Food & Culture

Arts: Seattle’s Rap Party

The sound that is now defining Seattle

By Dan Ray May 29, 2023

Burien’s Travis Thompson, rap artist, at Day in Day Out Fest 2021

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Seattle has never wanted to be cool — and that’s precisely what makes it so. When the grunge movement of the ’90s sprung to the forefront of mainstream American culture, Kurt Cobain’s ripped jeans and thrifted cardigans did so in direct opposition to perfectly over-tweezed eyebrows and super-synchronized boy bands.

As Clark Humphrey writes in the introduction to the 1999 edition of Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story, “The ‘Seattle Scene’ … was never about clothes or images or rock stars. It always was, and still is, all about the (people) who loved music. At its most ambitious level, it wasn’t and isn’t about supplying product to the corporate music establishment but about building alternatives to that establishment.”

As with any overnight success, grunge had been bubbling under the surface long before anyone outside of Seattle noticed it. It wasn’t until 1991 that we saw the meteoric rise of the genre with bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains. The Seattle scene also featured many lesser-known bands with women in them, like Hammerbox and The 7 Year Bitch. Kurt Cobain got the idea for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” when Kathleen Hanna, the front woman of Olympia’s Bikini Kill, scrawled the title phrase on Cobain’s hotel room wall. Teen Spirit, unbeknownst to Cobain, was a deodorant brand.

And now, 30 years later, the city is seeing the same pattern with a different genre: rap.

Seattle’s rap story more or less begins in 1992, when, amidst the grunge hoopla, the city’s OG rapper, Sir Mix-a-Lot, hit it big with “Baby Got Back.” The track reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts, went double platinum (meaning it sold at least 2 million copies), and won the 1993 Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance. Out of context, Mix’s rise alongside grunge may not make much sense, but, in reality, Mix was just as counterculture as Kurt.

Out of context, Mix’s rise alongside grunge may not make much sense, but, in reality, Mix was just as counterculture as Kurt.

The music video for “Baby Got Back” features Mix dancing on top of ass-shaped sand dunes and unabashedly praising the bodies of Black women while simultaneously denouncing the “beanpole dames” popularized by white media at the time. It became one of the most requested music videos on MTV, but the network relegated its play to after 9 p.m. due to complaints from cable networks and (white) viewers. 

In an even more counterculture move, Mix bought a limo to drive around town in with the earnings from “Baby Got Back.” This may seem like a stereotypical celebrity choice, but for Mix, it was about as anti-establishment as it could get. In the original 1995 introduction of Loser, Humphrey writes, “Of the people who’ve made it big, only Sir Mix-a-Lot drives a limo, and he does it out of Black-middle-class materialism, not showbiz affectations.” In other words, Mix wanted to prove Black people can have nice things, too (whether they be limos or butts).

Throughout the early 2000s, a few other artists achieved notoriety within the scene — duO Blue Scholars formed in 2002 and opened for Kanye West in 2006, and Sol’s 2012 album, “Yours Truly,“ reached No. 1 on the iTunes U.S. Hip Hop Album charts — but it wasn’t until February of 2013, when Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop’’ reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts, that Seattle’s rap got noticed nationwide again for, you guessed it, promoting counterculture.

The 52 Kings among the rap artists drawing attention to Seattle music

Photo by Zen Wolfgang

Prominently uncool, the song urges listeners to say no to designer goods and yes to their grandpa’s coat, a plot line unheard of at the time amidst the popularization of smart phones and the first big boom of online shopping consumerism. In an even more mainstream-defying feat, “Thrift Shop” was the first independent song since Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You)” in 1994 to reach No. 1 on the charts.

Seattleites have mixed feelings on Macklemore, but his effect on the city’s rap scene can’t be denied. In July of 2015, in partnership with MoPop and Arts Corps, Macklemore and his producer, Ryan Lewis, founded The Residency, a rap boot camp for aspiring Seattle hip hoppers from low-income families. In the program, students learn how to navigate the music business, develop artistic and leadership skills, and meet mentors to help them build their careers.

The year-round program culminates in a month-long summer intensive in which participants write, record, and perform their own songs. In the (almost) eight years since its founding, we’ve already seen participants rise to national fame: Travis Thompson, a rapper from Burien whose 2021 album, “BLVD BOY,” featured G-Eazy and Juicy J, is probably the most notable graduate. Thompson also made an appearance in Reservation Dogs, an FX show about a group of Indigenous teenagers living on a reservation in Oklahoma. Another grad of note is producer and R&B artist Talaya, who has not yet received national attention but whose work ethic and career trajectory reminds me of TRAKGIRL.

The Residency isn’t the only place churning out Seattle rappers, though. Macntaj, a Ghanaian rapper based in the Emerald City, signed with Bloc Star Evolution in 2021. Lil Mosey rose to fame in early 2020 when his single “Blueberry Faygo” reached No. 8 on the Billboard charts. (Mosey has since faced legal trouble.) Blake Anthony has more than 170,000 monthly listeners on Spotify.

And those are just the artists that have already made headway in the national market — a truly difficult feat in Seattle’s insular scene. This was true in the ’90s, too. Humphrey writes, “Seattle was isolated from the record industry … there was no established path for a local band to rise out of the local clubs, and those clubs were few and sparsely attended. We’d always had talented people but didn’t have the infrastructure to support them — until somebody got the idea to promote local records directly to the underground.”

