[HIP-HOP] When Portland's Bryan "Braille" Winchester was 17, hip-hop seemed like a practical career path. With adult responsibilities on the way and no high-school diploma, Winchester's best chance to pay the bills was to follow his dream of being an MC full time. "I didn't give myself many options," he says. "I had put so much time into [hip-hop], it was like, 'This is what I know how to do.'"
Over a decade later, the 29-year-old is on the verge of releasing his seventh album, Native Lungs, on Humble Beast Records—an imprint he co-owns with friend Thomas Terry. The album finds the MC spitting his signature complex wordplay over beats made mostly by local producers (with some exceptions, like Dilated Peoples' Evidence and former collaborator turned hitmaker S1). Although he's lived in Portland almost his entire life—he spent a brief time in New Jersey in high school—Braille has often been absent from the local hip-hop scene. "I always miss out on the cool Portland shows, because I'm out of town," he says of his heavy touring schedule. This time he wanted things to be different. "I just have a longing to get more involved, so the album saw me working with people from my native land."
For most artists, it's the other way around: They want to break out of their hometowns and tour the world. But Braille has already done that, opening for greats like James Brown and performing at hip-hop festivals in Japan, Australia and across Europe. Braille is the first to admit that some of his success comes from finding a niche: His songs, while not entirely "Christian rap," certainly have an underlying spiritual theme. For those who want some God in their hip-hop, Braille—who first preached the gospel on the sideline of a Lents neighborhood basketball court and went on to win fans with Lightheaded, a local hip-hop outfit that also included lauded MC/producer Ohmega Watts—is one of the best.
But the 14-year music veteran's "niche" only half-explains his success. On Native Lungs, the MC's skills are on full display—from the dense wordplay on "Feel It" to the out-of-this-world rhyme schemes on "Nightmare Walking." But like the rest of his albums, Lungs—available as a free download from humblebeast.com on Aug. 30—also finds Braille wearing his heart on his sleeve, allowing listeners to connect with his music on a personal level, even if they aren't religious. "Life kind of writes the songs for you half the time," he says of his music. "It's never me standing and looking down at people—it's me standing with the people.'"
That attitude endears Braille to his fans, but with a wife and 4-year-old daughter at home (and with recurring stomach problems that may be caused by his busy schedule), Braille often wonders if he can continue down the path that once seemed so obvious.
Then there are the moments when the hustle pays off. Recently, Braille got a letter from a hospital patient that reassured him that hip-hop was the right choice, not just the practical one. "If I can make a song that impacts this guy paralyzed from the waist down in Africa, maybe I should keep making songs, because I don't know if I'd get the same result in another profession," he says. "Those are the type of things that have kept me going."
SEE IT: Braille releases Native Lungs at Branx on Friday, Aug. 26. 8 pm. $5 advance, $7 day of show. All ages.