Seattle’s been a jazz town (see: Ernestine Anderson and Quincy Jones). It’s been a rock town, in every variation—garage, punk, grunge, indie, beard. But as Daudi Abe notes in his new book, Emerald Street: A History of Hip Hop in Seattle (out November 11), for much of the genre’s four-decade history, the public at large has mostly not seen this city as a hip-hop town. At least not outside of a couple of chart toppers—Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”—each of which brought an accompanying swell of attention.
One of the exciting things about Abe’s book is its unwillingness to hang too many words on those peaks. We don’t get (thankfully) the Macklemore Chapter. He’s mentioned in the introduction, then gets a few pages later in the book. Instead Abe, a Seattle Central College professor, starts with context—a quick history of Blackness in Seattle, including that thriving Jackson Street jazz scene. Then in the early 1980s the first hip-hop started coming to town, tracks such as the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”
A small scene blossomed: not just rapping, but deejaying and breaking and graffiti. “In the Wild West atmosphere of hip hop that was Seattle’s Central District in the early 1980s…[young] kids became like traveling gunfighters going from town to town looking for a duel.” Rap “battles” became common place. A group, the Emerald Street Boys, forged in these verbal showdowns, rose to the top. They performed at Bumbershoot and became the local spark that lit the Mix-a-Lot fire. Their influence, Abe writes, stuck with the city: “The initial mixed racial composition of the group, engagement with other non-hip-hop community arts associations, the endorsement of performers who reflected gender diversity, and the dedication to growing community spaces for youth and others to create opportunities for supporting hip-hop arts and culture in a grassroots way all carried on in Seattle’s hip-hop world for years to come.”
As may be clear from that passage, the book’s written in a plain, academic register (Mix-a-Lot praises its “straight-forward writing” in his foreword). It can get bogged down in excessive detail, deluges of proper nouns taking much of a page. Often its analysis is outsourced in extended quotes from writers like The Stranger’s Larry Mizell Jr. and Charles Mudede. I kept wishing for Abe’s own words to match the verve of his subject—what’s more verbally ecstatic than the rhyming, punning heteroglossia of a rap verse?
But what Abe is up to here is well worth a read if you’re interested in Seattle music and history. As he dips into various facets of the scene through the decades, Seattle hip-hop’s identity emerges—intelligent, idiosyncratic, progressive, diverse in population and sound, often needlessly self-effacing. I grew up here and became aware of local hip-hop in the mid-2000s, when the Blue Scholars started making waves. But until now, I had no idea that in the mid-1990s an international, women-run hip-hop magazine, The Flavor, commanded a staff of 60 people in the University District. I’d never listened to Black Anger, nor the Emerald Street Boys. And what better thing can you can say about a music history book? It turned me on to some excellent records and offered the context to understand them.