, 40 and a blunt, Infinite Tribal feel, along with mad lyrics,” while in early ‘90s hip-hop rag The Flavor, Strath Shepard said, “their metaphors and creative name-checks flip the norm and keep you listening for what’s next.” The standout single, “All Up In My Mix,” features rapper Infinite and also appeared on the legendary 14 Fathoms Deep compilation. Intro’s original cassettes have become so rare as to be mythical. Beetbak’s Jack Devo called it “the most criminally hard-to-find record to ever come out of the Northwest.” So it’s great that this classic was recently remastered and reissued on vinyl and CD by Belgium-based Back2DaSourcerecords in very limited quantities. You can also grab it digitally on Bandcamp, and I strongly urge you to do so.

Here’s another take:

Back in 1995, when Intro To Da Central was first released, Strath Shepard reviewed it in The Flavor magazine:

Add Narcotik to the list of Seattle area artists who, with the right scheme and exposure, have the skills needed to blow up on a national level. With M.C.s who show multiple influences and versatile production which transcends traditional divisions, Into To Da Central carries appeal for all types of hip-hop listeners.

If you aren’t already familiar with Narcotik through the many shows they’ve played in Seattle, the due is kind of on some traditional West Coast type shit. But what makes them more interesting is that they actually have a lot to say, and they do it in creative ways. One of the things that has separated the East and West in hip-hop is the East’s misconception that all g’s from the West Coast “talk and talk, but ain’t sayin’ nothin’.” Once you get past Intro’s intro, it quickly becomes apparent that this just isn’t true. Narcotik may cover the usual topics, but their metaphors and creative name-checks flip the norm and keep you listening for what’s next.

On the production end of things, Vitamin D and Topspin prove (once again) how twisted and wrong it is that the rest of the country sleeps on Seattle. “All Da Time” offers that signature sentimental sound Vitamin D is known for, while “Crushin’ Crooz” and “Rap Styles Vary” show that he’s not confined to one style. Topspin’s track for “Urlin’ In Da Mornin’” incorporates an unexpected but tight-fitting snare with a smooth backing loop, and ties for my favorite cut along with “All Da Time.” Vitamin D and Topspin co-produce on “Intro To Da Central,” which features Infinite on the mic along with Narcotik. Though the title is strictly Seattle, the album will bob heads across the country.

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Untranslated Prescriptions

Untranslated Prescriptions is the original Tribal Music tape, released on Maxell cassette back in ’95 and re-issued on vinyl in 2019. Tribal Music was a small Seattle record label masterminded by Vitamin D and Topspin that put out cassettes, a few 12-inches, a couple of CDs, and then called it a day. But what was put out was absolute quality. Featuring nothing but local talent, the music was easily the equal of any of their peers at the time, but unlike Heiro, Solesides, and the Goodlifers (the most comparable crews in my opinion), the majority of the Tribal cats never made a splash outside their home town.

Back in high school some friends of mine who were cooler than me somehow heard about this and trekked out to Music Menu in Rainier Beach to pick this shit up. I remember hearing this tape over and over again with those guys, but I never actually got my hands on it to dub it. I never even knew the name of it – everyone just called it “the Tribal comp.” After getting the vinyl reissue, I went apeshit. I never had any hopes that I would ever hear this tape again, and listening to it now brings back some excellently hazy memories for me. This was the beginning of my appreciation for Northwest hip-hop. Phat Mob, Ghetto Chilldren, Sinsemilla – to me, it really gets no better than this. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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