Throwaway Style: Jake One's Homegrown Sound

Throwaway Style, Features, Local Music
Martin Douglas
Photo by Martin Douglas

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 

To kick off 2024 for the column, Martin Douglas speaks with world-renowned hip-hop producer Jake One in a career-spanning conversation that touches on his beginnings in Seattle’s rap scene, teaming up with beloved indie label Rhymesayers for a couple of full-lengths, producing surefire WWE Hall of Famer John Cena’s entrance music, and much more.

Spliced with gorgeous shots of a white Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme cutting through Downtown, Central, and South Seattle during its most picturesque moments of summer — which used to be the Pacific Northwest’s best-kept secret — Jake One mans the wheel wearing a dark lavender t-shirt and a red UNLV ball cap. As part of Serato’s “Hometown Sounds” series, the DJ gear/music software company certainly puts its best foot forward in showcasing Seattle through one of its signature producers. 

In a truly inspired choice for its content platform, Jake was asked to choose a sample to flip for a beat to showcase the company’s Sample 2.0 program, and he picked the track “Is You or Is You Ain’t” by a group called Teleclere; instantly recognizable if you’re familiar with the famed Seattle funk compilation Wheedle’s Groove. Though Tony Benton was a founding member of Teleclere, he’s perhaps better known here in Seattle for his smooth baritone pulsating through the airwaves as one of the voices for KUBE 93.3FM. (Being as though Seattle’s music establishment has notoriously hedged its bets on hip-hop, extending to this very day, this factoid is enormously significant.)

“The Tony B thing was cool,” Jake says in a production room at KEXP. “Just knowing about him back in the day and [not knowing] he had a classic record. It just shows you, everybody has their time. It might not be when you want it, but everybody gets some sort of shot.”

On the “Hometown Sounds” Seattle episode, Jake and Benton sit on stools facing each other on the stage of an empty Columbia City Theater and ride along S Alaska St. The blue sky shines while the Cutlass buckles over the train tracks of SODO and past the neighborhood’s famous neighbors, T-Mobile and Lumen Fields. Plaques adorn the walls of Jake’s studio near Madison Valley; soundboards and keyboards are arranged along any space that’s not occupied by his floor-to-ceiling vinyl shelving. 

Elsewhere, Jake and KEXP Sunday Soul host Supreme La Rock flip through the retail racks at Daybreak Records. While filing through Daybreak’s stock, Supreme tells the story of pitching Wheedle’s Groove (and its corresponding film) to Light in the Attic. Despite the beloved reissue label’s initial resistance, they went with it—which happens to be, to this day, one of the label’s top sellers. 

Jake Dutton grew up “on the edge of the Central District,” in Madison Valley. In the studio, we immediately (and predictably if you’re a regular reader of this column) jump into talk about Seattle neighborhoods. Upon noticing my interest, Jake says, “It’s interesting because I feel like the boundaries have changed and they have whole other names for our neighborhoods now that I never knew they were.” 

According to Jake, the Duttons were one of probably three white families that lived on his street when they moved to the Central in 1979. “Most of my neighbors were Black people,” says Jake. “And these are the people who watched me as a little kid when my parents worked during the day.”

When you’re a little kid, there’s this feeling that everybody else lives like your family because it’s really all you know — and all you see around your neighborhood. But there is usually a point where every modest or middle-class living where you discover there’s this entirely separate category called “rich people.” Jake illuminates: “It wasn’t until I got a little older and went by Holy Names [Academy], in that area. I was like, ‘Oh man, these guys got the big houses.’” He demarcates that economic line between the people who lived in houses and the people who lived in apartments. “Or, you know, they got the big pepperoni sticks or they got the real cans of soda,” he says with a laugh. 

“It was just a fun place,” Jake reminisces. “We were just running the streets as little kids. I don’t really see that as much now, [where] you would see a group of 5-10 kids [running around the neighborhood]. We would get on the bus and go downtown; seven, eight, nine years old.” 

Being that age between the late 1970s and the early 1990s was most certainly a different time to be a kid. Many of our parents — even without considering late Gen Xers and elder millennials had the heaviest demographic of what were called “latchkey kids” — had a longer leash on us. Our whereabouts weren’t quite as strictly monitored, cell phones were only found in the most expensive cars, and as Jake noted, the dangers of the world weren’t pushed into our faces as easily as in the 24-hour news cycle/neighborhood watchdog social media era of today.

And, let’s face it, a lot of us were plenty street-smart because we navigated that terrain without parental supervision. “And it was basically, get home before dark. That was the only rule,” Jake adds with a knowing grin. 

