Interview: Gary Campbell of Crane City Music speaks on “Solar Power” Compilation

By: Carrick Wenke

Whether he’s aware of this or not, Gary Campbell is one of the most integral and important people in Seattle’s Hip Hop scene today. As of the past few months, Gary’s Instagram reviews of Seattle artists from different styles and genres have become very much celebrated, and almost an unwritten pinnacle to obtain as an up and comer. I met Gary for the first time back in December at  Campana/Kung Foo Grip/All Star Opera show in Ballard, but it wasn’t until a random Barboza encounter in early January that I really became familiar and acquainted with who he was and what he does. It’s funny because the first show Gary went to as a fan of the Seattle scene was back in 2013 and was a Kingdom Crumbs/TheeSATISFACTION/Cloud Nice show, which was also my first show as a fan of the Seattle scene. Fast forward to roughly 4 years later and Gary and I have had many run in’s together at various shows and events, spoken about the scene on countless occasions, and he has taken his Instagram reviews to the next level with the release of his Seattle Hip Hop compilation Solar Power. This comp. is a partnership effort between Gary and the artists whom he believes are the soundtrack to the scene currently, and if you want one, they are a limited run to be purchased at any show the artists might be playing, or at Spin Cycle Records in Capitol Hill. 

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Crane City Music Founder, Gary Campbell

Can you introduce yourself for us? Who are you and what is it you do?
I’m Gary Campbell, I moved to Seattle 5 years ago from Toronto. I was really interested in wanting to find out about local music when I moved here and one of the first local shows I went to was at Neumos and it was TheeSatisfaction with Kingdom Crumbs, who is TaySean and Jarv Dee and others, OCNotes, Sax G and it was kind of a revelation of a show. That music is so different and has it’s own vibe and groove to it and it sort of get’s described as Hip Hop, but in many ways it’s its’ own thing and genre. It’s not exactly Hip Hop in any conventional sense. I saw that show and thought it was really cool and I was into it and wanted to know more about the scene and the music so I started going to shows. I hadn’t been a huge Hip Hop fan until I moved to Seattle, but the scene was so engaging and vibrant and eye opening. So I started going to shows for a couple years and I would go by myself and didn’t really know people at the shows, so I was the guy standing at the back by myself. I would show up by myself, leave by myself, and so I kinda wanted to get to know people who had this shared interest and passion that I had. So I started writing these little capsule reviews on Instagram, and the reason I was doing that was because I was really interested in this music, and I wanted to start writing about the stuff that I was interested in. What I loved about Instagram was that you could @ reply the artists and other people and have a conversation. People would always ask me if I was doing a blog and I was like “Nope just Instagram, it can be it’s own publishing platform”. So that’s what I started doing and early on I was really just writing about new records I liked. I’d go to the show and buy a CD from an artist and I would write about it and they would respond and other people would respond and I would go to a show and people would say “Hey aren’t you the guy that wrote that review on Instagram?”. It was a good icebreaker too like some people would ask why I was there and I’d say I wrote reviews on Instagram, and we would follow each other. Over the course of a few years doing that I had hundreds of followers and people knew me through this Instagram account.

So the first review you did was roughly in 2013?
That’s a good question, I’d have to fact check that on Instagram. Another thing that happened was I went to a music festival in Alaska, there’s a music festival called Homeskillet. It’s a cool music festival on Baranof Island in Sitka, Alaska, and I went to the 10th and final year of this festival and tons of Seattle artists flew up and played. Maybe like one hundred bands played and probably 30 of them were Hip Hop artists from Seattle. There was maybe 200 people at the festival, where 100 of them were a part of the acts playing at the festival. It was kinda weird because when I was at this festival I felt like I was one of the few people there who wasn’t in a band. Over the course of the 3 days I was there, it was a really intimate festival and you spend a lot of time hanging out with these bands. You go on a lot of hikes because it’s this small village. While I was there I brought a notebook with me and started drawing illustrations of people playing at the festival, so I ended up drawing all 100 people. Jarv Dee played, Astro King Phoenix played, TaySean played, I got illustrations of all these artists. That was another way that I suddenly became a part of this group of people who knew who I was, because I was doing drawings of these people in Alaska. Between doing those and the Instagram reviews, suddenly I became some one people knew. And that all came from being a fan of the music and wanting to see it prosper. I have this theory about Seattle music in general, and might be my own personal theory and completely ficticious, but it seems like in the 90’s Grunge exploded here and all of these huge record labels from around the world and America that descended on Seattle and sort of strip-mined the natural resource. Like “oh you’r a band that sounds like Grunge, I wanna sign you!”. Consequently it feels like a lot of the Seattle music scene recoiled from that and chose to go more deeply underground. I notice this a lot today, you’ll have an event at some venue whose name is made up, and there will be no address and you have to direct message someone to find out where the event is. So I’ve been to a lot of basement shows, and yoga studio shows, and shows in the back of an auto body garage in SODO, and some of those were amazing shows, and it gives a sense of wanting to preserve this scene for the community that you’re invited in. I started thinking about projects kinda like this compilation record.

