Let’s Start the Show
When a couple of college kids put on a show at UW, they set the stage to make Seattle a hip-hop hotbed.
THE FRONT PAGE, man. The front page of The Seattle Times. The grin on Marc Matsui’s face is so slight you could almost miss it. Oh, but it’s there, his lips pulled thin and his nostrils flared just a touch. He’s sitting in a Capitol Hill diner in early April, dressed in baggy basketball shorts and a fleece jacket, and he’s thinking about the February 10 above-the-fold shot of a strawberry-blond dude rocking a black leather jacket and fashionably skinny jeans, lying in the middle of the sidewalk. But it wasn’t just any strawberry-blond dude rocking a black leather jacket and fashionably skinny jeans. It was Macklemore, more or less the biggest name in Seattle hip-hop right now, the kid from Garfield High who’d built a national following on the strength of his energetic live shows and heart-on-his-sleeve lyrics about his hometown.
The Times put Macklemore on the front page, man. Matsui’s imagining the headline above the picture: “Seattle rapper’s star rises as he gets down to business.” Across the table, Matsui’s buddy Sam Chesneau is pulling on his beard and smiling, too. Now Matsui’s grin starts to spread, the corners of his mouth creeping up toward his cheeks. He can’t help it. He starts shaking his head and then exhales a little chuckle.
Wait, why is he laughing? Hip-hop is Seattle’s soundtrack right now, and it’s about to blow up nationally. Shabazz Palaces’ arty, tripped-out space funk has been building buzz with college kids since last year, and it’s only going to get hotter when their first album on Sub Pop drops later this month. The Blue Scholars, the city’s hip-hop stalwarts for the last five or six years, are back with a new album of socially conscious rhymes layered over laid-back beats that should reaffirm their status at the top of the local pecking order. And then there’s Macklemore, who’s playing packed venues across the country. He just sold out three shows at the Showbox. Only a handful of Seattle groups—hip-hop or otherwise—can sell out one show there, let alone three. The guy’s gotten so big here at home that he performed at Safeco Field five days ago for the Mariners’ big opening-day shindig. This isn’t a joke, it’s a cultural coup d’etat, and the Times would be nuts not to acknowledge it by giving Mack some love. What could possibly be funny about all of this?
Matsui isn’t laughing at Macklemore. He’s just dumbstruck by the media attention he’s getting. These days Matsui’s a strength and conditioning coach, but he used to freelance for the Times entertainment section seven years ago, and he was imagining the reaction in the newsroom if he’d suggested giving a rapper that much ink. “If you would have told me back then that Macklemore was going to be on the front page of the entire paper, I would have thought you were crazy,” he says, still shaking his head.
Chesneau, a multicultural events and activities coordinator at Seattle Central Community College, pipes up. “I remember you having to fight to get to write about national tours that came to town,” he says. “I think they were hating.”
“No,” Matsui replies. “They just didn’t understand.”
IN SEPTEMBER 1999, Matsui was a sophomore at the University of Washington. His major was business, but he was really just there to get his diploma and then get out. Finance and econ didn’t exactly excite him—not the way writing and hip-hop did. He bought every album he could get his hands on. He’d read The Flavor, a local rap magazine published in the early and mid ’90s, and he listened to Rap Attack, a weekly show on KCMU.
What he really wanted to do, though, was see his favorite artists on stage. There were the occasional shows at RCKCNDY in South Lake Union—and there was that 21-and-over Del the Funky Homosapien concert at the Showbox at the Market that he tried unsuccessfully to sneak into—but for the most part, national hip-hop acts would pass right by the city on their way to Portland or Vancouver, where they filled all-ages venues with high school kids. So many tours shunned the downtown clubs in the late ’90s that local music fans gave the phenomenon a nickname: the Seattle Skip.
