For me, Cool Nutz was an acquired taste. His delivery and lyrical approach have changed over the years, but in general his style is meticulous and impressionistic. He makes sure the listener hears every word in his raps. This isn't always a style that grabs the listener by the throat. Nutz won't go on a Tech N9ne style machine-gun verbal assault; he seldom chooses in-your-face subject matter (even as police, gang and drug violence are common themes in his work, and he name-drops victims' names frequently enough that it's clear that sort of violence has had a profound impact on him, none of this is ever glorified in his music); and Cool Nutz doesn't jump on bandwagons. His great strength is also what he's most criticized for: Cool Nutz is always Cool Nutz. Loyal to his longtime collaborators and always repping Portland, despite the city's utter lack of international cache.
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.
WW: I've heard people say that Portland hip-hop would be better without you. You've heard that.
Cool Nutz: Yeah, I've heard it. Really, though, if you took me out of the equation, it would be worse for you. All those years of me putting rappers on the Roseland stage, taking me out of the equation just makes everything worse.
You never felt like anyone was holding you back?
No. We were just rapping. All those records were like "let's just rap." I remember when I first saw that I was really doing something. I put out Harsh Game and I took a box of a hundred of them to Tower Records on 102nd, and they called me back a week and a half later because they needed more of them. I walked in there and looked at their charts, and it was Madonna, 2Pac and Harsh Game at number three. But I never sat back and said "this rapper is stopping me." If I have a problem with a rapper, it's because they don't return the same love that I gave them. If you know that Cool Nutz is in your corner, getting people on bills at places like Roseland—man, I would never say "don't give this or that rapper an opportunity" or "don't pay them." That's not me. If you were sitting around saying "man, if Ezra wasn't at the Portland Mercury, this city would be a better place," then maybe you should go harder on your writing [laughs]. Maybe these cats need to work harder at putting up fliers and distributing their music. That's what I like about Luck. Luck moves mean. A lot of these dudes aren't moving mean. They're moving timid. They don't know what it's like to be on your bike at three in the morning putting up posters, you know? A lot of dudes these days are never going to know what it feels like to spend $20,000 on your art....
It just trips me out, man, because I see how much I support people, and then I see the Sub Noize situation, like I see cats that will purposely not post something about me or re-tweet me or something. There aren’t many people I haven’t hooked up with something, that haven’t called me up asking for something.
But by the same token, there are a whole lot of people showing that support. I think the overwhelming feeling is that people know you’ve 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 don’t 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 isn’t there room in that for criticism?
Hell yeah. I’m not going to ride around listening to Aesop Rock all the time, but he’s one of the dopest cats out there. Even if he’s not your cup of tea, you’ve got to give him credit for being dope. You’ve got so many sub genres, cats are more critical now than ever. And you’ve got more rappers than fans almost. Everybody is a rapper.
And it wasn’t 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 wasn’t all that committed. But now days, you can go to Guitar Center—shit, you can go to Best Buy—and you can buy a studio set-up with microphone, interface and software for like a hundred bucks. And you can go home and—
Make some terrible music.
Make some terrible music! [Laughs.] Record the shit out of some shit. That’s what people don’t 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, I’ve 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.
I’ve still got like four Minidisc players.
I’ve got one of those. I remember when I thought that was going to be a good format, until I saw how unfunctional it was.
You’re tour managing Kreayshawn. I’m not going to ask you about her music, but I would argue that you’re a superior MC to her. What is that dynamic like? Can you keep up with her?
That’s one of the blessings of working with people like her and E-40. I’m not into all that staying out until 6 in the morning. She barely drinks. She smokes, but she’s super laid-back regular, really thoughtful and considerate. And she’s super witty and funny, man. People might criticize her music, but she knows what she wants to do.
And it’s working, obviously.
Yeah, she’s got her own ideas. And she grew up in East Oakland, around real shit. So it’s not like she’s faking or trying to be anything she’s not. She is genuine to what she’s doing. We have a tight-knit little team. You’ve got her, Stretch, her manager—he’s Mistah Fab’s manager, too, so we’ve 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 “bro is she for real?” He said “she’s for real.” And he said he was working with her sister, Kreayshawn, too. Fast forward like a year and “Gucci Gucci” comes out and that shit pops, you know what I’m sayin? And I said “oh, damn, Stretch, that’s good shit.” And he asked if I wanted to tour manage her. So it’s real family oriented when we out, and nobody is on some superstar shit. She’s really modest and humble. I brought Fatboy in, and Hawaii is her hype man. That’s a real small unit. It’ll be like six of us.
You don’t ever feel like a babysitter?
