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Long May We Rain / Lost Gems

Here’s a split vinyl of quarantine protest jams from two Seattle heavy-hitters: AJ Suede & Specswizard. Both artists were inspired by 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, mask-wearing, and stay-at-home orders to produce boom-bap tunes that could only exist in the 21st Century.

The Seattle Times picked AJ Suede’s brilliant Long May We Rain as one of the best albums of 2020, while Insomniac magazine praises the “next level lyricism.” On the flip side of this cross-generational split LP, you’ll find the vinyl-only Lost Gems project from Specswizard, a veteran of Seattle’s scene, who’s released dozens of albums and EPs since his start in 1988.

The familiar sound of buzzing amps and tape hiss makes way for major-key soul turned into pensive bangers. Specswizard’s low, late-night-in-the-living-room baritone conjures the feeling of recording in a cramped apartment while the neighbors are sleeping. Still, the beats knock like side doors and his narratives hover like heavy rain and cumulus clouds of weed smoke.

Together, these two records provide a powerhouse portrait of Black life in the American Northwest today.

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NEWCOMER

This 82-minute feature film is an intimate introduction to Seattle’s vibrant hip-hop underground. It was assembled from hundreds of tiny performance clips—shot for Instagram—into a single, continuous concert mosaic, and stars 93 of the top hip-hop artists from The Town.

Here’s how KEXP describes it in their review: “NEWCOMER stretches the idea of the concert film to an artistic extreme: Sub-minute snippets artfully arranged to resemble a field recording of Seattle’s rap scene, the pieces fractured and pieced back together in a truly engrossing way. The narrative flows through venues like Barboza, Cha Cha Lounge, Vermillion, Lo-Fi, the Showbox, the Crocodile, and dozens more. It’s Khris P pouring Rainier into a Solo cup while he raps; bodies packed into regional landmark ETC Tacoma; SassyBlack improvising a song urging concertgoers to buy her merch; the delightfully awkward dance moves of white people in KEXP’s Gathering Space; Chong the Nomad beatboxing and playing harmonica simultaneously; Bruce Leroy bullying a beat next to the clothing racks at All-Star Vintage; Specswizard rhyming about his first time performing in front of a crowd while standing before The Dark Crystal playing on a projection screen. The film is about the moments we experience—as lovers of live performance—just as much as the performances themselves.”

NEWCOMER was directed by Gary Campbell and was an official selection at the 2020 New York Hip-Hop Film Festival and the 2020 Golden Sneakers International Hip-Hop Film Festival in Hamburg, Germany. Throughout November 2020, the film screened for four weeks on the Northwest Film Forum theatrical screening site in honor of Hip-Hop History Month.

You can watch the full movie below.

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The Coolout Legacy

NYC filmmaker Georgio Brown moved to the Northwest in the early ’90s. In 1991, along with VJ D, he founded The Coolout Network, a public access show on cable television that would record the evolution of Seattle’s early hip-hop scene. As Georgio says at the beginning of this film, “we went to the community centers, parks, schools, clubs… Every place that hip-hop was happening… We wanted to cover it.” They certainly did. Coolout ran for 16 years on television, from 1991 until 2007. Various forms of the project continue online to this day.

This particular film, The Coolout Legacy was made by Georgio Brown himself. He narrates and reflects on the impact of the show and its importance to our local hip-hop community.

There’s vintage footage here galore: A teenage Funk Daddy shows off a trophy “taller than me” that he won at a DJ contest, before showing us some of the moves that earned him the victory. Laura “Piece” Kelley addresses the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated rap scene. She often faces the insult that “she can rap pretty good for a girl.” But she replies, “I rap good for the world… And I don’t rap good. I rap well.”

Rapper H-Bomb heaps some well-deserved praise on Specswizard: “Nobody’s been doing hip-hop in Seattle longer than Specs.” We then catch up with the ‘Wizard and he shares a book of graffiti sketches from ’93. The late, great J. Moore shares his wisdom for success and acknowledges the importance of that Coolout played in “coalescing a scene.”

