Throwaway Style is a monthly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, (mostly) the first Thursday of every new month (we promise we'll get back to first Thursdays eventually) on KEXP.org.
By virtue of self-admission, Gary Campbell is a curious person. Upon moving here as an employee for Amazon (we’ll get to that in a bit), he began going to hip-hop shows in Seattle as something to do on nights and weekends – as well as engaging with the city’s immense arts and culture landscape. But as many of you know, Seattle’s not all that big, especially if you go to a lot of shows. Thus, Campbell started to become recognized while recording snippets of shows for his Instagram – which led artists to believe he was a journalist. (He bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch, so it’s incredibly easy to mistake him for one of us.)
Through his Instagram he became an unofficial documentarian for Seattle’s rap scene; through extreme happenstance, he became the label owner of Crane City Music, Seattle’s locals-only/vinyl only institution. Nearly every artist who has released a project on Crane City (or will in the upcoming weeks) has been covered – occasionally in fastidious detail – on this very website. (In the interest of full disclosure, allow me to add I’ve contributed liner notes for two Crane City releases; Perry Porter’s Bobby Ro$$ and the forthcoming AJ Suede/Specswizard split LP.)
But Crane City is not just a record label. In addition to the concert film NEWCOMER being released under the Crane City banner, Campbell’s vision has extended itself to Northwest rap scene zines, illustration sets, online rap reviews, helping judge the hip-hop game show Discovered!, a Soundcloud playlist of obscure gems from Seattle’s rap scene between 1985 and 1999, and a growing online database for Washington State hip-hop called “Town Love.”
NEWCOMER stretches the idea of the concert film to an artistic extreme. Its performances are sub-minute snippets artfully arranged to resemble something like a field recording of Seattle’s rap scene. The film, compiled from sets taking place between 2017 and February of this year, is about the moments we experience – as lovers of live performance – just as much as the performances themselves. It’s about 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 with Kevin Cole in the DJ booth working the Afternoon Show.
It’s about 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 pieces of NEWCOMER are 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 for the entirety of its 82 minutes. Shot entirely on iPhone 7 and posted at some point on Crane City’s Instagram, the sound was expertly handled by Inaam Haq, a Grammy-winning engineer/producer and friend of Campbell’s since they were teenagers. Since NEWCOMER was shot entirely on a cell phone, Haq’s work is integral to the piece.
Somewhere in the lengthy off-the-record portion of our chat, we talked about what the title NEWCOMER signifies; Campbell sent me an email to make sure we made it part of the record. He said, “I think a lot of people locally view that term as an insult, the classic Amazon newcomer arriving to ruin the city, and consequently, I've had people tell me they think the title is in reference to me as a Newcomer, that I called the movie this because of my newcomer perspective.”
He continued, “But to be honest, I always wanted to be as invisible as possible with this movie. There's no talking head or introductory remarks or voiceover or any footage of me pontificating about the scene. I really wanted the viewer to experience much of this footage unfiltered, the artists speaking their own truth in their own words, naked on the performance stage, warts and all. I really want the viewer to feel like they're standing right beside me in the audience, witnessing this never-to-be-repeated moment in history. At the same time, I wanted to capture a wide range of performers, from OGs like Vitamin D and Specswizard, to Billboard-charting stars like Jay Park and Lil Mosey and Mix-A-Lot, to the newest crop of unknowns who hold their own shoulder-to-shoulder with the greats. Even the greatest artists from our Town still struggle with a sort of ‘newcomer’ status, rather than being recognized for their many cultural contributions.”
How does a Canadian kid who grew up in Wayne Gretzky’s hometown become an important part of amplifying and preserving the voices of Seattle’s hip-hop scene? I reached out to Campbell on Zoom and we started from the beginning. (As always, this interview has been edited and condensed for maximum readability. It was transcribed in full by KEXP volunteer Ed Savage.)
In conjunction with 206 Zulu, NEWCOMER will be showing through Northwest Film Forum for four weeks (as November is somewhat-officially known as Hip-Hop History month in Washington State), from November 12th through December 6th, free of charge.
Gary Campbell: So I don't know what you know about me. I don't know what you want to know. Where do you want to start?
KEXP: Well, actually you brought up the first question that I wanted to ask you [earlier in our conversation], which is you grew up in Canada. Tell me about where you grew up and how you grew up.
Sure. I don't have any tarot cards, I should say that. I'm not going to be able to do any tarot. I found some old fortune cookie fortunes. I can read those if you want.
Nice! Nice! We could trade them off because I actually save fortune cookie fortunes, too. I've been doing it for the past several years.
[holds up a small bowl full of fortunes] In my dish, I've got like 25 of them in there. Yeah, let's see. I grew up in a place called Brantford, which is about an hour outside of Toronto, Canada. And it is the hometown of Wayne Gretzky, the hockey player. Wayne Gretzky was about the same age as my older brothers. I have two older brothers, and they're about the same age as Wayne Gretzky. And they played baseball and stuff in our neighborhood growing up. And so it was always like this big thing where Wayne Gretzky's specter lived over our hometown.
Now, was Wayne Gretzky good at baseball, or was he just kind of so-so?
I don't know, I think he was just fine. I remember being a kid, and when I was ten or twelve, Wayne had joined the NHL and he was this star player. And I think somebody gave him a Ferrari as a signing bonus for joining. So you always knew that Wayne was in town; word of the Ferrari being in town went around. And I remember once – he was buddies with somebody across the street from my house, and I was this little kid – [he] parked the Ferrari in front of our house. And my friends and I were out playing hockey on the street, road hockey with a tennis ball. I remember my mom ran out and was like, "Stop playing." She didn't want us to damage the car. Wayne gave us a thumbs up.
Let's see. I grew up, I was interested in art and I was interested in drawing and making stuff. I had a good line of comic books when I was twelve years old. Me and the neighbor made comics and tried to pass them around to people; all superhero comics, like bad rip-offs of X-Men and The Avengers and whatever other sort of things were popular at the time.
