Listen closely to Spirit in Stone, the 2003 debut from Portland trio Lifesavas, and you can hear the foundation of the city’s hip-hop scene coming together—literally.
“If you listen to the a cappella [parts] of Spirit in Stone, you will hear nailing and hammering in the background, because we were building a studio as we recorded,” says group member Vursatyl. “With our deadline, we couldn’t afford just to be working on music. We also had to be Sheetrocking and building.”
For eight months, the trio—MCs Vursatyl and Jumbo the Garbageman and DJ Rev. Shines—lived in that newly built studio, crafting what would become the most complex and musically sophisticated hip-hop album ever to come out of Portland. Released on Quannum Projects, the Bay Area label that acted as a beacon for the national underground hip-hop scene in the ’90s and early 2000s, Spirit in Stone represented a breakaway from the California-influenced G-funk that previously dominated the sound of Portland rap. It was a record brimming with fresh ideas, from its beats—built on funk, Afrobeat and dancehall samples—to its lyrical content, which touched on everything from religion to politics to growing up in Portland in the ’80s. Ten years later, its influence is still palpable.
“You can still see it even now when you hear about a [local] artist going on a national tour or playing a big show,” Vursatyl says. “It really kicked down the door for other hip-hop artists who realized, ‘Wow, we can do it.’”
At the time Lifesavas came to Quannum’s attention, Jumbo was working as a janitor for Portland Public Schools, while Vursatyl and Rev. Shines worked at local record shops. They had spent hours in Jumbo’s windowless basement on Northeast 14th Avenue and Prescott Street, digging through records and creating beats, not knowing what it would lead to. The label decided to take a chance on the group after its flagship artist, Blackalicious, championed Lifesavas’ demo. It wasn’t until a session in Sacramento with producer Chief Xcel, though, that the group realized just what it had. Playing back the takes of eventual single “HelloHiHey” for the first time, their mouths dropped. “We left that recording session, and we were like, ‘OK, this is a career. Let’s go,’” Jumbo says.
As much as the album did for the city of Portland, though, the city did even more for the album. To measure Portland’s influence, you would have to go song by song, whether it’s the independent spirit of “Fever” or the nostalgia of “Me,” about the group’s teenage years spent playing basketball at Alberta Park, sleeping in ice-cream trucks and dealing with gang violence. It’s a side of Portland that many of its residents still don’t know about, and it’s just part of what can be learned from Spirit in Stone, an album that helped give voice to Portland’s inner city.
“That record says
that our city is cool,” Jumbo says. “That record says that with hip-hop,
we’re not just doing it out here—we’ll come to your city and smash.”
SEE IT: Lifesavas celebrate the 10th anniversary of Spirit in Stone at Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., with TxE, on Saturday, July 20. 9 pm. $16 advance, $20 day of show. 21 .