In the past that was a fair focus. When hip hop was making its mainstream ascendancy in early '90s, Seattle was under a grunge spell, with the exception of Sir Mix-a-Lot's fluke smash "Baby Got Back." In recent years, though, hip hop has shifted toward regional trends in places like Atlanta, New Orleans, and Houston a movement that could bode well for Seattle's more talented acts.
Recently, the city's hosted modest success stories Seattle producers Jake One and Vitamin D crafted music for G-Unit and Quannum artists, becoming household names in the abodes of devoted hip-hop headz. And now Blue Scholars, Common Market, and Gabriel Teodros together under the MassLine Media banner are poised for national stardom. Blue Scholars, the fledgling label's flagship act, formed five years ago, and has since shared stages with the likes of Kanye West and De La Soul, toured with the Coup, and is about to drop its third album, Bayani, on June 12th.
The Scholars recently broke out beyond praise from the Seattle press by topping hip hop's most-added artists chart at CMJ and receiving a shout-out from the Los Angeles Times. A few weeks ago, the group sold out two consecutive nights at one of Seattle's bigger venues, the Showbox Theater, where they were joined onstage by friend and American Idol finalist Blake Lewis (who hails from the Seattle suburbs).
MassLine's mission statement insists that "cultural arts [are] a hammer with which communities can reshape society," and indeed, its artists proffer potent lyrics that are unceasingly conscious. The groups address racism, inner-city violence, economic empowerment, and the war in Iraq. "Now the child is asking Mommy, why did Daddy have to die?/ She says he fought for freedom, but she knows it's just a lie/ Cause her father was a veteran with benefits denied," Scholars' MC Geo raps over Bayani's arresting standout track, "Back Home."
Immigration issues are also a recurring theme for all three acts Scholars and Common Market DJ/producer Alexei "Sabzi" Mohajerjasbi's parents came to the U.S. from Iran, Geo's parents hail from the Phillipines, and Teodros' family is from Ethiopia. During a recent appearance opening for Lyrics Born, Teodros hit a packed house with sentiments like "I fight every day just to tear walls down," a unity mantra from his recent full-length, Lovework.
That album has a decidedly smooth, summery feel, akin to vintage A Tribe Called Quest. Blue Scholars and Common Market take a slightly different approach with their textures, though the starting point for both is the jazz/funk-sampling, off-beatsmithery long associated with the hip-hop underground. Sabzi, a classically trained pianist, possesses an ear for intricate arrangements and a global music palette. With Scholars, he draws from South Asian or Middle Eastern melodic traditions and sets them alongside the horns and keyboards of buttery soul, or he'll slow down a beat to deliberate, trip-hop tempos. Common Market, fronted by rapper RA Scion, is a bit less lush and esoteric showing his impressive range, Sabzi crafts pithy soundscapes and snares that snap harder, complementing Scion's more aggressive verbal tendencies.
Whether Seattle remains a small hip-hop outpost or transforms into the next powerhouse is anybody's guess, but the burgeoning success of the MassLine emissaries provides the best chance for the latter that the city's seen.