For a while, that underground of today’s rap scene was hidden in people’s basements or at shows in one-off venues you only heard about if you were already in on it. From what I’ve witnessed as a Seattle music journalist since 2017, this was mostly due to the inability to get venues to book rap shows. As grunge brewed its sludgy riffs and ripped jeans in opposition to peppy pop and glitter makeup, Seattle’s rap scene simmered in a city suffocated by a growing wealth gap and an overwhelming amount of white people.

As grunge brewed its sludgy riffs and ripped jeans in opposition to peppy pop and glitter makeup, Seattle’s rap scene simmered in a city suffocated by a growing wealth gap and an overwhelming amount of white people.

Most major cities in the U.S. (I checked New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Houston) have a white population that hovers between 45% and 55%. Seattle’s is about 63%, and its Black population is just over 7%. 

Post pandemic (read: post America’s racial awakening), the underground sprung to the forefront. Rap shows have been popping up all over the city. Cafe Racer, now located on Capitol Hill, seems to be the spot to find yet-unknown talent. Marshall Law Band hosts a summer concert series called Fremont Fridays at LTD Bar & Grill in Fremont that features new acts every week. Hrvst House is a hip-hop record label and collective that teams up with local businesses to host events all around the city. But I’ve probably been to the most rap shows at Barboza,  a 200-capacity basement underneath its big-sister venue Neumos. 

Seattle-based R&B artist Liv is often the opening act for Seattle rap shows.

Photo by JP Martin Photography

On that stage, I’ve seen everything from Jango, a fast-talking rapper out of Spokane who starts his shows wearing a ski mask and ends them sweating, shirtless, and maskless, to Perry Porter, a rapper and painter who floods his stages with real-time art and dance. Throughout the rest of the city, there’s Liv, a thoughtful and melodic artist who leans more R&B than hip hop but opens for countless rap shows.

You can catch Carter Costello, a rapper who was hit by a rideshare driver and used the money he won in a settlement to buy a house he’s turning into a venue (you can read the article I wrote about that in the November/December 2022 issue of this magazine). Or Rell Be Free, an eloquent educator whose music begs an active listen in a quiet corner with a cup of coffee. There’s Nobi, NËSTRÄ, DRE4M C4ST, De’Brea Cavaiani, I Am Chamel, 52 Kings, Pompeiii, The Rhetorician, Sin the Slime, B Boy Fidget, Charlie Cash. I could go on.

My point is, the current rap scene is so full it’s bursting, ready to boil over to the national market. Grunge saturated the Seattle scene before it made its way to the big-time, and now rap is doing the same. It’s only a matter of time before the mainstream starts to notice, ready for a respite from the drudgery of popular culture. But what the national market doesn’t (and may never) realize, is that Seattle has never been and will never be a city of one musical genre — it’s a city of simmering slowly, of letting talent cook until it’s so perfectly tantalizing, foreigners can’t help but take a bite.

I wouldn’t be surprised if in another 30 years we see a new movement brewing, with the locals confused as to why everyone else only remembers the city for rap or that grunge heyday from when their grandparents were growing up. Maybe this time it’s a movement based on performing in front of real people instead of hologramming in from your living room or playing Earth music while everyone else has moved on to music made on Mars. Let’s check back in 2053.

But for now, go see a rap show.

Join The Must List

Sign up and get Seattle's best events delivered to your inbox every week.

Follow Us

Datebook: Fall Arts Finds

Datebook: Fall Arts Finds

A look at some of the upcoming season’s hottest works

As the long, hot days of summer melt away into cooler temps and earlier evenings, Seattleites are about to make the seasonal shift toward indoor activities. While monthly art walks and occasional museum visits are popular year-round, for those in the know, back-to-school sales also signal the start of Fall Arts: the time of year…

A City by Design

A City by Design

Seattle Design Festival seeks to create equitable, thriving communities

THE LARGEST DESIGN FESTIVAL in the Pacific Northwest is right around the corner, and organizers are asking residents to weigh in on Seattle’s future self. The Seattle Design Festival, which began in 2011, runs from Aug. 19-24. It features interactive cultural events across the city with an overarching theme of “Curiosity.” Festival organizers anticipate that…

Blender Bender

Blender Bender

Seattle's experience research lab tells stories through artwork, installations and architecture

Back in March 2021 — just as the drab Seattle winter started to give way to lighter days and slightly higher temperatures — a storefront niche on the always-thronged corner of Capitol Hill’s Pike and Broadway intersection underwent a transformation. Formerly an easy-to-miss entryway sandwiched between a coffee shop and Neighbours Nightclub, the small, windowed…

Discovering Taylor Swift

Discovering Taylor Swift

A mosh-pit era music fan attends the Taylor Swift concert and finds a culture of kindness in Seattle

The takeover was complete. King County Council named July 18th-25th Taylor Swift Week, “for serving as a positive role model for women and girls,” the proclamation read. She would become the first artist to play Lumen Field two nights in a row. I said to myself: that’s cool, with a shrug. I was not a Taylor…