There are numerous live performances and freestyles of Seattle legends in their early days, as well as national acts like Mary J. Blige and Leaders of The New School. Brown talks about encouraging young artists who bravely stand on a stage with a mic and bear their truths. It’s hard. But with Coolout filming you, “every little victory helps,” adds Ghetto Chilldren’s B-Self.

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TS AND THE S

Released only on cassette and Bandcamp, TS and The S is a record that’s definitely worth tracking down. The Stranger describes it as “hip-hop for introverts who want to get out of their heads,” while KEXP praises the “innovative, widescreen, outer-galactic beats that sample heavily from ’70s-era psychedelic and reggae/dub records.” This collaboration came as a result of the Swan’s crate-digging in Kingston, Jamaica, and subsequent chopping and flipping of reggae into unexpected hip-hop that sounds wild and spectacular.

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BlakWizard

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Unfollow

The Stranger selected Unfollow as one of the “Top 10 Albums of 2018,” saying that:

MC/producer Specswizard has been teaching advanced courses at the old school since before you were born. His latest subliminal, ill missive, Unfollow, continues to burnish his rep as the city’s foremost hip-hop elder statesman, a master of chill braggadocio and weirdly funky productions. EP highlight “Rap Flow Stain” is a boast track—of which there are countless—but none has sounded as sonically and lyrically distinctive as this one. The track epitomizes Specs’s uncanny ability to keep your head nodding while wondering where he scared up all these brilliantly odd sonic sources and alchemized them into the stuff of supremely blunted hip-hop dreams. And on the mic, Specs is a master of concision and derision.

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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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Shadows

Since its release in August, Shadows has been a Seattle underground sensation, an old-school CD whispered about and passed around by people in the know, a favorite of beatmakers and crate diggers. People come up to me at shows and ask in hushed tones, “so, have you heard Shadows?” It’s, therefore, no surprise that this community voted big for this fantastic fever dream. It’s a product of two-and-a-half years of labor, tweaks and technical craftsmanship, when Wizdumb finally emerged from the lab with his solo debut. How to describe it? Imagine if MF Doom and J.Dilla cooked up a 1950s radio play about a hired gun, collaged out of samples, and featuring both old and new heroes of our town, like Specswizard, Moka Only, Able Fader, and Tuesday Velasco. The sweet spot begins with “Execs” and “Diggin’ Jawn” before “Suckaz” throws down the hammer. On the opening dialogue of the latter, Wizdumb makes it clear: “That’s nice, but I don’t give a fuck what you spit.” What follows is a pure ego dis-track, cutting through all our city’s pretension and bullshit, a straight-shot mercenary, knocking down the competition. “So Clear” is the victory lap that follows, with Specs on clean-up crew, rapping, “No apologies when I freeze all emcees.” Wizdumb’s unassuming alter ego can be found tending bar at Vermillion. Swing by one of that venue’s many hip-hop nights and get your hands on this CD, already on its third pressing. In honor of Wizdumb’s Mexican heritage, sip some tequila, and listen to the many mysteries emerging from those hallowed shadows.

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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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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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#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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Doodooloops

Jason at Spin Cycle Records handed me this vinyl and said “Just buy it. Trust me.” The samples on Didaflo‘s 2015 double LP of sample-based hip-hop, Doodooloops are just so, so… nice. They’re funny, expansive, and they fill the entire canvas. Listen to this one loud in a room all by yourself. The music is constantly morphing, but never in the direction you might expect. Gorgeous cover art. Two Seattle names show up in the credits: Specswizard and Sir Froderick.

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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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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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God Save The King

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Lovework

In the most recent issue of City Arts, you’ll find a poem contributed by Gabriel Teodros honoring the memory of J. Moore. Consequently, I found myself listening to Lovework on headphones at the moment when I ran into Gabriel himself outside of Neumos at last Friday’s memorial show.

