Portland hip-hop has always had a tough time getting respect. At one point in the 1990s, hip-hop acts were even banned from performing in downtown venues. This is a shame, because over the years, the local scene has produced a number of quality records, reflective of the beauty, pain and spirituality of life in the Rose City. Many of these albums now sit at the bottom of dusty bins at record stores around town. As the third annual Northwest Hip-Hop Festival kicks off this week, here is a short list of five lost Portland rap gems that deserve rediscovery.
Grassrootz, Uncharted Regions (1995)In the ’90s, while the Jus’ Family crew represented Portland’s answer to California G-funk, local duo Grassrootz decided to go down a more conscious path. D-Wyze, the group’s producer, used dusty samples, distorted jazz loops and MPC drums to create beats more reminiscent of East Coast-style boom-bap, over which rapper L Pro displayed his verbal dexterity while dissecting larger social issues. They were the Pete Rock and CL Smooth of Stumptown, creating intellectually stimulating music with style.
G-Ism and Cool Nutz, On a Mission (1998)There would be no Portland hip-hop scene without Jus Family Records. Founded by veteran rapper Cool Nutz and producer Bosko—who has gone on to have a hand in a bevy of big hits, including Big Boi’s “Shutterbug”—the label put out a number of quality records in the ’90s mimicking the G-funk synths and fat basslines blowing up in the Bay Area at the time. On a Mission is perhaps the best example of the Jus Family sound. While technically the project of street-hop duo G-Ism, it was really Cool Nutz’s coming-out party. Rapping with a fiery aggression, he bodied every verse, spitting a mixture of gritty lyricism and personal storytelling. And the beats are absolute thumpers. Sadly, G-Ism’s Young Randall took his life shortly after the album’s release.
Five Fingers of Funk, About Time (1998)For its final shows in the early 2000s, live rap band Five Fingers of Funk sold out two straight nights at the Crystal Ballroom. That gives you an idea of the following the group had. With its funk-derived grooves, big horns, wobbly basslines and the rapping of lead MC Pete Miser, Five Fingers drew comparisons to the Roots, but these guys were putting out music before Questlove et al. were even signed. About Time, the band’s sophomore effort, was their opus: a funky slab of brass, DJ Chill’s turntablism and cool retrospection. Miser focused on the concept of the effect of time on relationships, no doubt a reference to the members moving in different directions.
Proz & Conz, Posanegavybe (1999)I still have no idea what this album’s title means—an acronym for women, weed and booze, perhaps. But I do know that Posangavybe was special for its summation of the simultaneous feelings of angst and joviality that come with growing up in Portland. Proz and Conz were a seven-member collective of students from Grant and Central Catholic high schools. Some MCs were more polished than others, but together they reflected a singular message that a lot of teens living in Portland can relate to: Despite its lovely attributes, living here is not always pretty, especially if you’re a kid from a low-income family. The group rapped about being black in a predominantly white town, adjusting to life on the streets and dealing with the pressures of growing older. They also rapped about weed—a lot.
Madgesdiq, The Rebirth (2002)Antoine Stoudamire, cousin of former Blazers guard Damon Stoudamire, created a record perfectly suited for the quiet spirituality of Portland. Its songs, built on lush, sample-based production and Stoudamire’s gently gruff voice, formed a soundtrack attuned to the surrounding nature of the city—tunes to bump on a crisp fall day in Forest Park or a breezy summer afternoon on Sauvie Island. The album’s lyrics were uplifting without sounding too preachy, touching without sounding too corny.