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, the first Thursday of every new month on KEXP.org.
In the beginning of a new era of Throwaway Style, we are exploring the life and work of KHRIS P, the Tacoma rapper/producer who experienced early success as one-third of hotly-tipped trio ILLFIGHTYOU and is now establishing himself as one of the Pacific Northwest's top talents.
Somewhere in Tacoma’s Courthouse Square, around the corner from an actual United States Post Office, is Post Office Studios. A big room and a little room in a historic building where there are walkways and little windows near the ceiling, a measure to make sure employees weren’t tampering with mail in the 1940s. KHRIS P taps me on the shoulder while I'm having a drink at the Courthouse Square bar En Rama with a mutual friend.
On the evening of my visit, unbeknownst to me until about 90 seconds before the door opened, there were friends in the studio working. A who’s who of the South Puget Sound rap scene: Matt Baloogz (master in the art of sound), DJ QJ (the Esco to KHRIS’s Future, according to the rapper on his most recent release, TRACKBURNERS VOL. 1). GLENN, Khris’s rhyme partner in erstwhile hellraisers ILLFIGHTYOU. And Travis Thompson, fresh off a stint in the major label system and a show-stealing appearance on Reservation Dogs; poised to take the mantle for the best half-hour series on television now that Atlanta is complete.
Beats blasting from the speakers. A couple of young women I’ve never met. After saying peace to everybody, Khris and I head to the little room to chat; an interview I’ve been waiting to do for nearly a decade.
In 2013, ILLFIGHTYOU bum-rushed the music scene to breathless hype. VICE interviewed them before they had performed half a dozen shows. Their extremely irreverent (or maybe just extreme) brand of fight music had rap fans with very discerning taste calling them the next Odd Future. And with more than fair reason; abounds are buzzing synths, allusions to copious drug use, and outrageous threats (none better than GLENN rapping that he’ll suicide bomb Coachella). The launch pad for ILLFIGHTYOU’s refreshingly inappropriate subject matter is the musical template of KHRIS P; a casino buffet-sized helping of trap (“BANDAID”) and sinister, Tyler the Creator-styled boom-bap (“RENEGADE,” “MIDNIGHT,” “BATCAVE”) straight from the incubator of the Neptunes.
A jazz trumpet arpeggio here, a booming gospel sample there. A blaring backdrop for Khris, Glenn, and UGLYFRANK to provoke laughs, gasps, death threats, and trips to the blacklist.
I’ve never liked to describe myself as a nostalgic person. Maybe it’s because I’m advancing in years and much like Trudy Campbell, I see things for what they were. But I remember very fondly what it was like before the internet flattened the playing field, before everybody realized they can make cool stuff wherever they lived. There used to be a charge, a rush of excitement when you found out that somebody was making dope shit where you lived. Just the other day, I found out another producer was from the neighboring city from where I grew up. I exclaimed. It felt significant.
Before ILLFIGHTYOU, it had been a long time since people got truly excited about a group from Tacoma. And we ourselves were excited, because like I’ve written dozens of times on this website, Tacoma is a proud community.
With how closely associated Khris is to the Tacoma rap scene, it would be perfectly reasonable to assume he grew up off South Tacoma Way or East McKinley Ave. But a peek at the baseball cap he wore in the studio the night we talked offers a clue of his upbringing. It bears the logo of the St. Louis Cardinals; the city with the big arch shining across the Mississippi River is where young Khris came of age.
Khris was 12 years old when he received his first drum machine and keyboard, inspired by the visionary production duo the Neptunes.
“My uncle gave me this magazine because I used to skateboard,” Khris says. “And Pharrell [Williams] and Chad [Hugo] were in it. [My uncle] was like, ‘This is somebody I think you could be like,’ And I really got into what they were doing.”
After graduating high school, Khris moved to Tacoma and spent two years taking long bus rides to Shoreline in pursuit of his associate's degree. Initially, he was set to attend the Art Institute of Seattle. “But my mom was working for a youth program, and they had a meeting with a music group,” Khris says. “And one of the [contributors] happened to be a writer and a teacher at Shoreline [College]. And she suggested I go to Shoreline because they have all the same teachers [as the Institute].”
He’d drive to the Tacoma Dome bus station. Three hours to Shoreline. A full day of classes. Three hours back to Tacoma. Sometimes he’d pull in shifts at the Hollywood Video near Southcenter, a solid two-hour bus ride from his usual transit center. Khris laments the early mornings: “If class was at nine, I was up at five just to get ready and make it out there.”
Being as though Khris had been a fully capable beatmaker by the age of 13, he was already hard at work on his craft by the time he was attending classes at Shoreline College. It began to bear fruit as a new vanguard of hip-hop artists started cropping up in Tacoma, performing raucous sets in tiny venues, house parties, and storefronts lost to the unsympathetic sands of time.
