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Putting the Spotlight on Seattle's Hip-Hop Scene (Q&A)


Seattle has always had an vibrant music scene—one that keeps reinventing itself as exciting new artists bring new sounds and new musical perspectives to the city.  In recent years, Seattle hip-hop has been making its mark on a national scale.  Hip-hop artists here in the Northwest are connecting with each other and growing stronger, developing a close, supportive community and a sound that is unique to our part of the world.    

This Monday, viewers will get a closer look at what the hip hop scene in Seattle sounds like. On Monday, October 12, at 9:00 p.m., KCTS 9 will premiere the local documentary The OthersideThis documentary features concert footage and personal interviews with some of the biggest names in the hip-hop community, including early game changers like Sir Mix-A-Lot and DJ Nasty Nes, as well as those currently taking the world by storm like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

This week we had a chance to catch up with executive producer JR Celski (Seattle native and three-time Olympic medalist in short track speed skating) and producer Vinny Dom.  We asked them about the film’s creation and what they learned in the process of making it.

The Otherside is MAD Northwest’s first production. What kick-started the idea to do a documentary around this subject?

Vinny: JR and I are both fan boys of our local music scene. In 2010, JR wanted to throw a benefit concert here in Seattle and he recruited me to help him plan the show. In true Wayne and Garth form, we reached out to local hip-hop acts and got a positive response for the show, but it ultimately fell through due to scheduling conflicts. We had documented the whole process and accumulated some of the footage you see in The Otherside. A failed attempt at a benefit concert turned into a new documentary project.

Just like with any history subject, there are countless people to talk to and events to recall. When creating this film, how did you know where to start the story and where to end it?

Vinny: There is a lot to cover when it comes to Seattle hip-hop. Like a lot of documentary films, we started with a general vision and had certain topics that we wanted to explore. The story that we ended up with is the result of the filmmaking process — conducting interviews, research, and just being aware of things happening in the music industry, both on a local and national scope. Rather than trying to cover every aspect of Seattle hip-hop, we decided to narrow down our focus. We wanted to show Seattle hip-hop in its present day context — the energy, diversity and unique sounds that made us fans.

JR: We really had no idea what the story was going to be about at first. All we knew was that we liked the music and wanted to do something with it. Through the process, we interviewed a lot of important people involved from the beginning and also the current scene of Seattle hip-hop, and this helped shape our direction with where we wanted to go with the storyline. The fact that there were so many artists with an eclectic mix of sounds kept us wanting to capture more and more content and get as many people involved as we could.

How knowledgeable were you about the history of Seattle hip-hop? What did you learn from this experience?

JR: To be honest, before we started digging into it in 2010, I had only been familiar with a handful of artists. This is why we did our best to reach out to as many people as we could who were involved in the development of the scene. The more we talked to people, the more leads we got into connecting with others. Sort of like, “You should talk to him and her; they could really help the story out.” Also, the more we reached out, the more we realized how deep and connected the scene was. It was cool to see the respect the artists had for each other, regardless of what kind of music they were making.

Vinny: I'm not an expert on the history of Seattle hip-hop and I still wouldn't claim to be. After speaking with people who are well-versed on the topic, I discovered that everything I knew was just the tip of an iceberg. Some of our critics say that we didn't go far enough in depth on the subject, and I wouldn't disagree with them. We cover just enough of the history to set up what we are experts about: the present-day Seattle scene.

What were some of the easiest and hardest things to accomplish when creating this film?

Vinny: The easiest things came from the amazing support we got from everyone in the city. For the most part, everyone we talked to was cooperative and excited about the project, so it didn't take a lot of convincing. Seattle is a big city, but the music scene is well-connected. There really is a community out here and it's a cool thing to witness. When artists are attending each other's shows and supporting each other, there wasn't much difficulty meeting new people.

We didn't experience much resistance when it came to getting press credentials or permission to use other artists' materials. I'm grateful that people believed in our project and truly wanted to see it succeed.

JR: The hardest thing was probably figuring out the storyline and how we wanted to tell it. Since events were unfolding before us every single day, we had to be patient and let things happen naturally. Sometimes months went by where no filming was done, which was hard to sit through.

Though the film was originally released in 2013, it is having its television premiere on KCTS 9 on Monday, October 12. This is a new audience for your film. What do you hope viewers will take from it?

Vinny: This is the first time I've heard anyone speak of the film in a historical context and it's crazy to hear. I want people to see the film for what it is: a snapshot of the Seattle hip-hop scene in that time. Bands break up, new ones are formed, and new records are released. The scene is constantly changing. For new fans, I hope this serves as an introduction, and I'd urge them to go and explore new artists, attend shows, and support their favorite acts.

JR: Although it’s been a while since the release, the scene has continued to prosper as it changes constantly and evolves every day. I hope that when people see this film it inspires them to search out the artists involved and also seek out new artists that may have popped up since then. The amount of talented musicians we have in Seattle should not be overlooked and should give the people of the community something to be proud of.

During the process of filming, two of the film subjects — Macklemore and Ryan Lewis — rose to national stardom. Did this sudden curve change the direction and tone of the film?

JR: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were some of the first people we started filming for the documentary. We had followed them around on tours all over the country, witnessing their momentum gain ground and grow into something much bigger than any of us thought was possible. Their rise to stardom definitely gave us more of a reason to continue filming, and it was really cool to see how far they came in such a short amount of time.

Vinny: Definitely. I had a feeling that they would blow up, but I don't think anyone predicted the kind of success they found. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis proved that it's possible to make it on the biggest stage as an independent artist. They pulled off the biggest heist in music history. After the album was released, it was clear where our story needed to go. The movie would be incomplete without them.

The Otherside premieres on KCTS 9, Monday, October 12 at 9:00 p.m.

Learn more about Seattle’s hip-hop history through MOHAI’s latest exhibit, The Legacy of Seattle Hip-Hop. The exhibit, co-curated by Jazmyn Scott and Aaron Walker-Loud, highlights the rich and versatile legacy of Seattle’s hip-hop culture. The exhibit features graffiti artists, deejays, fashion, emcees and much more. “We were inspired to celebrate elements of hip-hop culture that are often overlooked,” says Walter-Loud. “Then we had the challenging mission of engaging hundreds of Seattle-area hip-hop artists to acquire physical and digital artifacts … to help draw tangible connections to global hip-hop culture to our city’s unique interpretation of hip-hop.”

Of course, they met this challenge with flying colors. The exhibit includes personal artifacts and unique interactive stations, such as a mixing station, that were made possible with the help of local artists and producers. Walker-Loud says he and co-curator Scott learned a great deal about Seattle’s hip-hop culture by working on this exhibit.  “What has become even more reinforced through our efforts is the knowledge of how deeply our region's artists care for the community at large — way beyond concern for the entertainment industry alone — and how many of them continue to directly mentor and teach aspiring artists.”  MOHAI’s The Legacy of Seattle Hip-Hop is open now and continues through May 1, 2016. 


Images courtesy of MAD Northwest Productions.