By Luke Wigren
Like mushrooms that emerge from the mossy forests and fallen logs of the Pacific Northwest, when you finally discover Porter Ray’s album Watercolor it may feel as if it has come out of nowhere. Upon closer inspection it might sound, as well, positively extraterrestrial: a psychedelic, brooding exploration into the inner-space of the subconscious.
Porter Ray chuckles when I describe his presence in the Seattle hip-hop scene as “enigmatic.” He’s grown up here his whole life. He answers every question without a hint of irony. He’s no hermit. On the contrary, he’s an open book — a hard feat in the heyday of Macklemore quirkiness, Southern rap absurdity and Drake’s practiced emotional detachment. Porter ventures into similar territory as his peers but comes up with something altogether different. His stakes feel higher. His braggadocio more vulnerable.
In the velvety, often sensual delirium of Watercolor, fantasy and reality blur together. Hypnotic, dense lyrics decompose the world into base elements of glitz and gloom. He ponders consumer excess against the sweet come-up of simply being able to walk the misty streets of his neighborhood, the Central District. It is wisdom for a 28-year old that seems almost rare. It is also hard-won due in part to the traumas Porter endured as a young man caught between worlds of privilege and poverty, black and white, and life and death.
A single mushroom breaking through the topsoil indicates a vast cycle of death and renewal underneath, and this could easily explain why Porter Ray’s musical gifts have seemed obscured. However, after six mixtapes it is more likely a reflection of my — and maybe society’s — untrained eyes and ears. Surely it’s that we haven’t been looking hard enough.
How Watercolor will “perform” is largely dependent on a chaotic musical ecosystem rife with astroturfing and playlisting, but mostly it depends on the indelible spores of the record’s beauty finding other gloomy, wet homes in which to occupy and reproduce. What’s not up for question is that Porter’s record is here. It’s on Sub Pop. And listen by listen, it might — because of Porter’s willingness to huddle in the murky lake bottoms, among the memories of those lost, and with the masses locked away — end up saving us from being buried by our dead.
On the verge of Watercolor’s release, a meeting with Porter Ray and close friends at his home studio produced the following interview.
Luke Wigren for the Coastal Elite: Alright man, it’s good to meet you.
Porter Ray: It’s good to meet you Luke.
CE: Thanks for doing an interview with us this evening.
PR: Thanks for having me.
CE: It’s a big deal because there’s a certain enigma about Porter Ray in this city. We know you exist but it seems like you’ve been hard at work in the shadows for awhile.
PR: Yep, it’s funny you say that. But yeah for sure.
CE: I wanted to start at the beginning or close to the beginning and get to know you by where you’re from, particularly for people that aren’t from Seattle. What is East Seattle?
PR: “East Seattle” is specifically talking about the East side of the Central District of Seattle. It’s where I grew up and where I spent most of my time. So that’s just like the neighborhood that I come from and specifically that part of the Central District.
CE: What’s its geography? Where does it end, where does it begin?
PR: I’m trying to think on what street it actually becomes south… Maybe Jackson…
Porter and friends debating: Yesler? Is it south Yesler? It’s like between Yesler, it’s like… Yesler and Cherry? King or Marion? Washington or something. It’s East Yesler, but King goes east after Jackson… Sorry for ruining your interview.
PR: [laughs] Nah, we need that! Yeah so, I’m not even sure the specific street… It’s just when the streets change and it’s not saying “East” on the street signs anymore and it starts being south. Me and everybody in the CD, we all grew up on all those blocks.
CE: Is it a term that was self-coined, ‘cause usually you just hear “the Central District” outside?
PR: I definitely didn’t come up with the term. I wanted to name the song that because the rhyme I was given was about that neighborhood and people from that neighborhood and my experiences on that side. I guess it’s just if you’re a resident of the CD then you just know the difference between the regions within the Central District.
CE: What are some of your fondest memories living there?
PR: Most of my memories are from that time before me and my mom moved down to Genesee and Columbia City. I had so many friends around me and it was just fresh to see the style of how people were dressing, how people were talking. Everybody was playing ball… To just grow up in this tight-knit community of friends. It was just ill to see all this flavor, but then also be surrounded by the trees and surrounded by water and having easy access to the lake. It was real serene. Even with all the drama that was going on and all these traumatic situations that were happening, it was just a lot of serenity being able to go to the lake and being around all these luscious trees.
CE: In addition to the natural elements, the racial fluidity in that part of Seattle seems to make it what it is. How does that work itself onto the record and into your identity?