That's dope. I feel as though when you're just starting out as an artist, when you're a kid, you have no artistic foundation. So you have to kind of rip off what you think is cool in order to learn.
For sure. Yeah, that's funny. I think about this a lot now that I'm older because I didn't when I was young. But my dad was really interested – my parents are both from Scotland – and my dad, even though we lived in Canada, he was really interested in kind of obscure British soccer teams, like Scottish soccer teams from the war years. So during the First World War, Second World War, you'd have this soccer team. And then the whole team would get drafted, essentially, and sent off to Germany to go fight the war. And so these football clubs would start up and then just die off because they didn't have any players.
And so my dad got really interested in these and would write books about obscure soccer teams from the 1910s, and was really interested in fostering and he would be really involved. This was before the Internet. So he was writing letters – like longhand – to people, asking for information. He was really interested in the idea of this sort of scene that existed in the 1910s and wanted to preserve that, and record the records of that scene before all these old-timers had passed on, and remember all of that. And so that was also a big thing; I was helping my dad make books in our basement, because he was making these pamphlets about these soccer teams, and selling them to people in the U.K. as a mail-order business. It was a really interesting thing.
I look back now and what I do with Crane City and doing zines and putting out vinyl and I'm like, "Man, I'm doing all this stuff my dad did when I was 10 years old," and I thought this was stuff you were supposed to do.
That's so cool. I feel like, yeah, that's a very clear thread between how you grew up and what you do now.
No wrestling, I'm sorry to say. But yeah, hockey, soccer. But you know, growing up, let's see. Where do I go from there?
I went to school for fine art; I did drawing and painting, that sort of stuff, and Japanese. So I was really interested in Japanese culture, Ninja, Samurai and all that stuff. When I left school, I started work in the magazine industry. And worked as a magazine designer for a good chunk of my career. And whether I was doing magazines, print magazines, or digital magazines or designing iPad apps or whatever, my background was really working in this kind of journalism field. I started magazines when I was in my 20s. I worked for a company called St. Joseph Media, which is like a kind of Toronto Condé Nast, where there are twelve magazines under one roof. And all of the publications had just terrible websites; this was kind of pre-social media so at a time kind of late. I guess the mid-2000s or whatever, post-Myspace, but before Twitter and Instagram really took off. And we would have these magazine websites that were just places you could subscribe to the magazine.
And at one point I found myself talking to the CEO of the company about these terrible websites. It was at a Christmas party and I had had a couple of drinks, and I was like, “Look at these terrible websites, and we should really do something about them, we should have blogs, we should do this…” And he was like, “Great, you're in charge of the department, it's yours now.” So that was kind of a big change for me.
Suddenly I was involved in this digital media department, where I had to think about how to create an online presence for twelve national magazines. They were all venerable print publications that have been going on for decades, and none of them really had websites. So it was like, how do we build an online presence for this wedding publication or for this cooking publication or for the city magazine? It was like the equivalent of The Stranger.
And using that kind of rationale to then have the writers shift, pivot what they were doing in the restaurants; let's profile chefs, let's do really short blog content specials of the day, and let's make everything bite-sized, snackable. This was the early days. A lot of these things that I'm saying, now we take for granted because that's how the Internet works in 2020. But [from] 2005 to 2010, this was all innovative new stuff where it was like, Oh, wow! We should do this stuff, and we can then post it to our Twitter account. We can do this, you know, or whatever it is. That's background. I don't know, where do you want me to stop? I'm just rambling, otherwise.
No, it's all good. So how did you get into hip-hop growing up in Canada and playing hockey along with your friends?
That's interesting because hip-hop didn't really play much of a role. And hip-hop, for me, is actually something that's very much a Seattle part of the story, not a pre-Seattle part of the story. Growing up, I listened to Public Enemy and Beastie Boys and whatever was cool when I was a teenager. And just for context, I'm 47. So you can figure (all those) years. I was born in ‘73, so I was a teenager in the 90s.
So you were barely alive when hip hop was invented.
Kind of, yeah. But for me, I was always interested in music scenes. Before I moved to Seattle, I was really into Beijing punk rock. So I would be like seeking out – there was a record label in Beijing called Maybe Mars, and they put out all these punk rock records. And the thing about Chinese rock music, which is really interesting, is there's so much censorship around what can be said, how it can be said, and that the artists have to kind of find these really creative ways to make music. And also, there's no history; it's not like rock music has been living in China for 50 years. A lot of kids today are learning about rock music by finding... there's actually a whole market of when we send things to recycling, people will fish out CDs. And they'll get sold on the black market, because western music is something that is very hard to get a handle on, except through some kind of grey market channels.
So it leads to this kind of punk rock that isn't really... it's like someone digesting the entire history of rock music all in one sitting, and then making music as a result of that. Before that, I was interested... there's a whole Berlin indie-tronica scene. There's a label called More Music, in Berlin, around 2002 to 2010. Like sort of the first 10 years there were bands like Lali Puna and Styrofoam. And these were all Berlin indie-rock or indie-electronica groups, who just made really fascinating music.
For me, there was this kind of sense of not necessarily being particularly like a hip-hop head or a hip-hop fan, as much as a fan of music at large and [the] scenes and what was going on in various places. Before I lived in Seattle, I lived briefly in Brooklyn and I got really interested in Das Racist because they were really hip when I was there. And through Das Racist, I got really interested in local hip-hop; I would go to local hip hop shows. So when I first moved to Seattle, having gone to see cool local hip-hop shows in Brooklyn, I intentionally tried to seek out what was happening on the ground as far as Seattle shows that I can go to. So that's how I sort of found my way into local hip-hop.
So was it Ontario to Brooklyn, to Seattle, is that the timeline of your move? Did you live places in between?
I've lived all over the place, I'll be honest. Something you wouldn't know about me because I don't really talk about it is that both my parents passed away when I was maybe 20. So for me, it kind of went from a regular kid and teenager to suddenly being out in the world as an adult with no home to go back to, no parents. And so I did a lot of nomadism for a while.
