Hip-Hop festival growing beyond Portland
October 05, 2009, 2:09PM
The theme of unity has long run through hip-hop culture. Whether it wasAfrika Bambaataa bringing South Bronx breakdancers, graffiti artists and musicians together to keep them off the streets, Queen Latifah bridging the gender gap by singing a song of the same name or Ice-T trying to break down barriers between street gangs in Los Angeles, a central tenet of the music is bringing people together.
When the Portland, Ore., Hip-Hop Festival, or POH-Hop as it's known to organizers and fans, kicks off its 11th year Wednesday night, bringing together more than 50 acts over four nights, it should be no surprise to find it uniting not just Portland artists, but MCs and DJs from up and down the West Coast. Of the four headlining acts, Zion I and E-40 hail from the San Francisco Bay Area, Grayskul calls Seattle home, and Focused Noise Productions -- featuring acts such as Animal Farm and Mic Crenshaw -- represent the hometown.
For many familiar with the festival, Portland rapper Cool Nutz is the hometown. As a performer and organizer of POH-Hop since its inception, he's helped to put Portland on the hip-hop map in terms of recognition while also acting as a pillar of the infrastructure. He often hosts or opens rap concerts around the city, and helps bind together the scene that stages them.
We sat down with Cool Nutz and fellow event organizer Anthony Sanchez to discuss what else keeps them coming back year after year, what's unique about the Portland scene and what it means to stage an event such as POH-Hop in a predominantly white city.
Q: Give me an idea of the variety of artists and styles showcased this year.
Anthony Sanchez: There's something every night for every hip-hop lover. The first five acts each night get pretty much 15-minute sets, so you can get a little taste of everybody. And these are guys that do shows professionally, playing on weekends, touring, making money. So, for them to come out and do what they do -- three or four songs on a night like this -- is big. From act to act, you're going to get, across the board, every genre of hip-hop.
Q: I assume some of the artists will haveDAT (Digital Audio Tape) backing, while others will have DJs with turntables. Will there be acts with live instruments?
AS: Zion I will have a live band. There's another band, Quixotic, they're a live band -- DJ, drummer, guitar player. He does a lot of MPC (Media Player Classic, a device holding an arsenal of beats, vocal samples and tonal snippets).
Cool Nutz: Mic Crenshaw might. Last night he played with a two-piece.
AS: For the most part, it will be DJ backup. If they don't have their own DJ,DJ Fatboy will be DJing. He loves hip-hop so much and plays hip-hop across the board so much that he'll just get behind anybody and scratch.
Q: How small or big of a scene is hip-hop here in Portland?
CN: I think it's both. Portland's not like a New York or an L.A., so it's not industrialized. The people who are doing this, you kind of have to know them. So, even as the city grows, you still have to be aware of the overall community -- of who's doing what, who's running shows, who actually draws people. It's close-knit, but it's still growing. POH-Hop started with two nights. Now we're on to four nights. You'd need five or six night to get everybody in.
AS: I think we're in a really interesting time in terms of hip-hop in the Northwest in general. With the city getting a little bit bigger and Seattle getting a little bit bigger, the scene is blowing up a bit more. There's so many venues here in Portland. There's constantly places for people to play, but you have to make the most of it. Putting on POH-Hop is a fun thing to do because we get to bring so many different genres together, and that's what we're trying to do.
The scene's so spread out right now that we want to bring people together. Seattle's got a little bit tighter scene, and we want to do what all the bigger cities have. We want to organize it a little bit.
Q: The headliners pan from Seattle to the Bay Area. The event seems to spotlight not just local artists but the whole West Coast scene. Is that the case?
CN: The key is that when we started it, it started as being just about Portland. As it grows, it becomes more the Portland, Ore. Hip-Hop Festival. So, it encompasses a lot of the elements of what's happening in Portland, but also recognizes hip-hop overall, and not just on a regional basis. It has the possibility to grow to be something where artists in New York or Florida or wherever are like, “Yo, I want to play POH-Hop,” and we start getting calls and we're not having to reach out to people. That's the direction we're trying to go with it. When you think about it, you have the anchor groups each night, but all the support are Portland groups.
AS: Ideally, we'd like to make it Austin City Limits, North By Northwest (now Musicfest NW). Last year we had One Below out of Michigan.
CN: In POH-Hop's past, we've had Michael Franti and Spearhead, the Luniz, Mac Dre,Ras Kass, Andre Nickatina, Mistah Fab.
AS: A lot of the cats that we have locally are doing stuff across the states. We haveSleep as a support act to the Grayskul night. He's toured across the country. Sage Francis just signed him to his label. To get these cats on the bill that people pay $10 to go out and see -- they're going to get to see 10 acts on a night for $10.
Q: What does POH-Hop mean in a city like Portland, that's as white as it is?
CN: One of the beauties of that is that living here gives us the opportunity -- with the whole lack of what people might say is culture -- it gives us the opportunity to cross-connect with the rock scene. You have to work with Willamette Week, you have to work with the Mercury, you have to work with The Oregonian. You have to be able to build certain business aspects, certain qualities, to be successful out here on an independent level because it's not a hip-hop hot bed.
It forces you to get a better understanding of networking and being in the right places. I can't just go to hip-hop shows andMusicfest NW. I need to go check out these jazz shows or rock shows or whatever. You have to build a relationship with a Casey Jarman or a Luciana Lopez or a Marty Hughley. A lot of the times, somebody like Marty admitted that he wasn't a huge hip-hop head, but he made an attempt to reach out. At the same time, it put me in a position where I had to also relate to his position or his angle. I had to make it digestible to somebody like him.
That gives you the ability to go anywhere, to talk to The Source and then talk to Marty Hughley and then go talk to someone in Salem that might not have a clear understanding.
AS: Musically, the Northwest is known for music that came out 15 years ago. We're known as a grunge rock scene, and that's what we still get identified as. It's like, let's pick that up and make it a little bit fresher. Over the last five, 10 years, the indie rock scene with Kill Rock Stars and all these other labels coming up, it seems like the hip-hop keeps getting passed up, although we have huge quality, amazing hip-hop coming out of the Northwest.
You can go to the East Coast, and they know we have something different coming out of here. All these areas have their own style coming out. I think Portland's a lot harder to put your thumb on.
One of the things we're trying to teach a lot of the artists with POH-Hop is how to approach venues, how to get more shows, how to be more professional. You want to get on POH-Hop, then do the right things to get on POH-Hop. Then you're going to know the right things to do for your next show. You're going to know how to book shows. You're going to know how to book promoters. You're going to know how to go to Berbati's Pan and talk to Matt King, who's probably not the biggest hip-hop lover, but you have to go to rock venues to get shows. That's definitely one of the things we're trying to do with POH-Hop is teach young cats how to get it done.
Q: In a town like New York or L.A., the shadow of history looms over you. Do you feel that Portland is a bit more of a blank slate in terms of creating rap music?
CN: That's definitely a benefit. People always ask me, “Why don't you move?” Living here gives you the opportunity, for one, to hone your skills and, for two, to play a lot of live shows, to release projects and be around a lot of independent-minded people, not only in the hip-hop world, but in the indie rock world. When I go out of town, people are like, “Oh, Cool Nutz, or Lifesavas.” It gives us an opportunity to have our own calling card. When I lived in L.A., you're one of 2,000 MCs trying to make it. To come from here and have my resume built, I can go to New York or Miami and carry that Portland flag.