Two years ago, if the hard-partying hip-hop group Mad Rad announced its intention to travel south for a gig in Portland, club promoters in its home base of Seattle might have sent out a warning as if pillaging marauders were coming to town. Back then, the band had a reputation as misfits with a penchant for getting themselves banned from venues all around the city.
Local media helped perpetuate the bad-boy image: Seattle Weekly titled its profile on the foursome "Mad Rad's Trouble-Making Hipster Hop." For an act with a rowdy live show and lyrics about sex and drugs and general craziness, that would seem to be the best kind of publicity it could possibly receive. But its members insist they did not actively encourage the characterization. In fact, they say much of it simply isn't true.
"People thought we were drunk and coked-out," says Gregory Smith, who MCs under the name Terry Radjaw. "As the level of attention grew, people got to know us as people and not what they thought we were."
Things are different for Mad Rad these days. Slightly different, anyway. Although its performances remain wild, sweat-drenched affairs, clubs have begun to welcome the group back (it's hard to argue with the crowds Mad Rad draws). And while Smith and rapping partner Nate Quiroga (a.k.a. Buffalo Madonna) spend their newly released second album, The Youth Die Young, focusing on their favorite topic, partying in all its forms, they do so with greater maturity.
"It's us growing up a little bit more. We're still having fun, but we're a little more conscious about what we're doing in terms of the message we're conveying," Smith says. "The first [album] was all parties, no consequences. Now it's like, last night was awesome, but how about the morning after? How do we feel about that?"
Smith and Quiroga met in a freestyle session at a house party; soon afterward, they connected with DJ Darwin through Craigslist. The last piece was the addition of producer P Smoov, whose colorful, high-energy beats owe less to the likes of J-Dilla and DJ Premier than LCD Soundsystem. Along with Mad Rad's hyperactive concerts and outlaw notoriety (much of which stems from an altercation with bouncers at Neumos in Capitol Hill that Smith says got blown out of proportion), its genre-bending sound quickly placed it at the vanguard of a local hip-hop scene that is bringing out large, diverse audiences.
"When we started doing it, along with [tourmates] Champagne Champagne, we weren't afraid to have fun," he says. "Hip-hop is supposed to be a fun thing, not just brainy."
It's a lesson Portland's sometimes overly cerebral rap community could learn from. (Tellingly, Mad Rad has played with local spazz punks White Fang more often than any Portland hip-hop group.) But Smith says the band never set out to break Seattle hip-hop open. All it has ever done is keep things real.
"The cool-guy shit doesn't fly," he says. "Unless you're established and big, you can't be on that cool guy shit. In hip-hop, you can't walk around and front like you're hard and gangster. We never tried to be something we're not."
Mad Rad plays Mississippi Studios on Saturday, Jan. 8, with Champagne Champagne and Serious Business. 9 pm. $8 advance, $10 day of show. All ages.