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Gary’s “Solar Power” Seattle Hip Hop Compilation

Do you remember what the very first review you ever did was?
It was Kingdom Crumbs’ self titled record. The first night I did the reviews I did three of them and it just happened to be the three things I was listening to that night and they were, Kingdom Crumbs, Kung Foo Grip Growing Up In The Future, and a King Leez record. There was no plans like “I’m gonna launch with these first three”. At the time when I wrote the reviews for those it was more of a “this is a cool record, you should check it out”, there wasn’t much more substance to them. They were the three I was listening to that night that I thought were cool and wanted to share with the world and see if anyone else thought they were cool.

What brought you to Seattle?
So I got a job at Amazon, and that’s how I came here.

Where you doing the some kind of music involvement in Toronto?
So actually when I was in Toronto I ran a city magazine. With my job I worked for digital magazine publishing and there was a city magazine somewhere along the lines of Seattle Met, or City Arts, called Toronto Life, and I ran all of the digital operations for that company. I ran the website, I ran the mobile app, the iPad editions. So I oversaw a team of about 20 people who put that magazine together. So my job was doing things such as restaurant reviews to events, to articles about city council, everything under the sun. The kinda coverage that something like the Stranger or City Arts or Seattle Met might do. When I was in Toronto music was a part of that and I also had a couple of really good friends who had a really well established music blog called Chrome Waves, which was the definitive Toronto music blog for shows and record reviews. I had another good friend who ran a recording studio in Toronto which was kinda interesting, it was kind of a boutique studio. I tell you the story of it because it’s kinda cool: he was the head studio engineer and because it was a small studio big named acts would rent it because they could rent the whole place. He’s had everybody from Justin Bieber, to Rihanna, to Bruno Mars, whatever, working on their new records. He won a Grammy a few years ago for “Uptown Funk”, he was one of the producer’s on there. So I’ve definitely been involved in music in a way through other people indirectly. When I came here, I definitely found that the people who are in the scene have a lot of camps. You have the Moor Gang camp, the Black Umbrella camp, the 69/50 camp, you have the Tacoma people, the Everett people. There’s all these different musicians who go to their own shows, rep their own shows and so forth, there’s not a lot of cross-colonation across those camps. I would go to shows across the board because I was writing these Instagram reviews and wanted to be democratic and wanted to write about everyone, so I’d go see the Tacoma guys who are doing Trap music, and go see the people who are doing more old school stuff in Seattle. Part of my vision with writing on Instagram was that I would write about anything. I think it was ZELLi who said this to me at a show, she said what was really cool about my Instagram account was that in one breath I’d review her record, and in another breath review Macklemore, and in the next breath review a Jarv Dee record. It didn’t matter if you were a big name or not. I would review the Crow cassette, and I would review kinda anything in between. I saw all these big divisions between all these musicians that were doing amazing stuff. Specifically with this record, I very intentionally wanted to pic a broad selection of people across different parts of the scene, who I felt were doing music who had maybe a similar vibe, but don’t necessarily know they’re part of a “scene”, if that makes any sense.