Being born a generation removed from the concept of helicopter parenting fully taking root, Jake notes that being outside was the vehicle that allowed him to discover the tantamount four elements of hip-hop: MCing, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti writing. Almost incredulously, he says, “We were doing this as kids.”

When Jake was around seven or eight, he was introduced to the Grandmaster Flash song “It’s Nasty (Genius of Love)” by a kid named Robert Harris, who was five years his senior — one of the neighborhood kids whose parents babysat Jake. “I still know the lyrics to that song,” Jake says.

In 1992, Jake’s parents split up. “My dad,” says Jake, “just decided he was going to move to Hawaii. He just left.” Jake moved to Mountlake Terrace, attending Mountlake Terrace High School from 1992 to 1994. “I always stayed in school in the city because I couldn’t relate to what was going on out there [in the streets]. [Mountlake Terrace] was really just [a] culture shock.”

He describes being “forced” to go to Mountlake Terrace High but eventually found a group of friends — all of which are still friends to this day. As is the case for many young people who form bonds, this circle came together and Jake was accepted into it over a significant common interest: “You know, [they were] the other guys that liked hip-hop.”

Additionally, Jake’s Mountlake Terrace friends made hip-hop music; they all rapped over beats Jake created. “They weren’t serious about being rappers or anything like that,” Jake says. “They just… it was just fun, right?” He describes having the time and space to make music as a blessing in disguise because his friends back at Garfield were getting into some trouble. And there was an element of boredom for him in Mountlake Terrace; there was nothing for Jake to do except for play sports and buy his first equipment. Jake notes, “That’s all I did was make music, you know? It was just so exciting at that point. When you start on your instrument, you can’t wait to just [play] it every day.”

What Jake experienced in his two years living in Mountlake Terrace — being enthralled with playing music and giving himself to the compulsion of toying around with it every single day — is the crucial first step toward becoming a capital-A Artist. Sure, an Artist can have delusions of grandeur and envision themselves doing what they do on the world’s stage (that’s called manifestation and there are multiple multi-million-dollar industries devoted to it), but too many would-be Artists nowadays put the cart before the horse when it comes to the business of being an Artist. To become an Artist you should always focus on first mastering the Art, and more often than not that mastery starts with a rare seed that’s planted into fertile soil. That seed is called obsession.

The thing about Jake’s “Hometown Sounds” episode is that it feels less like "sponsored content" and more like a beautifully shot journey through his early years as a producer — it’s a careful explanation of how the places where we grew up (and the people we meet in those places along the way) are essential to where we eventually end up. Would Jake have been able to make beats for Rick Ross had he not met Vitamin D? (Editor's Note: Vitamin D is also now a current KEXP DJ)​​​​​​. Would he have put out a full-length on Rhymesayers if he didn’t meet Supreme La Rock and landed his earliest productions on erstwhile Seattle label Conception Records? Maybe, but those names would likely be within one degree of separation from the relationships he cultivated in this particular timeline. 

On the way to Vitamin — who Jake cites on “Hometown Sounds” as an indispensable character in his story — Jake says, “My first real connection to the scene was H-Bomb from Sinsemilla and Tribal [Music]. We were freshmen at Garfield. We used to ride the bus together every day, the [King County Metro route number] 48. He literally moved to my street. He was from Boston.” Naturally, Jake and H bonded over rap; they traded music based on their respective coasts of origin, N.W.A. for Ultramagnetic MCs, for instance. They’d make tapes and rap together.

The year Jake moved to Mountlake Terrace, H joined the Tribal collective, which includes groups like Sinsemilla, Narcotik, and Ghetto Children — the latter being the duo that included Vitamin. Jake would come to the city from Mountlake Terrace to kick it. “And I remember [H-Bomb] playing me his first song,” Jake says. “Man, I just could not believe it. I was like, ‘This is actually good!’” 

An important aside: It can never be overstated the dread of hearing your friend tell you that they rap, because you never really know how far south their work can go in terms of quality. You never want to tell a friend of yours that they’re not great at a thing they’re excited to show you. Actually enjoying your friend’s music can be the most pleasant surprise sometimes. 

It was also through his Tribal connection that Jake met Supreme La Rock, who happened upon one of Jake’s beat tapes (back when they were actually cassette tapes) and enjoyed it so much that he offered Jake five spots on Conception Records comp Walkman Rotation. About this early career break, Jake says, “I didn’t really have crazy aspirations, like, ‘I want to get signed!’ It was just like, ‘Can I do a song that plays on KCMU?’ That was kind of the goal for us at that “That was the only way people could promote [themselves] at the time,” Jake says.

