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.