Suede Watch #1: Ark Flashington

Interviews, Local Music
Martin Douglas
Photos by Martin Douglas

Suede Watch is a new column (whose origins can be found in the archives of Throwaway Style) where we catch up with AJ Suede, one of the rap underground’s stalwart talents, on his latest project. Read Martin Douglas’s review of Suede’s latest release, Ark Flashington — and listen to the review and an exclusive interview with AJ Suede— below.

Now that AJ Suede — East Coast-transplant turned bicoastal torchbearer of Northwest rap — has been putting out multiple releases a year for over half a decade, much of his output comes in the form of album-length collaborations with the global rap underground’s stalwart talents. In the past 18 months alone, he’s teamed up with Philly’s Small Professor on last year’s immersive and weird Hundred Year Darkness and recorded two full-length projects with Portland-based producer Televangel (including this year’s truly excellent Parthian Shots). He’s also released two proper solo albums, and the seventh installment of his groundbreaking Darth Sueder series could essentially be characterized as a compilation album; he produced all of its ten tracks but only appears as a vocalist on a handful.

Ark Flashington, Suede’s third full-length of 2023, came about primarily because he is sitting on two fully completed collaborative LPs waiting for the right release date (check out the exclusive audio interview to find out what's on deck). As the aphorism goes about idle hands, Suede has a hard time not working on new music. He’s a workaholic just as much as an artiste, and he makes enormous bales of hay while the sun shines, as his contemporaries on the local level balk at the hustle it takes to earn a similar spot in the rap marketplace.

And it’s not just about the hustle required to make your way through a particularly pernicious time in the music industry. It’s about spending as much time as you can on your craft to get better at it. In the five years since Darth Sueder first donned the black cloak, AJ Suede has deepened every aspect of his art substantially, and with that high level of work came fans from many corners of the world.

Making mainstream money out of the trunk — that’s the dream for many self-made artists.

Confidence is a big part of what makes a piece of art good; it’s important for people to hear someone who believes in themselves. And that’s not to say Suede has ever sounded like he has ever lacked confidence; in fact, his quiet confidence has carried at least a dozen albums out of his exhaustive output. But on Ark Flashington, Suede knows he’s that dude. Touring with ShrapKnel, touring with R.A.P. Ferriera, getting critical acclaim from national outlets. After all these years, indie rap fanatics are finally catching up with Suede God.

The command of Suede’s confidence is apparent from Ark Flashington’s opening track, “Alternating Currents.” Over lush strings and the subtle knock of kick drums, Suede shirks old grudges in favor of “a couple blue C-notes,” shrugs off people’s lack of character, fields respect from the gangstas despite not enlisting in the cocaine trade, cycles between sweatpants, and stashes his checks while other rappers wear designer clothes into bankruptcy. And sneaks in a choice Sopranos reference for good measure.

There is a grizzled maturity in Suede’s words on Ark Flashington, even when he raps of engaging in NSFW activities with Lady Liberty. He drops jewels other rappers are reluctant to put into their saddlebags because they’re only obsessed with phantoms like streams and social media props. Others have heeded the scriptures of the Suede God’s holy book of financial cultivation and have earned themselves a comfortable living. Suede encourages mental and emotional growth through books and therapy; he notes “showing up is only half the battle,” you must follow through.

But he’s still nasty enough to kill any domestic or foreign threat with his setlist. 

Ark Flashington doesn’t just offer life lessons, as Suede is an upper-level MC and not a dreadlocked Tony Robbins. Coming into his own as both a rapper and a producer has found him comfortable in his artistic identity, adding weight to his observations (“A waterfront view in the most expensive city”) and meditations on America’s ongoing War on Black People (“Remember how they treated Black soldiers after ‘Nam?”). His flows often form to the beats he raps over rather than the other way around: “Tesla Coil” has a circular rhyme pattern much akin to how he sidesteps jealousy like ball players. “Most Black Superheroes” bounces along with the staticky instrumental; Suede floats along with the languid trumpet sample on “Radiation.” 

“Wrong Things” sounds like it could be easily recreated on MTV Unplugged; “Tesla Coil” finds the most interesting corners of the sample to flip — much like peak RZA — rather than just looping the intro or an instrumental bridge. 

Just back from a European tour on the verge of an album-length collaboration with R.A.P. Ferriera, he rhymes alongside the indie-rap stalwart (billed here under his Scallops Hotel moniker) on a summery “No Brainer” — reminiscent of their excellent 2020 song “Suede Yacht.” Ferriera's verse unfolds masterfully over the breezy sample; lamenting the demise of friendships and restaurants with cheap plastic forks and chicken that tastes like wood. Ark Flashington continues to Suede’s tendency as a producer to go for more major key samples rather than darker sounding stuff (while still making it sound hard as fuck). 

So when he crafts a work that leans on eerie dramatics, it hits even harder. After great verses from Suede and Nebraska’s Sleep Sinatra, “Fame and 4chan” cedes nearly half of its running time to a truly spectacular Teller Bank$ verse. It’s a crescendo of emotion emotion where the tension builds to the point where Bank$ sounds like he’s rapping in all caps (“NO, I DON’T HIM BUT I KNOW WHERE HE POST AT”) — and finally breaks when he allows the packs to fly after a Biblical flood.

Suede already has two more albums in the can. In a lot of ways, Ark Flashington only exists because of the long-term planning that goes with a release strategy. But as a top artist in any field knows, you’ve gotta keep your skills sharp, and Suede deletes more work from his hard drive in a month than many rappers accumulate in a year. 

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