I lived in Quebec for a bit. I lived in France for a while. I lived out west here. I kind of moved around, but when I got into magazines, I sort of was very centered in Toronto. And then Toronto, the media scene is very connected to the New York scene; it's the kind of the Canadian version of what's going on in New York. So we're paying attention to what the New York Times is doing and what the New Yorker is doing and trying to make our version of that thing that's happened in New York City.
So I moved here to work for Amazon. And I want to tell this story; I don't know if this will make it into your final notes, but it's a story that nobody really seems to ever talk about. It's that I was in Toronto and I was working in the media, and I had had an opportunity. I'd done a bunch of work with a team. So the team that I ran at this publication in Toronto, this sort of group of publications that we had designed all the websites, we were very good at what we did. We were successful collectively, we'd been nominated for like 25 national awards for all the work we'd done, which was awesome. We started new publications out of that. We did a kind of iPad only digital publication in the early days of the iPad. And I was involved in doing some consulting work with some people in New York because that was sort of always a place we were having the relationships with.
In the middle of all that, one day – you know, I live in Toronto, I have a wife and a house I have a job, a career – and it's one day out of the blue, my phone rings and it's somebody at Amazon, a recruiter from Amazon. And they're like, “Hey, we want to hire you!” And it's a funny experience. It's a little bit like Pete Carroll, one day, just picks up the phone and calls you and says, “Hey, Martin, turns out like, you know, Russell Wilson's injured and we’d like you to play quarterback.” And, you know, that's kind of how the experience happened.
Amazon, they heard that I won a bunch of awards. They got my name from somebody. So as an outsider, suddenly you're like, “Oh crap!” And here they interview you, they take you out for nice dinners and they wine and dine you to convince you to work for their company. You don't know anything about Seattle, you could be anywhere. And so you get excited and you fly here, and you're like, “OK, I'm going to live in Seattle and work for Amazon and do this amazing all-star team stuff that they've promised that I'm going to be working on.”
And then you spend a short while at the company and, you know... I'm a curious person. I used to work for a city magazine, like I used to work for a publication a lot like The Stranger, where you want to know what's going on with local theater and nightlife – and I don't know what it is about the mindset of so many of the people that Amazon hires; that is very much like people who are so focused on work, but also people who kind of view Seattle as it's like doing a tour, like a military tour, where it's like, “Oh, I'm going to go be stationed in this town for two years and then I'm gonna go live somewhere else.” Like, so many of the people that I worked with at Amazon viewed Seattle as a temporary stop on their career path. And so many of the people in the city don't care about what's going on outside of the walls of Amazon, are happy to live in South Lake Union and work in South Lake Union and never leave South Lake Union. And for me, it was always so frustrating because that's not how I'm wired and I'm really interested in culture, and I'm really interested in local things that are going on.
So, I almost immediately started going to shows and trying to seek out what was happening in Seattle. And I often found with my Amazon colleagues, I was really frustrated because nobody ever wanted to do anything. They were working seven days a week.
All right. I feel like this is starting to lead to you starting Crane City Music.
You're working for Amazon, you’re bored as hell because your coworkers don't want to do anything. You're reading things like The Stranger, probably City Arts was still around, and you were getting interested in the city’s arts and culture. How do you get ingratiated into the Seattle music scene?
You know, there's this weird thing about fortuitous timing, and it comes out in this story from a bunch of angles. I started going to hip-hop shows and around that time I started an Instagram account. And it was just for me, it was like my own personal LiveJournal of what I'm doing in Seattle. Because I had friends back home in Toronto or wherever, in New York, who were like, “Hey, what's life in Seattle like?” So I started this Instagram account; Instagram was kind of new 10 years ago. And I would just post about stuff I did. I went to Pike Place Market, I'd post pictures on it. I went to this other thing, I'd post pictures at it.
And I started going to local hip-hop shows and I would post a little video clip for a little writeup of the show. And for me, it was mostly because I was trying to maintain a kind of personal LiveJournal of what I did in Seattle. Everything was new. So it's like, “Oh, I went to see this show; it was Jarv Dee, and Gifted Gab opened.” So I would make a post about Jarv Dee and Nacho Picasso and just post about them, so that I could keep track of who I saw and follow those artists.
"My Philosophy," which had been a central column that so many people had turned to for news about Seattle and what was going on [had stopped]. And around that time, a couple of other blogs – 206UP was a big blog at the time that stopped right around then. And [current Kube 93.3 DJ] Miss Casey [Carter], had a hip-hop blog, which she also stopped writing right about the time that I started this Instagram account.
And what's really strange, is that over about six months, this Instagram account that I had started – which was really just Gary's LiveJournal of his Seattle adventures – so many local hip-hop artists, because of the fact that they've had all these local shows, came to this immediate conclusion that I was a journalist covering the Seattle hip-hop scene. They started following my account, telling me about shows, messaging me to say, “Hey, you've got to come to my show,” and would just put me on the guest list. And it suddenly became this way that a lot of local musicians who just didn't have an outlet because [hip-hop coverage on] The Stranger suddenly seemed to have disappeared or whatever it was. These blogs sort of disappeared, where suddenly I was this outlet for them to be able to say, “Hey, can you come to my show?” And then if I actually showed up, it was a big deal. Artists would suddenly shove me out onstage and be like, “Hey everybody, just wanted to announce Gary's here!”
And you're just like this dude with an Instagram.
Yeah, I'm just a guy with an Instagram account who just came to your show. And, of course, I get it. I'm an old white guy with a beard and people are like, “Are you lost, sir, are you in the right place?” But for me, I was excited because I got to go to these shows and people would invite me and they were excited about me writing about their show. And it just kind of snowballed from there into this thing where there was a clear need for coverage, and somebody with a journalism background kind of exploring how you create a framework for helping artists get recognition and get knowledge and get awareness.
