From the outside looking in, I admit that hip-hop is the last thing that comes to mind when I think of Seattle. Imagine my surprise when I learned, after reading “Emerald Street: A History of Hip-Hop,” that Seattle is home to not only a rich musical history past early ‘90s grunge, but also the foundations of hip-hop.
“Emerald Street,” by Seattle-based professor and historian Daudi Abe, can be summarized by one line from the book: “Seattle’s well-established cultural and economic hip-hop infrastructure provided multiple platforms that served as a jumping-off point for publishing exposure and industry connections.”
“Emerald Street” explores a side of hip-hop that has consistently been overlooked. When I think of hip-hop, a few key locations are must-mentions, like the Bronx or Compton. I imagine that not many think of Seattle as one of the founding locations of hip-hop and, if they do at all, it is not with the respect the city deserves.
After a fitting foreward from local legend Anthony L. Ray, better known as Sir Mix-a-Lot, Abe jumps right into the topic at hand. Abe writes in such a way that allows the reader to follow along with “hip-hop” lingo, like the exact type of equipment that was used by the DJs or the specific type of rapping or mixing of the respective artist. By doing this, Abe displays not only his expertise in the topic, but also the complexity of hip-hop.
Hip-hop is not just a genre of music, but a lifestyle that requires dedication, appreciation and determination. As we delve further and further into the book, there are many tales of the rise and fall of different acts or recording companies or studios. That is the one common thread in each success (and failure) story: the resilience of hip-hop. If at first you don’t succeed, hip-hop teaches, then try, try, try again.
Hip-hop is resilient. As Abe described, hip-hop has endured against many adversities, including the Teen Dance Ordinance, over-policing, censorship, the rise of new technology and more. Still, as we know from its continued popularity, hip-hop bounced back. Thanks to its founding participants, hip-hop has only continued to grow and thrive.
In “Emerald Street,” Abe explores other components of hip-hop culture, such as graffiti, fashion and break dancing, each of which played a unique part in rap culture. Even more interesting than how these aspects developed on their own, however, was seeing the overlap between two or more of those components. Toward the end of the book, Abe even describes food as another important component.
Another thing that Abe makes sure to explore is the diversity of the early (and present) Seattle hip-hop scene. Different cultures from all over the world came together to create a new form of hip-hop that was a mix of the best things of different cultures. The presence of different ethnic groups, as well as female MCs and rappers, is important to note when discussing the roots of hip-hop.
The increasing importance of the media in the rise of hip-hop’s popularity is explored in the book as well. Early Seattle rappers (and the same can be said about rappers nationwide) experienced stonewalling by radio stations. Still, it just took one station, KFOX 1250, to play one song to get the ball rolling and take hip-hop’s popularity to the next level.
As a reader, Abe’s love and respect for hip-hop is readily felt in the passionate way he wrote “Emerald Street.” Obviously, especially when delving into a piece of history that has not been explored, Abe did his due diligence when compiling “Emerald Street.” The dates, names, quotes and pictures come together to not only share a history but also to make it real.
With this praise comes a bit of criticism as well. While “Emerald Street” promises to explore the history of hip-hop in Seattle, which suggests a broad historical retelling on a specific time period, I found that it seemed to be more of a history of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s career. While Sir Mix-a-Lot was easily Seattle’s first big hip-hop star, other locals have made the city just as famous, from Shabazz Palaces to Macklemore. Sir Mix-a-Lot’s name appears on almost every single page of the book, sometimes twice, and the repetition quickly becomes tiring. There is a reverence that is placed on his name that takes away from the other persons mentioned in the book.
Overall, the detailed expert opinions from different artists, the pictures and the overarching timeline included at the end of the book made this reading experience more digestible; the supporting materials act as tools to help guide the reader through the years. The timeline especially helped to clear up dates and events that were lost to me as I went through the book.
Who should read “Emerald Street”? Hip-hop historians and enthusiasts for sure, but anyone who is interested in expanding their knowledge of important Seattle history should pick up this book. Abe’s dedication and energy were clearly poured into “Emerald Street: A History of Hip-Hop in Seattle,” and as I hold the finished project in my hands, I can definitely say that that hard work paid off.
Osasere Ewansiha is a writer in the greater Houston area who specializes in media reviews.
Read more of the Feb. 9-15, 2022 issue.