His talent caught the eye and ears of a kindred spirit, Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces and Digable Planets, who clearly saw much of himself in the young upstart. Indeed, Porter Ray possesses a similarly skewed vision of hip-hop upheld by his far more experienced mentor. But Ray is wise beyond his years, exhibiting a firm sense of self which translates effortlessly in the recording studio. Butler, also an A&R at Sub Pop Records, brought the young rapper onboard at the label in 2015. Ray’s Sub Pop release, 2017’s Watercolor (see PopMatters’ review here) reveals a young man whose induction into hip-hop culture came by way of his hard-won living that saw him through family financial struggles and the death of both his brother and father.
Indeed, Watercolor is rife with anxieties and longings; Ray’s moody intonations give his reedy timbre emotional weight as he dispenses a solemn narrative on poverty, dreams, and the crimes such dreams sometimes beget. Rather than take the hard, no-nonsense approach favoured by his braggadocios-leaning contemporaries, the rapper offers an arrantly lush selection of songs which seduce with wanton charm. His hip-hop aims at the mind as much as it does the gut, and Ray pumps his grooves with atmospheres full of scarlet smoke and ghostly elegies. Soundwise, Watercolor finds an intermediate point between the hip-hop aggression of Das EFX and the thick atmospheric washes of Portishead, bridging the two extreme ends of a spectrum seamlessly. Upon its 2017 release, listeners marvelled at the delicate and precarious balance maintained, almost magically, by the rapper’s deft approach at parlaying all of his disparate influences into a solidly constructed sonic package.
Ray’s latest, the satisfyingly ambitious Eye of the Beholder, continues in the tradition of his eclectic sounds. Taking cues from electronic provocateur Four Tet (whose collaborative duties include works by Neneh Cherry and Thom Yorke), Ray offers a wider gamut of hip-hop styles, including the cool tribal shudders of the title-track and the drum-scatting “The Diamond That Cuts Thru Illusion”. The album continues to blossom into all sorts of creative vistas; the watery rhythms of “Mask of Control” keep measure with the compact grooves of “Sapphire (Gleam Eyes)”, while the heavy and throbbing “Prism Within” pulses with the riffs of a metal pipe. The rapper also relays a far deeper and more cultured reading of his lyrics, his voice already aged in just a few short years through wisdom and experience; full of esoteric musings, Ray touches upon a world that hovers just beyond the lyrical fodders of our current pop culture.
Boasting an even harder swing than his previous outing, Eye of the Beholder is sure to win favour with serious hip-hop heads, though the album never skimps on what made Ray a name with audiences in the first place: his all pervasive mood of the blue devils. The airs of sullen funk shroud the grooves with such presentiment that the album, at times, feels like a film score to an espionage thriller. Switching gears from the personal to the political, he references such touchy topics as the raging wars in the Middle East, corporate greed and the unending violence that plagues urban environments.
Overall, the album goes down luxuriously enough. But it isn’t exactly easy-listening; restless ghosts haunt the perimeters, possibly those of Ray’s brother and father, informing the edges of his at once urgent and primordial dreams. And here, in the eye of one vagarious beholder, do we learn of such cauterizing beauty.
You once told a magazine that you’d like the listener to experience Watercolor from start to finish. In an era of social media, where most artists break with a single or a one-off recording, the album format is often considered antiquated. How do you think your work benefits from the old-school method of recording an entire album’s worth of material, instead of the far more popular digital EP?
I grew up listening to albums in their entirety, and I still get excited when a new artist releases a full length LP. I like to be engulfed in that artist’s world for awhile and a full length album is like reading a book or watching a movie. I want my artistry to feel the same. I want to give the listener a real chance to lose themselves in the music.
However, in all honesty, I don’t think this method of releasing music has been beneficial to my career currently, and my latest project is a digital release, but I’m competing with ghosts. The greatest artists of all time (in any genre) were releasing full length LPs, sometimes double LPs. I want to be remembered with them and I believe this process will create more longevity for myself and my art.
