Portland is home to a small but vibrant hip-hop community that has been creating a buzz in recent years. But like many local music scenes, it has been devastated by the fallout from the pandemic and rocked by the social justice protests that swept across the country last year. Portland was at the center of these protests and, in many ways, its hip-hop artists as well. As live music returns to the city, a new generation of resilient young artists – inspired in part by activism – is leading the way.
Vursatyl The Great was there at the very beginning. He’s arguably the closest thing to a definitive source on Portland hip-hop. “Hip-hop started in Portland with dancing, and I was a pop locker, but I also started rapping in , he remembers those early days.
He became one of the city’s most successful exporters as a member of the Lifesavas trio. In the 2000s, this group released two records with Quannum Projects, the highly regarded label and underground hip-hop collective of the same name which mainly included northern California musicians like Blackalicious, Lateef the Truthspeaker, Lyrics Born and DJ. Shadow.
Vursatyl is quick to point out that many notable Portland musicians led the way before him. Displaying encyclopedic knowledge, he distinguishes two local acts.
âVitamix was one of the first DJs to sign a major recording contract with Profile Records, the same label that released RUN DMC,â he notes. âAnd The U-Krew had a recording contract with Capitol Records. It was all in the middle of the 80s. “
Despite these accomplishments, the veteran emcee says his hometown in the Pacific Northwest carries baggage that has made it difficult for hip-hop artists to thrive.
“That has been the challenge – to try and develop Portland’s image to be something other than the whitest in some way. [big] This is an often cited fact about the pink city. âPeople are always amazed, first and foremost, that there are blacks in Portland,â says Vursatyl. “And it’s not that hip-hop is unique to people of color, but in terms of the credibility it would need to be accepted by culture abroad, that recognition is important.”
That perception has changed dramatically in recent years with the emergence of two young black hip-hop stars in the city: Dodgr, a rapper and singer who worked with mega producer Mark Ronson and was featured on Anderson’s Paak’s. Oxnard, and AminÃ©, an animator whose music has collected billions of streams.
The success of the two artists had a noticeable ripple effect on the entire music scene. There were more and more crowds at the shows, a few viral moments – aided by NBA superstar Damian Lillard – and more national press attention.
“Over the years you’d hear, âOh, this is the movement that’s really going to take Portland to the next level. “And it absolutely was,” said DJ Klyph, a local radio personality and the music promoter behind the Mic Check concert series.
âIt was really nice to have some things in place to move forward,â Klyph said. “And then, yeah. COVID-19 [happened.” In a pattern that not only played out in Oregon, but also across the country, venues were shuttered instantaneously. That meant Portland’s thriving hip-hop showcases â the heartbeat of that community â also halted, along with any momentum the scene had built up before the pandemic.
Then came the murder of George Floyd.
It sparked an intense and prolonged social justice movement in Portland that enveloped the city and grabbed international headlines for months. DJ Klyph says it had an outsize impact on the hip-hop community, which is mainly composed of Black artists. “I think you had younger artists, up and coming artists, who were just angry and hurt,” he says. “And probably to a great extent, fearful for their own well-being, who were looking for an outlet.”
Jordan Fletcher was one of those musicians. He threw himself into the protests. “It consumed me. It was all that I thought about,” Fletcher recalls.
His experience led to a political and social awakening, one that deeply impacted his music and led to one of his first releases, “8:46 (Freestyle),” a raw, emotional song that directly references police brutality and the killing of George Floyd.
Fletcher says his almost constant presence at the Portland protests has taken its toll. He eventually had to withdraw. “For [my] sanity, I needed a break. It comes with a lot. And I think for a while I just felt like spiraling, âhe admits. But he continued to find solace and strength in his music. and I put my head in it, think about it and write it all down, âhe explains.
DJ Klyph says social justice and political activism have always been at the heart of Portland hip-hop, but the new wave of musicians, like Fletcher, has reinvigorated the city scene. âNow we see such beautiful and conscious music,â he says. “Sometimes it’s a little underground, it’s a little behind because people don’t want to meet [as] preacher … [but] I think now you see artists saying, ‘No. Now we have to talk about things because we want to see the change. “
The same conversation is now making its way to the performance stages. The Thesis, one of Portland’s long-running hip-hop concert series, aired a virtual show in April. They expect to have a limited capacity audience for a concert in early July. Event curator and co-founder Verbz says he’s already seen a shift in the focus of the art on display.
“The [last] This year of discussing racial justice issues has really influenced the sound of this next group of artists, âhe says.
Thesis’ lineup in April included local musicians performing pieces on police reform, racism, injustice and the mental health issues that artists face. âHip-hop is a great tool to tackle all of these different things that are affecting us right now,â says Verbz.
Vursatyl the Great fully agrees. He is optimistic that as live music and a sense of normalcy returns, the young upstarts in his hometown will continue to advance their activism and art. “The youth is where it is, man,” says the proud older Portland hip-hop statesman.
âI think the kids find out with the rest of us. And I think it’s powerful to see that in a moment like this,â he says. “We can showcase what really needs to be worked on for America as a whole. And Portland – we’re at the forefront of that.”
Pictured at top of this post: Portland-based rapper Danny Sky performs at Kelly’s Olympian as part of hip-pop showcase The Thesis.