Oldominion producer Mr. Hill looks more like the bass player in a grunge band than a hip-hop beat maestro. He's pale, wears a North Face jacket, and sports a beanie on top of his shoulder-length brown hair. When he's done being interviewed about Oldominion's 10th-anniversary show, he informs his companions—group members Barfly, Candidt, and Onry Ozzborn—that he's going to a monster-truck rally in Tacoma. It's hard to believe at first that this dude is a talented producer who's made beats not only for Oldominion but for artists like Kool Keith, the Living Legends, and Aesop Rock.Much like the Northwest itself, the 25 artists in the Oldominion collective are quite different, both from their peers and from each other. In the past 10 years, Oldominion's defined a distinct regional sound that, Mr. Hill believes, is unlike anything else. "People hear it and say, 'Aw, this is weird. It's not East Coast rap, it's not West Coast rap...what is it?'" The answer is original Northwest rhyming done well. Artists within Oldominion are known for their gloomy instrumentals, heady rhyming cadences, and—not unlike the Northwest itself—a willingness to prioritize innovation over popularity. Their music actually has more in common with Twin Cities hip-hop than with the rest of the West Coast, which might be why a couple of Oldominion's most prominent offspring—Grayskul and Boom Bap Project—both wound up signing to Minneapolis bigwigs Rhymesayers.Part of the reason Oldominion isn't as well known as it could be, Barfly says, involves simple logistics. "We don't have the infrastructure to take care of everybody in a music sense," he explains. "Some of us do this professionally. Others are just too awesome to sell records." And it's true that some of the group's stuff is dark—like Ozzborn's newish project the Gigantics, whose debut album, Die Already, pairs eerie beats with rhymes that range from deeply personal to downright disturbing. Unfortunately, the intellectual aspect of albums like Die Already will scare off some casual hip-hop listeners, the kind who prefer traditional club jams over doomsday production. At times, Oldominon's dark reputation does a disservice to the group's MCs—especially Candidt, whose old-school approach utilizes lots of soulful vocals that could appeal to a wider audience.To understand why Oldominion enjoys so much underground regional respect, it's necessary to look at the group's origins. Born of a marriage between Portland- and Seattle-based MCs and producers, their saga began in the mid-'90s, when Ozzborn, Pale Soul, and Sleep were performing under the name Oraclez Creed, yet had difficulty breaking into Seattle's hip-hop community. They started playing regular shows in Portland instead, where they hooked up with Snafu, Destro (who went by Dialogue at the time), and Nyqwil, who were members of a group called Frontline, rechristening themselves the Six.But it was a Christian MC named Rochester A.P. who would name the crew Oldominion and help define their unusual sound. Tragically, he died in 1999 after falling off a balcony. He was weeks away from his 21st birthday. Ozzborn remembers him as a dude who would spit with whoever wanted to spit, and whose revealing personal rhymes helped him and the original Oldominion members take more risks with their lyrics. "Anything [personal] that you hid amongst your friends, things that you never would talk about, he made it to where you would," Onry says. "And eventually we started talking about that stuff in our music."Over the years, the crew's continued to expand, despite the group's original intention to keep their numbers in the single digits. People who were once Oldominion fans are now official members. Zebulon Dak, the group's foremost sound engineer and spiritual adviser, started out as an anonymous fan. He's now an integral part of the crew, and the Oldominions make a point of recording most of their albums at his studio in Portland.Candidt, on the other hand, didn't even know what Oldominion was when he first started opening for them. "I was like, 'Man, these guys are everywhere! Who the hell are they?' The first three shows [I did with them], I didn't even stay. Because there were bigger shows to see, and I was roaming, getting my superstar on, or so I thought. And then I stayed one time, and I was like...oh, hell, no. How do you have so many different rappers who are so good?"These days it's unusual for the whole crew to get onstage together. But for their 10th anniversary, they're playing two shows—one early all-ages show at Vera and one 21+ gig at Neumos later that night—featuring all the group's MCs except Karim, Coley Cole, Toni Hill, and Sleep. Watching almost two dozen of this region's freshest lyricists performing at once will be a rare spectacle—so rare that it might not come to pass in Seattle for another 10 firstname.lastname@example.org
Oldominion, Nite Owls, Seattle Suicide Riots, Dim Mak Vera Project, Warren Avenue North & Republican Street, 956-8372, www.theveraproject.org. $10. All ages. 4 p.m. Sat., Jan. 31.Oldominion, Saturday Knights, Grayskul, DJ Mr. Hill Neumos, 925 E. Pike St., 709-9442, www.neumos.com. $10. 8 p.m. Sat., Jan. 31.