After performing on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in support of Macklemore (aka Ben Haggerty) alongside fellow Emerald City rapper Dave B. (aka Dave Bowman) and world-famous DJ Premiere last year, Travis Thompson got stoned with two of his best friends atop his Times Square hotel. The moment, both in metaphor and in real life, was a high point for the Seattle-born lyricist. But, Thompson hopes, it won’t be the last view from atop a peak on the landscape.
“We were watching Fallon in our hotel room,” says Thompson, who recently turned 22. “As soon as it was over, my phone kept blowing the fuck up. Every single person I knew—I had to leave it in the room. We snuck up to the top of the hotel, snuck up the fire escape, and smoked a blunt. My manager, Shelton, looked at me and said, ‘No one can ever take that away from you. Regardless of what happens next.’ That moment sticks with me, man; it alleviated a lot of pressure in my life.”
On Fallon, the four performed “Corner Store,” a track released this year on Macklemore’s latest solo record, Gemini. At this writing, the video for “Corner Store” boasts nearly 25 million YouTube views. It was Thompson who came up with the concept for the song—hanging out with friends outside a corner store at 2 a.m.—which became an important single for the record. But none of that would have happened had Thompson, the melodic, nasally rapper, not known deep in his heart that he was meant to be a performer.
It’s impossible to talk about Thompson’s career and not mention Ambaum Boulevard. The Burien thoroughfare is Thompson’s home turf, a place where he still feels a deep connection. He even named his first LP after the arterial. After seeing that record, famed Seattle hip-hop producer Jake One sent Thompson a beat to use. The gift was a big moment for Thompson’s burgeoning young career and signified the importance of keeping true to his roots.
“Ambaum feels forgotten about,” explains Thompson, whose LP YouGood? has amassed much admiration since its May release. “People know Burien, they know of Ambaum because it’s a long road, but it does feel forgotten about. Like, no one is really proud to be from Ambaum. But it’s the street I grew up skating on every day. It’s how our community was connected. It taught me to take pride in where I come from no matter where you’re at. In that way, everyone has an Ambaum. Everyone can relate to that feeling.”
But Thompson, in another way, has more than one home. His father, a Native American who split time as a young man between White Center and the Navajo reservation in Fort Defiance, Arizona, took the young Thompson back and forth between the two to see his family. As a result, Thompson has a deep connection to both. “A lot of love comes from there,” Thompson says. “In fact, we just played a show in Mesa, Arizona, which is hours from Fort Defiance, but all these different Natives from all these different tribes came out to see us. It was all family, man. The whole show was Native. It was super-wild!”
Thompson started rapping when he was 10, writing his own rhymes over Lil Wayne mixtape beats. But, he says, he quit in high school because he thought he wasn’t good enough. Nevertheless, he joined Seattle organization Youth Speaks—which has fostered the careers of many local artists, including Grammy-nominated musicians Mary Lambert and Hollis Wong-Wear—and he continued to write. He performed poetry and learned from watching others perform music and stand-up.
Youth Speaks “was a space for us to be ourselves,” Thompson remembers. “The homies were there rapping. I knew I wanted to do that but I wasn’t tight enough then, so I just did poetry.” Ever the artistic sponge, Thompson soaked it all in. “Eventually I got enough money working at a pizza place, and I bought a mic when I was 17. I used my sister’s MacBook and Garage Band to record.”
All his hard work is now paying off. Thompson, a graduate of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ youth hip-hop program The Residency, recently performed on the Sirius XM show Sway in the Morning, earning respect from one of the most respected figures in hip-hop, Sway Calloway. And after finishing a handful of tour dates in cities like Denver and Portland, Thompson is now preparing for his biggest headlining show to date, this Friday at The Showbox. He received an offer to play the famed venue after opening for Macklemore at KeyArena a year ago.
“It didn’t really hit me until, like, two days ago,” Thompson says. “I’ve been home for a few days from tour and we were driving past The Showbox. I was like, ‘Oh, shit, it’s December! The show is in two weeks!’ I saw my name up there and that’s when it hit me. Man, my dad took me to shows there my whole life. I was a kid in the cold and rain waiting on that corner to see a show at The Showbox.”
The show will mark another high point in Thompson’s career—and again he’ll share it with friends, the people who have helped keep him grounded and connected to those early days skating along Ambaum Boulevard. One compatriot, Jordan Santana, is Thompson’s tour drummer. The two have known each other since first grade. Thompson, Santana’s former drum tech, helped him set up the kit before neighborhood gigs. “The homies that I keep around in my life,” Thompson says, “are integral to keeping the music the way it’s supposed to be.”
This balance is key for the young rapper, especially in maintaining his mental health. Thompson, whose songs often include lines about drinking and smoking, also touches on themes of alienation, confusion, and intense introspection. Examples of this on YouGood? are the moody “Nothing 2 Do” and hypnotic “Fix Me.” “Mental health is definitely something I’m working through,” Thompson admits, “figuring out how to take care of myself. What makes it worse is how self-aware I am, how I can feel shit hella hard even when it’s not that serious. It can make everything worse. And when things start going well, you question where you find meaning and what’s going to fulfill you. Artists can get in bad headspaces. At the same time, it’s not a problem that’s specific to me. I’m definitely not alone.” When Thompson is onstage, he’s most assuredly not alone. In fact, he’s often surrounded by hundreds or thousands of fans, some even sporting YouGood? tattoos.
“When I step onstage, it all feels worth it,” he says. “As shitty as it can get, these kids came out to have a great time. They’ve invested their own money, they’ve told their friends to come out. They get their parents to take them to the shows. They got the night or the next day off. Knowing that so many people have taken the time to contribute to a dream I’ve had since I was 10 makes the whole shit worth it.”
Friday, December 21 | The Showbox | $20–$25