Sometime after meeting UGLYFRANK through Frank’s older brother — rapping, skating, getting faded — the two of them saw a rapper called EvergreenOne performing at Bleach, a boutique once located on the famous Downtown Tacoma strip of Pacific Avenue. (It is now the home of a cutesy gift shop called Stockist, in case you were curious.)
“And he was putting on a fucking show,” Khris says to me in the Post Office Studios backroom where, coincidentally, an unreleased track by the rapper now known as GLENN was blasting through the thin walls. “[He was] on the ground, going crazy. He was like a punk performer and [Frank and I] thought that was really cool.”
This was a time when Tacoma — as prideful as it has ever been — was still a pretty insular community. When white people from the King County suburbs tried to insult the city by calling it “Tacompton.” Before people were getting priced out of Seattle and instead turned up their noses at the smell of sulfur from the paper mills and the tough, working class ethos of the City of Destiny. A solid half-decade before the sweep of gentrification threatened to replace the grit of Grit City with twirly mustaches and unicycles.
This was the early 2010s, when Khris and Frank were passing around CDs — “Not selling them, just passing them out to people,” according to Khris — to establish their name in the town; only a 45-minute drive from the bustling industry located in Seattle, but feeling a world away. (Everybody in Tacoma has friends who have complained about it being “too far away.”) Turns out EvergreenOne was a big fan of the self-produced, four-song CD and suggested working with Frank and Khris individually. Khris suggested a collaborative project featuring all three of them.
And thus, the bad seeds of ILLFIGHTYOU were planted.
If there’s somebody who has done literally everything there is to be done in Seattle’s hip-hop community, it’s Larry Mizell Jr. For anybody with the impression that I’m just kissing up to my boss — Larry is, after all, the Director of Editorial for KEXP — check his credentials. DJ, writer, MC, and soon-to-be-award-winning podcast host. And for the purposes of this feature, it’s crucial to note, for a spell, he was the manager of ILLFIGHTYOU.
“I knew Glenn from doing shows with my old group Cancer Rising in Tacoma, usually at Hell’s Kitchen,” Larry told me recently after an Afternoon Show set. After I noted to him that I didn’t know the venue — famous, bordering on infamous, for their metal and hardcore punk shows — hosted rap gigs. With a smirk, he replied, “I had the impression that it was kind of a rare thing.”
Around the early stage of what would eventually become ILLFIGHTYOU, Glenn pointed Larry in the direction of Khris and Frank’s video for “Casino Royale.” In the low-budget clip, Khris and Frank rap in a sparsely furnished apartment with 40oz. malt liquor bottles duct taped to their hands. Larry adds, “They both had such charisma and sounded dope. And Frank clearly had a prodigious thing going on. I was like, ‘Oh, what the hell, this guy is rapping his ass off.’”
The proverbial wheels started turning. Glenn was insistent that Larry take on the group, at that point newly christened as ILLFIGHTYOU, in a managerial capacity. The trio had played KEXP Street Sounds and, according to Larry, “We booked them in-studio and it blew the doors off. The video team was kinda mad because KEXP didn’t tape their session, so they brought their own camera, did a video in the live room of them performing [“Threats’] with me. And that went crazy.”
Larry, along with many others tapped into the Pacific Northwest music scene, felt ILLFIGHTYOU were the most exciting group, rap or otherwise, to come out of the region in a while. Something that wasn’t just “cool for Seattle” or the standard caliber of good for Tacoma or Portland, but something that was every bit as good as anything in rap at the time.
“I always loved the character of Tacoma people,” says Larry. “Coming from L.A., I immediately picked up on the vibe of people who were like, ‘Yeah, if you act stupid in this town, you might get slapped in the face.’ You might get packed out over here. So people move with respect.”
ILLFIGHTYOU, the eponymous industry party riot starter by the full tandem of Frank, Glenn, and Khris, is not for the weak of heart or the virtue signaling patrons of the overly polite music industry of today. It’s occasionally shocking, but it’s not “shock-rap.” The fight-rap descriptor they have been endlessly tagged with was rather accurate: lawless, anti-social, borderline offensive, dangerous in the way the rap I was weaned on used to be.
By and large, I feel rap shouldn’t be safe for Ballard and Madison Valley moms. True to this noble tradition, ILLFIGHTYOU should come with more than an Explicit Content warning, it should come with a bevy of trigger warnings. Fighting fans and coughing up cough syrup (imbibed recreationally). Samples that might have earned the group a cease-and-desist if the breathless hype from major press outlets resulted in something actually substantial.
“The music was there,” Larry says. “This was deep Odd Future time. So that really snotty, nihilistic skate-rap thing was kicking the doors down. And I was like, ‘These guys have their own vibe of that. This could go really crazy.’ It seemed like sky was the limit for these cats.”