PR: Me and my friends was talking earlier about growing up here and being exposed to a lot of different races and cultures, and being able to move within different scenarios and connect with people and I always appreciated that… Me just being biracial in general, in finding my own identity… When I’m writing my music I’m thinking about how for example I’ve been trying to limit my swearing, limit the use of the word “nigga.” I don’t wanna say “nigga” all the time. I got a lot of white friends. I don’t want them to say that in the crowd. I’m aware of different people and how my words, actions, my style, symbolism, all that affects people globally… I’m trying to articulate myself more and make rhymes that reach farther. My mother’s also a cultural anthropologist so you know I grew up…
Porter’s friend: Seasoned… Seasoned like a motherfucker.
PR: [laughs] My mother being who she is as an educator and her passions in life it really made me have an interest in other people’s cultures and want to study their religions and travel and visit different places and learn.
CE: Traveling comes up on the record when Ish [of Shabazz Palaces] calls from a tour. What’s your experience with traveling?
PR: When I was younger I got to travel to Mexico. My grandparents took our family to Mexico, my grandparents on my dad’s side, the Sullivan side. I went to Zihuatanejo, to Puerto Vallarta, when I was eight. And I got to go to Hawaii and be in Honolulu when I was younger. That opened my eyes and my mind to a world outside of where I was from. I remember playing basketball in Mexico, and playing soccer, and not being able to communicate and having to adapt and adjust.
CE: I’m sure you haven’t traveled recently for lots of reasons. You have a family now and you’ve been working on the album. Would it be fair to say you’ve been hibernating?
PR: Yeah, I’ve got children now. My son Aaron is five. My boy Schuyler, he’s eight months. But having Aaron for the last five years, a lot of that time being a single father and having to hold things down. And also figuring out work… Trying to get the project finished and develop my skills as an emcee, as an artist, as a songwriter. Having to take care of family and step up as a man and take care of my responsibilities has played a major part in it, in anchoring me.
CE: When I listen to the record I hear many voices. Tell us about the common denominator between all those collaborators.
PR: Of course. All of these people are from here, from Seattle. These are people that I know and our relationships have just been organic relationships that we have outside of music. My guy Brian, B Roc, produced a majority of the album. He’s from here. I met him through my friend Mark who was engineering all my studio sessions when we were working on Blk Gld. B Roc, KMTK, DJ El Grande, Dez Anthony, and Tele Fresco, those are the producers. Also, Alana Belle, a long time friend, she’s on “Lightro,” Stas THEE Boss, my guy Nate Jack, Cashtro, JusMoni, Palaceer. My cousin Thad Moore is singing on the album on “Bulletproof Windows.” Aslan does vocals on the opening track “Waves” and on “Beautiful.”
CE: It’s not like you’re getting the stereotypical industry features for the debut. You’re bringing it back home, including those close to you.
PR: I didn’t want to reach out to anyone outside of the people who I’ve already been making music with. I’m comfortable with their music, and I wanted to acknowledge their hard work and honor them in terms of giving them an opportunity to put their music out with Sub Pop and have a piece of history and be in the credits on a Sub Pop album. We’ve been in the studio together for years and now it’s all coming to fruition. Also to have Infinite who in my opinion is just one of my favorite emcees of all time, and an emcee who’s from the Central District. I’ve been listening to his music and been a fan of his music for a long time. Him and the group Narcotik. And Vitamin D doing scratches for me and touching the mix on my project too. These are guys in the early nineties who were putting out tunes about our neighborhood and making dope music.
CE: And you’re continuing that?
PR: I’m trying to continue that. It’s my homage to dudes like that and to the work. Like Vitamin D, I knew Vita through two of my good friends David and Jacob Sneed, their whole family, and Isaiah Sneed who’s now in Brothers From Another. Their cousin was Vitamin so he was always at the house. He was someone that I was smoking weed with and hanging out with. Alana Belle I’ve known since I was a child. Her dad and my dad were best friends before my father passed. JC, who’s KMTK, I’ve known since I was in 5th grade. He was working at the YMCA so going and playing basketball there after school is when I first met JC. We reconnected again when I was 19 and he and Ralph Belair had just opened a boutique called Laced Up. I ended up interning there long before he was ever making beats for me… I’ve known Cashtro since we were kids, actual kids – elementary school. It’s people that I believe in, that I cherish our friendships, and I value their talents. I think it makes the record special. Really, really special in terms of how organic and how homegrown. All these people having their touch on it, it’s authentic and it’s real. Our whole city, sorta has a piece of this art project.
CE: What about the Sub Pop deal appealed to you?
