Copycat rappers, unimaginative rappers, pretty rappers, Portland rappers who film themselves rapping on bridges—that's that shit the Renaissance Coalition doesn't like.
Add Dwight Howard to that list as well. As they watch the Blazers cap a second playoff win on the Houston Rockets' home court, the five members of the Portland rap collective are gathered in the apartment of producers Bryce Lang and Ton Jungir, discussing the crew's origins. Friends since their high-school days, which aren't that far behind them, they rented a rehearsal space downtown a few years back and spent the summer hashing out the group's aesthetic. What united them was their discontent with the state of popular music—Portland hip-hop included.
"You gotta be ugly, man," says Jungir, sparking a celebratory Swisher Sweets cigar. "There's too much prettiness going on in this rap shit. Whatever happened to nasty raps?"
"That's why I don't comb my hair," adds Dylan "Zoo" Muldrew, as the room bursts into a chorus of giggles.
On the serious tip, though, the Renaissance men are doing their part to dirty up Portland's rap scene. With beats sourced from psychedelic rock records and the wigged-out lyricism to match, the crew—rounded out by rappers Maze Koroma and Slick Devious—knows it doesn't fit in with the city's prevailing hip-hop culture, which favors dusty soul samples and narratives drawn from the displaced side of gentrified Portland. Having all grown up in North Portland, the Coalition, which is four-fifths African-American, has been through the same experiences as many of its peers. But being documentarians interests the members less than following the streams of their own consciousness, whether it leads to tales of ancient pharaohs or stoned daydreams about teleporting to the '70s and dropping acid with Huey Newton.
"Everyone asks, 'What your music about?' I don't fucking know," says Devious. "It's about the shit in my head."
Citing Basquiat, Dalí, Kubrick and Pink Floyd as influences, the group sees itself as residing halfway between the street-corner cipher and the art gallery. And, true to its name, rap is only one part of the equation. The Coalition's videos are nearly as important as its mixtapes, disregarding clichéd cityscapes to visualize its audio fever dreams with the cinematic surrealism they deserve. Zoo's "Nobody Loves a Genius Child" is the bizarro standout so far, a spiked Kool-Aid hallucination teeming with occult imagery.
"It's not different, it's just not what you're thinking," says Koroma, who directs many of the videos. "It's just not what you expect, like the bridges and all that shit. We see that every fucking day."
As hip-hop has become a hot-button issue in Portland, the Renaissance Coalition has been left out of the conversation. But people are still managing to find them: The organizers of Reed College's Renn Fayre booked the group to play their annual student bacchanal this weekend after discovering its Web site. To hear the members tell it, that's all part of the plan.
"We have a motto: Stay quiet, stay working," Lang says. "What that means is coming out with great music but not shoving it down people's throats."
"You don't find diamonds lying on the ground," Muldrew adds. "You have to search for it."
MORE: See renaissancecoalition.com for videos, album downloads and more.