Porter Ray has dealt with more tragedy in his 28 years than most face in a lifetime. At the age of 16, he lost his father. When he turned 21, his younger brother was shot in the head through a car window, Porter sitting next to him wondering why the bullet hadn’t hit him instead. This questioning turned into guilt, and Ray spent the next few years distancing himself from the world that had taken his brother and put so many of his friends in jail. Stricken with grief, Ray faced life without his best friend and no father figure to guide him. He was left wishing the bullet had hit him, that his brother would have survived, and shirked any success in fear that it would add to his growing guilt.
After surrounding himself with positive influences, Ray began rapping seriously. He became fast friends with Ish Butler, Seattle legend and the leading force behind both Digable Planets and Shabazz Palaces. He inked a deal with Sub Pop, a label not known for its rap acts (outside of Shabazz and THEESatisfaction), but the homegrown Seattle aesthetic ranked far ahead of most rap labels. After the birth of Ray’s first son, his child’s mother went to prison. His music career was put on hold because balancing an independent rap career and taking care of a newborn alone was too much for anyone to handle.
Yet here we are in 2017, with Ray’s debut, Watercolors, finally released. The guilt is gone. Ray now realizes his father and brother would be gushing with joy at his success. He’s got a second son in California and his first child’s mother is still incarcerated, so life is by no means easy; but things are looking brighter.
With longtime friend B-Rock handling most of Watercolors’ production, Ray’s debut is a cohesive listen, a cinematic look at the Seattle streets that simultaneously raised and took so much from him. Watercolors doesn’t sink under the weight of these tragedies, but it’s not a particularly happy listen, either. On “The Mirror Between Us,” Ray raps, “I can’t front, shit fucked me up mentally/Sometimes I wish that your bullet had been meant for me.” Anyone familiar with Ray’s story knows how this narrative ends, yet through precise and evocative storytelling, the freshness remain vital.
Ray’s been waiting for this album for too long—he’s been through too much shit—but its delays have allowed him to hone in on the details of Watercolors. The album boasts intimate moments and specific lyrical flourishes that makes it a worthy addition to the Sub Pop canon. I spoke with Ray over the phone from his home to discuss the legacy of Seattle musicians, collaborating with legends, and moving on from tragedy while still using it as motivation. —Will Schube
You’ve been on Sub Pop for about three years but Watercolor will be your debut. What happened in the interim that kept your record from coming out?
Porter Ray: When I first signed with Sub Pop back in 2014—I signed in May—they didn’t announce the deal until September of that year. My son’s mother—I have two kids now, but back then I only had one—was incarcerated for eight months. It took a toll on me and it was hard to juggle having a child and recording the album. It was a situation that halted my progress. I also wanted to take a lot of time and put a lot of attention towards the details of the album. We made 50 or so songs for the record, so I was trying to make as much music as possible and find the perfect chemistry.
There was a lot going on that I wasn’t necessarily ready for, between being a single dad and being signed to the label. It’s different now that my son’s a little bit older. He’s five now, so he can take care of himself in a way. But having a baby around made it really hard to make this record.
Do you think raising him on your own influenced your music?
Porter Ray: Definitely. I wanted to make it a point to talk about my story in this light. Talking about being a single father. A lot of times, it’s the other way around where the woman is left to raise the baby and the man is dealing with jail troubles and shit like that. I really wanted to speak as a single father—from that viewpoint—in terms of responsibility and stepping up and taking care of my child. It’s something that really influenced my writing.
Having my boy around also makes me really aware of the language I’m using. Hearing the music, and what he’ll think about the music once he gets older. My son has been hugely influential on me.
You have two boys now, right?
Porter Ray: Yeah. My first born is five and my second born is seven months now.
It must be really hard balancing being an independent musician with being a father and having to support them because money is hard to come by in the indie music industry.
Porter Ray: Exactly. Not only is there not a lot of money in independent rapping, I also can’t always be with them. I miss out on spending time with them because I have to be out performing, networking, and recording music. Just doing the extra shit to get people to notice me. It’s definitely difficult. It’s a double-edged sword. I feel like it’s getting better though. People are starting to notice. Outlets are starting to write about me. The hardest part is being away from my children though. Not being around them—thinking about going on tour—is hard. My second born lives in Cali, too, so going to visit him and making sure my oldest visits him, too, is a juggling act.
Have you been on a big tour before?
Porter Ray: I haven’t. I’ve just been performing locally. I’ve done some shows in Portland. I’ve done SXSW. Other than that, I’ve just been in Washington. I’m excited to get out of the city and tour nationally. Get out of the country, too.