Definitely. How did you decide what artists to pick for the record? You have tons and tons of reviews, but the album is down to 14 tracks, so it must have taken a lot of time to pick who made the cut.
That’s a great question. I started out going through stuff I liked, that was the first criteria. What was I listening to? I wanted to try and focus on people who were very contemporary. Who’s released stuff in the last 18 months? Part of the idea of the compilation was to create a – so many people are doing music online and putting it on streaming formats like Soundcloud and Bandcamp, Spotify. Streaming music is great to an extent, there’s so much of it and it’s easy to access and people can listen to a broad spectrum of music, but at the same time it’s also really hard to get noticed on streaming media. There’s also not a sense of permanence. I talked to somebody about this idea of crate digging. You go to a goodwill or a record store and dig through the used bin or the new arrivals bin and you find that amazing Jazz record from the 60’s. Like oh my god, a record by Max Roach! And it’s such an amazing find, and 50’s years ago, what was the Spotify equivalent of that which will exist in 2067? I don’t know if that will ever exist and we’re sort of at the mercy of these large corporations where we can stream music indefinitely for all time. Something like a vinyl record is a physical object that I can put together, someone can buy, and when someone buys it, whether or not they choose to listen to it or give it away, sell it, they own the record. It’s now a thing that exists in the world. Which is funny because anyone can stream music, but it has sort of a limitation of being a part of a whole coffee of stuff that’s out there. So back to your question of how did I pick these artists: it started with who was I into? What was the shit that I really liked? That gave me a list of a lot of people. I assembled a list of an advisory people too, so I added StasTHEEBoss of KEXP, formerly of TheeSatisfaction. I talked to her about who’s out there and who has she been playing on KEXP. Johnathan Zwickel of Seattle City Arts, kind of who has he been talking to and who they’ve been reviewing. I looked at the past about years worth of columns from Larry Mizell Jr. of the Stranger. I looked at who City Arts has been talking about. I had people who I thought would be cool to be on this record but I didn’t want this to be a by product of my own personal tastes, I want this to be a reflection of what is the scene collectively? Who are people talking about? That really surfaced with a lot of these names. It didn’t surface all of them, and there were a few curveballs on the record of people wanna include, but it kinda served as a gut check for if I was picking the right people. That was one of the things I really wanted to do. This record is this translucent orange, and you know you find those dinosaur fossils that are kinda amber with a bug in it? I was thinking of this idea of this frozen moment in time. If you wanted to freeze Seattle in June of 2017, what does that look like? What is an honest and accurate reflection of what people in this city are listening to? That was how the list of artists came together, and then it was a case of asking them. I would go to shows and say “Hey I have this project..” and I felt like I had built up some goodwill with the Instagram account so there was a lot of interest in this project. I feel like the fact that it was on vinyl, for some of these artists all I had to say was that it would be on vinyl and they were in. I was also surprised by the level of trust, and I’m proud to say these 14 artists are the my first choices. These 14 artists were the first that I approached, and the first to say yes, and that was kinda amazing. I was more worried that some of the artists would tell me to piss off, but they were all into it, they all liked the idea. I started this project in January and in fact, I started this on Inauguration Day. It isn’t necessarily a protest record, but there was this new administration that we are still getting used to and it’s upsetting to a lot of people. What that says about America and what it says about us is kinda how we’ve all been feeling since January, and there has been a feeling of wanting to protest this xenophobic small minded view which is so in opposition to what Seattle stands for. Seattle is a place that has so many gains, we are a fairly progressive place. We’re one of the first places to pass Gay marriage, one of the first places to pass minimum wage, one of the first places to legalize marijuana, lot’s of progressive values. There’s a lot of belief and inclusion in the Gay community, the multiculturalism. I think this recor dwas an effort to celebrate those things we love about Seattle. For each of the 14 artists, when I approached them, I said I really wanted a song from them that they felt reflected the city. It’s amazing, Remember Face, Sendai Era, and DoNormaal all worked on tracks that are exclusive to this project. Remember Face and Sendai Era both recorded a track that they recorded for this project. DoNormaal gave me a track she’s been playing with for a while but didn’t know what to do with, that may be included on her new project but may be exclusive to this. Taylar Elizza Beth gave me a song that at the time was from her forthcoming EP. Other artists wanted to give me what they thought was their greatest “hit”. Jarv Dee gave me “I Just Wanna”, which is a town classic, but he especially wanted to give me the less well known remix version, that has a different kinda groove than the original track. A lot of the artists I went to and had an idea of something I maybe wanted to put on the record but I very much wanted to collaborate with them and see what they had to say.


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Ari Glass, designer/cover art creator for “Solar Power”