“I brought like 20 tapes. I think it was in San Diego. And my boy Kutfather — rest in peace — he was the guy with the weed. He brought some Seattle weed down there, so he was in demand [laughs]. And he was giving my beat tapes to rappers and managers. [Out of the 20 tapes I brought,] I got between five and ten calls back.” 

In turn, Jake signed with his first manager, by the (stellar) name of Walt Liquor — who, among others, managed underground great Planet Asia at the time. Jake recalls getting some beat placements and a manager as huge moments in his early career. In Jake’s words, “Seattle didn’t really have a lot going on at this point.” 

As he and Liquor cast reels into the industry, Jake started getting some bites. Mos Def bought three beats for his second solo album, The New Danger, that were never used. His first big break was De La Soul’s “Rock Co. Kane Flow,” featuring a very inspired MF DOOM verse. The beat of which is utterly unmistakable; staccato drums lead the beat to slow down in tempo and stop — with the rappers keeping up with each snare hit and piano stab. 

Much to Jake’s surprise, G-Unit started buying his beats, to the point where he enlisted the group’s manager Sha Money XL to handle his business. Jake acknowledges the odd pairing: “It’s not a perfect fit because they’re more commercial and I’m more underground. But I did it because this was getting me money, it’s popular, and I’m doing what I want to do.” Jake notes he never sat down with the express purpose of making beats for 50 Cent, it’s just that 50 was picking his beats.

And he had the good fortune of working with G-Unit in their failed experiment in signing established acts and trying to build G-Unit as an East Coast gangsta rap super-label. So Jake got to work with two of the greatest rap duos of a generation in Mobb Deep and M.O.P., along with uber-talented G-Unit originals like Lloyd Banks.

Jake also achieved an unprecedented notch under his belt, crafting a number of songs for John Cena — including his official entrance theme “The Time is Now,” replete with Lil Fame adlibs and blaring trumpets that would become a staple on WWE television for the better part of two decades. (My favorite period of that era was when fans would heartily sing “JOHN CENA SUUUUCKS” to the tune of Jake’s iconic trumpet sample. Class act that he is, Cena would smile and play along with the fans fucking with him.) As my eyes widened in the interview, Jake explained that instead of landing a sweet licensing deal (where Jake would basically be paid regularly off a song that was playing twice a week on TV for years and years and years), he was paid (“I feel like it was a personal check”) the equivalent of more than two years’ salary for many working people. 

Although Jake didn’t strike me as a wrestling fan particularly, he certainly received a firsthand lesson in the economics of the wrestling business. “I remember Cena even telling me, ‘Man, I don’t even own my name.’ It’s a vicious game.” (Another brief aside: WWE has been notoriously stingy in the realm of copyright law; wrestlers often have to submit names that WWE can attain the ownership rights of. They have in-house producers who work on salary. Wrestlers themselves are independent contractors and not employees, so they have to pay for their own health insurance. It really is a vicious game.)

Around the time of potentially being cut a personal check from Vince McMahon, Jake was brought into the fold of Rhymesayers. Jake says about signing a deal with the respected independent rap label, “I was really impressed with what they did because I looked at Minnesota like, it’s not much different from what we have here [in Seattle]. It’s definitely not a destination for rap.” 

Upon inking a deal with Rhymesayers, Jake knew he wanted to craft the beats for a compilation album. Jake reached out to artists he’d always wanted to work with, took songs for other artists’ projects that were never released, brought on artists he was working with at the time, and put on some of Seattle’s hottest rappers at the time, and that’s how White Van Music was born. 

Even if Jake’s career stopped at his 2008 debut full-length, he would have been one of the city’s rap legends. Not just for his advocacy for the talent in the town from that era (D. Black and J. Pinder) or bringing Ishmael Butler onto a Seattle rap posse cut in the thick of his Cherrywine era (and a full year before his late-career renaissance as impresario of Shabazz Palaces). But Jake was a foundational bridge between the underground and the mainstream before streaming and Bandcamp flattened the playing field. Could you imagine an album where DOOM leads into Young Buck? Where Freeway and Brother Ali share a track; where Keak da Sneak, Busta Rhymes (along with formerly-hotly-tipped, where-are-they-now episode in the making Bishop Lamont), Little Brother, Slug from Atmosphere, and aforementioned Brownsville firearm-toting demigods M.O.P. all comfortably share the same space for 70 minutes?

Though none of the album’s great rappers — nearly three dozen of them — phone it in, Jake obviously getting top billing on White Van Music telegraphs its standing as a producer’s showcase. Jake’s not a flashy beatmaker by any means; he’s from a time-honored generation of rap producers who know it’s their job to make the vocalist sound great and not the other way around. Even still, there’s a wealth of cleverness on the full-length from a musical perspective: high-pitched G-funk synths, wheezing keyboard lines, dexterous funk basslines.

