Throwaway Style is a monthly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, every month on KEXP.org.
In Throwaway Style’s final installment of 2023, Martin Douglas speaks to and examines the work of Milc, the rapper born and raised in Portland. From his reputation as a playground legend on the basketball court to his breakthrough into an international network of underground rap stars, Milc has nearly achieved his dream of being a “hometow hero” for the City of Roses.
The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh is the story of an unlikely hero. Although the film is primarily a vehicle for Julius Irving, the immortal Dr. J, in a starring role as the captain of a floundering NBA ball club, the catalyst for the team's fortunes is a ballboy. He’s the one who consults an astrologer (played by Stockard Channing, most immortally known as Betty Rizzo from Grease!, but also with great roles in series like The West Wing and The Good Wife), who advises to staff a team entirely of those born under the sign of Pisces (for the uninitiated, that’s between February 19 to March 20, same astrology sign as one Kurt Cobain).
In spite of its prescient understanding of astrology, it’s not a very good movie. And that’s not even considering the benefit of hindsight; it was critically panned even when it was new. But the idea that this basketball movie curio caught the attention of Milc enough to name what might be his breakout full-length – last month's The Fish That Saved Portland – after it speaks a lot to the artist, who himself serves as a somewhat unlikely hero of Portland’s rap scene. In his own words, he’s a pot-bellied, cockeyed white boy; neither conventionally handsome nor marketable enough ("[I] look like a Bond villain, plus I'm a communist") to get a sniff at the codified and insular Pacific Northwest rap music industry. So he had the presence of mind to circumvent the scene entirely and become one of the region’s hottest talents anyway.
The born-and-bred Portland MC is neither great white hope nor the strawman for your think piece. He’s a rapper from a historically Black part of town (Northeast) that has spent most of the past two decades being whitewashed, bleached into sterility like a hospital bathroom.
On a warm August day, Milc and I were doing a “pre-interview” in KEXP's courtyard – more properly known as loitering. Milc was early for our scheduled time together (rare for any type of musician, let alone an MC who I first saw freestyling shitfaced drunk to abruptly end his set) and we were waiting for the production room to open up.
This is where you see the full range of Milc’s personality. Not that he’s not a talented enough artist to capture a spectrum of traits and emotions, because he is. But in person, there is a warmness, a gregariousness, like the dude on your street who sold weed long before selling weed was decriminalized. The Portland-via-Orcas Island producer Goldenbeets once described him to me as “an Action Bronson type,” and I can see it to a degree. Milc would do very well with a camera crew following his exploits and adventures in Copenhagen or Kingston.
We tried to pinpoint mutual acquaintances (par for the course for anyone from the PNW, where its two biggest metropolises are actually just small towns stacked on top of each other), we more or less agreed on the greats of this region’s rap scene.
As a lover of words, there is a sensory thrill in hearing somebody who’s good at rapping. A rapper who knows the power of a fairly uncomplicated rhyme structure and a well-placed punchline. An MC who is lesser concerned with high-concept narratives and more fixated on spitting fucking bars. If you’ve been reading my work for a while, you know that I can be a highfalutin, art-dork aesthete motherfucker. But remember how I said once that rapping is a sport? Sometimes there’s nothing more exciting than to see somebody with a good jump shot at work.
To really know Milc is to connect with him over a love of NBA basketball. Aside from his Goldenbeets-produced single, the mournful-sounding “SLAM Cover” (alongside Tacoma-via-Topeka MC Blake Anthony), Milc sprinkles deep-cut basketball references all over his work. We spoke fondly of the so-called “Portland Jailblazers” (a talented crew of early-2000s court stars in the making, whose biggest “crime” was their love of weed before it was legalized).
Outside, we chatted about how despite being sibling cities (each the closest thing the Pacific Northwest gets to a “major city”), Seattle and Portland are still mostly cultural mysteries to each other. At least on a widespread level. Milc and I share testimonials about how Northeast Portland used to be widely known as “the Black part of town,” at least before, as Milc describes in his own words on the song “Turbulence,” “they turned Mississippi and Alberta into Disneyland.”
On the record, Milc described his upbringing in detail. As noted, he grew up in the Northeast division of Portland, the quadrant of the city he (and I, and I’m sure plenty of others) would favorably compare to Seattle’s Central District, rife with Black community since the days of the Great Migration.
