Shadows of the City Speak Fluently
Porter Ray in on the tip of everyone’s tongue since his Sub Pop release “Watercolor,” and how he got here is Seattle’s Shakespearean drama.
In Porter Ray’s brother’s bedroom there are names on every wall, even the ceiling. Hand styles, tags and signatures from all the neighborhood teens that frequented this tiny basement alcove are written in everything from sharpie to white-out pen.
“It’s layers and layers of homies autographing, talkin’ shit,” Porter explains. “Me and my brother both destroyed our rooms. When my brother was murdered my mom chose to preserve that. I wouldn’t say she let’s us do that, we just kinda did it. We gave our mom a hard time in that regard, with ALL the homies running in and out of the house.”
The tragedy of his brother’s death, from a single bullet through a car windshield over something later deemed insignificant, is Seattle folklore. As Porter Ray’s globally distributed album “Watercolor” released on local historical landmark label Sub Pop last month, pause and reflection were inevitable. Tragedy is a strange bedfellow for this painterly rapper, and his drippy adjectives that have made him an author of the Seattle experience in these trying times, but that story has been told. He never avoids it. Yet there is so much more beyond that pain.
“A lot of the beginning stages of ‘Watercolor’ were recorded in my brother’s room. I write at my mom’s house when I visit,” Porter points out. “I walk in the neighborhood. It sparks things. They come back to me. Real shit, even when I lived on 17th and Roy my house was always that sort of hub. Black, White, Asian and whoever. We had diversity in the peer group. I’m in there with the kids reading Science Fiction, then I’m with my homeboys that’s hoopin’. Next we’re shooting dice over here, then watching Anime and falling through ComicCon.”
These are the kids with their names written in permanent marker on the drywall of his childhood. They stare back, moments in time turn to pages of rhyme. His dad passed away in 2005, the day before the birth of his first child. As his Sub Pop album took off, garnering critical acclaim, the mother of one of his children — a truly kind soul named Joy — passed away in a car accident. It was his blocks, the Central District streets where the signs start with “E.” that grieved with him in each instance. Those that ran with him became a part of him, and now as Entertainment Weekly publicizes his works on national outlets it raises not a single eyebrow that his motto remains unedited: CREAM FOR MY WHOLE TEAM.
“All of our families go back. We have Central District roots, St. Terese All-Stars ties,” Producer Jaycee ‘Kemetik’ Coleman, one the architects of Watercolor’s sound and Seattle veteran, recalls. “I’m a ‘few’ years older so I was actually his after school counselor at the Y off 23rd and East Madison. Even back then P was the one his peers gravitated towards. I always saw him as a reluctant leader because even though others would push him into that role — he always considered everybody in his crew on an equal plane. You could see it in his interactions, on the hoop court, in his style.”
The funny thing in retrospect is Porter wasn’t interested in rapping for a living.
He wanted to start his own streetwear label. He interned at Laced Up on Capitol Hill where he spent a lot of time with Coleman, and a flock of upwardly mobile creative types looking to reinvent Seattle’s public image for Century 21.
“I started out just interning for free,” Porter mentions with a shrug on the shoulders. “I thought it was corny to try and rap. Everyone was doin’ it. It was the Myspace era. I was trying to do silk screened t-shirts, graphic tees and streetwear. I customized my own outfits. In high school we were doing runs of tees at B-Bam! when it was on Pike St. and using Pro Club blanks. Rappin’ was just something we all did. Seattle is a freestyling city, anyone on the street will randomly battle you if you just start rhyming at them. No one’s embarrassed about kicking a rap.”
He’s on a first name basis with Paula the owner of Le Frock, she holds things for him in his size — how else are you gonna get Dolce & Gabbana hightops that don’t require curling your toes to squeeze in? Thrifting was always a staple, he even has strategies to arrive when the doors open to catch the Polo items that were hung during the overnight restock. This arose by necessity because there are old Chinese guys that buy every designer brand regardless of size, and Porter studied when they would show up.
So while you heard about the eulogies and headstones, the airbrushed commemorative rest-in-peace garments, know that Porter was in Japanese fashion magazines at the age of 19. This is an individual that exudes individualism. He’s as much defined by his future as his past.
