Is there any city whose reputation precedes itself more than Portland, Oregon?
Due to its incredible indie and punk rock legacies, as well as the perpetuation of cultural norms and stereotypes by pieces of media like Portlandia, Portland is largely known for artists like Omaha, Nebraska transplant Elliott Smith, '90s rock band Everclear and for hipsters that have a tendency to pickle that which should not be pickled.
Ask a Portlandian, however, and they'll be the first to tell you that Rip City is also home to a burgeoning hip-hop scene and has been for quite a while. Yes, buried beneath soft, pained murmurings over guitar, pop-punk anthems and overly concerned farm-to-table patrons, lies a hip-hop scene that is stronger than it has ever been.
Like so many other smaller U.S. cities, rap shows and rappers in Portland have long faced intense police scrutiny and concert shutdowns due to negative press and stereotypes about a black art form in a city that is 76.1% white. Gentrification is also brutal in Portland and has effectively displaced countless artists and threatened their livelihoods. Inadvertently, these hurdles have created new scenes in other parts of the city and have bred artistic inspiration through an additional layer of hardship. Worrying about the cost of living and one’s neighborhood does not make being an artist any easier, but it does provide quite the muse.
Recently, though, due to the political efforts of both local artists and promoters, the police have eased off of shows and more people—mainly those in that 76.1%—are beginning to recognize the talent of local Portland rappers as well as the entertainment their shows provide. In 2017, local rappers pack crowds in regularly, whether it be their own or the city’s two monthly showcases.
There’s also the elephant in the room that is Aminé, Portland’s first rapper to reach the gates of national, mainstream stardom. According to several artists I interviewed for this Rap Map, Aminé was not a huge part of the local scene prior to his meteoric rise, but his success has clearly added an extra layer of motivation for local artists who are excited about the spotlight his shine may reflect upon them and Portland.
Aminé’s also actively putting on for his Portland peers, grabbing both The Last Artful, Dodgr (one name) and Bloss0m for his national TV performance debut on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
While the momentum behind Portland hip-hop doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon, more external attention must be captured before rap is as essential to the city as guitar playing poet virtuosos or its NBA players dating older bookshop owners.
To get you more familiar with the Portland hip-hop scene, we have selected five artists (in no particular order) who best represent the city's surging pool of talent.
The Last Artful, Dodgr (@TheLastArtful)
The Last Artful, Dodgr does not identify as a rapper or a singer, even though her music combines elements of both. Instead, she prefers “melodicist,” a term she herself created. It fits perfectly.
Take her Bone Music LP with producer and labelmate Neill Von Tally. From the lyrics to her cadences to the beats, everything is experimental except for the texture of her vocals, which contain natural melodicism that is then amplified by the LA native's artistry.
Songs like “Round 'Ere” have every bit of the intrigue of experimental rap while still maintaining a core catchiness and easy listenability. Basically, if experimental artists like Death Grips are medicine, Dodgr is the gummy candied equivalent. What’s most exciting for Dodgr, though, is what’s coming next.
“As far as my music goes, I just want to say that Bone Music with Neill [Von Tally] was really an art project,” Dodgr told me over the phone. “I wanted to get that out of the way so people can know what I can do, experimentally. Because the kind of music that I’m making now is definitely more poppy. It’s not necessarily poppy, because, you know, hip-hop is pop. It’s super catchy. If you think Bone Music had catchy moments, just wait.”
Dodgr's currently-untitled new album is due sometime next spring.
Mic Capes (@MicCapes_Music)
While some artists are just trying to have a good time—and make no short effort to advertise this fact—others are driven by a higher purpose to create their art. Mic Capes' music decidedly lands in the latter camp.
“I like to write music to educate, motivate, inspire, make people think and make people dissect their own perspectives and come to a new perspective and things like that,” Capes explained. “And also just making music that sounds good.”
