Much has been made of Seattle’s storied history of rock music. Jimi Hendrix, Heart, Mudhoney, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Fleet Foxes, Pearl Jam and Band of Horses are just some of the notable recording artists to emerge from the Emerald City.
However, rock is not the lone genre to represent Seattle. Daudi Abe’s latest book, “Emerald Street: A History of Hip Hop in Seattle,” details the development of rap on the other side of Washington.
Auntie’s Bookstore will be hosting a free virtual event at 7 p.m. Tuesday that will feature Abe waxing about hip-hop culture and how it has impacted art, politics and education.
Abe, 50, who teaches a hip-hop culture class at Seattle Central College, happened upon hip hop in a Seattle record store in 1979. “My dad said to pick a record, and the reason I selected this album was due to the cover, which had a logo that swirled and looked like candy,” Abe said while calling from his Seattle home.
The album was the eponymous Sugarhill Gang debut, which included the game-changing single “Rapper’s Delight.”
“I remember listening to it, and it sounded familiar,” Abe said. “The bass line was sampled from Chic. I remember being struck by these people talking. There was always people singing on a song. That was the norm. But these people were talking about getting a color TV and watching the Knicks play. I remember thinking that I would love to watch basketball on a color TV since we had a black and white TV then.”
Abe was instantly hooked on hip hop. The future professor/author studied the content and appreciated what emanated from the Pacific Northwest.
Perhaps the most important point from Abe’s book is how Seattle’s most significant hip-hop players have been independent difference-makers. That’s the common denominator among Sir-Mix-A-Lot, Digable Planets and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, each of whom scored rave reviews, commercial success and enviable hardware.
“When you’re regionally isolated, you don’t feel like you have to imitate anyone,” Abe said. “You need to do your own thing to express yourself. So much hip-hop culture was coming out of New York, but we don’t have subways in Seattle. It’s about what is experienced here. It’s about being yourself and being regional.
“That really manifested itself with the three artists that each won Grammy Awards. Sir Mix-A-Lot made a name for himself with ‘Posse on Broadway’ in 1987, and it was significant since Mix-A-Lot didn’t go with the gangsta flow of NWA. He didn’t feel like he had to.”
Sir Mix-a-Lot, who reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Baby Got Back” a generation ago, is a well-respected songwriter and producer. Sir-Mix-A-Lot also is identifiable courtesy of his appearances on TV shows such as “BoJack Horseman” and commercials like the Washington State Lottery.
Then there’s Digable Planets and their album, “Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space),” which dropped in 1993. The album not only went gold, but the initial single, “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” also became a crossover hit and won Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group at the Grammys. The act created ethereal music, which complemented heavy words.
Digable Planets’ combination of cool jazz and smooth delivery of socially conscious lyrics set the trio apart. “Digable Planets were rapping about socialism and female rights when that just wasn’t happening in hip hop,” Abe said. “ ‘La Femme Fetal’ namechecks Roe v. Wade.”
More than 20 years later, Macklemore, 37, struck with hits such as “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love” alongside Spokane native Lewis (the duo went on hiatus in 2017).
“You have Macklemore come through with ‘Thrift Shop,’ which is the opposite of what hip hop is about with bling,” Abe said. “And then you have ‘Same Love,’ which is against homophobia, which has been the norm in hip hop.
“You look at the impact Macklemore had. The rapper Young M.A. has come out. There’s the song ‘Smile’ from Jay-Z, which mentions that his mother is a lesbian. And then there’s Lil Nas X, who had a massive hit with ‘Old Town Road’ coming out as gay (in 2019). Macklemore helped open some doors. He has helped change the face of hip hop in such a positive manner.”
Sir Mix-A-Lot and Macklemore enjoyed grassroots support before going national. Seattle’s Ishmael Butler left for Brooklyn to form Digable Planets but is beloved in his hometown. “Ishmael Butler is the pride of Garfield High School,” Abe said. “His roots are Seattle.”
The Seattle hip-hop scene will be discussed via Zoom by Abe. “I wish I could be in Spokane for the event,” Abe said. “I miss the face-to-face interaction .”
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