Gavin Soens stood out long before he had a metal leg. With his long beard and ponytail, he’s never looked like your typical rapper. “I get to a hip-hop show and people are like ‘Who the fuck is this kid?” he jokes. The onetime electronic musician and DJ relocated here from Wisconsin with his friend and collaborator Lucas Dix, the other half of Soens’ hip-hop duo, Hives Inquiry Squad. And, despite its unconventional look and organic sound, the duo was quick to fit in. “I met more people here in three months than in three years living [and attending college] in Chicago,” Soens—who raps under the name Gavin Theory—says.
Theory and Dix fit in from the start, but they never quite assimilated into the Portland hip-hop scene. Instead, Hives Inquiry Squad started performing with acts from across the musical spectrum. Fruition, a Portland folk-bluegrass outfit that lives across the street from Soens and Dix, is one of their most regular collaborators. “A large part of our fanbase isn’t people who go to hip-hop shows,” he says. “But that’s part of the reason we moved here—there wasn’t a lot of identity yet, in the hip-hop scene. We thought about moving to Minneapolis, but the town is owned. It’s so laden with hip-hop acts. And if you don’t fit in, good luck.”
Gavin Theory certainly isn’t a run-of-the-mill MC. Thoughtful and workmanlike in his rhyme schemes, he’s also prone to bouts of “old-man slang”: On his debut disc, Escaping Stasis, he works the words “balderdash,” “flapdoodle” and “bumfuzzlement” (that last one he says he picked up from a Tom Robbins book) into a single verse. There’s an openness and freedom to his rhymes that seem, despite Soens’ Midwest upbringing, distinctly Southeast Portland. So it has always made sense for him and Dix to share stages with non-hip-hop acts—something Hives Inquiry Squad has done since its early days playing with rock bands in Wisconsin. Splitting bills with rock bands has changed HIS, too: The duo’s live shows are blisteringly fast and nonstop affairs.
But in October of last year, Hives’ frenetic pace started to slow. It began with a pain in Soens’ knee, something doctors at the urgent-care clinic initially suggested was a sports injury that simply needed time to heal. When the pain got progressively worse, Soens saw specialists. By January, he knew something was seriously wrong. In March, doctors told 25-year-old Soens that there was a cancerous tumor behind his left knee, and that it had spread into his shin bone. “They said they might be able to save the leg, but it would be useless,” he says with a shrug. He opted for amputation.
To hear Soens talk about his ordeal, you’d think doctors had simply ordered him to shave his beard. “I wasn’t a track star,” he says. “Most of what I do involves me sitting down and using my brain…of all the limbs to lose, left leg is the way to go.”
The surgery was in March; by early May, Soens was performing live again. A cane and his current prosthetic leg—a minimal metal rod with some basic hydraulics where Soens’ knee once was—are enough to get him around, though he’ll eventually be fitted with a more complex replacement that will allow him to run or ride a bike. But Soens seems at peace with the idea that he’ll always be hobbled by the injury. “I’m not in a rush to get anywhere; I don’t need to run,” he says. “Honestly, I always liked the idea of being a slower person.”
Soens isn’t bitter, but he also says he hasn’t—save for an improved organic diet—been particularly changed as a person. “I promised myself I wouldn’t regress into religion,” he says, stroking his beard. “[Cancer] is just something that happens to people—and it’s happening more and more.” There is some irony in Soens losing his leg. As an MC, his overwhelming theme has always been the intersection of technology and nature—something he examines at length on Escaping Stasis. Now Soens’ own body is a testament to that changing balance. “Being part bionic isn’t all bad,” he says with a smile. “It’s kind of cool; I get to write about it and put it in verses.”
There have been some adjustments in Soens’ life. For now, he moves slowly down wet Portland sidewalks and across intersections in his Southeast Portland neighborhood. His latest solo recordings have reflected that change of pace. “It makes a lot of sense, now that I think about it. You’re not gonna make music that’s super-fast and dancey when you’re more of a lumbering person.”
Losing a leg has not, however, affected the pace of Soens’ creative output. This week he releases the Metal Legged Mix, a free, nonstop compilation built from tracks by some of Soens’ favorite national artists, songs from Hives Inquiry Squad (which he produces beats for), and a handful of jams from local artists like Illmaculate, Mic Crenshaw, Sapient and Cloudy October. Soens hopes it’ll turn some of Hives’ fans, who may not know their city’s hip-hop scene, onto new local music. As for the album’s title, Soens figures he might as well turn his weakness into a strength. “People seem to have no problem staring at me,” he says. “And, as a performer, I’m kind of used to that. If you have to describe me, you can beat around the bush, or you can say ‘the metal-legged kid.’ I might as well use it.” Besides, he says, “it sounded pretty hip-hop.”
SEE IT: Gavin Theory releases the Metal Legged Mix on Thursday, Nov. 18, at Ash St. Saloon with Hives Inquiry Squad, Doc Brown Experiment, Josh Martinez and more. 9 pm. $5. 21+.