The West Hills of Portland are alive with the sound of hip-hop.
The secluded, McMansion-laden neighborhood of Forest Heights is clearly not rap's natural habitat. Among the sweeping views, the only trace of what's bubbling beneath the surface here is a matte-black Escalade with the letters "EYRST" scrawled across it. The SUV marks the home of former Blazers swingman Martell Webster, and by extension the budding independent record label he started a year ago out of the studio annexed aside his home.
The 29-year-old native of western Washington lives here with his wife and children—and, occasionally, producer Neill Von Tally, EYRST co-founder and creative mastermind, who recently tweeted security footage of him tucked in a sleeping bag, headed to bed on the studio's IKEA couch, time stamped at 3:30 am.
"It's OK to not sleep as much right now," Von Tally says, slouched on that same couch. "We have a fucking studio."
That sleeplessness has started to pay off. In the past year, EYRST (pronounced "airst") has produced some of the most progressive music coming out of Portland—hip-hop or otherwise. The label focuses on pushing sonic boundaries to test what's possible on wax, and its roster of artists has few peers locally in creating future-forward sounds at such a consistent clip.
To be fair, though, not many artists have the resources to do so. Few have an NBA player as a benefactor. The EYRST studio was built back when Webster was playing for the Blazers after getting drafted in the mid-aughts, as a space to indulge his hobby. (ARTT, Webster's debut, came out last month.) With a studio full of advanced recording equipment, the team is able to experiment constantly, toying with drum machines, keyboards and synths to create intricate, deeply layered soundscapes.
But while Webster's funding has been crucial, the label's vision has mostly been steered by Von Tally. As a bedroom beatmaker active for years in the local hip-hop community, he yearned for a platform to support and promote his contemporaries. He first connected with Webster through Webster's younger brother, who tapped the producer to teach him the way around the studio's soundboard. After months of coming and going, Von Tally began producing for Webster during the NBA offseason.
"I definitely didn't imagine I would be up here very often," Von Tally says of that first summer spent at the studio. But he became comfortable in his new office, and increasingly reluctant to return to daily life. "By the end of that summer, it was like, 'Well, I need to be able to be here everyday after you go back and keep playing. So what are we going to do?'"
With Webster giving the nod, Von Tally began to work his local connections. He recruited R&B singer Blossom and rapper Ripley Snell, then Epp and Calvin Valentine of the group TxE. Maze Koroma, of North Portland's psychedelic Renaissance Coalition, followed, along with the Last Artful Dodgr, perhaps the city's most exciting emerging artist. Acid-washed wordsmith Myke Bogan also came aboard early on. A rapper long on the verge of breaking out of the Northwest bubble, Bogan found something in EYRST he hadn't yet come across as he worked to get his career off the ground.
Related: "Best New Band 2015: Myke Bogan."
"For a label to give you complete creative control and not want to change you, but just give you the financial backing and the help that you need to get to the next level as an artist," Bogan says, "it's amazing."
It wasn't just financial security that attracted him, but also the access to a family of collaborators. Bogan was first charmed by a visit to the studio with Blossom and Von Tally that bore "Acouasm," a minimalist, sun-soaked sample of a casual EYRST session. In June, the label released Rare Treat, a collaborative EP between Bogan and Dodgr and produced by Von Tally. It serves as an ideal introduction to the label's sound. Dodgr's voice—smooth and dexterous, sharp and playful—makes an ideal pairing with Bogan's flexible flow, which ebbs and bends around Von Tally's enticing, dimly lit beats.
The EYRST aesthetic is reflected in its recent videos as well. Ripley Snell's seven-minute, Grand Theft Auto-inspired music video, "Underwater Series," takes viewers along on the dark, self-destructive night crawls of a suit-wearing, baseball-bat-wielding character. Von Tally's ethereal, brooding soundtrack plays as the internal radio dial of Snell's mind, scanning across soul-searching scribbles, pensive verses, and sober melodies.
The visuals to "I'm Ripe," a standout from Webster's ARTT mixtape, features the original label team—Von Tally, Blossom, Bogan, and Snell—in a self-constructed set of mirror-paneled walls. Each artist's own scene is designed to embody their individual style: Bogan's floor is littered with PBR cans; Blossom sits in a garden; Snell's pouring coffee; and Von Tally has his snare drum. It's a collective video for a Webster track, and a symbol of EYRST's united philosophy.
Following Rare Treat and ARTT, EYRST has a wave of releases set to hit in the coming months. The studio's vault is filled with nearly finished projects from almost every artist on the label, including full-lengths from Webster, Bogan and Dodgr. "We're sitting on a lot of music, and that's a hard thing to do," Von Tally says. "But one of our objectives is to make it so the artists can be financially independent based on their art, which means sometimes we have to sit on the music so it can be released properly and get the right shine it deserves."
Having a benefactor like Webster with the passion and deep pockets to fund a business and studio is rare for budding independent labels, and the EYRST team acknowledges its anomalous situation. It's what motivates them, and why they refuse to take time off. But they aren't just working for themselves—they're working to turn heads toward Portland hip-hop as a whole.
"'Portland' and 'hip-hop' aren't often heard in the same sentence," Von Tally says. "Let's be a part of changing that."
Five Essential EYRST Releases
Rare Treat, Myke Bogan, the Last Artful Dodgr and Neill Von Tally
The 10-minute EP from EYRST's A-team is indeed a treat. The trio's chemistry is contagious, combining Von Tally's billowing, ultramodern beats with Dodgr's silk-soft delivery and Bogan's snappy wit, but it is a mere nibble of their potential.
Casino Carpet, Myke Bogan
The Southern California native's debut EYRST project elevates his established style. Full of sun-soaked, sample-free production, Bogan rides the mic more agile than ever before. Released in August 2015, it hints at future collaborations to come, with Dodgr offering an assist on the dog-day anthem "Sundress" and Blossom adding her sultry voice to the meditative, honey-dipped "How We Do."
ARTT, Martell Webster
Webster opens his debut with a song called "Irony of it All," acknowledging in the first breath, "I'm new at this." It's a hat-tip to critics who say Webster should have stuck to basketball. The jab is potent, as the label co-founder dives directly into his music, producing a record deep in range that alternate between bounce-driven boasts to laid-back reflections.
Osiris, Maze Koroma
North Portland wordsmith Koroma's first official album introduces listeners to his modernistic brand of alternative hip-hop. Beats consist of sci-fi synth sounds and vintage video game intros, while Koroma waxes passionately about young love and the struggles of city life.
"Sass" and "Wavves," Blossom
Blossom's songs soothe the soul. Her mesmerizing vocals—delicate and direct—mesh naturally with Von Tally's soulful and bright beats. She's stirring and smooth in a way that can be dangerously endearing.
SEE IT: EYRST's one-year celebration, featuring performances from Martell Webster with Jake One, the Last Artful Dodgr, Blossom, Maze Koroma, Ripley Snell and Calvin Valentine and Epp, is at the Evergreen, 618 SE Alder St., on Friday, Aug. 12. 9 pm. $8 with canned-food donation, $10 advance, $12 day of show. 21+.