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The hip-hop scene in Seattle is synonymous with Blue Scholars. They helped blazed the path for so many other artists in the Puget Sound area.
The two-person group formed at University of Washington in 2002 and are known for using their music as activism. They are not shy in content—rapping about everything from gentrification to racism, to policy issues and addiction.
Quickly, Northwest fame had Blue Scholars opening for names like Kanye West and De La Soul. From 2006 to 2011, they toured the country, spending more and more time in cities like New York. Tour life was hectic and grabbing food on the go. Spending time away from family and community. So come 2013, one-half of Blue Scholars—Geo Cheboygan—decided to take a half-baked idea and turn it into a Seattle reality.
Geo’s new day job is running two businesses in Seattle with his wife Chera Amlag. One is a bakery, the other is a cafe and bar. They’re both called Hood Famous, which is named after how this all started—Chera’s “hood famous ube cheesecake.” Their business started as catering gigs in 2013 and Chera would make these delicious purple cheesecakes that started getting neighborhood buzz. In 2016, Hood Famous Bakeshop in Ballard opened it’s small door. It is almost literally a hole in the wall establishment, with just a counter for service of baked goods.
Geo says, “There's nowhere to sit, nowhere to hang out. [Hood Famous Bakeshop] is built out of front counter so that people can come in. I was inspired by being able to travel as a musician. Even though there wasn't any models for that here in [Seattle], but in New York, there's tons of those places.”
I met Geo at the newer Hood Famous Cafe and Bar which opened in 2019 in the International District. This place is an extension of the successful Ballard location. At this location, there’s a full bar, baked goods, and a bit of a cafe bar menu. Everything Hood Famous does is Filipino inspired, through ingredients and flavors.
“That's what I grew up on. Both my parents are from the Philippines; both Chera's parents are out of Philippines. We're second generation Filipino Americans. And that's our love language. As an artist, for myself, it's a form of expression,” Geo says.
There’s a scrappiness to how Geo makes art. This started at a young age, in Bremerton, Washington, where he grew up in the 90s. Where there wasn’t exactly a rap scene, he made one. Geo would be the only rapper in a community talent show filled with young dancers and singers. That drive and DIY approach has translated into who Geo is today.
“Hip hop music, specifically the improvisation, at least in the era that I grew up in, when we freestyle the lab and things like that is, I think, a translatable into navigating kitchen life or even working the floor.
Music and food and hospitality go hand in hand: crafting menus like sequencing an album, the succession of reading a menu lists should be similar to the kind of expression that you get from one song said the next album. And with industry stuff, you got to have thick skin. Like a bad Yelp review will not hurt my feelings. I've been booed off stage, you know? There's just a kind of resiliency that I feel like I've brought into here that comes from having done music and work as independent artists.”
Geo is still making music as an independent artist. For his solo work he goes by the name Prometheus Brown.
In August, he headlined the Chinese-International District Block Party. The block party’s tagline is “Our love letter to Asian Pacific American music, arts, culture, and community.” Which feels like a perfect way to describe the art that Geo makes: “A love letter to the Asian Pacific American community.”
In Hood Famous, I watch Geo move around and talk with staff members, who are obviously friends. I see him check on food and step in to make cocktails. He is moving rhythmically in everything he does.
Geo tells me, “I’m most moved by music and food. So I take that seriously. If you're out there and you listen to my music or you're out there and you're having food. I've either created with my hands where I can conceptualize and tried to make with consistency and intention and originality. I don't take that lightly. I think even more so with food, because you're literally putting that in your body. You know that that is such a degree of trust, that I don't mind putting my story in there.”
Geo’s Day Job may have shifted, but he’s still putting his story into everything he creates. His craft. Geo says that Blue Scholars is still a group—they always will be—and they could drop new music at any moment. But until then, he’s still finding rhythm and beats and rhymes in everything from building menus to shaking cocktails.
After recording this piece, Geo Quibuyen and his wife Chera Amlag closed both locations of Hood Famous indefinitely amongst and industry wide shutdown because of COVID-19. Quibuyen says he's uncertain what the future of Hood Famous looks like now.
"As it stands right now, without massive, massive relief on a federal level, as much assistance as we can get with rent deferral, rent abatement and just relying on the community as well, you know, people pitching in, it's going to take so much to just stay afloat. We're determined to try to make it work. We're not going to go down without a fight. But unless some massive safety net gets put in place for our entire industry, as it even looks now, even with that, there will be a lot of places that that won't be reopening. If and when we get to a point where our spaces can reopen," Quibuyen says.
Hood Famous started a relief fund here.
Thirty-three years after his first release on the label, Mudhoney’s frontman is still shipping out copies of his records as the Sub Pop warehouse manager. This is part of Sound & Vision’s Day Jobs series which explores musicians who juggle day jobs with their passion in music.
Lindsey Kaghan of the band Salt Lick on her day job at a barber shop.