The Seattle creative sector needs to decide whether or not to grow to accommodate the considerable talent that has grown out of the Puget Sound region over the past decade. Don't get me wrong, one of the great things about this city is its people's commitment to small business, grassroots organization and By The People, For The People directives. Still, it doesn't do us much good if all of our strongest musicians, actors, artists and writers have to go somewhere else to get the attention and facilities they deserve. When it comes to music Seattle has done well enough to foster rock, but we're living in the 21st century, there's more to the modern soundscape than guitars. Our hip hop and electronic music community becomes more interesting every year. If the acts at The Seattle Music Revival are any indication, we may just be standing on a wellspring of undiscovered talent.
One of the most surprising elements of the current Seattle music scene is its ever-growing list of impressive hip hop artists. At its best, Seattle seems poised to be for hip hop what Atlanta and St. Louis were for the genre five years ago. The secret ingredient in this development is the highly literate leanings of the Pacific Northwest. A lot of great authors and poets currently operate out of Seattle and Portland, fostering undiscovered scribes and performers in the vibrant coffee house circuit. One of those performers is rapper E. Millz.
Honing his craft performing spoken word poetry at venues around the state, E. Millz is a Washington native who balances club-ready tracks with intelligent rhymes and a positive (but not sappy) attitude. His set at Club Heaven on Sunday night was late enough that most Revival-goers had scuttled off to bed, but the floor in front of the stage was still more crowded than it had been all night. Together with another Seattle MC, Misfit, and Misfit's cousin Bo, E. Millz left his audience asking for an encore.
It took E. Millz's performance to illuminate what I think the difference is between good rappers and not-so-good ones. A good rapper makes hard verse seem easy, while a bad one makes a lazy rap seem careless. E. Millz exudes genuine comfort on stage. He doesn't posture, he just does his job, and admirably.
I caught up with E. Millz, his manager Andrew "The Mayor" Lapic, and Misfit before the show to get the skinny on the Seattle hip hop scene. "You go to a show and it doesn't look like a hip hop crowd," says Millz, "It's really mixed but everyone is so appreciative." His comments echoed the sentiment of most of the electronic and hip hop artists I talked to over the course of the Revival. The Seattle music scene is, like the city itself, eclectic. Millz went on to describe the receptiveness of Seattle audiences to a variety of different kinds of music. Hip hop artists share the bill with rock acts, folk singers and glitch-masters. In that way, The Seattle Music Revival keyed into the city perfectly.
Among the other hip hop acts at the Revival was an intriguing mixed-genre group called Lion's Ambition. While Rap Rock got an unbelievably bad introduction in the late 90's with the likes of Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock, Lion's Ambition is an attempt to set things right. Like Run DMC proved in the 80's, rap and rock aren't so dissimilar. Good music can certainly come from the pairing of these two genres. For examples, plug into Lion's Ambition and their complex, intelligent sound. Their set at Merchant's Cafe proved that the rapidfire rhymes of a strong rap can serve the same purpose as the rhythm section of a rock band, while the rock elements of their songs provided backing tracks for the nicely constructed raps. That's what the dweebs in the business sector call "synergy".
I also have to take a moment to talk about somebody who needs to make her way out of Seattle, but for very positive reasons. Vanessa Thompson is a pop R&B singer/songwriter who needs a record contract like midwestern winters need salt. What most artists in her genre require an entire studio of equipment to do, she does with a stand PA system. Little flourishes of attitude keep her act from being squeaky-clean, but that doesn't mean that her inspirational vocals aren't fit for the whole family. Vanessa writes her own music. No, really. If you want pretty ballads without the diva attitude, check her out.
Seattle also has a burgeoning club scene, but it's struggling against the tide. The dance halls and private bars of the city have a vibrant crowd eager for innovation, but I don't think that innovation has really manifested yet. The key to pumping new life into the Seattle club circuit is its hidden wealth of live performers and talented DJ's. Take Wunderbugg, for instance. This colorful collection of talent has enough enthusiasm to light up Seattle's seven hills and the performing chops to back it up. Now some savvy club owner just needs to hire these folks to be their house band.
Wunderbugg's set at Club Heaven oozed effort. Complete with flashy costumes, a programmed light show and engaging audience patter, this group needs the Saturday night crowds that have had to get by on the Top 40 and the dance standards of the past decade for too long. They play a variety of music I'd like to dub Smart Club, an immanently danceable style that leans on its capable mix masters and revels in its theatricality like a neon-tinted Fremont Parade. It's the perfect music for the newer, shinier Seattle that's rising up in the form of Green skyscrapers downtown and effete boutiques on Capitol Hill. The grunge days are over. It's time to start dancing.
The last act of the night at the Revival and one of the most intriguing was Ramona The Band, a collaboration between a multi-talented performer calling herself Dion Vox and a veteran record producer named Scobra. The two met during a studio session in L.A. with the Wu Tang Clan. A hook singer ended up passing out after a 14-hour day, so Dion stepped in and knocked Scobra out of his credit-heavy boots. Ramona The Band was born and the two relocated to Seattle where they've been digging into the scene for the past couple months.
If a very specific genie in a lamp allowed me to pick three acts at The Seattle Music Revival and give them significantly bigger crowds, I would choose Kissing Girls, E. Millz and Ramona The Band. Dion Vox has a stage presence honed by her career as an actress in New York and Los Angeles, but the cherry on top is her timeless commitment to elegant theatrics. She wanders the line between seductress and broken ballerina, luxuriating in Scobra's acrid, smart beats and melodies. This is what goth music ought to be, which is to say so much more accessible to a larger audience without losing its decidedly artsy bent.
Ultimately, The Seattle Music Revival could be the most interesting festival on the scene next year if they retool some of the items that just didn't work. With focus and lessons learned, it could be the showcase for the best up-and-coming acts of the Seattle music scene.