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(Published in the Seattle Times online on Dec. 3, 2020
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Dec. 6, 2020)
Seattle helped hip hop cross into the cultural mainstream
By Clay Eals
Create a futuristic space in this Space Needle city, and you might launch more movement than you imagined.
Proof is the 1982 Westin Hotel skybridge, whose rounded roof ribbing seems to pull pedestrians into the world of tomorrow. So how fitting that Seattle’s celebrated early rap group, the aptly named Emerald Street Boys, chose the elevated walkway as the site for an early promo photo.
No one recalls why the shot was staged on the 66-foot, steel-beam span, but the image anchored the trio’s local roots and symbolized the professional beginnings of Seattle hip hop.
Tracing the saga of this 40-year cultural phenomenon — encompassing rap music, MCing, DJing, graffiti art and break-dancing — is a new book, “Emerald Street: A History of Hip Hop in Seattle” (University of Washington Press), by longtime Seattle Central College humanities professor Daudi Abe.
With voluminous detail in 262 pages, including a 40-page timeline and 21 pages of footnotes, Abe chronicles the previously undocumented rise of Seattle hip hop, from its national titans Sir Mix-A-Lot (from whom Abe secured a foreword) and Macklemore to less-known practitioners and trends. With a journalist’s eye, he weaves the growth of Seattle hip hop with broader events and tracks its evolution toward diversity.
“It could be argued,” he writes, “that Seattle is one of the more inclusive environments in all of hip hop, as over time African Americans, Africans, Asian/Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, whites, Latinos, women, the disabled, homeless and others have all been represented. … There is no question that misogynistic attitudes and inappropriate behavior — a characteristic of hip hop and society in general — were also present in Seattle.”
Though Abe says Seattle hip hop originally was seen as a fleeting fad, like disco, he affirms its enduring stature amid other forms of expression. His book supplies myriad examples, from a landmark Seattle Symphony show to an annual mayor’s award.
Of this progression, Abe stands in awe: “I’ve been teaching the history of hip hop for 20 years, and sometimes I find it difficult to get across how exciting it was. Nobody knew what was going to happen. There was no formula, no road map. Everything was so new. … Now it’s so natural. It’s so part of the mainstream.”
The Garfield High School graduate says that in his pre-teens, hip hop emerged as a “weapon against social and political oppression” that taught him about earning respect. With an unintentional nod to the Westin setting, he adds, “It also helps bridge our cultural gaps.”
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!
Below are an additional photo and, in chronological order, 19 historical clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and other online newspaper sources that were helpful in the preparation of this column.
Also, here is a link to the Facebook page of “That Guy” Rcurtis Jamerson, singer /songwriter / music producer / lyricist / drummer / host / vocal coach / trainer / booking agent / actor / emcee.