“I don’t look like it now, but I was a big basketball player back then,” Milc says. With a little chuckle, he reminisces over the “education” he received from the “after-school program” of the Northeast ball courts. You can hear it in Milc’s raps, particularly in his detailed sketches of Portland drug culture and the often flippant sense of humor that feels like a Pacific Northwest trademark.
“And then that got brutally ripped apart, honestly,” Milc says to me in the production room. “Not to be melodramatic, but when 2003 hit my neighborhood, people just started disappearing. And suddenly, not everybody was at the park anymore. My corner store literally turned into a yoga studio.”
Discussion about Portland alongside any born-and-raised or longtime Pacific Northwesterner inevitably veers toward the death rattle of gentrification. Milc and I joke about Portlandia — the vehicle for affluent white people to pat themselves on the back under the very thin veil of gently making fun of themselves — but the story of Portland is the story of modern America. The white artistic class moves into the neighborhoods their parents were forbidden to step into a generation prior (due to the segregationist spirit of zoning laws and overblown "discourse" about crime, sound familiar?) and slowly starts sapping the color and the flavor out of racially diverse (but usually predominantly Black) neighborhoods until they are crafted in the dull, pale image of milquetoast, white young professionals.
Milc — who on the smooth “For T Monz,” prides himself on being “the only white boy out here with these street ties” — emphasizes how much he loved the racial diversity of Northeast prior to the influx of hurdy-gurdy players and indie singer-songwriter dweebs from rural Oregon, Southeastern Washington, and even farther afield. He specifically notes the rich community of Ethiopian and East African immigrants. “I learned a lot about how to be around a lot of different types of people [...] I think I have a unique perspective, because I grew up where I grew up and how I grew up. I take a lot of pride in that.”
A specific time and place always seeps into Milc’s lyrics; cutting through his smooth wordplay and encyclopedic NBA references like the Willamette River cuts through his hometown. And though he acknowledges everybody gets swept up in nostalgia about where they grew up to a degree, as well as the giant impression Northeast Portland has made on him that has yet to fade away. His fixation on his childhood home also comes from the firm foundation of his personality. “I never went through a phase or nothing,” Milc says. “I’m the same person I was since I was eight.”
Before he was known as Milc, Ben Johnson grew up a rap lover in the house with two older brothers. While his eldest brother was bringing in potent strains of underground rap like Dr. Octagon, his brother Thomas was obsessed with stuff from the East Coast, particularly stalwart New York groups like Capone-N-Noreaga and Mobb Deep. When he was out on the ball courts in the neighborhood, however, young Johnson was taking in rap from a little way south: Mac Dre, E-40, Spice 1. He notes the sound of Portland rap came from Northern California’s influence on the entire coast.
“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t rapping,” Milc says when I asked about what led him to kicking verses. One of his earliest inklings that rap wasn’t just a thing faraway stars did was in the form of Cool Nutz. The Portland rap frontiersman grew up on NE Alberta (Milc refers to him as his neighbor) and the younger MC gives Nutz his proper credit for being Portland’s first big rap star, making a career in hip-hop music seem attainable for many Portland youngsters.
“I think that’s what made me to be like, ‘Oh, I could be a rapper,’” Milc says. “All I really wanted to be was a local hero type in my neighborhood. That’s who I looked up to at first, the Portland dudes from the area like Cool Nutz or Maniac Lok, maybe [guys from] the next generation like T.$poon.”
We rhapsodized over the thrill of listening to any MC who’s from where you’re from “instead of somebody you found on the internet” and the regional emphasis of hip-hop’s most important movements. “It’s so interesting,” he says. “You got to see how these people talk, how these people dress, how these people hustle.” No need for me to spell out the importance of regionalism in this Pacific Northwest column, which I have spent the last five years and hefty change making my life’s work. If you have read Throwaway Style for any amount of time, you’re well aware of how obsessed I am with the concept.