But also, I was just trying to understand what the scene was. I had this kind of like... you can see a bunch of whiteboards behind me. But I used to have the whole wire matrix of like, ...OK, Gifted Gab opened for this artist; now she's involved with this other artist. I was trying to make sense of the... I don't know if you follow this yourself or if you have your own thoughts on this, but the Seattle hip-hop scene is incredibly fragmented. Everybody sort of belongs to their camp; their Central District camp or the Rainier Ave camp or the Ballard camp or the Everett camp, the Vermillion camp.
Yeah. Black Constellation, 69/50. Yeah, there are all these micro-scenes and collectives.
And for me, I was really, early on, interested in how I would go to a hip-hop show, a packed hip-hop show [with] a bunch of people there. And then I would go to a different packed hip-hop show, but the crowd was completely different. There was no real crossover. Not only the artists wouldn't go to each other's shows, but the fan bases wouldn't attend each other's shows, either. And I started thinking, how do you create...? I was very intentional from a very early point to not get too aligned with anyone's camp of people. I always wanted to be an observer, a fan, to just kind of go from one show to another show to another show. Because I'm interested in the scene, I'm interested in the totality of the music and everything that's going on, not just this particular little clique of people who are making music a certain way. I don't know, I feel like I'm off on a tangent again but I'm not sure how we got here.
I like the discussion, though.
When I got here, as I said, it was really just about trying to cover... I wasn't that interested in necessarily covering the scene. It was really apparent to me is that I had this one world of Amazon people. I would see people all the time who were newcomers to Seattle. They just moved here from New York City, they just moved here from Austin; cool people who were interested in art and culture, but just had no idea how to navigate anything locally, and we're intimidated. There was a time in hip-hop when it was very cool to do your shows at places like Kame Hou$e or Candy Mountain or with a whole bunch of... I can't remember half the names now. The Fortress, it was like someone's basement. And you had to know someone and nobody would post the address. And that, you know, maintains a certain cool factor. And I get that, that's important.
But also, it was very much like...I would go to a show at one of these venues. And then someone would pull me aside and bitch about the fact that nobody came to the show. And I'm like, “It's a little obscure, what do you expect? You're bitching about the fact that those Amazon people never come to [your] show. There's all these new people in South Lake Union and they never come to [your] show.” I'm like, “How would they even know where Candy Mountain is?” But I get that, like it's this tension.
I was always trying to navigate this idea when I was at Amazon. I was at Amazon for five years. And when I was at Amazon, I would spend a lot of time on internal message boards, posting about local hip-hop shows happening; here's an artist profile, or there's an artist you should check out, here's a new album. I would try to do this little, almost like internal journalism about Seattle hip-hop for Amazonians on Amazon message boards, just to get interest.
I had this [coworker], a programmer, and he was, quote-unquote, “super into music;” up [in the office] at 8:30 in the morning, put his headphones on. So somebody would think, OK, he's listening music for eight hours every day. But by and large, he just listened to whatever the algorithm predicted for him. And he intentionally put on music to tune it out, because he just wanted to write code and not be disturbed. So his mindset was like, music was a thing to ignore, which I've never really understood.
You're a music guy, I'm a music guy. For me, I put a piece of music on and I'm going to try and clean my house. And halfway through the first song, I'm sitting on my couch just listening to the album because I'm like, Man, this album is...! I have real trouble multitasking when music's on. But I would think about something like this guy, this programmer. And I’d be like, “OK, how do I sell Seattle hip-hop to this guy?” He claims to be interested in music, he claims to listen to Spotify all day. When I ask him what his favorite bands are, he has to look at the app to find out what he's been playing the most of, because he doesn't know.
So for me, somebody like that was kind of an audience, as well as it just seems like a difficult task because there are so many camps in hip-hop, as I said. It's really hard. You see this very quick ceiling that a lot of artists hit, where they have made an album. They have their crew, their friends, who all fuck with the shit they make. But then it's like there's a very quick ceiling that those artists hit, where they just have no idea how to navigate the next step; like an idea like, Hey, you should send a press release to Martin at KEXP about your album. It's like, “Oh, I should?” Like, how would he ever know that you put an album out? You've got to write a press release, you've got to post something. Even just that kind of 101 stuff. How can I provide some kind of infrastructure for artists to help them with the resources in order to achieve?
Yeah, I totally understand, especially where you reference someone sending me an email, a press release. I don't necessarily want to say it's an obstacle, but it's one of the unique things about working with local artists is that they often don't know where to start. And there are still a lot of local artists that I really love that will put shit it out, and then I hear about it like three months later because I didn't know about it [beforehand].
I'll be honest, there are people I have put out vinyl records with who have put out new things that I find out about social media. I'm like, "Really!?" But, you know, I understand.
It's a really cool thing. It's interesting because I didn't start out on the local level. My writing career was basically starting out writing for Pitchfork. And the bulk of the coverage that I did was either from big-time press releases or people I had sought out individually and then [sometimes] found out that they do in fact have this big press team.
So to kind of scale back a little and really focus on the local music scene, it's been fun to be able to reach out directly to artists and have an email conversation with them, or have them reach out to me and be like, “Oh yeah, here's my new shit; if you would offer some feedback, that would be really appreciated.” And the appreciation is really cool. I think from artists in Seattle, in particular, that's something I didn't really get when I wrote for national publications. It was just kind of about the press, or when I worked for Pitchfork it was somebody complaining about the score. So it's really cool to have a local artist be like, “Oh yeah, I really, greatly appreciate you for really considering my work and putting so much thought into your writing.” That's one of the really rewarding things about working with Seattle artists.
Yeah. There's definitely some very unique... it's a very different scene in Seattle. You know, there is this real pride.
I have a bunch of theories that it's some sort of hangover from the days of grunge. Anyway, once you really dig into grunge, you realize how much, locally, people felt [that] grunge was very exploitive. There were a lot of external people coming in and dictating what was poppin' and what wasn't poppin', and if you were a local artist and you could pick up a guitar, you could get a record deal. A consequence, it feels to me, like a lot of scenes in this city went further underground because of this almost like reaction to grunge; like, “Oh, we don't even want to be discovered ever.”