What Matsui didn’t realize at the time was that all-ages shows were illegal in Seattle, thanks to a 1985 law written by then city council member Norm Rice. The Teen Dance Ordinance was designed to address an increase in underage drinking, drug use, and sexual abuse that had plagued some all-ages venues. It required promoters of any concert catering to the under-21 crowd to take out a $1 million insurance policy and hire off-duty police to monitor the event and ensure that there weren’t any 21-year-olds in the room. The security requirements were manageable, but the age restrictions were cost prohibitive. “Shows without alcohol are truly a labor of love,” says Kate Becker, who in 2001 cofounded the Vera Project, a nonprofit all-ages venue. “You have to pay the band and take care of the people who are working, and there’s no profit margin in that without alcohol.”
There was another wrinkle to the ordinance: The police only enforced it when they wanted to. Rock promoters, including Becker, had flouted the law throughout the ’90s, producing all-ages shows downtown without thinking twice about getting caught. And for the most part, they didn’t have to worry. They knew the cops were more interested in shutting down shows they thought attracted an undesirable element. Hip-hop—and the “gangsta” persona some of the most popular national artists had cultivated—was an easy target.
As far as Matsui knew, local clubs were just as blind to the popularity of hip-hop. And after spending a day at the Western Washington University Hip-Hop Festival in Bellingham the previous spring—where he couldn’t help but ask himself why a school the size of UW couldn’t pull off something similar—he had to vent. That fall he typed up an editorial screed for the UW Daily, blasting the school and his classmates for not embracing a genre of music that had taken a boot to rock-and-roll and begun to dominate the national charts. “We here at UW are too lazy to even think of putting on a show of that magnitude,” he wrote in the October 14 edition, referencing the WWU festival. “I’m tired of seeing the best artists play at 21-and-over venues, while UW heads are left out in the cold. … That’s why I have decided to go ahead and put in the work myself to begin laying the groundwork for a hip-hop coalition.” And then he waited, even though he didn’t know exactly what he was waiting for.
About that same time, Jupiter Henry was mounting a one-man rap recruitment campaign on campus, posting flyers on any bulletin board he could find: “I want to start a student hip-hop organization,” it said. “Send me an email if you’re interested.” Henry was a freshman, and he wanted to make music—he was creating music between classes and looking for young rappers to record with—but his vague request caught Matsui’s attention. Maybe this place isn’t a rap hinterland after all, Matsui thought. He called some fellow hip-hop heads—an engineering major named Sam Chesneau, and Jason Norcross, who’d graduated the previous spring and was working as a building manager on campus—and they emailed Henry to set up a meeting.
Gavin Sullivan had read the flyer, too. He’d just come back to the UW campus for his senior year after spending the summer in New York, where he’d hung out with friends who talked about the concerts their schools would host every year. The students would propose an artist and agree to handle the promotions, and the university would front the cash to produce the event. Sullivan had been at UW for three years and never seen anything like that. So when he sat down with Matsui, Chesneau, Norcross, Henry, and a handful of others who came to the first meeting, he tossed out the idea of pitching an all-ages show to UW’s student activities office. He figured the school had to have the resources to sponsor an event on that scale.
They pored over booking fees for dozens of national acts and finally settled on Mos Def, a young MC out of Brooklyn.
Fueled by his pent-up frustration over the lack of shows for rap fans his age, Matsui started buzzing. Along with the other four guys, he pored over a trade journal that listed the booking fees for dozens of national acts and finally settled on Mos Def, a young MC out of Brooklyn whose first solo album was scheduled to drop in October. Mos wasn’t big enough yet to command an outrageous fee, but he had the kind of underground cred that would draw college kids looking for the next big thing. They registered as a student group—the Student Hip Hop Organization of Washington, or SHOW—wrote up their proposal for the concert, and took it to Trevor Whiton, the school’s senior activities advisor. He didn’t have to know who Mos Def was to realize these kids were worth risking state money on. Up to that point, most on-campus events had been proposed and put on by students who worked for the activities office. Matsui’s crew was independent, and they had initiative. They were passionate, and they had an elusive quality that most college kids lacked. “They just had that event-planning, promoter mentality from day one,” Whiton says now. “Some cats have it, and some cats don’t. They just had that thing.”