PR: I had already known Stas and Cat of THEESatisfaction and Ishmael and Tendai of Shabazz Palaces and I was very attracted to how they moved and their freedom in terms of artistry, how they were putting out music and being able to travel and just be themselves. And that’s something I didn’t want to lose. I was approached by Interscope and I had the opportunity to sign with them. I turned down that deal. Sub Pop didn’t want to change the structure of how I was putting together music or the formula. They appreciated it, wanted to take it, and let me do my thing. And on top of just the legacy, the roster that they have now is ill. Getting to meet Kyle Craft, hanging out with Mass Gothic. I’m a big fan of GOAT.
CE: Still they might be the most Seattle-centric label so it feels like a natural partnership.
PR: It’s totally a part of Seattle history and Seattle Music History. I’m born and raised from here. So it was very important to join that legacy. It’s also easier. I don’t have to go to New York or LA to talk to my label. I can go downtown. I signed with Sub Pop — on top of just being comfortable — to be a part of what my friends were doing and join the Black Constellation movement and really try to represent. And I knew it would make me different in terms of being a rap artist signed to this label that’s known for Indie Rock. I think there’s a little bit of mysticism that comes with signing to Sub Pop. You know, why did they sign him? We wanted to use that uniqueness to our advantage and create a storyline.
CE: Knowing you turned down a deal to Interscope, and hearing in your music a kind of preoccupation with status, how do class dynamics and the flashy side play into your music? It’s like you’re acknowledging that side but calling it out too.
PR: I want to acknowledge all parts. But being from here and kinda having that small town feel — that homegrown feel — was something that I wanted to articulate in the album. Something more concrete that wasn’t just a flash in the pan… But it’s hard when I’m an emcee and it’s rap music. Rap music is very flashy. It’s a lot of bravado. And I do do that. On my mixtapes. But on the album I really wanted to go deeper and stray away from that and make something that’s a little more timeless, more personal.
PR: Yeah, to expand how people are looking at emcees and show my interpretation of this art form. And be respected. I thought that it being more personal and straying away from those things would make it last a lot longer, touch more people, be more relatable, be more real, and more concrete…
CE: …While still acknowledging that it’s there? It’s one thing to sort of ignore it, but it’s everywhere around us: the brands, the symbolism, the gold, the glitz…
PR: And I’m a part of it too. And I like that stuff you know. I like all that. It is around. It influences me as well. Glamour, glitz, gold and flash. It’s around all of us. It’s part of our society. We live in a monetary based society. And everyone’s in the rat race and competing with each other. So yeah, it’s a part of me, growing up here, growing up in America.
CE: There’s been lots of discussion about your perceptiveness to things, not just glitz and glam, but to the things that you bring out of the shadows of human experience. You are very meditative about life experience.
CE: Tell us about that side of your personality?
PR: I find myself to be an introvert. I guess I am highly perceptive. I’m watching. I like to analyze. I’m really into philosophy. I’ve lost a lot of special things in my life and it makes me appreciate and try to pay attention to details and what’s going on around me and be in the moment and I’m trying to capture that. I’ve been telling everybody I’m trying to immortalize this time period, where I grew up. And also people within that time period. Our city’s changing. My old neighborhood is highly gentrified. Businesses are shut down, people are pushed out. The neighborhood is not the same. I don’t recognize the Central when I walk through it. It’s unfamiliar land. I feel foreign. I feel like a foreigner. So I’m trying to immortalize a time period before that. I’m trying to immortalize people that were lost, where people died. People also went to jail, were incarcerated for many years. Some people have come back. Some haven’t.
CE: I want to know your relationship with lightness and heaviness, or lightness and darkness. There’s gloomy corners on your record. There’s also extremely bright, joyous moments on the record. How do you navigate those two feelings?
PR: My life has been that and life is that in a nutshell — but my life definitely has been that. I grew up going to private school. I had both parents when I was younger and a great home environment. Lost my father slowly to MS — to multiple sclerosis — which is common around here in the Northwest. When I was eleven he ended up getting sick and just progressively got sicker until he passed away. I was sixteen. My brother ended up getting murdered five years later right when my family was getting back on track. So early on it was very bright but then it did get gloomy for a long while. That went into the record and went into the sounds and the music to take the listener on that journey: starting off a lot more bright and then just getting a little more personal, from my experience, does get somewhat depressing or gloomy. A song looking for the light, “Lightro,” comes in later. When you lose people it gets hard to appreciate what’s going on around you, it gets hard to be happy. You feel guilty. You want to mourn them and mourn their loss and pay that respect to them. But dealing with gloom, depression, dealing with that haze or that grey, and still finding that light, trying to shine within it.