In his high school years of rapping, he would kick freestyles with viral freestyle rapper Harry Mack. I asked Milc what drew him to continue this dark art, to practice the magic of unfurling loose poetry completely off the top of your head. “First of all, I be drunk as fuck when I be performing and forget my shit all the time,” he says to me to the tone of riotous laughter. Then, he analyzes: “I just love things that are off the cuff; you know when you’re watching a jazz band and they go way left and it’s fucked-up sounding, but there’s part of it that’s also incredible, you know what I mean?”
He mentioned the excitement of the unpredictability inherent in freestyling; the very real possibility of the performer bombing in front of everybody. In addition to comparing freestyling to a jazz band and crafting an improvisational piece in real time, he also likens it to a comedian “trying to figure out the bit.”
Milc’s first taste of local celebrity was as one-half of Load B alongside Brill, which Milc describes as “a baby ILLFIGHTYOU,” alluding to the Tacoma trio’s brand of anarchic fight rap. But while IFY was tailor-made for the working class, “Keep Tacoma Feared” ethos of the City of (Sometimes Broken) Destiny, the Portland rap scene of Load B’s early twenties was too polite for shock rap duets on an album titled Escape from Snortlandia. But the argument could be made that Brill and Milc hadn’t yet found their true identity as artists. There was a contingent local to Portland that viewed Load B as local heroes in the making, but Milc attests Snortlandia “didn’t do a goddamn thing.”
Load B’s struggle to break through led to Milc falling back on his rap dreams; running the streets (in ways I’ll decline to divulge here for legal reasons), and eventually getting a job (his first with a pay stub) at a warehouse. He was happy to go back to being Ben Johnson, settling into his 9 to 5 and a long-term relationship. “But then the pandemic hit; I got laid off and I was like, ‘Fuck it. I’m finna just try to go hard on this rap shit.’”
Taking great care to not blame anyone but himself for why he didn’t make an impact with Load B, Milc says he sought to correct that when he resumed his pursuit of recognition in the rap game. He mentioned previously kowtowing to trends, which he sought to eliminate in his latter-day run. “I just stripped everything down,” Milc says regarding his approach. “I’m not very good at many things, but I feel I’m a pretty good rapper. So how do I showcase that the easiest?”
This is how the cult favorite social media freestyles came about, by just getting whoever he was with to film him kicking verses over famous rap instrumentals. Then, he began to record again; not necessarily to create buzz, but to shake off the rust and perfect his proverbial jump shot. Then, in 2021, he linked up with Los Angeles-via-Eugene producer Calvin Valentine on the collaborative LP Tiger Milc, which, according to Milc, “was the first time people actually listened to me that wasn’t [just] 30 of the homies.”
You can hear the difference in Milc’s work with Valentine; the focused approach, the honing in on his natural personality, Milc staying true to his instincts. It’s the impact a good producer can have on a good rapper; that extra oomph a rapper gets from hearing the beat that makes their ears perk up. Songs like “Astro’s Dugout” and “Springsteen” sound particularly inspired, like a rapper finding a new gear in real time. Tiger Milc was the first mark of a style Milc would later explore on his collaboration with Seattle’s own Andy Savoie, titled Windbreaker; smooth samples that still sound a little off-kilter, a sound that evokes a rained-out house party, the people standing on the lawn.
But the output of Milc changed substantially, as well as his fortunes in the independent rap world when he hooked up with Televangel, one-half of erstwhile Bay Area psychedelic rap stalwarts Blue Sky Black Death and the producer of some of AJ Suede’s most acclaimed work.
To hear Milc tell it, his career breakthrough came from Televangel’s wife, who suggested to her spouse that the two should work together after Milc tore down the house in an opening spot for Armand Hammer in Spring 2022. They met at the merch table, mutual followers on Twitter. “And I was a Blue Sky Black Death fan,” notes Milc of Televangel, who moved to Portland from Oakland in the late-2010s. “Particularly the Nacho [Picasso] era. Exalted is up there [as far as] my favorite Northwest rap album.”
Much like his work with Nacho — truly one of the generational talents and enormous presences in the scene before relocating to Los Angeles — Televangel has a way of bringing out the best of Milc. Their 2022 opus Neutral Milc Motel was the entry point for most into the world of the man also known as Leché.
