Seattle MC Porter Ray is just starting to wake up when I speak with him on the phone on a Sunday. The 26 year old, from his mother’s yard on a warm day in the Northwest, doesn’t sound groggy, however. Rather, he’s experiencing a different kind of awakening.
“It all feels like a blur,” he says. “From when I was 14 to now, I feel like I’m just starting to catch up.”
Based on his music, it’s hard to imagine Porter having to catch up with anything. Over the past two years, he’s released a number of buttery sampled-based mixtapes that have garnered him a reputation of being a street-wise intellect–someone who could rhyme about life on the corner but also quote philosophy. The stellar projects–a trio of mixtapes titled BLK GLD, WHT GLD, and RSE GLD and his most recent project Fundamentals–have led to a deal with storied rock label Sub-Pop Records, where he plans to release his debut later this year.
But his recent success in hip-hop isn’t the “blur” Porter is talking about. It’s his upbringing in the city’s Central District, which was full of heartbreak, that he’s just now waking up from. After attending a private school until eighth grade and living a “pretty privileged life” with his family in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of the district, things took a turn for the worse when his father, a lawyer, got diagnosed with a rare form of multiple sclerosis and passed away not long after.
Having to support three children and pay off a stack of medical bills, Porter’s mother moved the family down a few blocks, where things started to get “a little violent,” Porter says. He began hanging with kids in the street because, like him, they were growing up in single-parent households. He started drinking and partying, sometimes stealing his mother’s car to go out. Drugs also became a factor, both in terms of using and distributing.
Then, tragedy struck again. In 2009, Porter’s younger brother, only 18 at the time, was murdered. It was an accident, according to Porter; his brother’s friend had gotten into an argument with a boy and wanted to confront him at his house. Porter’s brother, along with his girlfriend and another friend, went along as support. When they drove up, the boy, seeing that he was outnumbered, panicked and grabbed a rifle stowed in the house, firing exactly one shot out of his window and hitting Porter’s brother in the head.
Porter was devastated. But rather than turn to drugs and drinking again, he instead turned to music, something he’d been passionate about since he was a kid. He started writing and recording as a way to make sense of the deaths of his brother and father. Eventually, he caught the ear of neighborhood legend Ishael Butler of afrofuturism duo Shabazz Palaces, which led to the deal with Sub-Pop.
During our conversation, Porter tells me what it’s like being on a label not known for hip-hop, being compared to Nas, turning down a deal from Interscope and being a new father. — Reed Jackson
You’ve told me that you’ve lived both a life of privilege and turmoil. How do you think that’s affected your music?
Porter Ray: My hardships came in the second half of my adolescence. If it was the other way around, I may not have as much optimism. Some of my friends are going to be stuck in the street, and that’s all they know. They’re probably not going to get out of that. For me, it was more random. I got to travel when I was young; I had both parents. A lot of my friends, even if their fathers were alive, they just weren’t around. So there’s this resentment. Maybe they don’t know what it feels like to have a father that cares about you, but I had that. Having my brother killed on accident . . . if it was the other way around, I would have been a little more enraged about it. Obviously I was, but I didn’t feel any need to retaliate.
I look at it like . . . you don’t have to be hard to be hard or street to be cool. That type of shit doesn’t make you real or a thug or any of that. I’ve dealt with my brother’s murder and friends going to jail . . . my son’s mother is currently incarcerated. I deal with all that type of shit. It doesn’t make me feel like I can be represented and categorized by all that.
What about your brother’s death made you decide to start taking rapping seriously?
Porter: I felt like it was the tipping point where I had a story to tell, but also felt the need to express myself. I felt like I didn’t really know what to do with myself after my brother passed. I just had to write and record, get everything off of my chest. And I felt the need to connect with people. I read a lot. I really started diving into philosophy books because I was trying to make sense of it; sense of like; sense of death. I came out of the situation more optimistic than most people I know [would have]. I decided that I wasn’t going to let it beat me.
What’s therapeutic to you about being an MC?
Porter: With the music, I can be the most honest because I’m talking to me. A beat will come on and it will start to bring things out of me that I normally wouldn’t talk about. The listener is one of your closest friends so you can share your secrets, your faults, and your dreams. You can use your imagination. It’s definitely therapeutic. It’s total therapy to hear your own thoughts. You start to realize more about yourself just in the patters of what you hear in your music than you be conscious of.
Because of your cerebral take on the street, I’ve seen quite a few writers compare you to Nas. Do you mind comparisons like that?
