The Physics: Seattle’s Boys of Summer

There's more than meets the eye to the city's sunniest hip-hop group.

Some might call The Physics the least ambitious outfit in Seattle’s growing hip-hop scene.

Whereas conventional modern-rap wisdom suggests providing a constant flow of concerts and leaked singles to stay fresh in the minds of fickle fans, the trio of MC Thig Natural, producer Just “Justo” D’Amato, and hypeman/MC Monk Wordsmith have played only a limited number of shows since the 2007 release of their first and only LP Future Talk.

At first glance, it might seem as if The Physics’ disconnection from the hype machine is a strategic error. But Thig disagrees. Driving around Seattle in his black Acura TL while listening to his group’s phenomenal sophomore effort Love Is a Business, set to be released this Saturday, the MC explains how The Physics’ controlled visibility is actually a calculated bet on quality over quantity.

“We are trying to blow up,” he insists. “We value our art and what we put out, and want it to be top-quality, so it’s a challenge trying to put out enough music to satisfy people. But the music is more important than anything else. If you focus on that, then everything will work out.”

And work out everything has, or at least has begun to. Last May’s Three Piece was one of the best local hip-hop records of the year—even stacked against releases from heavyweights like Blue Scholars and Macklemore—and it sported only three tracks. Songs like “I Heart Beer,” which has been featured on a number of local notable mixtapes like dj100proof’s “Backyard BBQ” series, have become more than summer classics—they’re Seattle classics too, and the feel-good sing-alongs that are The Physics’ infrequent concerts are a testament to that fact.

But there’s another reason The Physics don’t play as many shows or release as many albums as their peers. As Central Washington University graduates, they don’t just have day jobs, they have careers.

Producer Justo does research in molecular genetics for biotech pioneer Amgen. And in addition to knowing his way around a Leica—his photos are often featured in Pioneer Square’s monthly art walk, alongside those of fellow MC Prometheus Brown from Blue Scholars—Thig also works at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. So in reality, not only are The Physics making some of Seattle’s best music, they’re doing it in their very limited spare time.

Helping with the effort are some of the city’s best instrumentalists. Trumpeter Owuor Arunga and guitarist Eben Haase regularly join The Physics onstage, as do vocalists Malice and Mario Sweet, who released their own stellar neo-soul project, Happy 2 Year, around Valentine’s Day. Carving themselves a niche as the scene’s “Boys of Summer”—unintentionally, as they tell it—The Physics have capitalized on a wildly catchy sound punctuated by soul samples, guitar riffs, and horns paired with conversational lyrics. Inspired by kicking back with friends, beer-drinking, and the undeniable truth that it’s hard to find a place more beautiful than Seattle on a sunny day, the bright feel just seems to happen, says Justo. “When we first made Future Talk, we weren’t thinking that we had a Seattle summer vibe,” he says in the basement studio of his West Seattle home. “People said that, and it makes sense to us now, but we just like to have fun when we make music, and I think that comes across as a lightheartedness that people can relate to.”

But even the summer sound isn’t something The Physics are willing to limit themselves to. Love Is a Business is not only the group’s most exciting and developed effort, but also its most mature. Soulful and full of instrumentals, nearly the entire 13-track record was crafted in-camp with the exception of a few production assists (by Jake One, P Smoov, Bean One, DJ Nphared) and a handful of guest vocals (from Little Brother’s Phonte, J. Pinder, and Maniac B). And the album carries a message—which makes sense coming from career-minded MCs—of striking a balance between work and play.

Even the album’s structure is different. Taking inspiration from golden-era artists like Pete Rock & CL Smooth, who favored beat intros before key songs on their records, some of LIAB‘s tracks get their own interludes—a piano line here, a doo-wop a cappella section there.

And just in case anyone still has doubts about their ambitions, The Physics have two aces up their sleeve: Digital Wildlife, an electro-R&B record due out later this year, and a host of shows along the West Coast. Love is a business, sure, but the balance between the two is one The Physics are still perfecting.

“If we blow, that would be dope,” says Justo. “But for now we’re just having fun.”