How Crane City Music is helping spread Seattle hip-hop around the world

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Gary Campbell knows he doesn’t look like he belongs in the hip-hop world. When the 49-year-old magazine creator started attending hip-hop shows in Seattle 10 years ago, he says, he was ‘sticking out like a sore thumb’ with his already graying beard – and for being a white middle-aged guy getting involved in a predominantly young black art form.

Now, Campbell is a VIP on the local hip-hop scene, and while he still stands out, everyone recognizes him on the shows. He is the founder of Crane City Musica vinyl record label and Seattle hip-hop advocacy organization he founded in 2017 that has helped more than a dozen local artists get their work on vinyl, earn money, and to expand their reach in other states and countries through a partnership with legendary New York hip-hop label big beats. Notable local artists Crane City Music has worked with include SassyBlack, Stas Thee Boss, AJ Suede and Gifted Gab. Some artists associated with Crane City Music, including Chong the Nomad, Da Qween and Specswizard, recently performed at the first Capitol Hill Block Party since the pandemic began.

Even though Campbell is now big on the local hip-hop scene, he says he understands that hip-hop doesn’t belong to him and he doesn’t feel comfortable enjoying it. Although Crane City is not a registered nonprofit, Campbell says he makes no profit from the project. He says he wants to use his privilege as an affluent white male to do what he can to support black artists in Seattle.

Campbell, who was born in Toronto, moved to Seattle in 2013 to work as a creative director for Amazon at age 40, having never set foot in the city. In Canada, Campbell had worked in lifestyle publications that covered food, music and the arts, so he started going to local concerts to understand the city he now lived in. He was particularly drawn to local hip-hop shows, where he found a thriving scene he hadn’t heard much about when living in other places. Campbell says he found the hip-hop culture in Seattle particularly compelling for the way it embraced women and queer artists, something not seen in other parts of the country where the genre remains. primarily a boys club. Soon, Campbell fell in love with Seattle hip-hop and wanted to help promote it.

“I was paid well when I worked at Amazon, and I wanted to share the money by investing in artists that I believed in at work,” he says.

Over time, he became a fixture on local hip-hop shows, where he made mini-videos and posted them on his personal Instagram.

“How do you create a vehicle that can put money in artists’ pockets and bring attention to their work?” Campbell wondered.

Gifted Gab, a rapper from Seattle who was born and raised in the Central District, says she met Campbell early on and befriended him “because you can tell he’s a real art and music lover.

During Campbell’s morning walks to the South Lake Union Amazon offices, he began to delve deeper into Seattle hip-hop by listening to new albums almost daily and then writing short reviews about them on his Instagram account during lunch and coffee breaks. He wrote about 100 reviews his first year.

But Crane City Music wasn’t founded until the release of its first vinyl album, “Solar Power: New Sounds in Seattle Hip-Hop Compilation.” Campbell says the project was originally meant to be a creative response to Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, but morphed into a celebration of all things great Seattle hip-hop. It was also meant to be a one-off project, and vinyl wasn’t necessarily going to be the focus of Campbell’s work. But the community loved the project and the artists loved doing their work on vinyl, so he decided to do it again, providing $25,000 of his own money as seed money for the Crane City business.

Local artists Campbell works with self-producing their music, so all it does is get permission from the artists to put their music on vinyl, leaving ownership of the music in the hands of the artists, unlike to a traditional record label that could buy the rights to artists’ music for profit in the future. He then works with a sound engineer to optimize the digital music for a vinyl format.

Crane City’s main model for supporting artists has been to help turn local rap albums – usually those that have already been released digitally and achieved some degree of local critical acclaim – into vinyl records. Campbell says there’s normally around $10,000 in upfront costs (for album art, audio engineering, etc.) to make a vinyl album, a cost prohibitive for many local hip-hop artists. Crane City Music has released 12 vinyl albums so far, normally printing 500 or 1,000 copies per album, for a total of around 8,000 records. For each release, Crane City keeps enough records to sell and recoup whatever was spent to produce the record, and the artist keeps the rest of the records to sell online or at shows. So in the event that 1,000 records are pressed, the initial costs were $10,000, and the records are sold for $25 each, the artist would earn $15,000.

Through a partnership with Fat Beats, Campbell also distributes records to stores around the world, which Gifted Gab says has expanded her audience in places like Asia and Africa, where she has seen growth in the number of Spotify listeners.

The vinyl format has has experienced a resurgence in recent years and is especially popular among obsessive music listeners who are often fans of local artists. AJ Suede, a Harlem-born rapper who moved to Seattle five years ago and released a split vinyl LP with Seattle rapper Specswizard in 2020, says putting his music on vinyl was a long-term career goal.

“In the rap pocket I’m in, where vinyl and physical music reign supreme, it’s a goal for a lot of artists to immortalize their music on vinyl,” he says.

Crane City Music was not immune to the pandemic. Beyond pausing live hip-hop broadcasts, this has exacerbated already long wait times for vinyl, as demand grew while supply chain issues caused production issues. But recently, Campbell partnered with Fat Beats again to launch The Northwest Vinyl Accelerator, which uses a Kickstarter-like crowdfunding model to fund vinyl projects and accelerate production, using Fat Beats’ industry connections. Crane City’s first project through The Northwest Vinyl Accelerator is “Avada Kedavra Deluxe”, an AJ Suede album slated for release by the end of 2022.

Campbell, who left Amazon in 2018 and now devotes his time to Crane City Music while doing freelance design gigs to pay his bills, is also writing a history book about the first decade of North West rap, from 1983 to 1993, to commemorate this period in history. And in 2020, he is making a movie called “Newcomer” (available to monitor free on Youtube) composed of excerpts from rap shows in the North West, an ode to work supported by Crane City Music.

Although much of the work Campbell is currently focused on looks back, he is excited about the state of Seattle hip-hop today. He says he recently went to a showcase of young hip-hop artists where he didn’t recognize any names, which makes him hopeful for the future of the genre.

“There are local hip-hop shows all the time all over the Northwest,” he says. He wants more Seattleites to start going.

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