The question I want to ask Grieves the most is the one he’s most tired of.
Let’s think for a second what the search keywords would be for the Rhymesayers MC: Hip-hop. Rapper. Seattle. If you were born after 1995 (or if your rap library pulls directly from the Grammys’ rap nomination backlogs), the words ‘Seattle’ and ‘rap’ in this modern mainstream age lends itself to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
The duo — Macklemore in particular — is infamous for winning the 2014 Grammy Best Rap Album award ahead of Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, Kanye West’s Yeezus, Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail and Drake’s Nothing Was the Same, then posting on Instagram an apology text he sent to Lamar, saying, “You got robbed” almost immediately after accepting the award.
So, my question for Grieves: How has Macklemore’s success impacted the Seattle hip-hop community? Because when I think of Seattle hip-hop, I think of Blue Scholars.
I hear him take a deep sigh on the other end of the phone.
“It’s kind of a clusterfuck right now and there are a lot of eyes on Seattle,” he breathes. “He’s brought attention to the area because he’s larger than life, but the kind of attention he’s bringing, the city is not set up to handle.”
Based on that perspective, it’s a familiar tale to that of the Bay Area’s penultimate hyphy movement in the early 2000s: As the scene skyrocketed, it plummeted just as quickly due to what some believe was sheer inexperience in dealing with the larger music industry. A lack of managers and agents to help steer the ship on the business side ultimately halted the movement’s progression, something that Grieves says Seattle’s own scene is recently experiencing. “When it comes to media and all that, people don’t really know too much about Seattle,” he retorts. “They know the Space Needle and Macklemore.”
Despite the scene shift, Grieves said he owes a lot to the Emerald City. Born Benjamin Laub and originally from Colorado, Grieves cut his teeth in music by making beats and studying to be an audio engineer. He remembers a studio he’d frequent called the Robot Room, where young creatives would gather and cut beats, edit videos or write lyrics. My reference to Blue Scholars triggers Grieves to make mention that, in his mind, the duo single-handedly created a platform to foster a budding hip-hop community and fan base for artists such as himself.
“Everyone was working together and I loved it,” he says. “I miss that a lot because now, I feel like when people approach me, it’s about a check. (Art) doesn’t start with a bottom line, it starts with creativity. So, with this time around, I just started to find people that inspired me like that.”
Grieves has taken it upon himself to feature only Seattle artists on his Running Wild project (out today, August 25), his fifth studio album in his 10-year career. He mentions young rapper Romaro Franceswa, singer/songwriter Paris Alexa, Fearce Vill of the group Dyme Def and Davey Jones, one half of a hip-hop duo, the Introverts. Grieves calls Romaro “a firecracker” and commends Paris for her intellectual, honest songwriting. Fearce and Grieves have been making records together for a long time, and Davey Jones is a rapper coming from the same vein of the same raw, deep-seeded lyricism Grieves is known for.
With the guest features homegrown, Grieves ordered for the production side of the record to be from foreign soil. He called upon Swedish producer Chords, who previously worked on the rapper’s 2014 Winter & the Wolves album, and the two focused on taking Running Wild to new, unfamiliar levels sonically and even conceptually. He tells me the story of his latest single, “RX,” which outlines his dependency on prescription medicine to deal with his anxiety and panic attacks, taking listeners beneath the drugged fog to ease his turmoil. It’s a modern, dark, and vulnerable window frame that wouldn’t have even been built without Chords’ persuasion.
“I didn’t think I could get away with being able to write on it,” he explains. “(Chords) really pushed me, (he) told me I was putting myself in a box and I was constricting myself to what I thought other people expected of me. He’s helped me push past my own boundaries and my own criticisms and puts me in a different place that I would never go to.”
In Running Wild, Grieves experiments with moods, tones, and subject. He talks about the peaks of love instead of the valleys. On “Gutz,” he’s somber about love again. One track might be lush and intoxicating, the next two will be stripped down boom-bap hip-hop records catering to the familiar Rhymesayers backpack rap. The album triggers a soulful energy couching his poignant, intense rhymes and he still remains unafraid to bare it all. But he also wants to lighten the mood a little.
Grieves is shameless in his music and he’s the same in conversation. He tells me over the phone that with Winter & the Wolves and 2011’s Together/Apart, rap critics gave them a rating equivalent to a shoulder-shrug: Not terrible, but not great either. He was being described as an “aged-out, nomadic skate rat” who was “intense and single-minded” in his rhymes about ex-girlfriends and the drudgery of everyday life: “I wish him the best, but can I get some breathing room?” His sentimental subject matter and area code garnered endless Macklemore comparisons, but Grieves’ relentless rawness offered a more believable authenticity. Regardless, in between records, Grieves trudged on making music while slyly taking notes in the back of his mind.
The idea that an artist would take stock in what critics have to say is intriguing, to say the least. But Grieves says it’s all in the name of progression. He’s heard the critics, he’s heard his fans, and he’s heard his likeness compared to “Thrift Shop” time and time again.
Grieves is tired of talking about Macklemore. He’s ready to start talking about himself again.