But Nutz is often taken for granted, even in a city of MCs who cite him on the regular. His is a voice that has always been and will always be, which has a way of obfuscating its power. His is an authoritarian rapping style: Booming and minimal, he is a slang connoisseur capable of saying much with great economy. And even those who criticize him for his narrow way have to admit that Nutz evidences the full range of human emotion in his music: For its street title, new album Portland Ni%#a touches on grief, sex, love, hustling and God. One moment he's refreshingly tongue-in-cheek (urging listeners to "get white girl wasted") and the next he's giving a spoken word lecture on faith—any kind of faith, he clarifies—from the pulpit.
It's a delicate path that Cool Nutz walks. After 20 years of seeing music expand his horizons, he is well-traveled and self-aware enough to communicate (in music and interviews) to people from every walk of life. At the same time, he's defensive (and sometimes evangelistic) about the down-and-out city he came from and about keeping his music's sense of place intact. Of course, many of the Portland streets once known for gang violence and barbershops are now known for dog-grooming and microbreweries. The Northeast Portland Cool Nutz describes in his music has moved further North and East than ever. And yet his music, as wary as it is of violence and drugs, has a certain sentimentality to it for those younger days when many of his friends were becoming statistics.
I won't claim to understand all of Cool Nutz's motivations. Hell, he has sent me to Urban Dictionary dozens of times with his lyrics. But I've long been fascinated by him, even if it's only in the last few years have I really come to love his music. Sitting down to talk with him is part history lesson, part business and part utter music nerd. I am indebted to him for making many introductions and opening many doors for me in my six years as a full-time writer at WW.
Whatever you want to say about Nutz—there are flashes of both great humility and ego in this exchange and the one from today's paper—he is still, against all odds, the face of Portland hip-hop. And he doesn't intend to fade away any time soon. Here's the rest of our chat.
But by the same token, there are a whole lot of people showing that support. I think the overwhelming feeling is that people know youâve carved the way for a lot of hip-hop artists in Portland.
Cool Nutz: Really what I want from this shit, all the bias aside, is that people recognize when cats are making dope music. Recognize and donât be scared to show somebody else love. I know what it feels like to have people give you genuine love, or to have cats who are gonna hate.
But isnât there room in that for criticism?
Hell yeah. Iâm not going to ride around listening to Aesop Rock all the time, but heâs one of the dopest cats out there. Even if heâs not your cup of tea, youâve got to give him credit for being dope. Youâve got so many sub genres, cats are more critical now than ever. And youâve got more rappers than fans almost. Everybody is a rapper.
And it wasnât like that when you first started out?
No, because you had to spend money. My first studio, I spent like 40 grand. My first ADAT recording machine cost $3,500. My keyboard cost three grand, my mixer was four grand.
So you had to be serious to get a foot in the door.
Yeah. But even then, everybody wasnât all that committed. But now days, you can go to Guitar Centerâshit, you can go to Best Buyâand you can buy a studio set-up with microphone, interface and software for like a hundred bucks. And you can go home andâ
Make some terrible music.
Make some terrible music! [Laughs.] Record the shit out of some shit. Thatâs what people donât realize. When we started, we were recording on a four-track cassette. Bosko had a four-track cassette and then moved it to an eight-track cassette and had it synced up to an Atari 1040 computer with Dr. T software. I remember his first hard drive, Iâve got it at the house. It was like one gigabyte and it was like three grand. Back when everyone was on floppy discs, he was on hard drive.
Iâve still got like four Minidisc players.
Iâve got one of those. I remember when I thought that was going to be a good format, until I saw how unfunctional it was.
Youâre tour managing Kreayshawn. Iâm not going to ask you about her music, but I would argue that youâre a superior MC to her. What is that dynamic like? Can you keep up with her?
Thatâs one of the blessings of working with people like her and E-40. Iâm not into all that staying out until 6 in the morning. She barely drinks. She smokes, but sheâs super laid-back regular, really thoughtful and considerate. And sheâs super witty and funny, man. People might criticize her music, but she knows what she wants to do.
And itâs working, obviously.
Yeah, sheâs got her own ideas. And she grew up in East Oakland, around real shit. So itâs not like sheâs faking or trying to be anything sheâs not. She is genuine to what sheâs doing. We have a tight-knit little team. Youâve got her, Stretch, her managerâheâs Mistah Fabâs manager, too, so weâve toured together and all type of stuff. I still remember the conversation with Stretch. We were on the road in Montana and he was showing me stuff with V-Nasty. And she was saying the N-word and shit like this, and I said âbro is she for real?â He said âsheâs for real.â And he said he was working with her sister, Kreayshawn, too. Fast forward like a year and âGucci Gucciâ comes out and that shit pops, you know what Iâm sayin? And I said âoh, damn, Stretch, thatâs good shit.â And he asked if I wanted to tour manage her. So itâs real family oriented when we out, and nobody is on some superstar shit. Sheâs really modest and humble. I brought Fatboy in, and Hawaii is her hype man. Thatâs a real small unit. Itâll be like six of us.
You donât ever feel like a babysitter?
