IF YOU WANT an instant primer on Portland's bountiful yet underappreciated hiphop community, you need look no further than the opening seconds of Living Proof's "Iron," the opening number from their second full-length recording, Full Speed. Neatly laid out over left-of-the-dial radio static—it might be interpreted as a slight jab at local FM airwaves that all but ignore local hiphop entirely—you can make out the voices of Lifesavas, Sandpeople, Proz and Conz, and, of course, Cool Nutz.
As Living Proof pave the way for Portland hiphop's future, the duo, Prem and Tope, aren't afraid to kiss the rings of those who came before them. The native Northeast Portlanders grew up in the long shadow of Proz and Conz, watching wide-eyed from the crowd before eventually befriending the local hiphop hierarchy and making their mark behind the mic.
"When I was 19, my mom passed away. At first I didn't make any music for a while. I was like, 'What am I doing? Am I going to rap about how cool I am?'" Tope continues, "At a certain point, music was all I could do to get my mind off of things. All I could do was produce or write, to not think about things like that." Living Proof echo this sentiment with magnanimous rhymes steeped in a respectful honesty—not just typical shallow bravado—that rep the Rose City with a humble narrative set to a beat.
Full Speed truly is an exercise in hometown pride—NE Portland, specifically—via the limber flow of a pair of emcees that twist and tumble their way through solid production and samples. Tracks like the prideful "Devotion" and skateboarding ode "Independent" are spaciously layered, leaving ample space for Prem and Tope to coexist nicely without ever feeling damaged by the distance that divides the two longtime friends (Prem splits his time in Seattle these days as a University of Washington student). Prolificacy equals relevancy for the hustling emcee, so in addition to the rhymes of Living Proof, who already have a pair of fine full-lengths under their belt, Tope holds it down as a noted solo emcee and part of the collective TxE.
Yet struggles remain for local rhymers stuck in a city whose ample love for indie culture includes everything but local hiphop. "Portland comes out for Wiz Khalifa, and Portland comes out for Curren$y, but we have trouble putting 150 people at our record release party," says Tope, aware of the burden Portland hiphop has always had to shoulder. "I've even said to a couple of my peers, 'Fuck it, I'm not doing hiphop shows, I'm doing indie rock shows.' And they're starting to catch on too, like, 'Yeah, the rock scene is way better, they're giving us way more love.'"
In lieu of waiting for Portland's indie culture to come to them, Tope is making the first move by lending his skills to remixes for Starfucker and Kelli Schaefer, and balancing his solo live show output between traditional hiphop events and crossover nights where he'll share a stage with local rock acts (later this month he'll be at the Woods with the Angry Orts and World's Greatest Ghosts). Such is the struggle of an emcee stuck in Indie Rockville.
"People are always trying to box me in as a 'backpack rapper,'" explains Tope. "But believe me, I like money more than you do."