IMAGE: Adam Kit Crenshaw
“Now it’s time to earn your trust/ All heads to the front/ Gather ’round to watch me and Ethic do impressions of us.”
These were Debaser’s first words, on the title track from 2006 debut Crown Control. The Portland-via-Eugene duo hasn’t stopped bragging since. “What we set out to do with Debaser was to have swagger. We take a braggadocious approach with it,” says Phil Bauer, one half of the group and the MC known as Ethic. “Everything we do is pretty much talking about how good we do it.”
Debaser—the group’s name itself meaning to tear down or degrade—is right to brag. Not only is the duo the most heralded of the Portland-based, 10-member crew Sandpeople’s offshoot groups, it also contains Sandpeople’s chief beatsmith, Sapient. A skilled MC with an even greater knack for hip-hop production, Sapient, known to his parents as Marcus Williams, is in hip-hop not just to satisfy his own hunger, but to put food on the table (he raps about his wife and young daughter on Debaser’s “Results”). Williams’ hustle has paid off. “I’d put [Sapient] against any successful, nationally or globally recognized producer,” Bauer says. “He can hang with them.”
One can hear Williams’ beat-savvy throughout Debaser’s new disc, Peerless. The instrumentation runs the gamut: The album’s titular track is a spare, harpsichord-driven big-beat cut with a Godfather-meets-Gang Starr feel; “Don’t Sleep” blends videogame hyperactivity with a sneaky, dripping beat and Ratatat-style guitarwork. Sapient is, to borrow a phrase, “on some next-level shit.”
With recent attention from national hip-hop blogs, Debaser seems poised for a jump in visibility. But its members have known each other since long before either was a hip-hop performer.
“We’ve probably known each other for 20 years,” Bauer says. “Our families were friends and went to the same church.” The two weren’t particularly close, though, until they started running into each other while making hip-hop in their hometown of Eugene. From there on out, they were pretty musically inseparable: Ethic was on Sapient’s first “real” album, Dry Puddles, in 2004. Both rappers would later join Sandpeople, and form Debaser in 2005. “We just knew we liked each other’s shit,” Bauer says. “Not literally, of course.”
Crown Control established Debaser as a smack-talking force in the Portland music scene, but it also found the duo playing things a little differently from their Northwest hip-hop contemporaries. Williams sang the pop-friendly hook on “Look What…,” the duo balanced thoughtful character sketches (“Silver Love”) with ultra-masculine rap-porn (“Sugar & Spice”)—then the album closed out with a five-minute avant-rap ballad called “Thomas.” Debaser, despite its pretenses as a unit dedicated to fronting, turned out to be a well-rounded operation.
Peerless continues in that trend. The trash-talking remains (“Curseless Gift,” “Peerless”), but it’s padded by metaphysical musings (“Tree of Life,” “Pedestals”) and two tracks that play with gender-reversal sexism. “Spider in the Sheets” is dismissive of women who’d cheat, lie or deceive to be with a man. “My Brain” is even more pronounced. The song opens with a gaggle of girls sexually harassing Williams, hollering, “Damn, Shorty, why don’t you sag those pants a little lower?” Sape tries to refuse, but the verbal abuse continues. “Quit looking at my crotch, my face is up here,” he raps. The song was meant as a tongue-in-cheek joke—a response to the mixed reaction the duo got from the macho “Sugar & Spice”—but it actually feels legitimately creepy. “It’s entirely unintentional,” Bauer says of the aural discomfort. “But I agree that it’s there.”
Whatever the song’s intention, it’s another bullet point in an increasingly diverse résumé. Bauer credits much of the group’s creativity to being a part of the Sandpeople family. “Every time someone in our crew does something good, it’s a reason for someone else to do something better,” he says. “You don’t want to be the one that’s not getting better.” Debaser isn’t just getting better, it’s one of the best.
SEE IT: Debaser plays Saturday, May 8, at Satyricon, with Sandpeople, Animal Farm, Gray Matters and Z. 8 pm. $5. All ages.