Walkman Rotation, a mix CD released last year on Seattle's Conception label, opens with the shout-out: "Where's the 206 at?!" It's a valid question: If the 206 is known for music, why doesn't locally grown hip-hop talent get recognition here or anywhere else?
Longtime members of the community can't connect on an answer. While other music outposts from Atlanta to Chicago to Oakland have grown vital hip-hop scenes, Seattle either hasn't capitalized on its opportunities or it's not focused enough to succeed, depending on whom you ask.
Over a ginger beer in the Speakeasy Cafe, Wordsayer (a.k.a. Jonathan Moore) argues that the scene needs to give itself more credit.
"Before anybody else will recognize Seattle," he says, "Seattle has to recognize itself."
A 10-year hip-hop veteran, Moore is a member of Source of Labor, a rap act with positive, poetic lyrics and a reputation for high-energy performances. He's also a founder of Jasiri Media Group, best known for releasing Maktub's Subtle Ways and hosting jazz-infused hip-hop shows at the 700 Club. Moore is not only unfazed by Seattle's lack of national recognition—he's even leery of seeing the city's scene discovered.
He warns against the natural inclination to instantly strive for mainstream commercial rewards, which can be tempting given the smash hits pumped out by the No Limit and Cash Money crews.
"Whatever you do, do it from a position of empowerment," Moore says.
He suggests that the Northwest's outsider status positively affects the music produced here because it fosters a spirit of cooperation. Rather than trying to brand Seattle, Moore thinks the Northwest needs something like a hip-hop resource directory with information about where to get CDs made, where to get vinyl pressed, and where to get posters and T-shirts printed.
Moore is worried about Seattle being discovered, but Gene Dexter is worried about it getting overlooked. Dexter runs Crazy Pinoy Promotions with one of Seattle hip-hop's most colorful and accomplished figures, Nasty-Nes. The former host of "Freshtracks," Seattle's first hip-hop radio show, Nasty-Nes also started Nasty-Mix Records with Sir Mix-A-Lot and took hip-hop heads all over the country for a ride on Capitol Hill with the late-'80s hit "Posse on Broadway." He's since moved to LA and become rap editor for the trade journal HITS, leaving Dexter in charge of Crazy Pinoy.
Dexter's kept up the momentum, sparking promotional projects aimed squarely at moving Seattle closer to the limelight. For his efforts, the hip-hop magazine Blaze named him a "Ghetto Superstar." (This despite a suave, almost conservative style that could land him in a Brooks Brothers ad.) Still, Dexter says he's frustrated.
"There should be a wake-up call in Seattle right now, about what it's going to take for Seattle, and for the Northwest, to succeed in this game," he says. Speaking from a marketing perspective, Dexter says this city's artists should capitalize on its name recognition. "Seattle is a brand, and artists have got to start thinking on a business level," he says.
A few years ago, Dexter tried to catalyze the scene. His idea was to assemble a mix CD of local hip-hop artists, which he'd then send out to 200 influential industry types. He'd enclose the contact information for each of the acts, along with an exhortation: "Are you feeling any of these guys? Give them a call!" The plan never came to fruition, Dexter says, because he couldn't find hip-hop artists who were willing to participate—everyone blew him off.
AS HOSTS OF the Sunday night KCMU show "Street Sounds," Mr. Supreme and Kutfather probably think about the state of the local hip-hop scene more than any of their peers. Along with partner Strath Shepard, Mr. Supreme also has a hand in Conception Records, the label that released the Walkman Rotation (mixed by J-Rocc of the World Famous Beat Junkies), and more recently the album Passage Through Time, from Vancouver's da Grassroots.
Mr. Supreme and Kutfather cite two main obstacles that keep Seattle artists from registering in the country's hip-hop consciousness.
The first is that the city lacks a dedicated urban radio station: KUBE focuses on hits, and KCMU includes only sporadic hip-hop programming outside the "Street Sounds" show. "There's only so much we can do with two hours a week," Kutfather says, in reference to his 6 to 8 pm slot.
Mr. Supreme says that the second stumbling point is a dearth of ambition among local hip-hop artists. "I think a lot of people here are lazy," he says. "I know rappers who are good; they might not be the best, but they could do something. But they don't come to the studio and work on their art. They go hang out down at the mall or something."
As for solutions, Kutfather sounds a familiar call for unity, but also offers some sage advice that's particularly suited to the hip-hop model. "In order to succeed," he says, "you need to be the person doing so much for yourself that you don't have time to judge people. You just got to do your thing."