In 2014, Tay Sean’s hip-hop group, Kingdom Crumbs, was asked to fly up to Sitka, Alaska, to perform their new record at the Homeskillet Festival. But there was one major problem. “Nick Galanin, who runs Homeskillet, invited us up,” Tay Sean tells me at a Beacon Hill bar, “and I was like ‘Yo, man, Kingdom Crumbs just broke up.’ ”
The four-piece, featuring MC/producers Tay Sean, Mikey Nice, Jerm D, and Jarv Dee, put out a remarkable self-titled LP back in 2012 that remains one of this city’s most quintessential records—a gorgeous work of urban metaphysical philosophy that connects slapping rhythms from hip-hop’s past to a palpable spiritual and sonic futurism. On the fluttering first track, “Evoking Spirits … ,” Tay Sean delivered Kingdom Crumbs’ idiosyncratic thesis right off the bat: “A higher consciousness is linked intrinsic, we flying mystic/Now homie that ain’t science fiction, that’s scientific.”
After winning well-deserved accolades, the group got together on Orcas Island to start making a follow-up record in 2013 until they hit a roadblock. Due to their busy work lives, kids, and diverging creative pursuits, it became harder and harder to get everyone in the same room. For Tay Sean, unemployed at the time, things were getting frustrating. “I didn’t have a job,” he says. “I didn’t want to get a job, I wanted that to be my job.” Having toured with a fellow outré Seattle rap group, Sub Pop’s Shabazz Palaces, Tay Sean saw the hard work it took to make it in the industry, and was ready to take that next step himself. Others in the group weren’t. So they made a decision. “I don’t think anyone had hard feelings,” he says. “We all kind of saw it coming.” The record Galanin had hoped the group would perform sat in limbo.
Rather than turn down Galanin’s invitation to Alaska outright, Tay Sean, who had performed at the festival twice in other musical projects, decided he’d go up “just to chill,” arriving a week before the festival for some needed downtime. That would change rather quickly when Galanin, who knew Tay Sean had a large body of solo work, asked him if he’d play a solo set. After a bit of badgering, Tay Sean agreed, and got to work throwing a set together over the following seven days.
“It was just me, my laptop, and my shit,” he says. “It just felt different—everything was so smooth, no friction. I’m doing yogic meditation in my hotel room and feeling the Alaska vibes next to these big mountains.” That, Tay Sean says, was the turning point. With Kingdom Crumbs gone, he decided he was going to make that energy into a solo record.
That record, Leavings, released this week on Homeskillet Records, cements Tay Sean’s place as one of Seattle’s most thoughtful artists—one of the few who haven’t forgotten that music, at its core, is a sacred act. Over impeccably self-produced cosmic funk, inventive rhythms, and squelching, extrasolar synths, Leavings asks listeners to reconsider what they really think is important by asserting its own fact-checked cosmology, informed equally by Carl Jung, Carl Sagan, ancient esoteric texts, and physics—or as Tay Sean says in the glistening, hand-drum-driven lead track “Australopithecus,” some “natural mystic shit.”
“I want us to question our evolution and our civilization,” Tay Sean says. “Australopithecus,” named after a “stupid” hominid that humans descended from, asks which way humans are, indeed, evolving. “In America, we have this very linear idea of evolution,” Tay Sean tells me. “I listen to NPR a lot, and they’re always talking about ‘developed countries.’ … Maybe it’s because I was a tribesman in a past life, but I question the direction of ‘progress’ we all accept.” For instance, Tay Sean says, citing NPR again, thanks to increased use of antibiotics, new hyper-resistant superviruses have begun to develop. In agriculture, a similar story is unfolding: After decades of spraying crops with pesticides, the pests are growing stronger and developing unprecedented immunities. “Do we stop to question the direction we’re going, or are we just comfortable with it?” Tay Sean asks.
In the minimalist “I Guess … ,” over walloping whiplike snares and celestial textures, Tay Sean challenges that culture of unquestioning complacency both at large and in the hip-hop community, and what he calls the empty pursuit for social-media “likes.” “They ascendant, I’m offended/’Cause what they represented wasn’t sevens” he says, referencing the sacred symbolism the number holds in a plethora of world cultures and religions. “Your social life’s a popularity contest at best,” he chides.
Tay Sean, naturally an inward-looking truth-seeker, grew up a Jehovah’s Witness. Although he and his family have long since left the flock, the faith’s promise of a coming “paradise Earth” stuck with him. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a beautiful story!’ ” Tay Sean says. “But how do I get that spiritual experience firsthand? It’s some guy on a fucking podium telling you that’s what it is. But via yogic meditation, I’ve felt things I have not ever felt before. After about an hour of doing this shit, I’ll feel a strong vibration going right through my body. I don’t know what the fuck that is, but I’ve felt it—it’s a physical thing, like a lawnmower whirring in my chest.”
Tay Sean attempts to translate that transcendental energy into language and sound on “Kathedral Spectre.” The song’s deft, ever-changing funk bassline, accompanied by disembodied sonic pulses, mimics the vibrational nature of the waves Tay Sean felt—waves he believes serve as one key to triangulating something close to a universal truth: “A lost and found power source flowing/A pinwheel in the middle of my ribcage/It flow through, it don’t come from/A new beat on an old drum,” he intones before the song rips open into a blistering synth solo, screeching like a meteorite.
During our conversation on Beacon Hill, as I attempt to pinpoint the center of Tay’s complex ontology, he touches on everything from electromagnetic fields and scientific studies on the reality-shifting potential of human intention to the multidimensional nature of the universe, string theory, the collective unconsciousness, ying and yang energies, the SETI Institute, and the curious state between waking and sleeping. But at the end of it all, Tay finally boils it down to its core.
“I think me, you, all of us, we just need to be better, man,” he says. “I think it’s interesting just to visualize, what the fuck are the next things, the good things, we could be moving towards? Evolving towards? Where are we going? Because right now, our society has disconnected from the sacred—we don’t care, and I think that lack of concern is one of the root causes of evil in this world. I just want us to realize our potential as beings. I just want to know what humans are really capable of.”