You find that in hip-hop. I'm putting together this project right now. It's a little early, I was hoping I would get more of it done because I wanted to talk to you about it. But it's not there yet. It's an online encyclopedia about Seattle hip-hop. I think there's just a lack of collective knowledge of what has transpired in this city. Like, everyone mentions Mix-A-Lot and maybe Macklemore. And then there's this large swath of time, that's maybe where the Blues Scholars fit in. Nobody seems to know anything. You talk to someone, you say, “What do you think of Specswizard? What do you think of, I don't know, Silas Black? What are you think of the Ghetto Children?” And you just get blank expressions. And I find this a lot with the work I do.
Because, if I try to talk a little bit about the history of Seattle hip-hop, I often get like some 19-year-old who's like, “I'm the best fucking rapper in this city, ever!” But they don't know anything about anybody else. They're comparing themselves to, you know, whatever; Lil’ Smoke Pump [laughter]. Because, everyone's looking nationally, they sort of don't know anything about what's happened locally. And I just felt like there's such a gap there. It would be a really interesting area of exploration for me, lately, is just to try and capture a sense of how big the scene is and how much is going on.
Geographic isolation is a big deal because Seattle's sort of not under the influence; it's not like we're strongly influenced by the L.A. sound or strongly influenced by the Chicago sound. It sort of allows us a certain ability to create your own scene here and your own sound, because you're not really influenced. Legal weed, obviously, was a newer thing. Weed's never been hard to come by here, but the sort of embracing of the muse... I actually meet a lot of young rappers who say they moved here because of legal weed.
Tell me about the genesis of Crane City. You're in the scene, you're going to shows, you're super inspired. How does that turn into starting a record label?
So the label started... it's kind of weird. Donald Trump was elected in 2016, and everyone was just bummed like, “What the hell are we going to do?” [In early 2017,] I went to... there was a boutique in the U District called Moksha. There was a showcase at Moksha that I went to, and Remember Face was playing. And I can't remember, but I think it was a multi-night showcase. It might have been that they were moving or something, I can't remember the specific circumstances. [Writer’s Note: Moksha’s U District location closed in January 2017.]
But there was actually a surprising number of other artists hanging around in the audience, who were going to be playing either later that night or the next day. I was talking to Remember Face – it was the night of Trump's inauguration – and just saying [that] we should do something in response, like a hip-hop response to Trump. And maybe we should do a Fuck Trump record, like everybody can record their song about [the sentiment of] Fuck Trump. We'll put it together as project and we'll put out a CD, or put out a mixed tape or something. And I had said to Remember Face, "Well, maybe we can do a vinyl, maybe we could do something cool, like we'll do it all proper."
And we were just chatting in the audience, just gabbing around, and then they had gone off. And later that night somebody came up to me, it might have been Jarv Dee or someone, and just was like, “Yeah, I'm in!” And I'm like, “You're into what?” He's like, “Oh, I talked to Remember Face, they told me about the project; I'm totally down, I'm going to get you a track later this week.” And by the end of the night, I think I had six people that had signed on to do this Fuck Trump record that we were going to put out, which ultimately became the Solar Power record. But at the time, it was just this vague Seattle response to Trump's inauguration.
I started saying, “Okay, I guess maybe this is going to be a real thing. I need to figure out the logistics of how we would do this and how it would get funded and who would pay for it.” So I spent some time on that, and at the same time, somebody had connected me with Ari Glass, the painter. So I went down to Ari's studio and met up with him and said, “Hey, I'd be interested in hiring you to design the cover for this album.” Ari and I spent a couple of days, we got together a bunch of times right around that time period and just sort of started talking about what we’re trying to achieve with the album.
As we were talking about the idea, he kept coming back to this idea and saying like, “Why are we so focused on Trump? This should really be about celebrating what we have here in Seattle.” Seattle is a place that's fairly liberal, it has legal weed, we have equal marriage, we're one of the first places that passed the $15 minimum wage. There's a whole bunch of reasons to celebrate what's great about Seattle. I think he and I were having this conversation in early February. February is the worst part of the year because you are just at the point of winter where you're just done.
And Ari said to me, "Think about this moment, the first day of sun, maybe like March or April, when we get that one day when it's bright; it's blue as far as you can see, you can wear a t-shirt and go outside, and people in Seattle kind of lose their minds because of the sun. And it's like solar power. Solar power rains down from the sky in desperation." And he said, "That's what this record should be about; celebrating what's great about Seattle, not focusing on what we hate about this guy." And that was such a powerful speech that he gave me. And he put together this painting, which made up the cover of the record, which is a three-foot square painting that's hanging in my front hall. So he basically conceived this idea for the Solar Power record.
I just sent them, really, what Ari's vision had been for this Solar Power record, and that's ultimately what I got. And I wanted the record to have an equal split of men and women. And I really spent a lot of time doing data analysis. I looked at who's getting a lot of KEXP airplay, who's been written up, what's The Seattle Times is talking about, what's in City Arts, in order to come up with a list of artists that would be on this compilation who represented a kind of zeitgeist of what Seattle hip-hop felt like in 2017.
There is a history of big compilations in Seattle hip hop; there's Do the Math, there's 14 Fathoms Deep, there's Walkman Rotation, Classic Elements. But a lot of these compilations came out in the 90s, and they summarized a kind of portion of the scene. And there hadn't really been any of those big cross-cultural kind of compilations that picked from all of the different camps.
The compilation did pretty well and people liked it, it got airplay. I did a distribution deal with Light in the Attic, locally, who are a global distributor. So they put it in record shops in Berlin and Tokyo and the UK and wherever, and I got a writeup in The Wire. So it was exciting.
