For independent artists, hip-hop is the new grunge

For independent artists, hip-hop is the new grunge
Rapper Sol opens for Grieves and Budo at the Roseland Theater in Portland (Kai Hayashi / KATU)

In August, Seattle hip-hop got yet another big national boost, as local duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis accepted three MTV Video Music Awards, tying Justin Timberlake for the most Moonmen of the night. The moment was huge -- not just for a city that, to quote the Blue Scholars, "has been waiting to blow since big butts and teen spirit," but for a do-it-yourself community that has been hustling to make it happen for decades. The burgeoning independent  hip-hop scene is borrowing from the scrappy, bootstrapping path laid out by Seattle's grunge pioneers and, finally, it seems to be taking hold. 

It would be easy to divide Seattle hip-hop into classes -- from upperclassmen, like Nasty Nes-produced Sir Mix-a-Lot or Vitamin D, to freshmen like BFA (Brothers from Another), who are actually still in school -- but it's not quite that simple. There's overlap on the timeline since rap really took root in Seattle in the mid-90s. The Physics, an iconic and critically-acclaimed group, met as students at O'Dea High School while the Blue Scholars started working together when they were UW students. And there's a difference between when a group or artist started out and when they started to get recognition; Macklemore may have just managed a Gold record this year, but his first album dropped back in 2005. 

There's also a high degree of collaboration in the community. Ask any rap artist about any other rap artist, and you'll hear that not only are they fans of each other, they've probably worked together in some way. And everyone's proud of everyone else's success. 

"We've done struggle shows with [Macklemore]," says the Physics' Thig Natural, "You know, shows where only, like, 20 people showed...It's been crazy to see what's happened to him."

Those "struggle shows" -- the ones in basements in remote locations with only a few die-hard fans clutching dubbed cassettes and CDs -- are at the root of Seattle hip-hop's success. Before there was Twitter, before there was even MySpace, there was just dedication and footwork.

"There was just no way to look up new music. You just had to be introduced to it," added The Physics' producer, Justo.

"I really had to be there, on the Ave after class, selling CDs," explains rapper Sol, who recently returned from a year-long fellowship abroad and is about to release a new album. At Bumbershoot over the weekend, Sol and his band, the Zillas, packed one of the largest stages with fans. In 2012, his album, "Yours Truly," charted on Billboard and iTunes. 

"I didn't come up with those things," he says, referring to social media, which has made it easier for younger artists to get the kind of attention that the more seasoned musicians had to sweat to achieve. But that's a good thing, says Sol, whose main goal has been to "make music with a message."

"It's really cool seeing these younger artists. There are a lot of talented people."

Festivals, like Bumbershoot, Sasquatch and the Capitol Hill Block Party have taken note, booking more hip-hop artists for more prime spaces than before. The surge is so noticeable, it's already being documented. 

"It's driving music and the arts scene," Thig Natural says, "it's a big presence. It's just everywhere."

At this year's Seattle International Film Festival, director Daniel Torok's short documentary, "The Otherside," debuted, bringing together members of the community and telling the story of what it's taken for hip-hop in Seattle to gain so much attention. The film featured interviews and music by artists like Grynch, State of the Artist and Sam Lachow, as well as commentary from celebrated producers Jake One and Nasty Nes. And they all agreed: This has been happening for a while, but it's really about to blow up.

And while there are plenty of parallels to be drawn between this wave and the grunge explosion of the 1990s, today's artists have also learned the mistakes and stumbles of those long-haired, plaid-wearing rockers. For example, most of them are unsigned, avoiding costly and often predatory record deals -- which isn't necessarily by choice, but seems to be working. Seattle's hip-hop scene is also interested in being helpful. 

"There are opportunities out there, but we need to work together," says Sol.

"It's just in our veins...Seattle music is very DIY," Sol adds, "everything that happened in Seattle in the 90s is happening again."

The Physics' new album, "Digital Wildlife," is due out later this year. Sol's latest record, "Eyes Open," drops next week.