“It was the first time I felt like I hit the bullseye,” Milc says of the rainy sprawl of their full-length from last year. “[Neutral Milc Motel] showed my sense of humor, all my things, the right way. I think [Televangel is] able to make so many great albums at a high clip because he’s just so good at figuring out how to work the beat around whatever artist he’s working with. None of his albums sound the same to me.”
“Neutral Milc Motel was big,” Milc says before he couldn’t help but make a self-deprecating wisecrack. “I might not be a local rapper anymore. I might have moved up to C-League Underground.”
“I think the thing with me is, if I can sit in a room with you and you understand me more, instead of just over the internet, you’re gonna become a lot more invested in me and my success. Because you feel sorry for me or something? I don’t know what it is, but I just feel like Televangel wants me to win a little bit.”
By virtue of working with Televangel — a respected figure in what Milc calls “this new, weird underground scene that I don’t quite understand ‘cause I was just thrust into it six months ago” — Milc has been part of a network, full of separate crews and affiliations and personalities, of underground rappers cultivating a nationwide community of artists and fans. One that puts him within two degrees of separation from underground kings like Armand Hammer, Open Mike Eagle, and R.A.P. Ferriera.
This manifested itself in the unreal remix album Neutral Milc Motel: Extended Stay. Milc says Televangel made the asks for the remixes, reaching out to names like Fines Double (“Long Way”), Small Professor (“Red Scare”), Blockhead (“Nancy Reagan”), Messiah Muzik (“Milc the Shocker”), and Child Actor (with his phenomenal rendering of “Turbulence”).
“There is certainly a likemindedness or something going on,” Milc says of the current landscape of independent rap music. “A bunch of cats all around the States; fools are connecting dots and working with these people who are working with these people.”
Televangel helms the boards again for The Fish that Saved Portland, flirting with Cocaine 80s South Beach (“Orange Sky,” “Plus Sized Model,” “Drugstore Cowboy”), Blue Chips (Action Bronson’s famed mixtape with Party Supplies, not the considerably better acclaimed basketball film than The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh) on “The Whole 30,” the lurching, doomy, nighttime Pacific Northwest (“Baby Bash,” “Mankind”) and the triumph of closer “Glory” (where Milc calls himself “Diddy with the remix”) and Cappadonna (featuring an astronomical verse from Portland’s own Old Grape God, complete with the colorful imagery of a bunch of white dudes who dress like Dilbert going to rap shows).
The confidence of entering a new realm of rap notoriety is apparent in Milc’s sauntering delivery; the way he fires off a punchline at the perfect moment with a smirk, like Stephen Curry at the top of the key for three.
And those punchlines — centerpieces of his vivid renderings of Portland streets, Inside the NBA ephemera, and colorful gestures to his physical appearance to the point where they’re often repurposed as song titles — leads to songs like “Baby Bash” (as in, Milc’s plug looks like the longhaired, babyfaced, Mexican American one-hit wonder) and shoutouts to Mike Skinner (aka The Streets) in “Original Pirate Material” (his critically acclaimed debut album).
“It’s definitely part of my YouTube holes, watching old college games, hearing Dick Vitale when he could still breathe properly.”
Those references to the NBA aren’t fleeting, nor are they purely nostalgic; Milc’s lifelong love and studiousness of NBA and college basketball is as sharp and meticulous as my love for professional wrestling. It flavors his music in a very specific way, as specifically as it colors his life.
“I was a pretty nasty little basketball player,” Milc says with a laugh, almost dazzled by how good he was. Much has been made of the fact that young Ben Johnson was, in fact, so nasty, that he made several And1 Mixtapes, a series highlighting the best of American streetball, which aired for a stint on ESPN. “Portland’s just got a ton of parks where you can hoop at, and it was a big part of growing up for me.”
As he comes off his first Independent Rap All-Star season, Milc is looking forward to continuing his path as one of the hometown heroes of Portland. He says, “I’ve really been taking the stairs. It’s been a very slow burn for me. But I like that I can see it in front of me. I really hope to just keep slowly building up towards bigger and better stuff. More shows. Fingers crossed, I think I’m about to go on tour for the first time next year.”
To sum it all up, Milc ends the interview with these words to leave me with: “I’m just your regular, run-in-the-mill, dusty, shit-talking-ass white boy from Northeast Portland. I’ve just gotta keep doing what I’ve been doing, and the chips will fall in the right place.”
