Asked about growing up black in the whitest major city in the country, Glenn Waco blurts out Portland demographic figures so reflexively it's as if he's reciting his home address.
"Six-point-three percent black," he says. "I'm so glad I learned that statistic." But the 22-year-old St. Johns rapper knows numbers alone can't properly convey what he's been through, let alone tell the story of an entire community. Good thing he's skilled with words, too: NorthBound, the mixtape Waco released in November, is a vivid collection of personal memories that also serves as a reflection on the shared African-American experience in Portland. The title is a reference to the city's historically black quadrant, but the record is as much about a state of mind as a physical place. "I want to talk to people who are bound to the north," he says. "That's what the double entendre of NorthBound is—bound by these socioeconomic conditions."
Specifically, Waco wants to talk to the kids fighting to break those ties. He knows their struggle: Born Loren Ware, Waco—an acronym for "We Are Change Overall"—classifies his childhood as "what every inner-city youth goes through." Both his parents were in gangs. Raised by his aunt and great-grandmother, who helped keep him off the streets, Waco nonetheless felt the void of male role models in his life. "In high school, I always yearned for a mentor, like a big-brother type," he says. He found surrogates in the historical figures that fascinated him. A natural-born anti-authoritarian, he leaned militant: Though he was born on Martin Luther King's birthday, Waco says he identified more with Malcolm X. "I'm not going to let you slap me in the other cheek," he says. "I'm gonna throw a stone at you if you throw a stone at me."
As an MC, though, Waco isn't one for revolutionary rhetoric or hard-line confrontation. Instead, he prefers to tuck his messages inside deceptively laid-back, conversational narratives. With a quick but relaxed flow—honed in Roosevelt High's campus recording studio and his dorm room at St. Francis College in New York—Waco's singular trait on NorthBound is his ability to deliver hard truths in the guise of warm nostalgia. "Summer Madness" flips the classic Will Smith barbecue jam "Summertime" into a rumination on how crime rates often rise with the temperature, and the breezy "Bottle N' a Sac," with its spliff-waving chorus, could be a Wiz Khalifa radio hit, if its celebration of weed and alcohol wasn't as a tonic for the pain of ghetto life. It isn't all socio-political: "Gutterball," one of the album's standouts, is a Stand By Me-like coming of age tale set on and around the basketball courts of Pier Park, in which friends inevitably fade from each other's lives.
That song ends with Waco moving out of St. Johns, and though he's since returned, throughout NorthBound he speaks from the perspective of someone who's transcended his upbringing. He wears a gas mask on the cover and in press photos-—a symbol of how he managed to avoid being poisoned by his environment, and how he hopes to lift up the place he says will always be home.
"The gas mask inhales that negative air, filters it and exhales positive," he says. "That's what I'm doing with St. Johns. North Portland is surrounded with such a negative stigma. I am a product of my environment, but in saying that, you can be a positive product of your environment.â
SEE IT: Glenn Waco plays Mississippi Pizza, 3552 N Mississippi Ave., with Stewart Villain and Maze Koroma, on Sunday, Jan. 26. 9 pm. Free. 21+.