There was something else, though. SHOW insisted the event had to be about more than just bringing a national act to town. One element of the Bellingham festival that stuck with Matsui was the fact that local artists were featured prominently on the bill as well. The crowd was drawn by the chance to see big-name groups they knew, like San Francisco’s Souls of Mischief and the LA-based Pharcyde, but it also got a taste of Tacoma’s Black Anger and a collection of groups out of Seattle that collaborated under the name Tribal Productions. He and Chesneau knew that if their classmates had a chance to see the unsigned acts that had been grinding in obscurity in the Puget Sound, they’d understand that talent wasn’t exclusive to the lucky few who had deals with major labels. “We wanted that barrier between national and local to be eliminated,” Matsui says. “That way we could put them side by side and let people decide for themselves who they liked.”
After selling Whiton on the concept, they added Black Anger to the bill, along with a group out of the Central District called Source of Labor.
JONATHAN MOORE went to school at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, but he’d grown up in Columbia City and begun to make a name for himself in Seattle’s fledgling rap community in the late ’80s. So when he graduated in 1992, he didn’t have to think long about coming home. He moved back that spring and rented a house at 30th and East Cherry with his brother, Upendo Tookas, and their friend, DJ Kamikazee. The three of them started producing their own shows—at the nearby Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center because at that time the downtown clubs were more interested in grunge than rap—and performed as Source of Labor.
They hustled and begged their way onto a few bills at the Crocodile Cafe and RCKCNDY a couple years later, but it was on a trip back to Atlanta in 1996 that Moore established a relationship that would help Seattle hip-hop hack its way out of the Northwest wilderness. After visiting his alma mater, he dropped into Sevananda Natural Foods Co-op, where he’d worked while he was in school, to see some old friends. One of them, who knew what Moore was cooking up back home in Seattle, said, “You need to meet Chaka.”
Chaka Mkali spent his days at the co-op and his nights on stage, performing as I Self Devine, one half of a hip-hop duo called the Micranots. So when he and Moore met, they saw a little bit of themselves in each other. Mkali took Moore to Atlanta clubs he hadn’t been to for years, and while they were there, Moore told him about the hip-hop scene that was smoldering in Seattle. He told Mkali about Source of Labor, about up-and-coming beatmakers from his neighborhood like Vitamin D and Jake One, about a take-it-if-they-won’t-give-it-to-you state of mind that was spreading in the city.
Before moving to Atlanta, Mkali had lived for years in Minneapolis, a city with its own burgeoning rap community that, like Seattle’s, was spitting rhymes in obscurity. He still had connections there, particularly at a small independent label called Rhymesayers, and he saw the promise of a mutually beneficial relationship: Seattle had the producers, and Minneapolis had MCs. He and Moore just needed to bring them together.
Within a year, Mkali was introducing Moore to one of Rhymesayers’ founders, Brent Sayers. He was partnering with Vitamin D and Jake One to record a few songs and helping the producers shop their raw beats to other artists on the label. He was sitting in cars with Minneapolis beatmakers, playing Jake One cuts and telling them, “This is what your music should sound like.”
WITH THE BILL for SHOW’s first event filled out, Whiton booked the HUB Ballroom, which could hold 1,500, for January 15, 2000. And while he negotiated the booking fee with Mos Def’s agent, SHOW members handled the promotion. They spent that winter papering bus stops and utility poles throughout the U District with posters for the event printed up by the student activities office. When they ran out Chesneau sneaked into the engineering offices after hours to print more. They convinced the owners of barbershops and record stores—where hip-hop fans hung out and argued over their favorite rappers’ skills—to sell their tickets. Matsui previewed the show with an article in the Daily. And by the time Mos made it to town, the concert was a sellout.
Even though it was UW’s production, SHOW banked more than a thousand dollars that night. Part of the proceeds came from the sale of concessions Costco had donated for the event, and they made the rest by letting in more students after the show started, charging them the full admission price and then pocketing the cash. “There was definitely some do-it-yourself ethos there, a drive to do whatever it took to get it done, whether or not you were technically following the rules,” says original SHOW member Jason Norcross. “But that’s kind of what hip-hop is anyway. So we saw it as a good thing. We were like, ‘Who cares what the system says? We’re going to do it. We’re going to get it done.’”
