When Seena Haddad first heard about the incident at the Blue Monk in March 2014, during which Portland authorities effectively shut down a peaceful, if possibly overcrowded, local hip-hop show, it shocked him, though perhaps not for the obvious reasons.
"I didn't know Portland had a rap scene," says the 28-year-old filmmaker, who grew up in Beaverton. "To hear about all that drama that unfolded, hearing from police and the rappers' points of view, it drew me toward that. I wanted to know what their stories were."
With X-Ray, his new web series, Haddad tells one such story—a fictional one, but one he's strived to have resonate with those in Portland's hip-hop community. It's a realistic, ground-level view of what it means to "make it" in the rap game, where success is measured in increments, and the drive to be heard is balanced against everything else going on in an artist's life: friends, family, romantic relationships, the work that actually puts money in your wallet. The first season, premiering online this week, follows an aspiring young MC whose goal is not to get in the ear of some mogul and score a multimillion-dollar deal: He just wants to get a mixtape out. Empire it is not. It's an archetypal tale of starting from the bottom, one which looks, feels and, most crucially, sounds like Portland.
Getting those details right were crucial for Haddad. Expectedly, it took some trial and error to get there. After all, Haddad had only just returned to the area two years before he began writing the script. He left Beaverton in 2006, going to New York and then studying film at the American University of Paris, and is currently based in L.A. After completing his first draft, he reached out to Fahiym Acuay, founder of the Pacific Northwest hip-hop blog We Out Here, for an appraisal. "He didn't capture the issues at hand," Acuay says. "It could've been like any city."
Acuay became Haddad's de facto tour guide to Portland hip-hop, taking him to shows and introducing him to MCs. (He's credited as an associate producer on the show.) One night at Kelly's Olympian, Haddad witnessed a set by Michael "Fountaine" Stewart. He'd already cast his lead protagonist, a trained actor from Beaverton, but after seeing Stewart perform, he began to rethink his decision.
"The other actor had an idea in his head that he was playing this rapper. He came from the 'burbs, and it seemed like he was playing into a stereotype that didn't make sense," Haddad says. "I wanted the character to be very cerebral. People think about what they say here. In real life, people aren't trying to make a big show of things, they're just putting their energy into music."
In contrast to the bravado found in other rap-themed dramatizations, Stewart brings a quiet vulnerability to the role of Marcus Ray, a creative kid reeling from a personal tragedy who is just trying to get the wheels of his career turning. It helped that, during filming, Stewart was essentially on the same trajectory in his own career, releasing his debut last March. "At first, I didn't believe in myself because I'm like, 'I don't act,'" Stewart says. "[Haddad] just said to be myself. The story he wrote was my up-and-coming story as an artist." Haddad filled out the cast with other non-actors recognizable to local hip-hop fans, including Epp, Wes Guy and Maze Koroma, and also brought in producers 5th Sequence and Samarei to do the soundtrack.
After a year and a half of stops and restarts—a hard-drive crash in October forced him to re-edit several episodes—Haddad is finally ready to put X-Ray online. It will play out over 10 brief episodes, most under 10 minutes. It sounds modest. But for those who see themselves in Marcus Ray, who've scrapped to make hip-hop viable in a city where it's often appeared to be outlawed, it's a crucial depiction of just how hard they've fought.
"I want people to come away knowing that there is a scene here," Acuay says. "It hasn't been easy. It's on the edge now, pushing into the actual music scene, and I want people to know how we've had to struggle."
MORE: X-Ray premieres Jan. 16 at xrayseries.com.