This record recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary, and it sounds as fresh and honest today as it did in 2007. Exploring wide-ranging “big” issues from sexism to classism, immigration to geopolitical struggles, Lovework is also very damn funky. Press play and two songs in I’m already chair dancing. The way the bass drums and the bass guitar interplay throughout “Beautiful” is simply sublime as is the syncopated rhyme scheme in “East Africa.” Here’s a musician who understands the responsibility and opportunities of the microphone to influence hearts and minds. Seek this record out.

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Silas Sentinel

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Original Space Neighbors

Specs One aka Specs Wizard aka M.C. Eyeshock returns under the pseudonym “Mic Mulligan & S.Future”! Specs is an incalculable force for why Seattle has flavor, and in all his years pushing the movement forward he’s done nothing but get better and better. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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1986

What an intro it is! Silas Blak from (Black Stax, Silent Lambs Project, and Blind Council) spits the most brain-stimulating abstract metaphors you can imagine, in delivery so dark and jarring it causes hiccups. He leaves you hanging on to every grimy word he speaks, while your head-nod slows to nothing, and your feet forget to dance. He’s the rarest kind of poet; one that is able to speak the most eloquent stanzas you wish you could think up, but in plain rap, straight to your brain.

There’s nothing frou-frou here, no self-absorbed coffee-house spoken word crap or tired-out boasting. There’s no wasted space. Every word is what he means. On beats, Silas is joined by Specs One, King Otto, Dropcast Music, and Vitamin D (who also lends a verse on one track). From 2006, released on CD-R. A darker and heavier hip-hop record has yet to be heard. For now, listen to this and yearn. (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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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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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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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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Library Nation

This was Sub Pop’s first rap record: an unloved stepchild from 1999: mostly erased from their catalog and forgotten. It was released during those experimental years post-Grunge when no one quite knew what to do next.

“Library Nation” is a pretty curious record. The title track is guitar noise, screaming, and spoken word poetry about library patronage. On “My Dream Girl Puts On Her Shoes,” rapper Tobias Flowers delivers a more expected hip-hop vibe, rapping longingly about a long-distance relationship, and you really do feel what he’s feeling.

Flowers had previously been in group Def 2 The Flesh, but that’s hardly the Tamborines only Seattle rap cred: They talk about Mix-A-Lot albums. SpecsWizard leaves a message on their answering machine. Rapper Asun (Suntonio Bandanaz) leaves another “from the thriving metropolis of Shoreline.” (Also be prepared for an indulgent amount of white guy slacker Beck “Loser” poetry from Flowers’ fellow Tambourine, indie rocker Andy Poehlman.)

“We’re not good musicians,” Poehlman told The Seattle Times in an interview. “We’re just two guys,” he says, “with ideas on how to make records.”

And yet, it’s a bizarre record that wiggles its way into your psyche, recalling the feeling of being at a bar, having a drink with a friend. In the background, a brilliantly terrible or terribly brilliant DJ is playing a stack of random trippy 45s on top of each other.

We keep returning to this record again because of its willingness to push in ways you least expect. On “Saturn,” the group stiffly will themselves into a good mood, a “Fuck It” song for days of gritting your teeth hoping to feel happy. Good or bad, this record takes you someplace new.

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Comrade

Most people ’round these parts don’t know it, but Washington ranked right behind New York and California on the list of most-prolific states for underground hip-hop releases in 1998. True, most rap fans probably couldn’t name three or four Northwest groups to save their lives (Mix-A-Lot doesn’t count, dude), but we’re coming up, slowly but surely, building a track record with consistently good releases and the label infrastructure to support.

One such label is Olympia’s own K Records, which, along with Impact Entertainment, has dropped critically acclaimed releases from Black Anger, Bedroom Produksionz, and a whole slew of Northwest talent on the 1998 compilation, Classic Elements.

The Silent Lambs Project represents a collaboration between MCs Blak (of Blind Council) and Jace. The duo’s abstract lyrical style is fueled by production from DJ Sayeed, Mr. Supreme, King Otto, and Specs. Though the songs all stand out as individuals, “No J.R.,” “Stand Over Him” and “S.L. Shit” particularly beg to be blended into a soundtrack for your walk through the streets as gray clouds loom ominously overhead.