Going back a little bit, being from Seattle, was it important to you to sign with a local label that understands the city?
Porter Ray: Yeah. It was really important to me. The legacy they [Sub Pop] have in Seattle is unbelievable. The homegrown label—I’m fascinated by that and something I wanted to join. But also, I don’t have to go to LA to talk to my A&R or publicist or my label. I don’t have to go to New York. My label’s downtown. I can easily access them and stay in communication with them. I also just like the way they do shit. I’m comfortable with them in terms of my creative freedom and how I want to move as an artist and release music. I signed in 2014 and my record is now coming out. They’ve been very understanding of my situation in terms of letting me grow as an artist and as a parent. It’s been a real blessing. It’s like home team shit.
Why did you decide to sign with a label that’s not necessarily known for rap music?
Porter Ray: I wasn’t hesitant signing with them at all. I’m in a unique position. I’m trying to break into two different worlds at the same time, in terms of them being known for indie rock and me trying to break into the rap world. They’re two very separate worlds, but it’s a unique situation that I feel very comfortable in. Knowing Ishmael [Butler, Shabazz Palaces] and seeing how Shabazz Palaces has done with Sub Pop, how they move and how comfortable they are, it’s definitely something I wanted. I knew they would let me do my thing.
Now it’s up to me to take advantage of everything they have and stand on my own and be unique in terms of the rap world. None of my friends thought it was a big deal when I signed to Sub Pop because they’re more familiar with Def Jam and Atlantic. They’re not necessarily hip to the Sub Pop legacy, so people are definitely gonna get hip [laughs]. I’m trying to create my own lane. I don’t want to be boxed into the rap world, but I don’t want to be swallowed by the indie rock world either because of my label.
You’re really good at telling street stories with a sort of philosophical undercurrent. Where does that combination come from?
Porter Ray: It comes from listening to people like Nas and Mos Def. I also read a ton. I pay attention to details. I wanted to paint a picture of my city and make the rhymes cinematic. A lot of people don’t know what Seattle looks like—what Seattle smells like—and I’m trying to capture that. I want the music to be reflective of the situations I’ve been in. It comes a lot from reading short stories and being really into film. There are a lot of great storytellers—people like B.I.G.—rap music in general is full of them. You listen to a song and you can tell what their neighborhood was like. I just want to capture nuance in my rhymes.
Did you enjoy going to school?
Porter Ray: Yeah I always got good grades. I didn’t end up finishing high school, though. My father died when I was sixteen so I lost interest in school but I always loved it.
The “Mirror Between Us” is my favorite song on the record. Your music always seems to be tied—and paying tribute—to your brother. Does that ever wear on you, considering you’re constantly making music?
Porter Ray: Yeah it used to wear on me immensely. You lose someone and you start to feel guilty when you start doing well. I didn’t want to be happy. Now, the weight has been lifted in a way. The more I talk about it and the more I create beautiful rap music in honor—and in light—of my brother, the better I feel. It’s very therapeutic and a weight off of my shoulders to be able to talk about him. I like to believe that it makes him and my father proud, to hear their names in these songs, and for you to say “Mirror Between Us” is your favorite song. I like to think it makes them proud. It’s the type of content that people really can relate to. It’s real life—I’m not trying to glamorize it. It’s just me reflecting on the loss. Especially with the album coming out and the world hearing my story, it’s a weight off my chest. I appreciate this blessing.
It’s always hard to remember that the people you’re honoring would be so proud of you.
Porter Ray: I always used to forget that. But lately I’ve been very thankful and appreciative of the opportunities that have come my way. I like to think that my father and my brother are swinging those opportunities my way. I’m just trying to make them proud. And I know that they are. I smile about it. It’s not wearing me down any more.
“My Mother’s Words” starts with an audio clip of your mom giving you advice. How important are those words to you, especially the part about staying humble considering it took so long for your music to come out?
Porter Ray: I love that I got that captured on the record. It was really important to me. I just had her come to the house and have a conversation with me. We just had a glass of wine and I chopped it up later. Her words, she tells me that all the time. But to have it on the record really cements it. I think what she said, every time I hear that song, it’s a reminder to keep my identity and keep pushing. There are gonna be people that praise me, and I don’t need that shit going to my head. And there are gonna be people that hate on me, and I don’t need that deterring me or my confidence. It comes from both sides so it’s important for me to be humble and not take this opportunity for granted. Being signed to any label and to have my music coming out in stores, it’s crazy. I can’t take that shit for granted, that’s what my mom taught me. And I love I was able to capture that for the album. It’s so important to me.
