Pop Culture

Seattle gets serious about hip-hop

Every so often, fans recognize RA Scion of Common Market, one of this city’s most popular rappers, at his day job as a custodian. He has no trouble interpreting their bewildered expressions: “What are you doing taking out the trash?!”

The answer is earning decent pay and benefits for his family until his music career takes off. But given his recent appearances on stage with “American Idol” finalist Blake Lewis and Sir Mix-A-Lot, the quality of Common Market’s debut album and the buzz surrounding Seattle’s underground hip-hop scene, perhaps the fans may be forgiven for wondering.

is one of two talented, politically minded rap duos in Seattle anchored by the producer DJ Sabzi. The other group, Blue Scholars, released its third CD last week, “Bayani.” It’s one of the best albums of any genre in recent years to come out of Seattle, a city better known for its contributions to muddy-sounding indie rock.

“Bayani” is a collection of beautifully written songs on subjects global, local and personal — from “Back Home,” an anthem of a young mother widowed by the death of her husband in Iraq, to “Joe Metro,” a narrative on the subtle ways the city reveals itself along the No. 48 bus route. It explores the contradictions of a society where white middle-class prosperity masks a class of immigrant workers, and where “despite the sight of coffee shops on every single block / nearby it’s supply and demand for the (cocaine) rock.”

“Playing an educational role, that’s our thing,” says Blue Scholars MC Geologic, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up against the light drizzle outside a cafe. “Youth are already smart, man. It’s just a matter of throwing out these other ideas they might not otherwise be exposed to, issues they’re not being exposed to, or issues that they live every day but for whatever reason they don’t have the language with which to articulate what might be going on in their lives.”

It’s no surprise that these songs — replete with Marx-influenced references to the lumpen proletariat, working-class heroes such as the Filipino-American author Carlos Bulosan, and pink-slipped teachers — haven’t found a home on commercial radio. But other media, such as Seattle’s noncommercial music station KEXP and the Internet, have provided avenues for exposure.

‘Idol’ finalist puts spotlight on Seattle hip-hopAnd then there’s “American Idol.” The scene could hardly have been more incongruous last month when Lewis, the beat-boxing finalist of that uber-commercial singing contest, spent a generous amount of time during his downtown homecoming concert urging thousands of fans to check out the Blue Scholars and Common Market. RA Scion rapped onstage over Lewis’ beat-boxing, as did Sir Mix-A-Lot. That night, Lewis — who also wore a Blue Scholars shirt on “American Idol” — performed at a show celebrating the upcoming nationwide release of “Bayani.”

As it turns out, Lewis has known DJ Sabzi since middle school. Sabzi, a classically trained pianist turned hip-hop producer, was born Saba Mohajerjasbi 25 years ago to an Iranian-American family in Seattle. He says the Blue Scholars could learn from Lewis’ immense popularity.

“That’s exactly why we are doing what we’re doing: That media has obviously a power on young people,” says Sabzi. “What if we can do that here in Seattle? Young people will latch onto something they can identify with here, or have a personal connection with.”

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Sabzi met Geologic — George Quibuyen, the 27-year-old son of Filipino immigrants who settled in Bremerton, a Navy town west of Seattle — at the University of Washington in 1999. They each had joined a student organization dedicated to promoting all-ages hip-hop shows in Seattle; at the time, the last all-ages club in town had closed, and the city put onerous restrictions on any venues that sought to cater to teens.

Community activism has remained important to them ever since, from teaching hip-hop workshops to Geo’s touring in support of Bayan-USA, an organization opposed to American military intervention in the Philippines. They say “Bayani” is a made-up word whose root, “bayan,” reflects Geo’s Filipino and Sabzi’s Iranian backgrounds: It means “hero of the people” in Tagalog and “utterance” in Farsi.

RA Scion — Kentucky native Ryan Abeo, 32 — met Sabzi through their shared religion, the Baha’i Faith, and they began collaborating several years ago. Last year, Common Market, Blue Scholars and Gabriel Teodros of Abyssinian Creole founded their own label, MassLine Media.

David Meinert, a Seattle club owner who has promoted all three, says it’s refreshing to see hip-hop acts concerned with community activism and education. The Blue Scholars and Common Market have even talked about opening a school someday.

“If the Blue Scholars could do anything, it would be to tour high schools,” Meinert says. “Unfortunately, there’s no booking agent who books high schools.”

Sabzi hopes to make a difference anyway by capitalizing on the power of media, “but base it on something like a progressive political message or something positive like community building,” he says. “The conditions can be set for some serious action.”

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