It’s getting increasingly difficult to even give Portland rap a passing mention without referencing Old Grape God. He put in his bid for Verse of the Year on Milc’s “Cappadonna” (in addition to working pretty regularly with one of PNW rap’s hidden gems, Something Something Brax). And according to Bandcamp, the impeccably titled Cabernet Sayer is his 35th project. There’s a free, improvisatory element to Grape’s word-drunk verses; they frequently cross the line into rambling territory, but in a way that makes it incredibly difficult to tune out. His sonorous baritone carries a conversational lilt – like you’re talking to an articulate friend who absentmindedly takes too long to get to the point (*narrator points to self*). There’s a compulsion to listen to every word he’s saying, especially because you don’t want to miss a hysterically glib remark or a bonmot of searing insight. Musically, no corner or era of music is safe from getting chopped or mined for inspiration. Daisy Age approximations (“BUZZED RICKSON”), slow jams (closer “SEE MY BREATH”), and psych retrofitted into boom bap (“RIPE”) are all up for grabs as backdrops for the stoned musings of this truly inimitable narrator.
It feels like using riot grrrl as a musical reference has run its course as we prepare to lunge headfirst into 2024, but Whisper Hiss uses that inspiration to move off the beaten path a bit. Not to say they’re a riot grrrl-psych-powerviolence band or anything of the convoluted sort, but the songs on Shake Me Awake feel like if Excuse 17 (that’s Carrie Brownstein’s pre-Sleater-Kinney band, for those of you who only know riot grrrl as a “vibe”) went the new wave route. Vocalist/keyboardist Rhiannon Flowers’s lyrics occasionally use faraway locales and dystopian/apocalyptic imagery to dive deep into the shadows of memories — and other times leave the bummer memories on the page (and floating through the air) completely unvarnished. Jenny Rahlf’s guitar lines are appropriately spiky, and the rhythm section of bassist Meredith Butner and drummer Mary Esquivel exhibit deft skill at propelling the music to a sprint or settling into a ballad groove. Shake Me Awake serves as one of my great surprises of 2024, hitting the side of my head like an errant pitch.
Perhaps my age has caught up with me — this being my first edition of the column since I turned 40 — but I’m not quite sure I fully understand what egg-punk is. But, apparently, Cherry Cheeks are fine purveyors of it? Courtesy of the great Total Punk Records (fellow Floridians now living in Portland), this Kyle Harms-led “quarantine-core” band do a great job of making punk music that’s left-of-center enough to capture my attention in an always-crowded field of compulsively listenable punk bands. (It helps that their style makes all the favorable comparisons to CCTV and Devo hit pretty close to the bullseye.) There’s not a sound weirder and more addictive than the synth on “Pure Power,” there’s probably not a better (maybe unintentional?) sneak-diss of capitalist-driven musicians written in 2023 than “Ad Shark.”
Even though Love in Hell’s five-song demo is the Portland punk trio’s debut release, it still happened to be a hotly anticipated project for yours truly. From Sloppy Kisses to Ex-Kids and many stops between, I’ve been following the various bands of singer/guitarist Rose Lewis for the better part of a decade now. Love in Hell is particularly inspired: Rose’s lyrics tinged with romance and regret in the face of an ever-so-steadily regenerating world, the rhythm section of bassist Erin Holcomb and drummer Sam Whitelaw (who also provides backing vocals) joining Rose for a breezy listen (made even more so because the tape clocks in at under 13 minutes). Love in Hell’s demo feels tailor-made for anyone with my particular tastes in music; a Dead Moon-esque layer of grime coats these melodically delightful twee-punk tunes, and Willis Schenk of MAXIUMUM ROCKNROLL was right on the money in pointing out the band’s “high school locker-art aesthetic.” Love in Hell is a twee band for the Gonerfest set, which is most certainly something I have a particularly insatiable appetite for.
In Part Two of our odyssey on the Tacoma rapper/producer, Martin Douglas dives into the breakup of Tacoma rap hellraisers ILLFIGHTYOU and the artistic emergence of The Fireman.
In the first installment of a special two-part Throwaway Style feature, Martin Douglas explores the Tacoma rapper's origins and the swift rise of ILLFIGHTYOU.