Pain Be Champagne: The Sonic Therapy of Porter Ray

words by Evan Gabriel

 

Skype has frozen. There’s a long pause in discussion, but Porter Ray’s audio continues. Between coughs from a passing blunt, he mutters about terrible service on Beacon Hill, the Seattle neighborhood where he lives. Even through the static pixels of my monitor, it’s clear that the most emotionally painful events in the 27-year-old’s life have accelerated his creative output. Unlike rappers who break out in their underdeveloped years and eventually churn out colorless, impersonal material, Ray’s music can’t help but be informed by his lived experience -- the good, the bad and the ugly. He raps through pain and struggle with a mix of grounded persistence and happy-go-lucky flashiness. This combination has led to the support from key artists in his hometown of Seattle and recent record deal with the city’s most famous label, Sub-Pop.

“Everyone got their own fucked up shit that they’re dealing with,” he says. "My story is a prime example of that, white dad and black mom. Most of my biracial friends they got black dads and white mothers,” he says, as Skype eventually comes back to focus. “My father was around for most of my childhood but then he was absent from my teen years, not because he left my mom or anything like that, but because he had multiple sclerosis.” Under a black hoodie pulled low, Ray smiles a lot, even when recounting his complicated upbringing, his child’s mother’s incarceration or his younger brother’s death. Although single parent homes, gun violence, and incarceration aren’t atypical in rap’s catalogue, Ray has the perspective of someone caught between two worlds of identity, and making sense of that middle ground.  

Born into what he refers to as a “privileged” upbringing in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, Ray remembers a wide mix of records played in the house - Tower of Power, Con Funk Shun, Average White Band and The Isley Brothers - by his mother, a cultural anthropology professor, and his father, a lawyer. Yet it wasn’t until he began listening to two Midwestern acts—Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony and Da Brat—that hip-hop fully entered his musical diet. He recalls writing raps as early as third grade, but never with the intention of actually being a rapper. “I’ve always been into literature. I always enjoyed writing short stories, and writing in general,” Ray says. And his pen remains active, even with his Sub-Pop debut slotted for mid-2016. This past November, he independently dropped an EP, Nightfall, and an accompanying short film. 

Compared to earlier projects, Nightfall uses less space but covers more ground. In six tracks, he melds his backstory with a mission to articulate the experience of a biracial kid in America, and packs tales of both alluring escapism and heavy reality with brevity. “Faces In My Memory” opens with the phonetic-laced couplet: “my grandma got cancer, my young god needs pull-ups and pampers, Black panthers pull tools, we move like dancers,” while “Dreaming” outlines his yearnings for opulence: “cheese for the clique, cheese grits, in Belize with my bitch, reefer lit, remove the roof so we can breath in the whip.” While he may float in the fly life, Ray doesn’t ignore wounds that run deep. On “Outside Looking In,” he recalls seeing his Dad for the last time at the age of 17, and running from his past instead of embracing it. Most amicably, Nightfall presents a slice of sincerity, the kind you only discover by yourself well after the sun has set. 

In high school, Ray’s father lost his battle with multiple sclerosis. “This was my junior year and I was getting recruited by UW [University of Washington] to go do track there. It kind of took me off the grid and took my ambition for sports, honestly,” he says. With medical bills looming, Ray’s mother, now single handedly raising three children, had to relocate the family to Seattle’s historically-Black Central District. The day after his father passed, Ray’s high school sweetheart, who he calls his “best friend,” gave birth to their son. It was a gift in a time of anguish, but Ray was now tasked with guiding his son through a reality he knew too well: being mixed-race in an overtly white city. “I’m trying to expose both sides to the other. I got friends who are close minded and stuck in the street and I also want my white friends and my white family to listen,” he says. Although he maintains that Seattle’s African-American community is small and close-knit, he describes his mixed identity as a “double edged-sword.” “You’re not white enough for the white kids, your not black enough for the black kids,” he says. “I felt kind of lost. There’s this isolation to the black community.”

On July 22nd 2009, Ray’s 18-year-old younger brother Aaron was killed. A friend of Aaron had had an argument with a kid and decided to confront him at his house. In support, Aaron and a few friends tagged along. But when the kid saw the group in front of his home, he panicked, and fired a rifle from a window, striking Ray’s brother in the head. At 21, Ray’s family was diminishing. The big house on Capitol Hill was now a memory, and the burden of loss was heavy. He recalls the stress that weighed on him, and more so, a need to channel it all. “I realized I wanted to take my pain and turn it into a story and really connect with people,” he says. 