How did you decide to work with Ari Glass for the cover design?
I got Ari’s name from Johnathan Zwickel because Ari had just won a City Arts award. He was like “hey this guy won a City Arts award, you should check him out”. He’s got a lot of great artwork. He’s got this piece that’s like a lion wearing Jordan’s, it’s cool. Ari was a very important collaborator to me early on, in not only designing the cover, but a lot of the early conversations about what was this record and what we were looking to achieve. Ari also named the record “Solar Power”, out of looking at his artwork. He did an interview on HellaBlackHellaSeattle‘s Podcast, where he talked about his artwork and the importance of the sun to people who live in Seattle. We endure these months of grey misery, and at the time I was talking to him it was January, so we were enduring the misery. When April of may comes around and the sun comes out we all become a little crazy. He drew this parallel between us suffering through this Trump administration and Seattle winters as being survivors. He had this idea that we could bring this Seattle sun to the rest of America with this project, this solar power that we know so well. Almost like audio food to this wider audience. He actually did the painting for this that’s like 4 feet square. It’s a painting I own because I bought it from him, and the working title of the painting was “The Destruction Of The Earth And What Came After”. It’s this idea of sort of purification of the world. He likes to use a lot of gold leaf, and if you hold it in the light a lot of these lines are actually reflective gold and does this holographic thing that carries through onto the back. He kinda brought together this front concept and I did the back. I wanted to reflect the way we treasure these classic records from the 50’s and 60’s, this blue note essay on the back. The way to make it feel classic and like it was a collection of something. That’s kinda where the style on the back came from and I asked Johnathan to write this back cover essay of this solar powered sense of things, and he did a great job writing that.

This is on your own label Crane City?
This was never really intended as a record label. With all of these artists it was very clear that I don’t own your music, I don’t wanna sign you, I am licensing your track for this one record, and this record is a stand alone thing. I did this “Town Love” zine for Upstream, of 50 Hip Hop reviews from 2016 from Instagram, repurposed as a zine. That was a Crane City project and I have a few other projects in the works. Crane City is a bit of a way to do projects about Seattle music and Hip Hop that are worth doing and are interesting. I say this to everyone of these artists, but I wanna find people to collaborate with. These are people I wanted to work with and create this project with, so a lot of the artists were involved with talking about the project and what tracks they wanted and so on. As we got to the latter stage of this I was still working with my group of people and asking, “how do you compose this into a story”? if you listen to this record from beginning to end, it has kind of a loose narrative flow, almost like the sun coming up for the day. The Sendai Era track that ends it is such a happy and warm song, you almost feel summer island breezes listening to it. Where by contrast, the DoNormaal track that starts the record is very nocturnal. Something Ari said was that this record being this translucent orange, like a piece of the sun, you put on at those darkest days of November and you get that little bit of warmth, like Seattle summer. It was also a desire to make sort of a “Seattle Mixtape”. Like, what’s the mixtape of Seattle summer 2017?

Do you have a particular top 3 or 5 artists in the city to listen to or go to their shows?
I’ve been listening a lot to (Seattle Legends) Source Of Labor. I wrote about them today, Source Of Labor is one of these under appreciated lost masterpieces of Seattle history. I reviewed that record today when I bought the vinyl at the J Moore memorial show. I wrote that review today and went and looked it up, and it’s not on iTunes, not on Bandcamp, not on Soundcloud, not on Spotify. You can buy a CD on Amazon, and you can kinda find the vinyl on Discogs, and that’s crazy to me! It’s such an amazing record. There’s definitely a lot of classic people that I’ve been discovering because I think it’s important to be respectful and truthful to the scene and know the story of who has come before you. I’m a newcomer, I came to the city 5 years ago, and there’s a lot of skepticism towards newcomers because there’s a lot of newcomers in the city. As a consequence of things like Amazon and newcomers in the city, things have become very expensive, and the traditional communities that are here are feeling under attack, and to me it’s very important to be respectful to that. At the same time, so many of these newcomers that come here to work at places like Amazon that are interested in music and are from New York, or L.A. or Toronto or where ever, and it’s amazing this challenge to discover music in this city. It takes work on both sides, don’t get me wrong. The number of people I talk to at work who are co workers of mine that are super into hip hop, I’ll mention in passing that I go to shows, write reviews, and put out this record, and they’re like, “There’s hip hop in Seattle??”. They’re totally in shock by that and it feels like you kinda have to be in the know. Part of that feels intentional, some of these artists want to be hard to obtain. There’s 1000 copies of this record, it’s on vinyl, and it’s for those people who are in the know. This record is not gonna be on Spotify, there’s no download code, and if you want a copy of this record you have to buy it, you have to go to a show. People ask how they can buy it and I tell them “each one of these artists have a stack of these records, and they’re selling them at shows. If you want a copy, go to Jarv Dee’s show”. I think that’s important to what the scene is. I definitely think that’s an interesting intersection to where we’re at with Hip Hop, once you’re in the know it’s hard to realize how there’s a bit of a bubble around this scene, and there’s lot’s of people out there who would love to know more about it and don’t know how to approach it. At the same time, part of it is on the people who are asking. I have co workers who say “next time you’re going to a show, let me know”, and I tell them there’s a show every night of the week. There’s a show tonight, 3 shows tomorrow night, I’m gonna try and hit at least 3 of those. It’s tough to answer who my favorite are, it’s like asking a mother to pick out her favorite children. The artists that are on this record, I’m very happy said yes. They’re my favorites for a lot of different reasons. There’s some on here like New Track City who are from Federal Way, that I don’t think are as well known in Seattle, but they’re an astoundingly good band. They did their first Seattle show at Vera last week with Koga Shabazz, and it was packed. They sold like 20 records at the show. People were coming up to them after the show asking them to sign the record. For a lot of these artists because they release a lot of music online, this is their only piece of merch. It’s a chance to buy a piece of music from these artists, it’s a chance to have an Ari Glass painting you can put in your home on display.