And a group that had been in the running to be on the compilation, but hadn't. I'm not going to get into the backstory, but for whatever reason, Kung Foo Grip was supposed to be on the compilation and they weren't. So they were always kind of hovering after that to say like, “Hey, we ended up not being on the comp, so we've got to put out our own record now.” And it's funny, they probably came to me on and off multiple times to do the Kung Foo Grip album, which was, ultimately, the second record. And I repeatedly said no. I was like, “I don't think I want to do this, I don't know if I really want to take this on.” And, you know, they really made a very compelling pitch.
Ultimately, the Kung Foo Grip [record], 2KFG... They had put out a whole bunch of mixtapes and EPs prior to that point. But it was like, This is our first real record; we've gone and done this thing with the balloons to make a really cool cover. They got Nacho Picasso on that record, they got Parisalexa on that record. They worked with all the Ruby Room people. They had a whole story of why this was a record that also celebrated the hip-hop scene. But actually, the turning point of the starting of the label wasn't even that record, as much as they were really pushing me to put that one out.
At the end of 2017, DoNormaal released Third Daughter as a free streaming thing on SoundCloud. And The Stranger did their recap of albums of the year. And I think they picked Third Daughter as the Album of the Year, for local music or whatever it was. And Sean Nelson, his write up of that album, was like, “When the hell is someone going to put out a double vinyl of Third Daughter, because this needs to be on wax?” And I was like, “Maybe I should put that on wax.” I'd worked with DoNormaal on the Solar Power compilation. So I ended up talking to DoNormaal and said, "Hey, what do you think of doing a vinyl release of this, based on this record review?” And she was in.
So that suddenly started this idea of saying, “OK, let's actually move ahead.” But the other thing I guess I was going to say is that, for me, having worked at Amazon, you become very aware, if you've spent any time in social settings around hip-hop folks or whatever, of the huge economic disparity between people who work at Amazon and the rest of the city. And this is something that I think about a lot. I get paid this money from Amazon. How can I create a vehicle to take Amazon money and funnel it directly into the arts community? There's lots of ways that people campaign to say, “Hey, Amazon should give money to the community” and so on. But also, I can take personal responsibility and take the money and put it into the local community. OK, how do I do that? What if I?
Crane City Music proper started with those two records, the Kung Foo Grip and the DoNormaal [releases]. And it was me saying I am going to take, what ultimately ended up being 25 thousand dollars, and I'm going to start a vinyl arts fund. And I thought a lot about, do I just take a bunch of money and call up a bunch of artists I know and hand each five thousand dollars and say, “Here you go, here's five thousand dollars, do whatever you want?” Or is there a way to create something that's a vehicle? Because, if we can invest five thousand dollars in vinyl and press up 500 records, we can sell those for more than $5000. So there's actually an economic opportunity for the artists, especially if the artists want to do a lot of that selling to actually make a lot more money with that investment.
It was really the kind of vision for taking the opportunity that I'd been given, working at Amazon; actually spread the wealth and put that in the hands of other artists. And I had been happy to do that and continue to do that. The idea with the fund is that that sort of initial seed money, that initial $25,000 dollar fund, is sort of a self-replenishing amount of money. So as the records sell, profits of those record sales go back to replenishing the fund to fund the next record. And the rest of that money goes to the artists because it's their work.
Is the name Crane City kind of like a reference to working at Amazon and being in Downtown Seattle and South Lake Union? The image is so sharp for me because [working at KEXP pre-COVID] I'm driving uptown every week, twice a week, three times a week, and seeing all those cranes.
The label was named by DoNormaal. She and I were talking outside of a venue, I think it was Chop Suey. That Solange song, “Cranes in the Sky,” had just come out. And she was sort of singing that song to herself while standing outside Chop Suey. We were all just hanging out smoking or something. And she just kept saying, "Crane City, living in Crane City," and I was asking her what she meant. And she was just saying how these cranes, because there's all this construction, these fixtures are like giant trees; they're like redwoods in the city. If you look there are cranes.
Then maybe like a week later, I was walking past a newspaper box and Crane City was on the front cover of The Seattle Times. It was a story with pictures of cranes, and “Crane City” was the headline.
I was going to joke with this, but I was also watching a lot of Frasier at the time. And my wife said, "Oh, that's another version of Crane City, it's like Frasier Crane, Seattle is like Crane City." But I like this idea; somebody said to me about the label being this image of helping lift up artists. Like they were all sort of at this level and you [they] are being helped up by this crane to the next level. And I always kind of like that as an image of what it was. But it's also to your point. It's the reflection of what Seattle is, what it's become today.
I live on Capitol Hill and I stare at South Lake Union. I have a beautiful view. When the peak of the cranes was going on, I could probably count like 25 cranes from my window. And it was like a hobby. My wife and I were sitting in our living room in the morning counting cranes. But yeah, that's where the name came from, it was really DoNormaal who kind of kicked off the ball on that. She was also involved in the early days [with] the label, so it's all connected.
That's cool. How did you come up with the idea for NEWCOMER?
Oh, yeah! So NEWCOMER is kind of a weird story. Let's see. Last year in November... So November is Hip-Hop History Month around here. You know about this?
I know a little bit about it.
I think someone years ago... if you pay the mayor's office like 25 dollars, you can get a proclamation. And so I think around the time that Jonathan Moore died, who had been a big figure in this city – I think it was 2014 [Writer’s Note: Moore passed away in 2017] – someone got a proclamation to make November Hip-Hop History Month in Seattle. An organization called 206 Zulu, who are based out of Washington Hall. They're kind of a bunch of guys who were big in hip-hop, sort of [the] 2000 to 2005 era, here. King Khazm and Silas Blak and a whole crew of guys there, who were especially really into the graffiti side of the culture.