“I was living with my grandma at the time,” Glenn tells me in a voice message he sent via email, coincidentally, after her 90th birthday party. “I think we all just agreed to make one song, which I think ended up being ‘’92’ [from ILLFIGHTYOU]. And so we decided to move forward with making a full project. It was the ultimate compliment that they wanted to pursue music with me.”
Out of nowhere, the regional love for ILLFIGHTYOU turned into a groundswell of buzz from national media outlets.
“I thought anything could happen at that point,” Larry says. “I’d been working with artists, I’d been working with my own groups and trying to get a bite from media, from press [to varying results]. And all of a sudden, The Fader’s hitting me back. There were some big publications interested and down and hitting me back for the first time.”
“I hated it,” Khris told me about ILLFIGHTYOU being churned through the hype machine. “I don’t think any of us did, to be honest, because we weren’t expecting that project to blow up. We weren’t ready yet. We were trying to prepare. That was our whole point of doing shows, to get ready, at least for the next year or so. And then we could be like, ‘Okay, let’s start trying to tour,’ or whatever the fuck it is.”
Khris compared the attention to being the new kid in school: “So you feel cool for maybe a month; you do a backflip and everybody’s like, ‘Oh shit, he just did a backflip, bro!’ But then the next month you do a backflip and nobody cares.”
In the wake of the explosion of interest in ILLFIGHTYOU, Tacoma’s rap scene saw exponential growth; not just in rappers but also in cultural production. In 2014, the streetwear brand eTceTera was founded, known and beloved as ETC by their passionately devoted supporters (present company included). Their storefront, now located on South 9th Street right before the I-705 on-ramp, is a hub and incubator of creativity; not only is Throwaway Style all-star Bujemane on their design team, but it has hosted dozens of performances by pretty much anybody who’s anybody in Tacoma’s hip-hop scene.
“[ILLFIGHTYOU] sparked a lot of energy in Tacoma,” Larry says. “And businesses opened up, you know what I mean? Scenes really bloomed and blossomed, [DJ] nights really took off because of the energy that ILLFIGHTYOU created, straight up.”
Meanwhile, the members of ILLFIGHTYOU kept their creative momentum going, even after the deafening hype died down to inside-voice praise. Frank put out his great Bobby Hill EP, years later GLENN released his (titled GLENNGLENNGLENN, along with some pretty visceral artwork). Before GLENN’s opening shot as a solo artist, Khris and Frank put out the excellent Hot BBQ project. At the time, Khris was living in New York (“You know what it’s like, when you just bet on yourself?”), and Frank was based in Utah.
Neither of them knew the release was catching fire in the Pacific Northwest. Khris was on a sojourn to Los Angeles and then New York to see if he could translate the success of ILLFIGHTYOU into some tangible results for his increasingly expansive production work. Armed with a Tumblr followed by the likes of luminaries such as A$AP Yams and Frank Ocean, Khris took a lot of meetings and participated in quite a few recording sessions which resulted in a placement on the HBO series Insecure (for Jorja Smith’s “Where Did I Go?”) and studio hours logged in alongside Bruno Mars.
Khris was seemingly a world away from feeling he was what he refers to as a “vending machine” for UGLYFRANK Type Beats. With a chuckle, Khris says, “I was like, ‘Damn, not even ILLFIGHTYOU?’ They were like, ‘Yo, you’re the guy making UGLYFRANK beats? Let me get a beat.”
But while he was away trying to make major industry moves, a death in the family brought Khris back home, figuratively and literally. Khris’s grandfather had passed away, landing him in St. Louis for a month and a half, and then back in Tacoma. Khris says, “I could have stayed in St. Louis, but it’s so depressing in St. Louis. It’s hella depressing. It’s great to visit for a week or a weekend, but to stay there, it’s not what you want. So that was my whole thing: ‘Yo, if I’m coming back, I’m going to come back with the same kind of energy [where] I can help push this place forward.”
Shortly after Khris returned to Tacoma, Post Office Studios opened. Locally acclaimed albums from artists such as Seaan Brooks and Perry Porter dropped with production placements from KHRIS P. Khris cultivated a new focus as an MC. And ILLFIGHTYOU would soon reconvene to record their long-awaited follow-up full-length.
In Part Two of this month's Throwaway Style, we explore KHRIS P's return to Tacoma, ILLFIGHTYOU's outstanding second LP, the group's immediate implosion thereafter, and Khris's ascent to the top of Tacoma's fertile rap scene.
Nearly a decade removed from being courted by mainstream music media, the Tacoma rap trio continues to utilize what brought them to the mosh pit. Martin Douglas explores.
Tacoma's Buje Mane doesn't consider himself a rapper, but he's finding a way to pave new territory in the genre.