Is there any artists you have your eye on right now that you are interested in what they might do the rest of this year or next year?
I could see myself a year from now doing another compilation. I think that would be cool to do another anthology sort of how “Town Love” was my favorite records of 2016. I could see myself doing another that was my favorite records of 2017, and maybe there’s a parallel like “Solar Power pt. 2”. There’s definitely people that have come out of the woodwork that I wasn’t familiar with early on, like Da Kween is an amazing musician. Koga Shabazz is young but I would say each time I see him, he has grown leaps and bounds as a musician. There’s so much going on in Tacoma right now, but it’s absolutely it’s own thing, it’s very Trap, very much a Rock/Metal type of thing. I think a compilation of Tacoma 2017 would be a cool thing to do because there’s so many musicians down there. AJ Suede has been doing some cool stuff. There’s definitely a lot happening in Everett, you have the Filthy Fingers United group that’s Everett based. Then you have Black Magic Noize, which is MadShroom, DJ Corn Dog, Araless, Vaughn, doing really out there-weirdo cool Hip Hop. Beats that don’t make sense. You listen to the record and don’t understand why it makes sense but it does. MadShroom and Corn Dog did a supergroup together called Junk Food, and there’s an EP that has this crazy prank phone call narrative of this guy who keeps calling this cab company because he wants to order corndogs, and he keeps changing his order. So every few songs there’s this nonsensical order of this guys ordering corndogs from a cab company and the taxi company is trying to help him but he doesn’t make any sense and every time he calls he’s asking for different things. The songs between the corndog things are really left field rap, I reviewed maybe a year ago. There’s some interesting stuff coming out of these scenes and there’s so many of these little groupings that are doing cool stuff. I feel like there’s so many people who are on the cusp of breaking through, however you define breaking through. Is there somebody else who’s gonna have Macklemore level fame? I don’t know. Is there somebody who’s gonna get signed by Sony Music or Universal Records? I don’t know. Is Kanye gonna show up and find 5 people? It does feel like there’s so much talent in this city. It’s fascinating to me, like it’s amazing to me Gifted Gab isn’t a huge success. An artist I love that I think is gonna be massive is Kung Foo Grip. I have a bunch of ideas for stuff I’d like to do for future releases for Crane City. I feel like one of the things I’d love to do with Crane City is that, if things are being released, it’s only on vinyl. So much music is easy to come by online and vinyl has a specialness to it, so I’d love to do split 12 inches. So many artists have been putting out 20 minute EP’s, like Guayaba put out Black Trash/White House , the new Taylar Elizza Beth EP Fresh Cut Flowers. There’s something about the 20 minute EP that I love, it’s very easy to digest, it’s a great way to distill an artists work. The last Jarv Dee record was Red Eye Jedi which was another 20 minute EP. I’d love to do a vinyl release that’s a split 12 inch of a 20 minute EP from one artist on one side, and a 20 minute EP from another artist on another side. That would be a cool thing to do, like a split record. You would buy it because you knew Jarv Dee, but maybe didn’t know the person on the B side. That’s part of this record. I wanted the idea where you look at the liner notes and go, “I’ve heard of DoNormaal, I’ve heard of Dave B, I’m gonna buy this but I don’t know who any of these other people are”. That list is different for everybody but I wanted to find a way to introduce some of these artists to one another and introduce fans to one another. I would love to do a live soundboard recording of someone playing, like, Capitol Hill Block Party, in the same way you have Nina Simone’s Live At The Montrose Jazz Festival 1968, that would be an amazing thing. I’m looking for opportunities of things you don’t really see in the market. People say to me “you never see a vinyl compilation of local Seattle Hip Hop”, so it gets attention because it’s something no one else has really done. A lot of these artists are doing amazing work so if there’s a way I can help them get noticed or get some airplay, I would love to.


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