The event earned SHOW credibility not just locally but outside of Seattle as well. Brent Sayers and the rest of Minneapolis’s Rhymesayers management team had been watching the city since Jonathan Moore had opened their eyes to it, so when they decided to send one of their groups, the Arsonists, out West that spring, they called the newly minted promoters.
A Mars Hill Church pastor opened the nonprofit Paradox specifically to circumvent the Teen Dance Ordinance.
Just months into their relationship with UW, SHOW’s members had already begun to discuss the merits of putting up their own money for future events. They would sit at their favorite pizza joint in the U District after class, eating slices and grousing about how much work they’d put into the Mos Def show, only to watch the school take most of the profits. They were natural marketers, and they’d seen what it took to produce a show. The only problem? They were still committed to producing all-ages shows, and finding an affordable venue that would host one was virtually impossible. By now they were well-versed on the restrictions of the Teen Dance Ordinance; Chesneau and one of the newer members, Melissa Darby, had attended town hall–style meetings with representatives of then Mayor Paul Schell to discuss how it limited their options. And then one day they looked out the window and saw the Paradox Theater.
The Paradox, which to that point had primarily been a punk club, was significantly smaller than the HUB. But that was okay because Matsui and Chesneau felt comfortable trying it out for their first off-campus show. More important, though, it could host all-ages events: A Mars Hill Church pastor who knew that the Teen Dance Ordinance didn’t apply to buildings owned by nonprofits had opened the venue the year before specifically to circumvent the law. Chesneau walked over one day, talked to the talent buyer, and booked a date in the first week of May for the Arsonists.
They printed up more flyers and posters and papered the U District again. And they started networking on campus. “I had no fears of approaching anyone who looked like they were a part of the culture and trying to get to know them, to let them know what was happening and what we were trying to do,” Chesneau says. They were recruiting a community that could bear witness to the growth of hip-hop in their hometown.
“Sam and Marc got it,” says Jason Cook, the Arsonists’ tour manager at the time and a VP of Rhymesayers today. “They weren’t promoters just doing it for the money. They were doing it because they cared about the music.” Not only that, they made touring artists feel like family. That weekend in May, Matsui and Chesneau took the group to see Bruce Lee’s grave at the Lakeview Cemetery because one of the members was a fan, and Chesneau booked a dental appointment for another member who needed an emergency root canal. As for the show, it was another sellout. It didn’t prove they could hit a home run with every production, but their success was helping to dispel the myth that Seattle was just “that city that made grunge.”
BETWEEN JANUARY 2000 and the end of 2003, SHOW produced more than 50 hip-hop events in Seattle. On a good night the crew could net a couple thousand dollars, which they’d stuff in a Ziploc bag and stash in Matsui’s couch cushions until they were ready to put on the next show. On bad nights Matsui would have to go to the cash machine and withdraw money from his own account to cover what they owed the group. But most nights were a wash. “There were a lot of shows that were just done out of love,” Norcross says. “At one point we had talked about being a real nonprofit. Breaking even wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as it left us in the position where we still had money for the next one.”
Matsui and Chesneau have a hard time agreeing on which event was their best. Matsui says it was their first Brainstorm MC Battle in February 2001, a tournament that pitted local amateur rappers against each other in one-on-one freestyle competitions. Each MC was allowed 30 seconds to rhyme off the cuff about his opponent, and a panel of judges decided who would advance. The battle sold out the I Spy, but just like at the Mos Def show, they kept selling tickets until kids were standing on seats and in the aisles. “People were standing on each other’s shoulders,” Matsui says.
For Chesneau, it was the next battle, the following February. The success of the first Brainstorm had increased demand for tickets, so SHOW went back to UW’s HUB Ballroom, where it all began. Word had spread through message boards and prospective battlers came from across the country. “I’ll never forget how I felt,” Chesneau says. “I was sitting there in the lobby, and I felt so accomplished. Part of it was that people were saying, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this in Seattle.’ And that event kind of put us on par with national events. It felt like we were a part of the national scene.”