Air-raid sirens rip through the sweaty mob jammed into Richard's on Richards nightclub in Vancouver, B.C. Air-raid sirens rank just below howler monkeys on the subtlety scale, but forgive the Lifesavas for feeling they need to sound off like the Luftwaffe has them in its crosshairs.
DJ Rev. Shines emits the alarm from behind an electronic barricade at the back of the stage. Shines shifts into the Superfly baseline of "Soldierfied," the first track on the Lifesavas' new album, Spirit in Stone. Two men bound onstage.
Tall and taut, Jumbo the Garbageman spits a nasal narrative as his beehive of dark locks sways with the beat. Short and stout, Vursatyl, decked out in a red Lifesavas T-shirt, prowls the stage sparring the air with smooth soliloquies.
The Next Big Thing. Many acts have worn that label over the years, as the talent-rich Pacific Northwest hip-hop scene grew increasingly desperate to see somebody from Cascadia break into the bling. While Portland rock has its Sleater-Kinneys, the city's percolating hip-hop community has waited years for the perfect storm that lifts all boats.
"In Detroit during the Motown movement, you could take a bus ride and go see where Hitsville was," Vursatyl says. "You could visualize success. Here in the 'hood, man, cats don't have that example to follow. A lot of artists are stuck in demo-tape mode."
With Spirit in Stone, the Lifesavas make the most conscientious effort yet to break the city's lingering history of close-but-no-Cristal. Only catch is, right now Lifesavas might be better known in Liverpool than in Lents. After three years of touring the world alongside the likes of the Roots and Talib Kweli, there's a sense among the group that they might be beloved in British Columbia, but the old hometown hasn't quite caught on.
"Portland gives us a lot of love," says Jumbo. "But if Portland knew how much other cities, let alone other countries, are embracing the Lifesavas, I don't think they would want to be on the late train."
The July 1 release of Spirit in Stone was heralded in European publications from Estonia to France. The overseas heat didn't just happen--after signing with the influential Bay Area label Quannum, Lifesavas toured extensively, wooing interest with singles like "Headexercise" and "What If It's True?"
They were waiting to pounce.
"Groups rush to put an album out and it just sits in the store, because nobody but your hometown knows that it's out," Vursatyl says. "We had to take into consideration that there is a whole world to release the music to."
Lifesavas' own world is a patch of Northeast Portland stretching from MLK Boulevard out to 33rd Avenue and from Killingsworth Street up to Dekum. That's where Vursatyl perfected his versatility, crooning in the pews of the Albina Christian Life Center (his father's the pastor), free-styling in Alberta Park. His friendship with Jumbo blossomed while playing ball and scatting rhymes.
The pair released underground singles and compilations with their Misfit Massive crew and supported themselves with part-time jobs, production work and guest appearances with local artists. Along the way, they earned a rep for rocking a party at a moment's notice when other acts dropped from a bill.
"We were always the life savers," Vursatyl says. "We've been in some of the illest positions, but we just made it happen."
It happened with enough frequency to interest Chief Xcel, co-owner of Quannum and one half of Blackalicious, the label's flagship group. Vursatyl joined the Blackalicious live show, and Lifesavas soon inked a deal with one of independent hip-hop's most reputable labels.
"A lot of labels build their house out of the same bricks, but we don't do that," says label co-founder Lyrics Born. "We didn't want them to be another Blackalicious. We wanted them to be the only Lifesavas."
Jumbo and Vursatyl form a yin-and-yang, raw-and-smooth verbal seesaw, with Vursatyl shifting effortlessly from rapid-fire raps to soulful solos. Much of the Lifesavas' sound is carved from the productions of Jumbo and Shines. Jumbo in particular is renowned for his ability to resurrect dead vinyl.
"I collect a lot of obscure records, from Russian funk to children's instructional albums," Jumbo says. The Dr. Frankenstein song-recycling gives the Lifesavas a sound both old-school and avant-garde. Hints of jazz and dancehall jostle among funked-up rhythms and beats both fat and phat. The juxtapositions can be jarring at times, but the lyrical quality remains consistent. On "Hellohihey," Vursatyl undertakes a witty, multiple-personality-disorder dissection of the self-absorption that ails hip-hop, while "Me" is a moving, nostalgic ode to Portland.
In all, Spirit in Stone is a beautifully realized album, product of a carefully orchestrated move towards prominence. Standing at the rare nexus of talent, experience and savvy, the Lifesavas hope to follow the path out of the underground taken by everyone from Slum Village to 50 Cent.
"In this lifetime, Jay-Z was selling CDs out of his trunk," Jumbo says. "Too Short was selling so many records in Oakland that eventually the rest of the country had to take notice. When your hometown is loving you, the world is going to take notice."
But will your hometown take notice when the world is loving you? The jury's still out. The Lifesavas start another European tour in September, followed by swings through Australia and Japan before returning stateside. The real litmus test is Friday.
"The community is ready to put someone on their shoulders," Jumbo says. "We let that slot be open for any of the acts that wanted it. They didn't want it, they didn't take it, they didn't make a move. It's kind of like a chess game, y'know, and at this point we've declared checkmate."
6 NW 6th Ave., 224-2038
9 pm Friday, July 18
Spirit in Stone
The Lifesavas are Jumbo (Solomon David), Vursatyl (Marlon Irving) and Shines (Ryan Shortell).