Portland is home to a small but vibrant hip-hop community that’s received some buzz in recent years. But like many local music scenes, it was devastated by the fallout of the pandemic and rocked by social justice protests that swept across the country last year. Portland was at the center of those protests and, in many ways, so were its hip-hop artists. As live music comes back to the city, a new generation of resilient young artists — inspired in part by activism — are leading the way.
Vursatyl The Great was there at the very beginning. He is arguably the closest thing to a definitive source on Portland hip-hop. "Hip-hop started in Portland with dance, and I was a pop locker, but I also started rapping in ," he recalls of those early days.
He went on to become one of the city's most successful exports as a member of the trio Lifesavas. In the 2000s, that group put out two records with Quannum Projects, the much-loved label and underground hip-hop collective of the same name that included mostly Northern California musicians like Blackalicious, Lateef the Truthspeaker, Lyrics Born and DJ Shadow.
Vursatyl is quick to point out that plenty of notable Portland musicians paved the way before him. Displaying encyclopedic knowledge, he singles out two local acts.
“Vitamix was one of the first deejays to sign a major record deal with Profile Records, which is the same label that put out RUN DMC,” he notes. “And The U-Krew had a record deal Capitol Records. That was all in the mid-to-late ’80s.”
In spite of these accomplishments, the veteran emcee says his hometown in the Pacific Northwest carries baggage that’s made it tough for hip-hop artists to thrive.
"That's been the challenge — to try to kind of develop the image of Portland to be something other than the whitest [big] city in America," he says. It's an often quoted factoid about the Rose City. "People are always amazed, first and foremost, that there's Black people in Portland," Vursatyl says. "And not that hip-hop is singular to people of color, but in terms of the credibility that it would need to be accepted by the culture abroad, that recognition is important."
This perception has changed dramatically in recent years with the emergence of two young Black hip-hop stars from the city: Dodgr, a rapper and singer who has worked with mega producer Mark Ronson and was featured on Anderson .Paak's Oxnard, and Aminé, an emcee whose music has garnered billions of streams.
The two artists’ success had a noticeable knock-on effect for the entire music scene. There were increasingly bigger crowds at shows, a few viral moments — aided by NBA superstar Damian Lillard — and more national press attention.
“Through the years you’d hear, ‘Oh this is the movement that is really going to take Portland to the next level.’ And that absolutely was one,” says DJ Klyph, a local radio personality and the music promoter behind the Mic Check concert series.
"It did really feel good that we had some things in place to move forward," says Klyph. "And then, yeah. COVID-19 [happened." In a pattern that not only played out in Oregon, but also across the country, venues were shuttered instantaneously. That meant Portland's thriving hip-hop showcases — the heartbeat of that community — also halted, along with any momentum the scene had built up before the pandemic.
Then came the murder of George Floyd.
It sparked an intense and prolonged social justice movement in Portland that enveloped the city and grabbed international headlines for months. DJ Klyph says it had an outsize impact on the hip-hop community, which is mainly composed of Black artists. "I think you had younger artists, up and coming artists, who were just angry and hurt," he says. "And probably to a great extent, fearful for their own well-being, who were looking for an outlet."
Jordan Fletcher was one of those musicians. He threw himself into the protests. "It consumed me. It was all that I thought about," Fletcher recalls.
His experience led to a political and social awakening, one that deeply impacted his music and led to one of his first releases, "8:46 (Freestyle)," a raw, emotional song that directly references police brutality and the killing of George Floyd.
Fletcher says his near-constant presence at the Portland protests took a toll. He eventually had to pull back. "For [my] mental health, I needed a break. It comes with a lot. And I think for a while I just felt myself spiraling," he admits. But he's continued to find solace and strength in his music. "That's kind of the only way I can get my true feelings out anymore — is when I can sit down and put my head to it and think and then write it all down," he explains.
DJ Klyph says social justice and political activism has always been a core of Portland hip-hop, but the new wave of musicians, like Fletcher, has reinvigorated the city's scene. "Now we're seeing such beautiful, conscious music," he says. "Sometimes it's a little bit underground, it's a little bit in the background because people don't want to come across [as] preachy... [but] I think now you're seeing artists say, 'No. Now we do need to talk about things because we want to see change.' "
The same conversation is now making its way to performance stages. The Thesis, one of Portland’s long-running hip-hop concert series, streamed a virtual show in April. They expect to have a limited-capacity audience for a gig in early July. The event’s curator and co-founder Verbz says he’s already seen a shift in the focus of the art on display.
"The [last] year of talking about racial justice issues has really influenced the sound of this next batch of artists," he says.
The Thesis' lineup in April featured local musicians performing pieces about police reform, racism, injustice and the mental health issues artists face. "Hip-hop is a great tool for addressing all of these different things that are affecting us at the moment," Verbz says.
Vursatyl The Great couldn't agree more. He's optimistic that as live music and a sense of normalcy returns, the young upstarts in his hometown will continue pushing forward with their activism and art. "The youth is where it's at, man," the proud elder statesmen of Portland hip-hop says.
"I think the kids, they're figuring it out with the rest of us. And I think it's powerful to see that in a time like this," he says. "We can present what really needs to be worked on for America as a whole. And Portland — we're at the forefront of that."
Pictured at the top of this article: Portland-based rapper Danny Sky performs at Kelly’s Olympian as part of the hip-pop showcase The Thesis.