THERE'S A COUNTERCULTURE to Portlandia's narrow representation of Portland. In Rostam Productions' fictional X-RAY web series, writer and director Seena Haddad gives a lifelike glimpse of what it's like to come up in Portland's slowly rising hip-hop scene. Parts One and Two have been out since January, and Haddad is currently in the process of writing Part Three.
While he's always been an avid fan of hip-hop, Portland's scene was an abstract idea to Haddad until he found out about the closure of the Blue Monk in 2014, shortly after police shut down a hip-hop show at the popular SE Belmont venue.
"I started reading [about] that, and it kind of gave [X-RAY] a little bit of shape," he says.
After writing a first draft of the script, Haddad planned to have an actor from Beaverton play the lead role. But just around that time local producer 5th Sequence (Brandon Johnson) introduced Haddad to Mac Smiff, editor in chief of We Out Here Magazine (full disclosure, I write and edit for WOHM). Smiff helped Haddad develop a concrete idea of the Portland scene by bringing him to different shows around the city, including the very first Thesis show, where he met artists like Glenn Waco and Hanif. That's where he caught his first Mikey Fountaine performance.
"That [Thesis] show is the reason that Mikey is [in] X-Ray," Haddad says.
Fountaine makes his acting debut in the show as up-and-coming rapper Marcus Ray (X-Ray), playing the show's earnest protagonist.
"I had an actor from before, but after I saw that performance I was like, 'This is the character, 100 percent,'" says Haddad.
One of the funnest aspects of X-RAY is that it's completely authentic: From the fresh-faced cast, to the fantastic Samarei-produced soundtrack, to the always-on-location shooting at places like Kelly's Olympian and Church bar, Portland hip-hop is realistically represented in every scene.
"I had a couple of friends from the school I went to in Paris and a couple of friends from New York who sent me some tracks to put into [the series]," says Haddad. "I just flat out told them, 'This is a Portland project.'"
Other local emcee cast members include Maze Koroma and Epp, while Mac Smiff plays himself. Smiff clearly became an invaluable resource for Haddad in developing the story and its characters, since he's given a co-producer credit for the series.
In Part Three, X-RAY will reportedly divulge the story of Marcus' fallen older brother, Ahmir Ray (played by Rasheed Jamal), as a parallel to the protagonist's career. Haddad says he also wants to make each episode longer (about 10 minutes) and bring in a slew of new characters (AKA more actual Portland hip-hop artists), and also hopes to introduce a female emcees to the cast. The only women we've seen in Parts One and Two are Marcus' romantic interests.
"I noticed afterward, 'If I do a third season it needs not one, but a couple of strong female characters that aren't dependent on men,'" Haddad says. "It was definitely one of the most glaring things to me."
Which actresses in particular, he's not yet sure (although he did mention his appreciation for the Last Artful, Dodgr and Alia Zin).
Unfortunately, unless Haddad gets a dream sponsorship, the third season is likely the project's last. He's not interested in exploring Marcus' story post-label-signing day.
"I don't want to see the big stuff, I wanna see the rise."