Hip-hop on the rise in Bellingham
The brisk morning air filters through the trees of Sehome Hill Arboretum into a group of huddled rappers freestyling narratives about anything from encounters with the police to what they ate for dinner the night before.
It feels very old-school. Just buddies coming together, passing the aux cord and microphone to create a concoction of different beats, flows and messages.
No production, no equipment, just talent.
In its purest form, this old-school feel is what inspired hip-hop dancer Skai Johnson and co-creator Gabriel Swanson’s to launch Revival, an event-planning organization in Bellingham. Revival’s events are arts-focused and showcase many mediums and artists.
Swanson said he wanted to create a platform for his music, and share that platform with friends and acquaintances who, like him, didn’t have one before.
When Johnson moved to Bellingham in 2015, he started teaching hip-hop classes. He said he soon realized that to have a successful studio, he’d have to establish an accepting place for the culture first to gauge Bellingham’s passion for the art form.
“My life wasn’t just influenced by rap music. It was hip-hop in general. It was beatboxing and Coogi sweaters, it was everything,” Johnson said.
Thus, Revival Events was born. Johnson said his studio stands out from others in the area because they strive to incorporate all parts of the culture.
“What makes us different is that we are not just getting rappers. We are getting dancers, artists, spoken-word artists, painters,” Johnson said.
The arboretum freestyle rapping session was part of a hip-hop tradition called cyphers where rappers trade improvised lines and verses. Johnson said sessions like these now occur weekly and were created to establish a culture beyond Revival events. They happen around Bellingham each Saturday and for Johnson, they’re a rejuvenating experience.
“With the cyphers, you show up, it’s early in the morning, you’ve had your coffee, you’re kicking it with your friends, you’re sober, the day is beautiful,” Johnson said.
When Johnson arrived in Bellingham, he said hip-hop dancers who had been hiding because of the lack of visibility in the community came out from under the rocks. As Revival progressed, he noticed a similar trend with rappers. More of them began to show up and Johnson said he recognized real talent.
“I’m meeting all these crazy-ass rappers who are so good and I’m like ‘Where have you been?’ and they’re like, ‘Well, we didn’t know Bellingham f****d with us like that,’” Johnson said.
One of these rappers is Jordan “The Rhetorician” Moss. Johnson said three weeks after the two met, Moss headlined a Revival event.
Rapper Vince “Lil $pacy” Alberty ran into Johnson in a similar way. Alberty said Johnson recognized a talent in him and not long passed until he was performing at a Revival event too. He has now sold out shows throughout the Northwest, opening for rappers Afroman and Kirko Bangz.
“[Johnson] has that low-key genius instinct where he can look at someone and instantly know,” Alberty said.
On Oct. 6, both Moss and Alberty performed at a Revival event at The Shakedown in downtown Bellingham. It lasted hours, featuring four acts and people filtering in throughout the night.
For audience Jordan Star, the event was a welcome change from the typically stale music scene in Bellingham.
“It’s very polarizing,” he said. “You either have local bands or Snoop Dogg comes through.”
Star said most Bellingham musicians can’t devote the necessary time into music because the community isn’t supportive enough. More promoters such as Revival are a good start in combatting this issue, he said.
Bellingham Rapper Tommy Couling, whose stage name is Tommy Jordan, said while currently the local music scene may seem stale to fans of hip-hop, its popularity has always come in waves. He said hip-hop started becoming more prominent in the area around 2010, which he attributed to the growing fame of Seattle rapper Macklemore.
“People can say whatever they want about Macklemore now, but back then we were rooting for anybody from the Northwest to make it big,” Couling said.
Soon the hip-hop scene needed a home.
Local DJ Turntable Einstein started an event, Sunday Cyphers, at the Glow Nightclub in downtown Bellingham around 2010, Couling said. The culture was different then as rappers belittled each other for personal success.
“Hip-hop is a really politically-charged genre,” Couling said. “It’s also a genre where people really hate being edited or told they can’t say things, so you find in the hip-hop community a lot of insular beefs between people who have small issues with each other that created divides instead of unification.”
According to Couling, after the cyphers faded because of hip-hop’s small, niche following in the community, a new era of rap began to emerge as a new group, the Live Your Trip crew, took over. With this new generation of rappers, Couling said the culture became less masculine-driven and more socially conscious.
To Couling, spreading messages of inclusivity is common sense. When you include more people, your audience is larger and can be made safer for more people, he said.
“Hip-hop as an art form is often the voice of political change but also the voice of traditionally minorities,” Couling said. “I think everyone who has to struggle for basic human rights deserves a seat at this table, especially since this table is the fastest growing, biggest cultural thing in the last hundred years, since the 80s.”
Not all rappers have the same viewpoint agree on the point of activism, Couling said, as being edgy is a near requirement for the art form.
“I think being edgy in today’s society is standing up for what you believe in,” Couling said. “I think it’s just as edgy to present yourself as a person with solid beliefs and someone who is willing to challenge norms, especially in light of Kavanaugh. To me being edgy is sticking to your guns and standing for something and it’s up to every artist to ask themselves what they stand for.”
This stance goes beyond a performer’s message, Couling said. It’s everything from where they perform and who they affiliate with.
Couling said he respects local businesses like The Black Drop Coffeehouse and The Shakedown because of the political involvement they encourage in Bellingham.
At an event on Oct. 6 at The Shakedown, a booth in the back helped event attendees and rap enthusiasts register to vote. He said the artistic community needs to be more active in paving the way for the future they want.
“I don’t think we live in a time or place where that complacency is welcome anymore,” he said.
For Couling, Revival Events is driving the new wave in Bellingham’s hip-hop scene. But he said to put the scene on the map, it will need a supportive and consistent community with a singular message.
“This is a cool wave,” Couling said. “It’s a strong wave, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Hard work is also a big part of the success of any scene, Alberty said. He said crews that stay with the times and continually put out content for the community is bound to succeed.
“You meet these guys in person, they have such great energy,” Alberty said. “It’s really hard not to f**k with them. So I see nothing but success.”