“I’m always looking for the flamboyant late 60s, early 70s shit,” he reveals.
That period of polyester and spaced-aged mackin’ was his musical muse as well. His early mixtapes and EPs sampled soul records and had him channeling World B. Free as much as any contemporary MC. Yet in his unfettered honesty, he can still admit: “I bought hella Roc-a-Wear in high school.”
“I used to read all the colorways and pull out words like Seafoam or Cobalt and use those in my rhymes,” Porter adds. “I’ve also read all the credits on every vinyl album I’ve owned.”
This combination of transcendent style and practical approachability is what made his house the hub for the kids on the come up. Sure Porter has the look, but without the charisma you have an empty vessel with an expensive hood ornament. There just aren’t many people walking this Earth that have Porter’s recipe, and just like the best meals — the flavor stays with you even after everyone has eaten.
In a stroke of brilliance his press cycle included a collaboration with Nordstrom where he selected from the spring season drops, alongside veteran stylist Morgan Dillion, and appeared in a series of visuals captured by locally beloved photographer Matthew Sumi. One of the true architects of the Seattle scene — Andrew Matson — helped orchestrate the non-traditional publicity appearance as he writes for Nordstrom regularly.
“We appreciate that in his dressing, as with his music, (Porter) Ray is traditional yet fearlessly artistic,” Matson wrote of the project. “There’s a frame, and he’s flexing within it. Within that framework, he picked graphic designs from brands that are a little underground and not especially glitzy — J.W.Anderson, known for androgyny; Tim Coppens, known for ’90s-era skate style — along with this season’s hottest jackets from Gucci and Givenchy.”
So while designer rap has Billboard chart-toppers on Parisian runways, there’s this angular entertainer in Seattle staying just as dipped without being on Kim Jones’ mailing list. It’s what Nordstrom’s acclaimed Creative Director Strath Shepherd calls “personal architecture.”
What you see is what you get with Porter Ray and before you ever heard the words cascading out of his mouth, you saw the frame that came out of his brain.
“I’m looking for classic muscle cars like I used to look for gear,” Porter says of his evolution as he gets older. “Runnin’ through old school cars on Craigslist. I come from thrifting as a hobby but now I window shop for houses. I’m enamored by aesthetic, but also slang and linguistics. I’m googling Alfa Romeos to find out the Italian designer behind them, and his contribution to architecture. Shit like that. It’s all art.”
You’ll still find him in the ’75 Nova for now, exploring customization options with the gear heads from Wreckless Whips that have have been day ones since he started keeping count.
Porter could always command attention. His effortless delivery, smooth-operating chatline type of raps, that honey dripped the ladies as much as impressed the fellas, were always a hit on the stoop or in the kitchen at a CD house party. It took some convincing but there came a time where rapping seemed less cliché. The guy in his ear was Cesar Clemente, a jack of all trades known for cutting heads, playing ball and staying drenched in designer fashions.
“Cesar would pick me up at my mom’s everyday to come record. He was the first one swoopin’ me,” Porter recalls.
“I was focused on the next phase before things got going, but that’s because I just knew that P had it,” Clemente shares from his Beacon Hill home. “It was like MTV unplugged, or like watching your favorite poet do his thing. It was his stage. We’d be writing while the beat looped. Mumbles and cadences were formulating. Smoke filled the air. Someone was always on the sticks. When P was ready, he’d go in… It was a big ass open space, no booth. We’d stop all movement, turn the volume down and let him drop. After a few minutes, we’d replay that shit for like the whole day.”
These livingroom sessions were instrumental. All manner of folks were stopping by politicking at what was dubbed the “Moolah Mansion” on the Eastside, and then other spots in the U-District and Columbia City. Having to record in a setting such as this sharpens ability to a diamond’s eye.
“These were strangers, or people I’m meeting for the first time,” Porter notes thinking back. “I’m here performing my unfinished art, not in a booth — like a mic in the middle of the room. I had to command people’s attention to get them to quiet down. These were early lessons in crowd control. I’ll say this too, it wasn’t that people always liked it.”
But most did.