Anyway, they did the Seattle Hip-Hop Film Festival last year in November. They played stuff like local hip-hop films. I had been talking with them and I had all these... Going back over the last seven or eight years, I've been going to local hip-hop shows and I've been shooting little clips of the shows on Instagram and posting it on Instagram Stories, or on Instagram proper or whatever. So going into their film fest, I was like, “Oh, I wonder if I could pull together a little highlight reel of shows from the past year, like shows from 2019. I could do a little highlight reel, ten minutes or something, and we could show it at this film festival." I sat down and started going through footage that I had on my phone and footage I had on my laptop.
And lo and behold, I realized I probably had five or six hours of footage in 15-second clips. And there was just no way to organize it in the three weeks before their film fest. I was like, “There's no way I can totally turn this around in three weeks and make anything that's coherent and that makes sense.” But it did start the ball rolling.
I'm saying, “What do I do with all of this footage?” It was kind of interesting to see – you've seen NEWCOMER. There are moments in there that, to me, feel like the moment... like when Chong the Nomad plays the harmonica in Barboza; to me, that feels like the Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire moment. No one else might have filmed this sequence. This might be the only recording of this particular moment in time.
So I started going through all this footage, and at the time I was really listening to Donuts by J Dilla a lot. And the idea that really stuck with me... there was that 33 1/3 book about Donuts, I had just finished reading it. And you've got this album and everything is really short. And just as you get into the rhythm of that song, that new beat that Dilla's thrown together, he throws a curveball and then takes you in another direction. And then you just get into the next beat and he takes you in another direction. And when I was watching this footage – I was trying to make sense of it, I was just kind of watching clip after clip after clip – I started seeing it a little bit the way that Donuts works of saying, “I wonder if there would be a way to pull together a structure to all of this footage, that would give you a sense of a mic being passed around.”
I started going through the footage. I mean, this is a movie that was made in the edit. So I really started going, “OK, I have five hours of footage that was just shot.” I had no intention of [it] ever being turned into a narrative or turned into a movie. In fact, some of it even still had the Instagram tag, because I shot it inside Instagram and put titles and it replays everything on the screen.
I probably spent five hundred hours editing the movie, I would say. And a lot of it was both going through the footage, and deciding what to keep and what to eliminate. And then really starting to pair in to where does this clip start and where does this clip end, and what does this clip say? So I spent a lot of time on the lyrics and was like, “OK, what's this person saying in this moment?” So there's a bunch of spots in the movie that I'm very proud of, where the phrase almost picks up from one person into the next. And it's like this narrative of this idea of the newcomer who's standing up on stage with a microphone in their hand; like, big thing. And just that kind of rotating canvas of like, Next! It's almost like the hook on the – what am I thinking of, The Gong Show? I'm totally losing my train of thought here. There's an old variety show where people are onstage doing their thing. And at some point they just get pulled offstage like, You're done!
It could be Showtime at the Apollo, because the Sandman was responsible for pulling the worst acts off stage.
There you go, yeah! A lot of the footage was like that. But it's funny because the whole thing, in the end, the movie's not even really in chronological order. It's sort of all over the place in terms of how it's structured, mainly to hit these narrative beats.
I love that because it feels like a field recording. That's the sense that I got when I watched NEWCOMER for the first time. I'm like, “Oh my God, this is a field recording of the Seattle rap scene.”
Yeah, and that was very intentional. I did try to structure... so the movie is structured into four parts. Part of the challenge, ultimately, once I realized I was looking at about an hour and a quarter, hour and a half-length, it was like, how do you maintain focus for that length? Watching the movie, it can be arduous if you're just watching clip after clip after clip after clip after clip. So part of it was thinking about like, OK, I have five Chong the Nomad performances or I have a certain number of Perry... there were certain artists that I discovered because I just happened to have seen them a bunch of times.
The movie, by and large, is all footage that I shot in 2019, with the occasional time when I would reach into 2018 or 2017 for pieces of footage to fill in a gap somewhere. But you have someone like Chong the Nomad who, at the very beginning of the movie, there is this opening sequence. The first time you see her, she's in this basement in Belltown. There's probably three people in the audience, and she seems super awkward. And she's young and somebody even gets up in the middle of her set to leave. And as much as I wanted to show her in the right light, I also thought it would be a great starting place just to show the reality of being an artist in the city; there are not a lot of people there and sometimes they just aren't into what you're doing. And then, you return to Chong the Nomad at various points, sort of every 20 minutes or so through the movie, and you see this growth. She's playing at a larger place, she's doing an in-store. There's this arc of confidence. Towards the end, when she's playing the Seattle Food Truck Festival in front of two thousand people on stage, it's like this big spectacle. She's doing the harmonica, she's dancing, and it's kind of amazing to see that.
Perry Porter is a symbol of growth too; you see in him at ETC Tacoma and it's just him doing a little showcase. And then, he's doing a show at the Crocodile, and people are headbanging on stage. There's smoke, and it's just that sense of the epic scale of everything was pretty wild. But then you have other people. I was lucky that twice over the course of the year, I stumbled across Rocket tha Prophet. He makes a lot of great music, he records stuff, he's released [music] on Bandcamp, he's performed lots of stage shows. But he also does this thing where he's doing kind of a street cipher and there's a beat playing; someone's got a phone, someone's got to beatbox. And he's just making up lyrics off the top of his head. And this idea of just kind of the street, that's hip-hop in some way. Just a guy and a beat and that's it. And he's just making it up off the dome as he's going. And I loved having that as a counterpoint that sort of shows up a couple of times throughout the movie, as well, and provides that kind of midpoint and closing.
I think you do a great job of capturing all essences of hip-hop. So one of my favorite parts of NEWCOMER is when Bruce Leroy is freestyling at ETC Tacoma. And he kind of flubs a line and you can hear the crowd like, “Keep going man, you got this!” And then he just jumps right back into it.
It's funny, that's great. I'm glad you called that out because that was a moment that I spent a lot of time in my, whatever, editing moments, being like, “Do I cut this? Do I leave it? Do I cut this? Do I leave it?” I remember I was working on the movie... the final, final of this year, so I finished it during the pandemic.
