Don’t Sleep on Crenshaw

One of Portland’s most dynamic live hip-hop vets releases an appropriately outspoken solo debut.

For a lot of "conscious" MCs, political activism begins and ends onstage. But for Mic Crenshaw, activism was a way of life years before he picked up a microphone.A 15-year veteran of the Portland hip-hop scene, Crenshaw's originally from the south side of Chicago. As a youth he moved to Minneapolis, where he made a living teaching classes on topics like the relationship between hip-hop and social consciousness. Crenshaw also belonged to an infamous antiracist crew, the Baldies, who often came to blows with members of Minneapolis' white supremacist gangs. In at least one documented incident, Crenshaw, a tall, tattooed black dude who's built like a brick building, reportedly pummeled a Nazi skinhead. (Crenshaw was never charged with a crime, but the incident made it into a City Pages story many years after the fact.)It wasn't until he moved to Portland in 1992, though, that Crenshaw decided to eschew violence and transform his thoughts into spoken word. He began performing at poetry slams in 1993, and in the fall of 1994 started rhyming as a member of Hungry Mob, a soulful funk band that's still active today.But one project alone couldn't absorb everything Mic Crenshaw was putting out. "It took so long to get out music [working with a live band]," Crenshaw explains. "Eventually I branched out and started other projects just to satisfy my need and ability to create."Like Hungry Mob, though, those projects—Suckapunch and Line of Fire (the rechristened Cleveland Steamers)—weren't strictly hip-hop, but an eclectic amalgam of that and other influences, from funk to drum 'n' bass, rock and roll to trip-hop. In fact, Crenshaw's experimental instrumentals might be the reason he hasn't achieved the level of name recognition in Portland of, say, the Lifesavas or Cool Nutz, with whom Crenshaw helped organize the original POH-Hop festival (Portland's first local hip-hop showcase) in 1995."I definitely feel that frustration around being here just as long, or longer, than some of these people that are getting this exposure, and being just as good (or better) than some of the people that are getting exposure," he says slowly. "That's not me being an egotistical asshole, that's just me taking stock in what's going on."Now that Crenshaw's finally taken the time to record his first full-length solo album, however, that could all change. Titled Thinking Out Loud, the LP is a whole lot more composed than the stream-of-consciousness style its name implies.The aim, Crenshaw explains, was "to not only incorporate my eclectic tastes, but go after an audience that's into more traditional music styles of hip-hop." And on that level, he's succeeded. Though Crenshaw's penchant for rock and roll shows up on a couple of tracks, it's not so pronounced that it'll put off the traditionalists. The vast majority of the beats (several of which were produced by Line of Fire MC Gen.Erik) will appeal to hip-hop purists, and when Crenshaw's at his best, his thoughtful rhymes are as good as anything that's ever come out of Portland's hip-hop scene. Tracks like "What We Wanna Hear," "So Serious," and "MC Duz It" prove beyond a doubt that Crenshaw's capable of putting out intelligent bangers about everything from his previous altercations with neo-Nazis to Igor Stravinsky.Of course, Crenshaw still practices what he preaches. Several years ago, Crenshaw co-founded a nonprofit, Global Fam, that acquired hardware for a computer center in Burundi where students were once forced to learn about the modern-day machines from cardboard models. In other words, Crenshaw is everything a truly "conscious" rapper should be—but he's not ready to be relegated to a subgenre where he and other like-minded rappers languish, ignored by a mainstream controlled by, as Crenshaw puts it, "motherfuckers who want to keep people stuck on stupid.""I'm able to understand that my whole existence is political," Crenshaw explains. "Everything is political. People and policy and economics are all intrinsically tied together. To pigeonhole people that talk about these issues as if we're part of some special select group that doesn't deserve the attention that some other entertainers might me, that's bullshit. To me, that's only looking at part of the truth."

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