On Portland’s hip-hop

On Sept. 28, KPSU threw the first of what will become a quarterly event entitled, “SUP, PSU!? (A Hip-Hop Orientation)” at the Meetro Cafe, which went a long way into demonstrating that this city is more than hipsters, Portlandia and microbrews. Local activist Ahjamu Umi gave a teach-in on hip-hop culture with some of the realest talk those attended may have ever heard. After that, there were dope performances by Madgesdiq, DJs Matt Nelkin and Verbz, in addition to Portland rhyme veteran Mic Crenshaw.

All four have been grinding on the local scene for a long time, and they have the credentials to prove it. Madgesdiq comes from the Stoudamire family—known for former Portland Trailblazer and NBA All-Star Damon Stoudamire—and was a celebrated ball player in the area himself. He eventually suited up for the Georgetown Hoyas, but opted out to pursue something he loved more: hip-hop, albeit with a Rastafarian spin. Mic Crenshaw has been ripping mics in PDX since the ‘90s, and his socially conscious lyricism has enabled him to collaborate with famous acts like Dead Prez. Nelkin is owner and CEO of music label Liquid Beat Records, and his radio show at KPSU, Liquid Beat, also runs on the KLCC family of public radio stations. Verbz is a Portland State alumni who has been making a lot of noise in the local music scene, regularly DJ’ing for Madgesdiq, Top and Grey Matters, among others.

At the end of the festivities, the Vanguard had a chance to sit down with all four of these dynamic individuals and discuss the state of hip-hop in Portland.

Vanguard: What is the state of the scene in Portland right today?

Mic Crenshaw: I came here in the early ‘90s, 20-something years ago. We’re about 30 years deep into the Portland hip-hop scene. From my understanding, there was the first generation; U-Krew, Soul Rhythm Soldiers, Pros and Cons, Five Fingers of Funk was on the latter part of that. And people have continued to add on to that.

Verbz: I think it’s a little buried right now. We’re a city that’s known for indie music and you kinda don’t get the respect if you’re a hip-hop artist. You have fewer venues to go to. You have more rules that you run into, like dress codes at venues. More venues closing down that have anything to do with hip-hop. So it’s harder and harder to find spaces to do it and to provide places for talented artists to get their music out. It’s living online, you gotta go look for it. It’s not being thrown at you, it’s not on the radio, it’s not on your TV screen, but…..it’s there. We have producers and emcees that could out-rap 90 percent of America, but they gotta get heard. They gotta get heard.

VG: It seems that every fifth person I meet in this town is in a band. With all these people making music, how come hip-hop doesn’t have a bigger spot at the table?

Madgesdiq: I think it has a lot to do with the demographics, ya know? Like my man Verbz said, this is an indie rock type of city. A lot of the younger generation is gonna be able to help that, know what I mean? I think it still lends an opportunity to create something. A lot of the cities you go to, there’s a sound that’s developed. Here in Portland it’s a small place and it’s a very clique-ish place. You can hit six, seven different neighborhoods and everything’s different, but it’s like that with music too. You may have this cat over here doing a Bay Area hip-hop style. Somebody over here may be doing more like a Wu-Tang type vibe. Then you got cats who are on that New School type vibe, so there’s no chemistry in terms of like a lot of the artists. There’s a lot of people doing it, but the togetherness is just within the clique. Whereas you go to Atlanta or New York there’s a sound that’s definitive and everybody jumps on that sound and people can rep that. But here everybody’s kinda doin’ their own thing. That’s not negative, but it’s hard already because it’s a small market and then if you don’t have that centerpiece of things to bring it together then everybody’s just doing it on their own.

VG: What are your thoughts on Portland not having an identifying indigenous sound as far as hip-hop goes?

Matt Nelkin: I don’t know if I have a very thoughtful answer for that, and this is indicative of my generation, so I’m speaking from when I came up. A lot of the hip-hop that I identified with from the Northwest took its cue from New York. There were people that identified with different regions, like Madgesdiq was saying, I looked to some of the records that were coming out of Seattle around that time in ’95-’96, Source Of Labor, The Ghetto Children, and that’s kinda what I identified as a Northwest sound. The Jake Ones, Preem La Rock and in a lotta ways I saw the Lifesavas as a continuation of that. I put a lot of support into them when they got signed to Solesides/Quannum, I was genuinely excited about that and felt it was indicative, in my own personal experience, of that sound. That era is over. And that’s my generation, but that era is over. Not saying that they’re over, all those people are still making great music and involved in music in big ways and they’re still my musical heroes. I think it’s just representative of when I grew up and that’s what I look for, and that’s what I like. I’m not always drawn to Portland music, I’m always drawn to good music. The good music that moves me personally, and I try not to put down anything, this is just my personal opinion as a DJ and a human, that’s what I enjoy.