Nah. I mean, they’re like my kids because I’m older than them. She’ll be like “my dad, Cool Nutz,” and V-Nasty calls me Uncle Cool Nutz. I’m 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 she’s doing. If somebody comes to her—even the biggest rappers in the game—she’s not like “oh, we’ve got to do a song together.” She’s like “if it works, it works, but if we don’t click it doesn’t.” 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 ain’t gonna lie, one of the things I want to do—if 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.
You’d stop rapping?
I’d probably do it on the side, but the game has changed, for me. Rapping generates the means for me and it’s 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 “man, it would be dope to take my family to Crater Lake for a week,” but I’ve got like three shows. I’d 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 shit—I 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. “For real!?” [Laughs.] So it’s 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 I’ve given back, but I’d 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. It’s 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 who’s 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 “I saw my dad be a low-key philanthropist.”
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 wasn’t 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 I’ve been holding back on.
Sometimes I’m 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, I’m 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, they’ve 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 they’re not looking for me to come out and have a huge first week. They know I work. They look at it like “this dude is gonna push it, he’s gonna promote it, he’s gonna tour on it.” They are really ground-level. They have access to everything. They can build their own tour, they do merchandising, they have management. They’re not the kind of label that’s 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 record—which is what I’m going to call it—
That’s what I want people to call it, really.
So, the cool thing about it is that you don’t change up your style and talk about axe-murder just because you’ve got a horrorcore dude on the track.
I hate that. I forget which Common record it was—Electric Circus—where 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 Game’s album, he did that song with Tyler the Creator and he’s rapping like Tyler. I like that he can switch his game up, but I really like what he does. I’ll 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 that’s consistent with what I do, but I have Grouch on it or I have Tech N9ne on it. When I did that song “No God,” 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 you’ve developed the most. What have you worked on the hardest and where have you developed the most?
Everything. [Laughs.] If I’m still rapping, I don’t want to come out and be that dude where people say he’s whack or he’s not relevant. When we first started putting out albums, we were just rapping and recording. We didn’t know about overdubbing and effects. That’s another way I feel like people benefitted from what we did. It gave people a blueprint to work with—we made full albums of 16 or 17 quality songs, where the young cats could come out and say “oh man, I want to do better than that.”
I think that I’m 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 it’s not gonna sound like I’m 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 I’ve developed. I’ve evolved as an artist.
If you listen to Harsh Game and then you listen to Speakin’ Upon a Million, the lyrics and subject matter got more advanced on that second album. But people wanted more Harsh Game type stuff. “76 Nova”—
People still ask for “76 Nova”!
Yeah, and “What I’m About.” 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 they’re saying is in that box. “Suck my dick/ Suck suck suck my dick.” But we were MCing, we weren’t just rapping.
It seems like there are a lot of MCs coming up and getting famous that never learned how to rap. It’s more about the look and the producer—
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 don’t think it’s that people didn’t want to hear it, but when East Coast hip-hop took over, Ice Cube and all them were like—
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 you’ve 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 I’m saying?
So what’s going to be different with your next album. You realize it’s 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 it’ll 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. There’ll 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 tour—like 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.
You’re probably conditioned for it after all the tour managing.
Yeah, and it’s 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 aren’t doing it.
No one goes into music thinking “this is how I’ll make my millions anymore.” Maybe that will help weed out the trash.
It’s already doing that, but it’s 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?
It’s cool, man. It’s 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 Kenny—you had all these different flavors that came together and complemented each other.
If you had to pick one Portland musician—to make it out of Portland, who do you put that grand on?
I’d say either Liv Warfield or Aaron O’Bryan Smith.
Liv has already made it!
Yeah, but with her own stuff! You know when she’s out there singing and dancing with Prince she’s still thinking about doing her own thing. And then Aaron, do you know him?
I don’t. This is why I’m leaving the paper! I’m out of touch!
He’s been on 106 and Park, he’s a singer. You could see him doing the Trey Songz thing out there. He’s dope. He produces, sings—man, he’s dope.
Did you hear the Vinnie Dewayne album?
He’s dope. Yeah. Castaway. “Peaks and Valleys,” that’s dope. He’s 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 he’s really impressive.
I like him a lot.
Is there anybody else you’ve gotten into lately?
There was some stuff I didn’t like!
[Laughs.] What about Cassow?
I liked the Future Classic album. It’s not all up my alley but I like what he’s doing.
That song “Hypercritical,” 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. He’s incredible. I was totally fascinated by what he was doing.
He kills it.
When is his album coming out?
I don’t know. It’s overdue.
[This goes on for another 10 minutes or so. ]