Aiming for solace, he zeroed in on the form of expression he had drifted towards all his life: writing. Over the next few years he detailed his pain in song. From those early songs, lengthier concepts were uncovered and Porter Ray the artist was born through a form of sonic therapy. He released his first project, BLK GLD in May, 2013, and it was followed by the sequels WHT GLD and RSE GLD that October. BLK GLD doubles as a metaphor for brown skinned people and a symbol for underground music as a whole. Oil, like music, remains underground until it becomes noticed for its material value, and on the project Ray began to excavate the racial imbalances in his city.

“All my niggas getting shot, all my white friends living wealthy,” he raps on “As the Pages Turn.” Ray’s thoughts unfold succinctly, The rhymes don’t feel forced, and he contrasts images of middle school chess with bulletproof vests. Despite twofold uncertainty, Ray’s meditations on life read with the narrative scope of flash fiction. For someone who has rarely left Seattle, his geographic paintbrush is full. On “Miami Breeze” and “Cinematography,” he rotates between true and embellished flashbacks. “Circled By Candles,” feels more imaginative, where he dreams of  religious revelations in the desert. Such vast influence is fitting considering his favorite writers include Kahlil Gibran, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Machiavelli, and Zora Neale Hurston. 

The same year Ray released the GLD series, a different Central District resident, and someone Ray grew up considering a living legend, became an A&R at Sub Pop Records. Heralded for his role as Butterfly in the iconic 90’s trio Digable Planets, Ishmael Butler is currently half of the celestially outspoken duo Shabazz Palaces. Butler noticed Ray’s talent, and began mentoring the young MC during his first performances. Another of Seattle’s hip-hop heavyweights, producer Vitamin D, was also now behind Ray’s music. “I was hanging out and smoking weed with Vitamin before we ever talked about doing music,” he says. Vitamin mixed BLK GLD, and would go on to mix future projects Fundamentals and Nightfall from behind the boards in his studio, The Pharmacy. With two of the city’s most established talents shepherding Ray, his trajectory seemed fixed. “Those two specifically is what really made me proud of Seattle and the music here. Studying those guys is what led to any of my recognition,” says Ray. 

But 2014 arrived with a fresh reserve of bliss and misfortune. Ray was offered a deal by Interscope Records but he passed on it, feeling the timing was unfit. Then his son’s mother was incarcerated for eight months. “I got a bunch of homegirls whose fathers of their kids aren’t around,” he says. “In my situation, my son’s mom wasn’t around and I had him. Usually it’s the other way around.” Ray was left as the sole provider for their son Aaron, named after Ray’s late brother. Like his stereotype-defying childhood in Capitol Hill, to death and the means of survival in Central District, Ray was now tasked with another duality - being a burgeoning rapper, and a single dad. Yet once again, he channeled this strain through creativity, and dropped his most extensive project yet, Fundamentals. There are Persian rugs, murder gloves, and purple mud on “Retrospect,” one of the project's standout tracks, where Ray matches his voice to the tone of dreamy synthesizers: “Darker skin provoke a judge to hold a grudge,” he raps, refusing to ignore a double standard. 

 

After the reception to Fundamentals, Ray caught a deal that made sense, and he signed to Sub Pop Records in May of 2014. Famous for being the once-home of Nirvana, Sub Pop is not traditionally known as a hip hop hotbed, or even hip hop-leaning. Current artists include The Postal Service, Fleet Foxes, and Washed Out, but in recent years Sub Pop has brought on boundary pushing, homegrown hip hop groups like Shabazz Palaces and THEEsatisfaction. Despite the attention that often hovers around young artists, Ray recognizes what his music brings just as much as what it doesn’t. “All my friends support my music, but that doesn't mean all my friends are listening to my tapes in they car or at their house, they want to hear the bounce, music that is more catered to when you’re going out,” he says. 

While an offer from Interscope would be a huge feat for most young rappers, Ray’s music isn’t competing for club-hit playlists. Unlike the risk of being shelved at Interscope, Ray has found sensible company at Sub Pop among artists who are less concerned with marketing as much as the music itself. And with Butler, he has a mentor that mixes the professional with the personal. “It’s more like a student-teacher relationship. I know he’s someone I can go to for advice about my career or life,” says Ray. Knowing how important he was with Digable, he was always someone I looked up to. And now I realize more and more that he’s just the homie.” 

Given the Sub Pop partnership, as well as his artistic autonomy to release projects like Nightfall, Ray has found himself in an ideal position to shake up Seattle’s hip hop scene. His songs thrive in convolution, and through valiant tenacity, he has crafted a unique musical byway that has the potential to span well beyond his hometown. His writing no longer evades the past. Instead, he owns his duality and the emotional scars that have come with it. “I stopped trying to please either side of my friends, brown skin or fair skin, I realized that I’m only going to be me. I’ve been trying to do that with my music too.” Authenticity is often the measure of effective art, and Ray’s story is all his own.