You may have seen Aminé on Jimmy Fallon or listened to the new album from the Last Artful, Dodgr. But how much do you really know about Rose City hip-hop? Dive into the past, present and future of the Portland hip-hop scene with our expert guide to its best performers, stores and more.
History of hip-hop in Portland
It would be irresponsible to discuss the recent history of hip-hop in Portland without touching on the discrimination and gentrification the scene has endured. Artists, fans, journalists and promoters — especially those from the old school — have experienced a slew of club and venue closures. This has made it even harder for hip-hop to exist in this historically less-than-diverse city. Crown Room, Harlem, Someday Lounge and Beauty Bar all shuttered in the last few years.
The most infamous closure, perhaps, was that of beloved jazz venue Blue Monk in 2014. The closure followed a highly publicized example of local law enforcement targeting hip-hop and rap shows in Portland. A 2014 show featuring Luck One (now Hanif), Mikey Vegaz and battle rap champion Illmaculate was cut short by the arrival of more than a dozen police and gang enforcement officers. Police blocked off the street and limited access to the event, claiming there was overcrowding in the basement. Illmaculate, the show’s headliner, left the venue in protest before beginning his set. “I will not perform in this city as long as the blatant targeting of black culture and minorities congregating is acceptable common practice,” he tweeted. The Blue Monk closed a few weeks later.
Today, Portland’s hip-hop scene is thriving and seems to have shaken off much of its negative reputation with public officials. In 2015, then-mayor Charlie Hales even designated Oct. 15 as “Portland Hip-hop Day” — a gesture meant to signify inclusion for the community.
Portland hip-hop showcases
In recent years, several regular hip-hop showcases have blossomed around town. Here are a few to check out:
- Organized by former rapper and We Out Here Magazine (WOHM) editor Mac Smiff, amateur hip-hop showcase The Thesis has taken place every first Thursday of the month at Kelly’s Olympian since 2014.
- The semi-regular YGB (Young Gifted & Black) dance party DJ’d by Lamar LeRoy is known for its positive vibes.
- In 2016, emcee/host/radio personality StarChile started hosting the emcee showcase Mic Check. The event takes place at White Eagle every last Thursday and has garnered support and coverage from the acclaimed hip-hop platform Team Backpack.
- In early 2017, The Fixin’ To in St. Johns began hosting the monthly show Northword every third Saturday of the month.
- Also in 2017, Valentine’s debuted the Love Movement, a community gathering/music night, every Tuesday.
- The We Take Holocene concert series, produced by rapper/activist (and native Portlander) Glenn Waco.
Portland hip-hop artists
Portland hip-hop veterans like Vursatyl (of Lifesavas), Libretto, Hanif and Cool Nutz can occasionally still be seen on the mic around town. Meanwhile, a crop of promising new talent is building on what the old school started. These new performers are using social media tools to catapult their scene to the next level. Hip-hop leaders Mic Capes, Glenn Waco and Rasheed Jamal comprise the Resistance crew. The group is celebrated for its socially conscious lyricism, impressive rap skills, community building and stellar crowd control.
Aminé and his viral single “Caroline” took Portland to the national stage in November 2016. Landing a post-election spot on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, he brought along established Portland neo-soul singer Blossom and acclaimed rapper The Last Artful, Dodgr as backup. Other local stars include “femcees” like Karma Rivera, Vytell and Fritzwa. Newcomer Wynne stunned the crowd during a cypher (a hip-hop jam or freestyle battle) at Mic Check in March 2017. Portland is also home to eclectic artists like “St. Johns Scholar” Vinnie Dewayne, anime-obsessed Fountaine and the dynamic Myke Bogan.
Portland hip-hop shops
In addition to checking out these artists and shows, visitors can shop at local stores vital to Portland’s hip-hop culture. These shops support local artists, host events and are First Thursday destinations for hip-hop-inspired art, music and designs. At Compound Gallery in Northwest Portland’s Old Town neighborhood, shoppers can find products from Bro Pluto, Jordan Carter’s monkey-logo’d brand. (The brand also frequently pops up at local gigs and merch tables.) In addition to selling local designs, Compound Gallery — along with neighbors Upper Playground and the black-owned Deadstock Coffee — offers an alternative to typical First Thursday exhibitions. Downtown’s boutique/barber shop By the Collective and North Mississippi Avenue’s Yanagida Clothing have hosted album release parties. The stores also sell merchandise from artists like Mic Capes, Vinnie Dewayne and Calvin Valentine.
Portland hip-hop media
Keep up with local events and rising stars by following WOHM, which has become the city’s premiere online hip-hop lifestyle publication. Vortex is also a great (and free) print magazine offering insight and interviews with the scene’s most impactful players. Local label and collective EYRST hosts high-quality events and supports some of Portland’s most talented artists and producers. There are also plenty of audio shows worth tuning into. Check out XRAY FM’s Soul Food, Welcome to the Neighborhood with DJ Klyph and the Crate Diggers podcast, hosted by DJ Verbz. Additionally, content and events produced by Chapter Mag highlight (and distribute) Portland’s eclectic hip-hop culture. Portland publications like Willamette Week and Portland Monthly have increased coverage of local hip-hop artists and events in their regular reporting. (I even have my own column in the Portland Mercury, “Sneaker Wave,” which provides the latest updates on the city’s hip-hop scene!)
Portland hip-hop today
With the closure of local venues, hip-hop music and events have moved to unexpected locations, like dive bars. Amid this atmosphere of change, some Portland artists are on the brink of making a nationwide splash, and the community can feel it. It’s a new era, where creatives in Portland hip-hop are making headlines and gaining new fans across the country. One thing’s for certain: With this many options, it’s an exciting and busy time to be a live hip-hop fan in Portland.