Few hiphop performers can style a written flow as well as Sleepyhead, and even fewer can project a larger-than-life image of themselves on a listener who's never seen them. His stellar recorded presence might lead to a mental picture of a six-foot scrapper with a battle record to match his spoken swagger. Were that the case, he might be Portland's favorite rapper. But at five feet and change, and looking to be about 120 pounds, Sleepyhead—his nom de reality is Kevin Elder—is a bit like a tiny pilot who climbs into the cockpit of a hulking robot to record rap records. Good ones.
I first heard of Sleepyhead back in 2003 when a song of his, "Rip Van Winkle," played on DJ Kez's KBOO radio show. The slow, warm-hearted funk of the beat mixed with Sleepyhead's cascading cadence reminded me of all the best elements of fun hiphop (which is probably why I taped the show and played back that song about five times in a row). "Rip Van Winkle" is on Sleepyhead's first release, Narcolepsy, and to this day stands as one of my favorite tracks ever.
In the intervening five years since the release of Narcolepsy, Sleepyhead has dipped in and out of the local rap scene and now mostly collaborates with Portland electronica luminaries like Copy and Casiocity. The few times that I ran into him around town I would always bug him about making a new record, but to me it seemed like he had gotten his fill of the rap scene and had moved on to other creative endeavors. Thankfully, this month Sleepyhead has proven me wrong by dropping another stellar disc, No School.
A gradual change in Sleepyhead's musical inspiration over the years is present in the production and overall sound of No School. The album features fewer sample-based creations and more glitchy tracks, a divergence that takes the record further from the traditional sonic meanders of hiphop and more toward the laptop beat scene. "[The change] really wasn't intentional," says Elder. "I just knew so many people making beats, and my friends are making those kinds of beats."
This transition for Sleepyhead was not that surprising, and besides, Portland's underground rap scene never really assimilated Sleepyhead—he of small stature, poof-ball hat, and thrift-store wardrobe. You can't front on a guy for naturally gravitating toward friendlier stages. "[My music] is kind of leftfield in comparison to some of the other members of the hiphop scene around town," he explains. "I'm really a [hiphop] purist in a sense. Still, you have to keep it interesting and stop recycling the same music over and over."
While Sleepyhead is still making good hiphop, he's just not creating it with the co-sign of many other established members of that group. Hiphop in Portland, and the nation over, has splintered, with fans of any one of its multiple shards not necessarily fans of the others. Still, true heads can appreciate good hiphop from the street side, the backpack side, and from anywhere else as well. Sleepyhead's musical locale is not one populated by Timbs or LRG, but it is home to fresh beats and rhymes, and while it may be out of your comfort zone, that doesn't mean it ain't dope.
Sleepyhead plays at JCafé (533 NE Holladay #101) on Friday, October 17.