Ryan Lewis Cover Feature from The Inlander

Photo by John Keatle.I wrote the first major feature on Ryan Lewis, the hip-hop hitmaker and Macklemore’s partner in crime. It’s the cover feature for the latest issue of The Inlander. Check it out.

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The Heist – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - The HeistAfter years of building a following through self-released singles and music videos, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis finally recorded their first full-length album The Heist (the followup to 2009’s The VS. EP). Teeming with bravado and originality, The Heist is more than a debut LP; it’s a proclamation. The Seattle hip-hop duo has officially arrived, moving beyond the comfort of its rabid Northwest fanbase with a top ranking on iTunes and a debut at no. 2 on the Billboard charts.

The Heist centers on rapper Macklemore’s kinetic energy and doesn’t shy away from anthems. Each track is a chance for Mack to offer his humble perspective on life with a mix of inverted MC swagger and contemplativeness. He can spit cocky rhymes with the best of them, but he’s doing anything but the stereotypical bling-based bragging. On The Heist’s first track “Ten Thousand Hours,” he crows about nearing the 10,000 hours of practice needed to become a master of his craft, an idea laid out in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. When he’s talking up his style on “Thrift Shop,” it’s all about second-hand clothes that reek of urine instead of designer labels. Macklemore is equally apt at more serious, somber topics, whether it’s his internal struggle over rapping about race as a white MC (“A Wake”), letting alcohol become his religion (“Neon Cathedral”), Nike’s corporatized selling of an image (“Wing$”), or a beautiful ode in support of same-sex marriage (“Same Love”—the most effective protest song in years). Each issue is handled with a deft touch: personal and poignant without being too preachy.

For his part, DJ-producer Ryan Lewis crafts a diverse mix of original music arrangements that help keep things fresh. Unlike The VS EP, there isn’t a sample to be found on The Heist. And while he can come up with a banging beat for the up-tempo numbers, it’s his ability to lean on the keys and horns to seamlessly ease into downbeat, melancholy compositions that gives the record texture. It’s not every day that a hip-hop album closes with a country-tinged track featuring a boisterous men’s chorus (“Cowboy Boots”). The album’s unifying thread is the element of guest choruses. Since Macklemore tends to sit the chorus out, these guest spots become the duo’s calling card of sorts. It works because the chosen artists fit the tracks, whether it’s traditional hip-hop swagger from Wanz and Eighty4 Fly or stirring emotional turns by locals Allen Stone and Mary Lambert.

As a kid, I fondly remember making mix tapes to try to get friends to dig a band or artist I liked. It would be a collection of the best tracks across albums—a conversion mix tape. The Heist is a conversion mix tape unto itself. It may jump a bit from track to track, lacking some continuity, but there should be at least one song for everyone that strikes a chord.

Review Score: 8.4

*Original version published on SeattleMet.com.*

Fiendish Conversation with Ryan Lewis

I chatted with Macklemore’s partner in crime, producer Ryan Lewis, shortly before the duos first full-length LP, The Heist, dropped.Check it out.

K.Flay Feature From The Inlander

Get Schooled

Book smarts, stage smarts: Kristine Flahert has them all.

Not many people can claim the achievements that Kristine Flahert can. The 20-something woman has a psychology and sociology degree from Stanford University. She’s taught SAT classes, done some GRE tutoring after graduating. She loves her family.

And she’s toured with Snoop Dogg and Ludacris. No, the path to hip-hop success that Flahert (aka K.Flay) has blazed isn’t exactly a well-traveled one, but regardless of how she reached this point, her skills as an emcee and producer speak for themselves. Her beats are driving, her delivery is sharp. Not bad for someone who only haphazardly picked up the mic.

“I was actually never interested in becoming a professional musician,” Flahert says. “I never even had aspirations of performing music until I got to college.”

It all started with a dorm room conversation, when Flahert criticized mainstream rap to a friend. Her friend challenged her: Could she write a rap song?

Flahert threw together a song with a kid down the hall who made house music. And, almost immediately, she was hooked. K.Flay was born.

“Hip-hop drew me in because, with rap, as a lyrical genre, there’s so much you can say in a song. And I’m a very talkative person,” she says. “It was really conducive to my verbosity. It was like a puzzle to me.”

After sharing the song with friends and getting positive feedback, K.Flay began performing around campus. Eventually she caught the eye of Bay Area hip-hop figures MC Lars and Amp Live, who encouraged her to take music seriously, despite her own misgivings. Continue reading

Blue Scholars Feature From The Inlander

Nothing’s Shocking

Seattle’s Blue Scholars take a bookish approach to hip-hop

Last year, a Shadle Park High School teacher found himself on forced administrative leave, in part, for playing “Commencement Day,” a diatribe against the flawed American education system by Seattle hip-hop group Blue Scholars.

For the socially conscious group, occurrences like this are actually the opposite of the norm. Most of the time, they’re invited to come to schools and universities to be part of classes covering everything from English to post-colonial thought. For the group’s beat-maker, DJ Sabzi, hip-hop is a tool for teaching.

“Hip-hop acts, and has always acted, as a teaching tool outside the classroom,” says Sabzi. “When it really started, hip-hop inspired a lot of people in my generation to read more, to study, and to understand culture far more than any school ever did.

“To me, you should be making art that open people’s minds and uplifts them.”

One idea heavy on Blue Scholars mind these days is the self-coined idea of the “cinemetropolis” for which their latest album is aptly named. The group explores the idea that we’re now living much of our lives through the moving pictures of the media and copying what we see, instead of forging our own paths in life.

“There’s a generation coming up that grew up glued to the television. Most of what they learned were not things that they experienced themselves,” Sabzi says. “We live in a culture of heavy imitation of style without really an understanding of the substance that goes behind it.

“Our generation, we feel like, is one of the last that remembers when culture used to be authentic. Now anything goes, and no one cares.” Continue reading

SXSW ’11 Day Two Recap

Again, I’m covering SXSW 2011 for The Newshouse. Day 2 included P.O.S., Maps & Atlases, Sharon Van Etten, Say Hi, and We Are Hex. Check it.

SXSW ’11 Day One Recap

I’m covering SXSW for The Newshouse. Day 1 included The Antlers, Now, Now, The Dodos, Mister Heavenly, The Gay Blades, Four Fists, Darwin Deez, Deafheaven, and Young Man. Check it.