“As time went on, other hip hop heads came through,” Clemente points out. “I got P on a track with OneBeLo and myself called ‘Horror Flicks.’ Definitely one of my favorite tracks to date. Jae Millz came through and was really into what we had going on. I always loved the process of P’s music. Before long, he would come in with his verses all memorized, one take — HOV. It was a wraaaap. We started recording in my office at the Salad Bowl (Cesar’s Salad Medical Dispensary, Clemente’s business). Sway came through and was really digging the move.”
Porter propagates the purple haze mentality of the city that birthed Jimi — weed smoke in the passenger seat surrounded by leather interiors has always been a mobile home. He discusses it casually like another player in uniform on his team destined for cream. Those frequenting the inner circle with agenda items are often advised: “Let’s smoke about it.”
“I started with weed in Middle School. I was 13,” Porter remembers. “I’m never trying to turn down a blunt. We were shooting a video for ‘Jewelry’ — it’s some unreleased footage we’re still sitting on. I was facing blunts for the purpose of capturing these shots, it got to the point where I didn’t want to be high anymore. I was out of my mind tired. I can count on both hands throughout my life, where I got to the point where I was turning down trees. I was burnt.”
His descriptive verbiage for puffing the power plant are nothing new in his recordings, and ashe brought “Watercolor” to mainstream America none of these candid cannabis references were redacted.
“We weren’t smokin’ — we we’re chiefin’. Blowin’ dank. That gooch. Staying blown. Keyed. Fire,” Porter rattles off. “That’s my natural way I talk, but it’s nothing new under the sun. I fucks with weed so I’m gonna talk about it. I want the slang I use to be as specific to Seattle as possible. I always liked hearing songs from other regions and how they were freakin’ words, putting ’em in a new light.”
INTRATECQUE / BLACK CONSTELLATION
This story has a Kingmaker. His name is Geoff Gillis. There’s a reason his Intratecque logo is prominently displayed on the “Watercolor” album artwork. Gillis cut his teeth in the upper echelon of the music business; he has the recollections and hard drives if you dare question the credentials. He was closely positioned with Dame Dash in the Roc Dynasty and put in time everywhere from the boardroom to basement studios. He founded a number of media companies when returning to Seattle to take care of his ailing father, and Intratecque became an A&R for Porter’s career as the two built a rapport on overcast days.
The Black Constellation was already bubbling, an artistically inclined collective of major talents that were establishing a “New Black Wave” in a milquetoast city. From Ishmael and Tendai doing Shabazz Palaces, OC Notes and STAS on the DJ/Producer tip, Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes and Mike Wagner in the world of art, Nep Singh Sidhu in the intersections of fashion — Porter and Geoff fit right in along with a rotating cast of others inadequately mentioned here. Like most great cultural organizations the membership is somewhat fluid, but the adherence to quality is not.
“He’s been the most integral part in the acceleration of my career,” Porter says of Gillis. “He’ll pick a beat I don’t like to rhyme over and we’ll do that specifically to make me uncomfortable. It stretches my creativity. After the game LeBron is watching film of his game. After a show I’m trying to see all the video. Gots to. Let me see the phone. Geoff will be telling me what shit was wack. He’s a raw critic, and I’ve gotten used to that level of critique of my art.”
Gillis is a stoic character with a ginsu-sharp mind and a strategic inclination like Spassky at a chessboard. His words are worth their weight in gold:
“We don’t go to war with clowns. We let them hang themselves. Get a florist.” – Geoff Gillis
“We hustle for our family, keep thinking this shit is about fame.” – Geoff Gillis
“We’re for the recognition OF Seattle, not for recognition IN Seattle.” – Geoff Gillis
“Geoff asked me one night ‘do I want to leave 80% of my publishing on the table or create my own shit and control the rights to my music?’” Jaycee ‘Kemetik’ Coleman recollects. “Working on ‘Watercolor’ was a way different experience for me because you call me for that dusty shit. Flipping samples is my lane so when I got word we were progressing the sound and getting away from the soul flips I was initially stuck. I had to throw out an entire folder of shit I was prepping for the project. As long as the drums are swingin’ and there’s an element of grit I can get with it. Even though this
is his solo project he’s maintained a team first mentality. When he exclaimed ‘Cream For My Whole Team’ on that Heaven in Blue record he meant it. In-house was always part of the vision.”