Porter: I’m a huge fan of Nas. When I was younger growing up and listening to Nas’s music, I really identified with him and how he was telling his stories. [He was] a storyteller, an observer. I did some shit, (but) my friends really got involved in some street shit. It was more so that I was surrounded by it. I love it when people say that it’s reminiscent of Nas or anything like that. He was a huge influence–not only him as a lyricist, but I love his style. Intellectual. I’ve read articles about him never finishing school but being an avid reader, almost self educated. An especially intelligent dude that can still have flavor in the way he was telling stories . . . I identify with that hella. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.
for more from Street’s Disciple, check out Zilla’s Rework: here
When did you hook up with Ish from Shabazz Palaces?
Porter: My whole life I’ve know Ishmael. Ishmael is from the Central District. Even right now, he lives down from my mom’s house, where I’m at right now. I got hooked up with him through a friend of mine. I was originally working at this boutique for like three years. I was trying to get into graphic design and screen-printing. I was actually taking that way more serious than rap–this was pre my brother getting murdered. I wanted to do a Digable Planets shirt.
My friend hooked me up with Ish, and I got to talk with him and he hooked me up with some old photos that hadn’t been released. My friend and Ish . . . these dudes are all 10, 15 years older than me. These dudes were like my older brothers. Ishmael naturally became my older brother. It didn’t initially start with music; he didn’t know I rhymed for a long time. He was just somebody I admired that I would briefly talk to when I saw him. He always treated me like a little brother.
And when did he bring you over to Sub-Pop?
Porter: Sometime in the last two years. I put out my first tape, BLK GLD, and put out RSE GLD and WHT GLD and started doing shows. He said he liked my music and liked what I was doing and helped me get ready for my first show. He more so just took me under his wing before we even talked about [signing a deal]. Once he realized I was into music, he just wanted to help me out. But then it became something that he started hinting at and that we started talking more about. I actually almost had a deal from Interscope, too, that I passed on.
Really? How come you passed?
Porter: I thought that with such a big label, I’d just end up being shelved. Even now I’m very early in my career in music. I’ve only been performing for a year, maybe two. I just felt like it wasn’t a situation where I could excel. It was a dream come true but long term I figured I wouldn’t be able to excel. At the time, the Sub-Pop deal wasn’t even in place.
It wasn’t like, “Nah, I’m not going to take the Interscope deal to take the Sub-Pop deal.” I just decided to wait.
I also decided that if Interscope was hitting me this early, at least it shows I got a chance now. We live in the age of the independent artist. I thought I could just hold out and build my own brand and continue to put music out myself.
What’s it like being on a label with so many legendary rock releases under its belt?
Porter: I think it’s awesome. It’s a unique situation for me. It’s almost like two worlds being brought together, and I feel like me and Shabazz and THEESatisfaction are at the forefront of that. Being able to connect with two different audiences. I wasn’t hip to Sub-Pop like that growing up, because most of what I was listening to was hip-hop. Now it’s like I can tap into multiple audiences. Because the name of Sub-Pop, they’ll give my shit a listen. My own friends aren’t as excited about me being signed to Sub-Pop as I am ’cause it just doesn’t resonate with them. It’s not Def Jam or Interscope or any of these huge labels that for them and their world is the pinnacle. But I think it broadens my music to people that may not have otherwise given my music a try.
You mentioned your little boy. I’ve heard you talk about the other males of your life in your music . . . your brother and father. Does your son also have an influence on it?
Porter: Other than being a father, all I’m doing is working on music. I’m talking about [my son] a whole lot more. Pretty much for the whole recording of Fundamentals, which we had to record twice because the equipment got stolen, my son was there the whole time. He was right there in the booth. I would just tell him to be quiet and listen to me rap all night; he’d fall asleep in there with me. With his mother being incarcerated and him being with me full time, he’s totally a part of the music. I’ve been talking about my father and brother a lot, but I haven’t been talking about fatherhood as much as I should, I’ve been putting him in more.
What are you working on now?
Porter: My debut for Sub-Pop. I have another tape that I’m going to put out hopefully in the next month or so, and it’s already done. But right now I’m working on the debut. I’m not sure [when it’s going to come out]. I’ll get the music done and turn it in and then talk with the label people about when it’s best to release it. I definitely want to drop it in 2015. I don’t want to let the year go by without my album coming out.
What do you hope to accomplish with it?
Porter: I hope to establish my own following and lane. It’s not like I’m out here thinking I’m going to sell a million records or anything like that. But I think I can contribute to the culture and push the music. I aspire to be like a Curren$y, or a Freddie Gibbs or Nipsey Hussle or even Shabazz—people that created their own lane and a cult following.