“Comrade” is the EP’s single, featuring guest vocals from Kendo of Black Anger and a mellow, CTI Jazz-sounding flute loop courtesy of DJ Sayeed. But the stand-out cut of the record is “Paid Poet,” produced by the Northwest’s most underrated beat miner, King Otto. Given a little more bounce and bassline, Otto’s work here could easily transform into mundane jigginess for some type-shallow MC to spit over. Lucky for us, he keeps it more mysterious, presenting a nice complement to Blak’s sedately frenetic flows.

All in all, Comrade is a very Northwest-sounding record. Who knows if the rest of the world can identify with those rain clouds overhead? As long as you have your soundtrack, it really doesn’t matter. Pop the Silent Lambs’ joint in your Walkman and leave your umbrella at home. (This review originally appeared in The Rocket and was written by Strath Shepard.)

Here’s another take:

Few acts come out the gate as strong as The Silent Lambs Project did here. This debut EP from 1998, with the signature abstract, cerebral, and head-scratching poetry from Jace and Blak, devastates from beginning to end. But nothing less should be expected from this duo.

In 1998, both lyricists were veterans of the scene: Jace as a part of Fourth Party, and Silas holding it down in Blind Council. But listening to this release, you’d think they’d been in the same group forever. Both are foils to the other: Blak’s delivery is edgy and filled with tension, while Jace’s floats smoothly and effortlessly over the beat. The two deliver perfection like yin and yang.

Joining them on the various tracks are some of Seattle’s top producers: DJ Sayeed from Black Anger/Bedroom Produksionz provides the title track and “SL Shit”, King Otto’s on deck for “Paid Poet”, Mr. Supreme from the Conmen shows up for “No J R”, and SpecsOne produced “Stand Over Him”. Kendo from Black Anger also shows up on the title track, “Comrade.” (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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American Music

This 1997 tape from 206 hip-hop guru Specswizard is quite the treasure. Coming out after the legendary Crew Clockwise and Elevators, American Music is a departure from the previous mellow, jazzy sounds of those projects. This is almost entirely instrumental, with only a few scattered freestyles and one crew cut (Eyeshock along with Erex the Exposer, Vanviesbrook, and Oh Laslo DDS – I think). The beats are frenetic and scratchy – instantly recognizable as a Specs creation, but with an unusually anxious and restless vibe. (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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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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Transitions

I can vividly remember the first night I ever heard Elevators. It was way back in ’94, and a couple of dudes I knew and I were crammed into my crappy-ass lowrider, parked at the beach, blitzed out of our minds on some heavy shit. The stereo was on, and Digable Planets’ Blowout Comb had just flipped over in the tape deck back to side 1.

This night would have been memorable just for that: my first listen to that perfect record, which is still one of my all-time favorites.

But what really did it for me was what came next: My man said “Hey, have you heard Elevators?” I mumbled something negatory, at which point Blowout was immediately and unceremoniously ejected in favor of a quiet little home-recorded cassette that has shaped the face of Northwest hip-hop to this day.

For being released in 1993, this tape was on the next level. The beats were rough and low-fi, and the vocals were quiet but confidently conscious. The buzz at the time is that Elevators were Seattle’s answer to Gang Starr, but they were something more as well: They effectively moved Seattle forward beyond the 808-heavy party tracks of Sir Mix-A-Lot, and laid the groundwork that eventually put Seattle on the underground hip-hop map.

From the quietly jazzy and lyrically substantial aesthetic later employed by Tribal and Source of Labor, and beyond to the indie sound of Blue Scholars and Common Market, Elevators’ influence is unmistakable, so give Specs One and E-Sharp a serious head nod for sculpting the sound of the Northwest.

Specs One aka Specswizard aka M See Eye Shock has gone on to be one of the most creative and long-lasting characters in the 206 hip-hop firmament; as an emcee, visual artist, and producer. If you look, he’s literally everywhere. Not to be slept on! (This review originally appeared on the Bring That Beat Back blog and was written by Jack Devo.)

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