CREAM STAYS IN-HOUSE
It’s not an accident. That’s close friends Nate Jack and CA$HTRO featured on the album. That’s BRoc in the liner notes for producing and engineering, the man Porter once said if “he loop the beat, I’ll catch it off the backboard.” That’s Ike B the Flav God on stage doing ad-libs for his live shows activating the crowd.
“There’s a sound being crafted and created,” Porter says of the familiar faces. “These are the same guys that gave me beats for free, that DJ’d my shows, putting in hours in the studio, fuckin’ with me for years. I wanted to reward them, give them their name in the album credits so they can be a part of the Sub Pop legacy. And get publishing … I’m settin’ up my own company, putting things under a business name. I got a business license, I’m withholding taxes. My publishing is right. I’m making the most out of my music by not sampling. We make our own skits now, and we all can see checks from this. It’s just being smarter with the bread.”
One of the beneficiaries is EJ Franco, DJ turned Producer and a guy that was putting in time for years with no qualms about return on investment.
“Having art that I created be put on a platform of this magnitude to share with the world means everything to a kid from Vallejo, CA,” Franco explains. “I grew up in the 90s listening to guys who lived down the street from me like N2Deep, Mac Dre and Mac Mall so I would have never imagined that from watching the ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ video repeat every hour on MTV that one day I would actually be making music on such a legendary label as Sub Pop.”
“I learned more about sampling versus writing original music and teaching myself how to play piano, even though I really consider it ‘playing it off.’ Im a DJ, man, since ’97. I learned from watching DMC/ITF battle tapes and TurntableTV and practicing that so I didn’t know shit about playing a piano. Teaching myself chords really did kick myself in the ass to make more original music. We were in the studio day and night working on everything to build up to this point even before the ‘Watercolor’ sessions. I appreciate him painting his words to my canvas of blaps.”
Porter is now the senior point guard leading on the court, in the huddle and at the press conference. He’s a player coach. This path that started by stepping out to lead at the E. Madison YMCA as Coleman observed, is still directing many of the same running mates as the championship trophy has changed proximity to within arm’s reach.
“I never tried to paint anything, but I’ve always fancied myself a painter,” Porter considers. “So ‘Watercolor’ is images for a listener. It’s supposed to be lush. I’m comin’ from Seattle so it just had to be very wet. We lived in the hood but were never more than 10 minutes from the Lake. I see every song as a color, and they seep into each other like watercolor does. If you’re in the NBA you’re putting up 500 jumpers a day. It’s exercise. I think some of my friends, and family and society in general… looks down on musicians and artists. It seems leisurely to them, like a hobby. Like I’m smokin’ weed all day, fuckin’ off.”
The hours of effort when no one was looking have amounted to this demolition of stereotypes. Porter’s audio recordings stimulate all five senses. It’s visceral. He’s showing us a place you have to close your eyes to see, but you recognize it the first time, and soon they’ll need NASA to track his progress. At SXSW last month he took a moment while at
the Top Tree sponsored “1am Bounce” party to reflect on the places rap has taken him, and consider the idea that he didn’t want to do this for real for real when he was more focused on the outfits in his closet.
“It felt good just to be outside of Seattle and be able to perform in front of a new audience, plus taste some great food and explore the city a bit,” Porter says of SXSW. “We had the opportunity to hit this party miles outside of the city. Benito invited us. The party was at this compound or like a ranch or something along the river. It was ill. I felt like I smoked unlimited weed on the rooftop above the pool. Nacho, Bruce Leroy, BRoc and myself. There were other houses with clubs inside of them, dance parties and DJs. People everywhere. Shit was live.”
Porter points to the album artwork skillfully assembled by fellow Black Constellate Mike Wagner, and makes his final point.
“I remember my very first show at Neumos opening up for Royce (Da Choice),” Porter concludes. “To be performing my debut album in front of a sold out crowd, with all of my family and friends was truly surreal. It felt like a piece of history. I see photos of my father and my little brother in the house and smile knowing their images are all over the world as a part of the album packaging.”
Words by Chernsicle Photos by Chernsicle, Carson Allmon, & Courtesy of Creative Commons