Nah. I mean, theyâre like my kids because Iâm older than them. Sheâll be like âmy dad, Cool Nutz,â and V-Nasty calls me Uncle Cool Nutz. Iâm there to look out for them. The first time 40 went to Europe, I took 40 to Europe. So I learned a lot.
Do you learn anything from Kreayshawn?
Oh yeah, just how honest she is about what sheâs doing. If somebody comes to herâeven the biggest rappers in the gameâsheâs not like âoh, weâve got to do a song together.â Sheâs like âif it works, it works, but if we donât click it doesnât.â A lot of people get into the game and start working with everyone. And just seeing how they think of things. Me being an artist, too, I want to know what they look at as being old and what they like.
How has having a kid changed your approach to making music?
For one, my son looks just like me. But the love he shows me, knowing that for the rest of his life I have to be there for him, that makes me strive to make things better all around him and his sister and my whole family. For kids to be raised right, we have to be stable. I ainât gonna lie, one of the things I want to doâif I could stop working and take my kids overseas and show them different things, that would be my thing. Making sure that they have the best things possible.
Youâd stop rapping?
Iâd probably do it on the side, but the game has changed, for me. Rapping generates the means for me and itâs something I love, and it has blessed me to be able to do a lot of stuff for my family and see a lot of things, but at times I think âman, it would be dope to take my family to Crater Lake for a week,â but Iâve got like three shows. Iâd like to be able to take my son and my family to London and Switzerland and really be able to experience it. I want to go to the alps and hike and ski and do all this shitâI want to show them the world. I want them to be cultured. I want them to know about life and about different people.
So that changed, and I guess my understanding about life. I understand why my parents were the way they are. Little stuff, like going into the fridge and the kid done drank all the juice and left this much in there [pinches fingers together], and there carton is in there and you just shake your head. âFor real!?â [Laughs.] So itâs a lot of things. [Having kids] makes it clear to me that I have bigger things that I want to do. And community stuff. I feel like Iâve given back, but Iâd like to give back more, to families and kids and even adults who are going through hard shit. Having two kids in your house and seeing how hard it is makes me think about the way the economy is. Itâs hard to survive. I think about putting $30 or $50 of gas in my tank every two days, then I think about the average person whoâs making $10 or $12 an hour and has kids and rent. I want to be able to do something more than just talk about it, I want to give back and have my kids see that. I want them to say âI saw my dad be a low-key philanthropist.â
So, why Suburban Noize records?
My friends Potluck are already over there. And I hooked them up with Tech N9ne and E-40 and other people. And they hooked me up with Sub Noize. I always had a relationship with [the label]. I could have done a deal earlier, but I wasnât at a point where I was ready. I have been putting out records, but I wanted to be in a mindset where I was 100 percent. Another thing that motivated me to do the deal was having the Portland album done. I knew I could put this album out for free and Sub Noize would push it and promote it to set up the next album. So the time was right for it. I am ready to get out and do a lot of things that Iâve been holding back on.
Sometimes Iâm overthinking shit. Even when the album title, Portland Ni%#a, came to my head, I held back because I thought it could be too touchy. But then I thought, no, Iâm gonna go for it. I want to be me. I want to go hard. I want to do my shows, do my tours and get back out there 100 percent.
Is Sub Noize going to want you to be someone else, though? They have a lot of in-your-face stuff and guys with costumes and whatnot on that label. Do you worry about that?
Nah, theyâve been fans of mine for years. Ivory [from Sub Noize] would always be calling me when my new albums came out. And another thing that made it a good decision for me is that theyâre not looking for me to come out and have a huge first week. They know I work. They look at it like âthis dude is gonna push it, heâs gonna promote it, heâs gonna tour on it.â They are really ground-level. They have access to everything. They can build their own tour, they do merchandising, they have management. Theyâre not the kind of label thatâs going to throw a ton of money at you but if you make a hit record, they have the ability to push it.
On the Portland recordâwhich is what Iâm going to call itâ
Thatâs what I want people to call it, really.
So, the cool thing about it is that you donât change up your style and talk about axe-murder just because youâve got a horrorcore dude on the track.
I hate that. I forget which Common record it wasâElectric Circusâwhere if I want to hear Jimi Hendrix, I want to hear Jimi Hendrix. If I want to hear dope hip-hop, I listen to Common. On the Gameâs album, he did that song with Tyler the Creator and heâs rapping like Tyler. I like that he can switch his game up, but I really like what he does. Iâll go out and buy Golf Wang if I want to hear Tyler the Creator. I want to hear Game on some Game shit.
So on my album, I want fans to hear stuff thatâs consistent with what I do, but I have Grouch on it or I have Tech N9ne on it. When I did that song âNo God,â I recorded it by myself first. But I already knew that [Mistah Fab] had recently lost his mother, and I sent it to him. He sent it back that night, and he murked it. I just want people to listen to it. Beyond me being Cool Nutz or anything else, just put it in and listen to it.
Where do you think youâve developed the most. What have you worked on the hardest and where have you developed the most?