I got my mother on there, I got my cousin singing background vocals, my son’s mother calls in from prison, and she’s singing to me and my son. Having other friends call in from prison, having the homies be featured and produce all the music—it’s a very organic and homegrown album that I’m proud of. But having my mother on there is amazing.
You grew up with a lot of people who are now in prison or have been in and out of jail. Were you ever going down that path?
Porter Ray: A lot of it was good luck. My friends that ended up doing time were much more involved in street life than I was. It’s just good luck. I was in and out of the streets trying to support my mom after my father passed and just trying to support myself, too. Honestly, when my brother got killed, I just stopped doing all that shit. It was a wakeup call. I was 21; my brother got killed and my friends were going to jail. I decided that I was gonna try to find a different route. After high school—even at 19 and 20—I was already trying to do other things.
I got work at a fashion boutique and got into silk-screening and designing. I got into streetwear, trying to find different ways to make money without being in the streets because that’s so clearly a dead end. I had older friends who gave me advice and I just stuck to it. Seeing older friends and cousins making mistakes, I just moved away from all that. I just learnt from it, but I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t lucky. I have people I lost who are surrounding me with love and blessing me. I’ve got angels looking out for me. Maybe this is my purpose.
When did you start taking rap seriously?
Porter Ray: I’ve always been writing raps and recording music in my friends’ basements and stuff, but I didn’t start taking it seriously until my brother got murdered. That was ‘09 and I decided that I was gonna release music. I didn’t have any sort of plan. I wasn’t trying to get signed. I didn’t know where it was gonna take me, I just compiled and recorded a bunch of music. I just wanted to release it so I released it locally and everything that’s happened has been much more than I thought it could ever be. I just wanted to connect with people. Losing my brother, father, and friends, I just had enough. I needed an outlet and rap was that. There wasn’t any master plan to market myself as a rapper or anything like that, I just wanted to make the best art that I could.
When did you first link up with Ish and the Shabazz crew?
Porter Ray: I first met Ish years ago. This was back when I was working at a boutique called Laced Up. They sold sneakers and streetwear on Cap Hill. It eventually became an art gallery called Punctuation and I met Ishmael there. Just being around the neighborhood and hanging in the city, I obviously knew him and had seen him a bunch, but a mutual friend introduced us at the gallery. That was the beginning of him taking me under his wing. He was good friends with cats who were already like older brothers and mentoring me. Again, it was just a natural relationship. We never talked about music or anything like that. It was later that a friend played him some of my music. I never tried to give him any of my stuff. He just ended up hearing it. I guess he took a liking to it. I’m the first born, but I feel like I have a ton of older brothers around here. All my friends are older.
It must be nice having a legend like Ish in your corner.
Porter Ray: Man, yeah. Amazing. It’s a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to work with Ish. I never told him that—well obviously he knows that now [laughs]. At first we were just hanging out, smoking weed, talking shit with the homies. I was never trying to sell a collaboration to him. But I was so entranced by him—of course with Digable [Planets], but also with Shabazz Palaces. It’s been a dream come true to have a guy like that—cool as shit and a living legend—take me under his wing and believe in me. He’s given me opportunities to do my thing and I’m very appreciative of that. It’s dope. Again, though, regardless of whether we were doing music or not, a lot of my big brothers would be helping me do whatever I wanted to do. Ish just has so much experience and he teaches me so much. He’s just so cool.
Yeah he’s the coolest dude in the world.
Porter Ray: He really is. He’s a cool ass dude and he’s got that factor. For him to say my shit’s dope is all I need.
If there’s one piece of advice you could give your sons that you never received growing up, what would it be?
Porter Ray: I would emphasize—and I do try to emphasize—thinking for themselves. I really do want them to create their own beliefs about life, about spirituality, about the world around them. I encourage them to think for themselves and trust themselves, trust their gut. You don’t need to let friends influence you—even me, as a parent! I’m not trying to force them to believe in my God or anything like that. I’m obviously trying to guide them, but I want them to get there on their own.
The other thing I would say is don’t shoot the messenger. A lot of times ego gets in the way. There’s a lot of stuff you hear from people that you just want to ignore. And sometimes it’s coming from people that you don’t wanna hear it from! I had to learn to swallow my pride, even if I wasn’t trying to hear it. It’s all about correcting yourself and your habits. I want my boys to find that silver lining and find those jewels, no matter who’s telling it to them.