Making music that educates and making music that sounds good is a balancing act Capes says is no easy feat and is something he's always conscious of. No matter how important it may be, it's difficult to succeed as an artist if all you do is belabor your listeners to improve and educate themselves. Music at its core has to be enjoyable as well—it has to sound good. To strike this balance, Capes uses everything outside of the lyrics to make the messages they contain more digestible. Capes says he is careful when choosing everything from his beats to flow patterns that “catch the ear” in order to make the medicine go down as easy as possible.
On his 2016 album, Concrete Dreams—a recipient of Willamette Week’s Album of the Year—Capes succeeds in concocting that perfect mixture. Tracks like “Jansport,” with its ear worm beat, aggressive flow, and pensive lyrics cause the head to bounce and the mind to think—at the same time.
Capes is set to release his next EP, Sheesh, on August 25.
A Warner Bros signee, crooner and, at times, a rapper, TYuS is primed to be the next Portland artist to enter the limelight alongside Aminé. Ever the recluse, TYuS spends most of his time in the studio, recording music, and occasionally, watching Netflix.
Emotionally-laden but never sappy, TYuS’ songs are heavy but also float nicely through the mind. Listening to a song like “Billboards” is like signing up for musical acupuncture; a little painful at first but ultimately very soothing and cathartic. His lyrics are also often freewheeling which, when paired with his drum-tight vocals, help keep his tracks from sinking due to the emotional baggage they carry.
“I don’t usually write, I just kind of do it,” says TYuS. “I freestyle it, but record [as it’s happening.] If I do, like, four bars, I just stop and think of the next four with the melody I already have. I call it remembering because I feel like I’m recalling it from memory.”
TYuS’ songs have that same effect while listening—they don’t necessarily recreate or evoke a particularly emotional experience, but rather, they make their presence known gently. TYuS points at the past, while calmly walking forward into the future.
Myke Bogan (@mykebogan)
A label-mate of Dodgr and Von Tally, Myke Bogan is just an everyman living a rapper’s life. Or, is he a rapper living an everyman’s life? He spends time with his kids in Portland, makes music, handles business affairs and when he can, enjoys a joint and a smooth IPA (or two or three).
His lyrics gracefully walk the thin line of giving too much of himself versus giving too little, resulting in the creation of material that listeners can insert themselves into without erasing Myke’s presence entirely.
“I’m just giving you my points, my views, the way that I feel," Bogan explains. “The music is my journal, and I feel like I’m going through what maybe 80% of people are going through. You know I’m broke, I drink, I smoke, and I have these thoughts, or whatever I have, and people relate to it.”
A perfect example of this sentiment is the recently-released single, “Take the Nite Off,” in which he rhymes, “No plug like a drug to stop, do she love me or love me not? I don’t know / I don’t know where this supposed to go, but I know we supposed to smoke around 3 or 4 or 5 or 6-o'clock.”
Who hasn’t been uncertain about the future despite being so content in the moment? It never hurts to know you’re not alone out there, thanks, Myke.
Donte Thomas (@DONTExTHOMAS)
At 23, Donte Thomas is one of Portland’s youngest rappers with the most potential. He is the type of artist who doesn’t discriminate the forms his musical inspirations take, even if they’re non-musical.
“I can find inspiration just walking into the store for 10 minutes, or going on a drive, or going somewhere with a nice view and smoking somewhere, meditating, or you know, playing basketball,” explains Thomas. “I’ll find random inspiration, and just stop what I’m doing and start writing. When I make music, I don’t like to force anything, so I just let it all happen naturally.”
This multi-faceted pool of influences has led Thomas to amass a musically diverse pool of records and projects with vastly different vibes. Compare his 2016 dark conceptual album Grayscale and tracks like “Never Rest,” produced by brandUn DeShay, to his collaborative flora-themed and DOOM-inspired Garden Boys EP with Bocha and “Blossom.”
On his next LP, COLORS, a sequel to Grayscale that is due out this fall, Thomas will focus on his resurgence from the depression that inspired his first LP. In the meantime, though, you can enjoy any of the loosies from his summer-long series, #ServinAllSummer.