A couple of years after White Van Music came another full-length with Jake providing the entirety of the production; another bridge between the mainstream and the nebulous elsewhere of the music world. Timely named after a product of the 2008 economic crisis, Jake teamed up with Philly MC Freeway for 2010’s The Stimulus Package, which found the former Roc-A-Fella star putting out his fourth album and his first for Rhymesayers. Jake concedes it was an odd pairing at first. 

“When I look back on it, we were just a little early on that,” Jake says about the impact of The Stimulus Package. “At the time, there was underground rap and there was commercial rap, and you didn’t really mix the two. We went around the world with that thing, and it was kind of weird when we were doing shows for the ride-or-die, serious [underground] fans. And they were kind of puzzled by it. Some of them liked it, but it was also kind of like, ‘Are we supposed to like this?’” 

Jake says the idea was the brainchild of Freeway’s manager Ryan Press. After their White Van Music collaborations, Freeway purchased some of Jake’s beats, and Press told them they should become Gangstarr. At one point before intrepid style-biters learned how to copy his flows, Freeway had one of the most innovative cadences in all of rap, and Jake’s beats always found intriguing pockets for Free to burrow into, perhaps none more daring than the time signature shifting “Never Gonna Change.” 

Now, in 2024, we’re facing another serious economic recession that it seems no one wants to actually acknowledge. Every industry is pushing the doomsday button in the form of mass layoffs. Trying to reduce their overhead, trying to protect the pockets of CEOs unwilling to take a pay cut for any reason. (If you are reading this 3000-plus-word article about music, I’m sure you’ve heard how this is directly affecting the world of music journalism.) And with that, another timely-named release. Jake mentions to me The Stimulus Package 2 is on the way. 

He said before getting back in the studio with Freeway, it had been a while since the last time he had worked one-on-one, in person, with an artist. He acknowledges a few readjustments he had to make as far as offering feedback and being collaborative, but “he knows I’m coming from a place of real love. I really want him to be successful, period. It doesn’t even have to be my beat. I just want him to be successful.”

As Jake One continues to move forward in his career (including a clutch shoutout/reference to golfing by Larry June on his latest album) and deepen his craft (it’s a testament to his desire to challenge himself that some of his best beats are on last year’s collaboration with Travis Thompson, Wolves & White T’s), to even sit down with him for a half an hour provides a vast history with no end in sight. Jake’s story has yet to be fully told, and he continues to rack up high-profile placements, but somebody’s gotta speak on the legacy of one of Seattle’s production giants as it stands at the present moment, right? 

A Small Handful of Recent Pacific Northwest Albums Worth Your Time

fine - don’t talk, just be hot

After two truly excellent EPs that flew under the radar of most of an entire scene not aware of their gifts, art-punk trio fine return with their long-awaited (by me) full-length release that showcases their boundless charisma and sense of humor — which should be immediately evident, given its title. The best parts of don’t talk, just be hot still reminds me of Challenge for a Civilized Society-era Unwound (like rippers “Agnostic Hostage,” “Hotshot,” and “Marlow”), “Flowers” is a daring, ambitious step forward for the band, and the rest of the album rips in a way that proves to me that most of the city doesn’t know what they’re missing.

Small Paul - Come Alive and Live Again

Straight from the Den Tapes scene of shaggy-but-excellent garage, avant-whatever, and indie rock bands (seemingly beamed in from a time before you could conceivably use “indie rock” as a pejorative term), Small Paul, the low-key supergroup of Seattle scene dwellers has ridden the goodwill from their great Strangeland EP to deliver their first LP. The Erik Blood-produced Come Live and Live Again doesn’t even try to reinvent the wheel, it’s simply a collection of very good pop-rock songs that sound awesome on Saturday night after quite a few drinks. And the production is immaculate, like we’d anticipate anything less from Erik Blood. 

Enumclaw - These are Some B-Sides

I’ll always applaud artists for trying new things, and as bold a step forward as Save the Baby was, it’s safe to say that it wasn’t representative of Enumclaw’s extremely fucking fun live show. Largely unpromoted and seemingly shrugged off as a trio of throwaways, the Chaz Bundick-produced EP actually serves as a grand example of the immediacy and humor that made most of us fall in love with the (mostly) Tacoma-based trio in the first place. There’s a sludgy pop tune named after bell hooks and live favorite “Fuck Love, I Just Bought a New Truck.” The reason Oasis touched so many hearts is because they wrote big, dumb songs that jammed, and These are Some B-Sides does a lot to put Enumclaw back on track with their motto/mantra/catchphrase “The Best Band Since Oasis.”

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