But I had started working on the movie, as I said, last November. So I ran into Bruce Leroy at something, I think in February. I remember I pulled him aside just to be like, “Hey, I just want to talk to you about this scene in this movie I'm making. It's awesome, and the way you catch yourself is awesome, but I also don't want you to hate me if I leave this in.” And in reviewing those moments, for me, it seems like those moments almost happen between the moments. Whether it's 52Kings putting on his roller skates while he's at a show and he's like, “Hey, there's weed in my roller skate.”
Or Justin Hale starts talking about getting business cards on stage and is like, “Hey, I got these cards everyone, I'm going to give you one.” Or Rasheed Smiley is like, “We're gonna do pictures outside in the lobby, so stick around.” And Greg Cypher talking about the Kung Foo Grip punch that was for sale at the Mix-A-Lot/Kung Foo Grip show.
I just really wanted to leave those little moments, just kind of the sides of the reality of just being. But to your point, the Bruce Leroy flub was one of those things where I was like, “Do I leave this in? Does this make Bruce Leroy look like he's a bad rapper, or does it actually make...?” There's something amazing to your point about his recovery. And to me, I was like, “Man, this guy has got bars!”
And like you were talking about, you capture the entire essence of the scene by leaving these moments in. The examples you mentioned, which are all moments in my viewings of the film where I'm like, “Oh, yeah, this is great; this is like really being at a show.” I feel, especially in the time of COVID and being so far into it where we still don't know when life is going to return, it makes me really nostalgic for what we had.
You know it's true. I'll be honest, I was working on the movie and I was supposed to do a theatrical debut of Newcomer. We were at the Northwest Film Forum at the Grand Cinema in Tacoma, at the Rendezvous. I had three showings in actual places with people. I was really looking forward to watching it with a group, where everybody would be in the room seeing Bruce Leroy do his thing or whatever. And it was such a bummer when COVID hit like a week before those showings. So they were all canceled. I remember I had wanted to do some edits to the movie. And for most of April, I couldn't watch it – not having any concerts or shows – I would start watching the movie and then I would just be like, “This is such a bummer!” It was just bumming me out to watch shows because I was so longing for that feeling.
And to your point, now that we're six months in or however many months in, 225 days, it feels like now there's a sense of nostalgia that evokes when I watch the movie. I'm like, man, that was awesome or that was really cool. I'm excited about someday we get back to going to see shows again, but I'm glad that, by coincidence, I happened to have caught this year of concerts before the scene changed in sort of a dramatic way.
A lot of it was about taking a whole bunch of stuff that I just had, as I said, six hours of clips, six hours of 15-second clips, which is just a lot of stuff; shot in dark clubs, bad lighting, sometimes I was just standing too close to a speaker and the whole sound is [making unintelligible noises]. You can't make out what anything is. It's like trying to sort of make something out of a pile of Legos.
America is a fun and exciting place because it's one of the wealthiest countries in the world to dig its heels in the concept of a privatized healthcare system. If you're reading this column, you either are a musician or you know a musician who doesn't have healthcare. (Same goes for many folks who participate in the music industry, including your friendly neighborhood part-time and freelance journalists.) If you are unfamiliar with SMASH, it's an acronym for Seattle Musicians Access to Sustainable Healthcare, and the organization is focused on providing the musical artists of this community with free and affordable medical, dental, and mental health services.
Being as though the pandemic has spotlighted an immediate need for such access, SMASH has reimagined its in-person events for the purposes of continuing to raise funds. Songs of Hope is an inventive event which pairs Seattle artists together with video work provided by All is Well. Tomo Nakayama will be performing with Dave Matthews, the Black Tones will be shredding with Pearl Jam's Mike McCready, Shaina Shepherd will do her magic alongside Duff McKagan, and there will be several more pairings. The event will take place on Sunday, November 22nd at 5pm PST. The event will be free, but you will be given the opportunity to donate if you have the means. Click here to register, for the full bill of artists, and to read more about the event.
Brooklyn-based jazz/hip-hop restless creative Kassa Overall was born and raised in Seattle, so it's of little wonder why the first shot of I Think I'm Good, the Movie is placed right in front of the flagship Ezell's. The narrative of the short film based on his Spring 2020 album of (almost) the same name follows the routes and foibles of an Uber Eats driver, with Overall rapping and speaking a condensed version of his life story in the Ezell's parking lot and a dock somewhere on Lake Washington with resplendent views in the distance.
"I was a joyous child," Overall says over a beautiful jazz composition. "If I was a child." He speaks of memories feeling like dreams deferred and his inspiration to play drums came from his brother, who "picked up the saxophone and sounded like Dexter Gordon."
The driver makes his rounds all over the city -- including an interesting interaction with a customer who observes social distancing by using a garden utensil to pick up his order, and another with Macklemore in a robe, gold chains, and a scowl -- eventually getting pulled over by the cops in his mid-'80s Honda Accord with a window that doesn't roll down. He gets a ticket while the food gets cold, and eventually decides to eat it after the harrowing interaction with the police officer. (Note: If you haven't kept up with the news in the past decade, our interactions as Black people with the cops are always harrowing.)
The short film is full of humor, lightly sprinkled with pathos, and soundtracked by Overall's immense talent as a musician. If it doesn't want to make you want to put on I Think I'm Good, maybe give it another watch. I'm certain you'll find that urge.
Straight from the mind of High Pulp drummer Bobby Gran Felt, straight out of the basement and into our ears comes Inside Voices, a new genre-non-conforming record label featuring artists from Seattle and beyond. The label just released new singles from the intestellar dance of Santa Fe's Teleporter and the astral experimental project sunking, and you can listen to both of those efforts below.
Two of Seattle’s premiere DJs and producers chat about their process ahead of their S’women/Love Memo split vinyl release on Crane City Music.
DoNormaal, The Exploding Hearts, and finding the thread that connects Pacific Northwest music
Seattle hip-hop Kung Foo Grip duo teams up with #based producer Keyboard Kid for their most ambitious work yet