Everything. [Laughs.] If Iâm still rapping, I donât want to come out and be that dude where people say heâs whack or heâs not relevant. When we first started putting out albums, we were just rapping and recording. We didnât know about overdubbing and effects. Thatâs another way I feel like people benefitted from what we did. It gave people a blueprint to work withâwe made full albums of 16 or 17 quality songs, where the young cats could come out and say âoh man, I want to do better than that.â
I think that Iâm proudest of being able to do shows with Blackalicious or Ghostface or E-40 and I have songs that will fit with those shows, but itâs not gonna sound like Iâm trying too hard to do it. When I listen to my music now, I evaluate everything from the hooks to the delivery to the song ideas. I feel like those are the main things Iâve developed. Iâve evolved as an artist.
If you listen to Harsh Game and then you listen to Speakinâ Upon a Million, the lyrics and subject matter got more advanced on that second album. But people wanted more Harsh Game type stuff. â76 Novaââ
People still ask for â76 Novaâ!
Yeah, and âWhat Iâm About.â All that G-funk stuff. Back then it was different, because people would want to hear that bounce. And even now, if you look at what they call ratchet music, with Tyga and YG and all them: The stuff that theyâre saying is in that box. âSuck my dick/ Suck suck suck my dick.â But we were MCing, we werenât just rapping.
It seems like there are a lot of MCs coming up and getting famous that never learned how to rap. Itâs more about the look and the producerâ
And the video. The video might carry a halfway cool song.
Was there a while where you wanted to avoid the sound of those early records? Where that sound felt played out?
To me, Harsh Game was so powerful, it was my Chronic. No matter where I went, people would associate me with that record. The sound has changed and evolved, but when you put out a record like that, people are always gonna gravitate towards dope music. People still come and talk to me about it. I donât think itâs that people didnât want to hear it, but when East Coast hip-hop took over, Ice Cube and all them were likeâ
Yeah. But it seems like everything comes around. Goes out and then comes back around.
Did you not play the early stuff in concert for a while, though? It seems like lately youâve been playing that stuff again.
Yeah, because I was overly conscious. I would hold myself back and overthink stuff, not realizing that these were my hit records. When these records come on, motherfuckers respond, you know what Iâm saying?
So whatâs going to be different with your next album. You realize itâs going to hit a different audience than your self-released stuff. Is there something you want to communicate?
I just want this to be my best album to date. The one thing itâll go back to from the Harsh Game era is me recording it all at one time. A lot of times I go in [to the studio] with a lot of older songs, but this one will be all new stuff. Thereâll be more heartfelt stuff on there. A lot of songs that will carry over well to the live show, because I really want to go out on tourâlike 30 or 40 dates as Cool Nutz. Because we used to go on 30-show runs with Tech and be out on a regular basis.
Youâre probably conditioned for it after all the tour managing.
Yeah, and itâs more evident now than ever that you have to be out touring. You see groups that tour who you would never think would be touring. Or people coming through Portland, like Yung Jeezy, who you would never expect in Portland. Records arenât doing it.
No one goes into music thinking âthis is how Iâll make my millions anymore.â Maybe that will help weed out the trash.
Itâs already doing that, but itâs just too easy to record music and then put it on Soundcloud, Hulkshare, Mediafire, CD Baby...get my album on iTunes.
How does it feel to still make music with people you started with almost two decades ago?
Itâs cool, man. Itâs almost more than music. Those guys are my brothers. Maniac is my brother. Bosko is my brother. We have so much history.
And that was one of the luxuries of the [Jus Family] label: You had Maniac and you had G-Ism and you had Kennyâyou had all these different flavors that came together and complemented each other.
If you had to pick one Portland musicianâto make it out of Portland, who do you put that grand on?
Iâd say either Liv Warfield or Aaron OâBryan Smith.
Liv has already made it!
Yeah, but with her own stuff! You know when sheâs out there singing and dancing with Prince sheâs still thinking about doing her own thing. And then Aaron, do you know him?
I donât. This is why Iâm leaving the paper! Iâm out of touch!
Heâs been on 106 and Park, heâs a singer. You could see him doing the Trey Songz thing out there. Heâs dope. He produces, singsâman, heâs dope.
Did you hear the Vinnie Dewayne album?
Heâs dope. Yeah. Castaway. âPeaks and Valleys,â thatâs dope. Heâs really saying some shit on there. I was listening to that on the way out to Vegas with my wife for our anniversary. I play some of the songs on the show, but I listened to the whole project and heâs really impressive.
I like him a lot.
Is there anybody else youâve gotten into lately?
There was some stuff I didnât like!
[Laughs.] What about Cassow?
I liked the Future Classic album. Itâs not all up my alley but I like what heâs doing.
That song âHypercritical,â that Trox did. That beat is incredible. Yung Mil is nice. The Captain is nice. I know Vursatyl is working with some young dudes.
Man, the last time I saw Vursatyl was at your show, and I had forgotten just how good he was. Heâs incredible. I was totally fascinated by what he was doing.
He kills it.
When is his album coming out?
I donât know. Itâs overdue.
[This goes on for another 10 minutes or so. ]