Long before any “Town”-repping rapper ever uttered a single bar that reached a pair of ears outside of the region, beatmakers like Jake One, Vitamin D, and DJ Funkdaddy composed slaps heard ‘round the world for artists like E-40, De La Soul, G-Unit and Gift of Gab. Years later, the Northwest has found itself home to a diverse group of young producers that, as Portland label Dropping Gems’ founder Aaron Meola puts it, “have been drawn to further hip-hop culture in the electronic sense.”
Dropping Gems and the more recently-created Hush Hush Records, in addition to independent artists like “#Basedworld” legend and ”cloud-rap” pioneer Keyboard Kid, seem to share a loose common thread of hazy textures, relaxed tempos, DIY aesthetic, and an indoorsy, somewhat nostalgic sound rooted in ‘80s and ‘90s rap and R&B production, but looked at through a raindrop-dotted windowpane.
“It’s just the climate for production… theres a lot of down time,” says Keyboard Kid. “The nature up here kinda affects the mood. I make airy sounding beats cuz we get a lot of fresh air up here. You look outside and you see trees, water, fog, rain, mountains, sun, rain and sun at the same time. To me that’s what the music feels like.. water, trees, green – lush soundscapes, layers, you know? I feel like I would cater to the market more in other areas.. make what your peers like. Over here I’m able to be to myself, and just make what I like.”
Alex Ruder, who launched Hush Hush Records this year with albums and beat tapes from artists like Seattle’s Kid Smpl that delve even further into the slow, atmospheric “night bus” genre (music you listen to “at night, on the bus”), states that crowds and audiences around the Northwest play almost as big of a part in the equation.
“I feel like there’s a slower pace here than say, LA or New York,” he says. “But I also think there’s a lot of people that are really excited about music and interested in what’s next in the underground.” Whether its due to a generally passive nature, its high literacy rate, or being surrounded by technology, Northwest “zoners” – those who go to shows to “zone out” rather than party — don’t mind not dancing if there’s finer points to appreciate in the music.
Meola adds that while the anti-dancefloor aspect doesn’t appeal to everyone, it works in the artists’ favor. “I don’t think anyone in the Dropping Gems crew is making music with the intention of it just being a club-banger so people will dance,” he says. “Most are striving for true emotional expression.”
It’s this goal of emotional expression that gives these artists’ sounds that distinctly personal quality — digital music that isn’t stuck inside a computer. It’s why Natasha Kmeto’s albums sound like multidimensional sonic soul-searches. Or Keyboard Kid is able to sculpt samples into completely new colors and expressions from the source material. Or Ghost Feet’s tracks seem to crackle and pop with an aged-vinyl warmth. Or Kid Smpl’s music sounds like a dream about a distant childhood memory.
This new crop of Northwest artists might not have as much of a common sound, but shared method of using electronic means to express personal feelings, sentiments and emotions.
Written by Michael Ramos