Portland is all about diversity, as long as that diversity does not include hip-hop.
"We recycle, and that's not very hip-hop," Portland, Oregon artist Illmaculate says.
Hip-hop artist Cool Nutz and DJ Fatboy say the phrase "a field full of cows" is sometimes what people describe when they find out where they are touring from. Portland, Oregon is not a gangster's paradise, and even within the city, the scene is misunderstood. When I told people I was writing about the hip-hop scene, the response was typically: "Portland has hip-hop?"
It may seem innocent enough in Portland, among the heavily bearded men and stylish young girls standing idly, holding their PBRs and watching the local rock groups they've seen dozens of times. Behind this culture swells an authoritarian collective that is dead set on maintaining this kind of activity. The citizens preach morals of accepting diversity, but the track record of the city officials is not one that exudes it. It would be hard for any subculture to hold its ground under such conditions, when it feels it is being systematically eradicated.
"This kind of music is best if you not have so much of it," is the kind of statement Cool Nutz says he has heard from officials. He listed only a few of the many closed hip-hop venues: "Someday Lounge is closed, Satyricon is closed, Berbati's isn't doing hip-hop anymore."
"The Portland police and the city have continuously shut down hip-hop clubs," says G_Force of the group TxE.
These enforcers of the "right way" pay special attention to the hip-hop community, and any well-attended hip-hop show is likely to be littered with these draconian enforcers. The powers that be, including the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), seem to have an idea that hip-hop equals violence and anarchy. They have gone as far as to mandate certain dress codes for clubs that feature hip-hop. "I was doing a show and there was a dude with a top hat and a cape, but my friend with a Florida baseball cap can't wear it," says G_Force.
The Portland hip-hop scene is a small group that has been pushed to the fringe. In a city that is very concerned with its image, the ongoing gentrification and the prioritizing of genres like folk rock have left few footholds for hip-hop artists to elevate the awareness. Vursatyl, of the group Lifesavas, told me that he can't believe that theye're still trying to raise awareness about it, after over two decades of its existing in the city.
But like, not THAT weird.
"We're strangers in our own neighborhood," says Vursatyl. The OLCC and the city of Portland have been well documented in forcing the closure of hip-hop clubs, due to their opinion that some have caused too much noise and too many brawls, but strip clubs and non-hip-hop venues with the same problems receive much less attention. "Two white guys fighting downtown [outside of a club] is not going to get written about," Cool Nutz claims. I know this to be true, because none of my brawls have been documented in the local papers, and I'm goddamn angry about it."
"City ordained dress codes made to target minorities and the culture, pressure for extra permits or police presence to throw hip-hop events (that wouldn't be a prerequisite for any other genre of music), all make it unfeasible for promoters to bring in national acts or festivals, ultimately creating an atmosphere that minimizes the supply of hip-hop and of course, over time, the demand follows suit," says Illmaculate.
Portland's excessive whiteness and the goals of the city to make it a pristine, organic food cart paradise are not the only difficulties the hip-hop scene faces. One of the major obstacles is within the hip-hop crowd itself. There is a lack of unity that has prevented any artists from finding substantial support in the city. "We have a little bit of a crabs in a bucket effect going on," says Vursatyl. There seems to be an idea in the hip-hop community that you cannot support someone else that is not part of your crew, because there is only so much space for bigger names in local hip-hop. Instead of unifying for the greater good, the scene seems diseased by the stigma that you have to fight for yourself to survive.
Everyone involved in this community will go on at length about the amount of talent there is in Portland, but the ability of people to rally behind these artists, for their success, is limited. Hip-hop is known for rivalries and its competitiveness across the country, but in a small city where you're competing over a gig in a bar's basement, it's more difficult to justify such a complex. "If everyone is just somewhat winning…the scene kind of suffers," says Cool Nutz. G_Force claims that most of the money he makes from music comes from producing for projects that are out of town, because local projects can't sustain him.
Vursatyl explains that he fell into that mentality when he started. He says that when he was getting started he would heckle local groups that were opening for bigger acts, because he wanted to be the one up there. He would often rap battle these guys after the show to prove himself.
Most of the people I spoke with were adamant about wanting to fix this, and hoping to help redirect the attitude, but it has been the mentality for years now. If the environment that they work within becomes more inviting to their culture, it's possible a slow change will begin.
Portland is known as a friendly city, and in many ways, it maintains that image, but minorities and the fringe are slowly being pushed out. In many places where any subculture that does not fit the image has once thrived, they are now forced to relocate, as property costs rise and the powers that be intimidate their business owners. It may not be a mentality completely rooted in race, but it is certainly one that looks to keep "the others" from messing with the order of things. This kind of hostile environment creates division within the cultures themselves, and it pits the bulls against each other while the matador watches from a safe place.