CE: I feel like “Mirror Between Us” is about that haziness and I heard you speaking about the cover of the record. Are those related to your family?
PR: Not the cover, that was shot by a friend of mine Jay Scroggins. But the vinyl sleeves, that artwork my friend Mike Wagner did for me. He’s someone that’s been watching me grow up. I wanted to put my brother on the cover to immortalize him, put my father on the cover to immortalize him. The “Mirror Between Us” is a song where the first verse is about my brother and the second verse is about a friend of mine who’s incarcerated, Jordan Daisy. And it’s like with my brother, there’s this mirror between us because he’s gone now, and so a lot of times when I’m speaking to him, I’m speaking to myself. He’s not around physically, he’s not physically present, and so metaphorically it feels as if there’s a mirror between us. Or maybe he’s on the other side of reality. And then with my friend who’s incarcerated, when you go visit your friends in prison there’s the glass between you. That’s what I wanted to represent as well, in terms of dealing with my brother’s loss and the incarceration of my childhood friend Jordan Daisy who I’d known since kindergarten.
CE: Is that what rap music is to you, a reflection?
PR: I grew up listening and really appreciating emcees that were articulating what was going on in their neighborhood, people, how they dressed, talked, danced, whatever, how they act and move. I got a lot of guidance from that as a young man. And that’s what rap music is to me, that’s what hip-hop is to me. It’s storytelling and talking about where I’m from. I want the rest of the world to see that. I feel like I’m the sponge. The experiences that my friends are going through, the experiences that I’m seeing and witnessing, I’m soaking that up. And that is fueling my music. I want to soak in those details, soak in these emotions to give, maybe, some guidance to whoever is going through similar situations in their neighborhood. I want it to be relatable. I want there to be that connectivity.
CE: Is there a person in your mind, anyone in particular that you picture listening to it?
PR: Totally. I’m talking to myself as a black man in America, a brown skin man, and I’m really trying to give myself — when I’m writing the music — advice that I wished that I would’ve had at the time in the mistakes that I made and experiences. And not just specifically the black man, but just growing up and being brownskin in America, in this environment, in this society. A lot of times I look at it as my younger self: the youth that’s being affected by rap culture. That’s who I’m directly speaking to and who I’m thinking about when I’m writing the lyrics and coming up with the message, you know.
CE: Your ability to bear witness in general — to the city’s change and giving voice to all the traumas and triumphs of the place and the people that live in it — it’s weird but the biggest parallel I find is with mushrooms and the way a mushroom absorbs its environment… What’s your experience with mushrooms in the city?
PR: They’re all over here. My friends, my little brother when we were growing we would just go pick hella mushrooms, would always have mushrooms for sale, would always have mushrooms to eat. You just walk around, through any of the parks.
Porter’s Friend: It’s just crack pipes and mushrooms
PR: All around! We were eating mushrooms and doing mushrooms — not even to do a whole bunch. It did help in my artistry, opened up my mind and how I was viewing the world. It was something growing up here and it being damp and all that and being able to have that experience and see different things and have psychedelic trips. It’s something I still enjoy [laughs].
CE: To me they [mushrooms] signify what Seattle has that is so mysterious, the things that we all sort of pick up by living here, but can’t quite put into words.
PR: The Northwest is new in terms of hip-hop and I really wanted it to be authentic to where I’m from and here. The only way to do that was to have it be that. I wanted Watercolor to feel like the city, to sound wet, and be wet, and have that texture to it. Our city just being surrounded by water, the rain. I wanted Watercolor to feel like you were diving into this pool and getting deeper and deeper as you’re listening to the album further and be surrounded — and also in Seattle it’s gloomy here a majority of the year, then you get the summertime and it’s crazy bright and it’s just luscious. It’s this utopia. Growing up here and you don’t see the sun for weeks, you appreciate it more when the sun does come out.
CE: Last words:
PR: Shout out to Erik Blood for mixing the record and for playing bass as well on “Navi Truck.” My mom on the record, my son’s mother Joy calling in from prison, having my son on the record. My friend Dimitris, my friend Ray, they’re included in the interludes and shooting dice and talking shit, and that’s just us hanging out here at the house. I want Seattle Washington to feel proud of the record and feel a part of it. All down the line. All the credits. Everyone’s from here. It’s our shit. It’s our project.
CE: Right on. Thank you for your time and this amazing piece of work.
PR: I’m glad you like it.