In hip-hop, I notice that many artists emphasize the bass in their music. I find Watercolor really works with extremes, where the most centered element, the bass, has been removed for the most part. So what we get are low, heavy beats and very light, airy atmospheric melodies that feel like smoke – elements that lie on either end of the spectrum. Please tell us about this method of recording your music.
This isn’t something that was done on purpose necessarily, and I believe that it’s negatively affected my live performance. It’s hard to get people to move without the bass. However, I’m big on lyrics and I wasn’t creating music to dance to. I wanted to tell a story and have the listener zone out to that story. I think as a result we created a sound out of that but also, that’s how Seattle and the PNW [Pacific Northwest] feel to me sonically.
I can see that there was a very distinct look and visual for the album artwork (both the album cover and artwork inside). How much are you involved in the visuals for your music?
I’m one-hundred precent involved in every aspect surrounding my music. I asked my friend Jay Scroggins to shoot the photography for the album cover and asked my friend Mike Wagner to create the artwork for the vinyl sleeves. The images on the vinyl sleeves are of my late father Scott Patrick and little brother Aaron John, who passed away, respectively, in ’05 and ’09. I wanted to commemorate and immortalize them through my music and the artwork. I also hope that it adds to the listener’s experience.
Please tell us about meeting Ishmael Butler from Digable Planets and Shabazz Palaces, and how he helped you out in bringing your work to wider attention.
Ishmael and I are from the same neighborhood in Seattle. We’re both from the Central District. I grew up seeing him around all the time, but was formally introduced to him through our friend Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes. Originally I was working in a sneaker boutique called Laced Up. I wanted to use an image of Digable Planets for a silkscreen design and approached Ish about it. The boutique ended up being transformed into an art gallery named Punctuation and from there we began to spend much more time around each other. Ishmael is the one who signed me to Sub Pop and helped me launch my career. Years before that he helped me rehearse for my very first show. Years later he would take me on my first national tour, opening for Shabazz around the country. Just knowing Ish has brought my music wider attention, but he’s also given me ample opportunity to display my talent. I’m eternally grateful to him.
Do you have any literary influences that have helped to shape your songwriting?
Peter Constantine’s translations of Machiavelli’s writings have been influential for me, as well as Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Molefi Kete Asante’s writings on Egyptian philosophy, Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell and many more, such as Langston Hughes, Alex Haley, Zora Neale Hurston, Shakespeare…
I notice on Eye of the Beholder that you’ve ventured a little outside of hip-hop; there are a number of styles and genres here, more varied than on Watercolor. I hear some dancehall reggae as well as abstract jazz riffs (along the lines of Four Tet) and a lot of British downtempo, seemingly inspired by bands like Massive Attack. This time, unlike Watercolor, there is much emphasis on the bass, which is very heavy here. Please tell us about the styles on this project and what influences/inspirations went into the songwriting.
With Eye of the Beholder I was trying to create music that people could move to and dance to a little more, but I didn’t want it to sound electronic. After going on tour with Shabazz Palaces and watching all of these audiences in different cities dance to the music and become entranced by the rhythms, I came back and began focusing on making music that would help add depth to my live performances.
I was listening to Fela Kuti and more Afrobeat after that and began to try and focus more on hooks and choruses with bridges and melodies, while still being lyrical. I’ve been influenced by Ishmael most of my life, but I was definitely more enlightened after being on tour.
Also, having a chance to step outside of the country a little bit and visit places like Montreal and Toronto helped influence my world view on music and how people react to the sounds. I wanted to take these different sounds and start using them to form my new version of hip-hop. But there are still songs like “MulticolourSexloveFrequency”, which was influenced by Slum Village.
There’s also a little more discussion about politics here, particularly on “The Diamond That Cuts Thru Illusion”, “The Mountain and the Moon” and “Mask of Control” — a shift from the personal to the political. Please tell us about some of the themes you are exploring on this project.
This project is more about inward self-exploration and how to use that research to be able to honestly analyze myself and the environment around me. As I’ve gotten older, it feels immature at times to reminisce about my own personal traumas or visions of grandeur. With Eye of the Beholder, I wanted to use my voice to positively affect people and speak more on what I see happening around me on a broader scale in our current environment. I’m growing as a person and as an artist and I wanted to express some of that growth with this body of work.