When the world firmly shut down last March, the idea for many of us was to use our time productively. Reading books. Finishing projects. Taking up new hobbies. Exercising regularly. But as the crushing realities of being home all the time and watching helplessly as the virus continued its spread, our sheltering at home became abandoned sourdough starts and comfort food TV binges.
The multidisciplinary hip-hop artist known as Old Grape God had the pandemic experience we all wanted to have. Since May of 2020, he has released six full-length albums–with a seventh, Da Fence Less, out soon. He recently set up a new home recording studio, complete with a bright purple rug sitting underneath a keyboard rig. New paintings litter the comfortably cluttered living room of his Sunnyside neighborhood home, including a colorful abstract inspired by a dream of nearby Mount Tabor in flames. The first time I stopped by, he didn’t hear the doorbell–he was in the basement, embroidering a t-shirt for me.
“I recorded two tracks this morning,” he says, with a laugh, when I ask about his productivity. “I was running embroidery and making beats while the machines were running, turning it up louder and louder. Then the machine stops running and I’m like, ‘Fuck, I’m deaf!’”
Even as he speaks, Old Grape God doesn’t seem to stay still. Sitting on his back deck, protected from the elements by a canvas canopy tent and protected from his guest by a table, his hands and body are constantly in motion. Throughout our conversation, he fidgeted with his notebooks and the overflowing ashtrays in front of him, or took hits off his vaporizer or a small joint.
The volumes of music Old Grape God has released to date (Da Fence Less will be his 33rd album) bristle with a similar restlessness and the pops of color that mark his wardrobe and visual art. His first EP, 2013’s Time Travel, matched his laconic delivery and puzzle box lyrics with restive synthetic beats. “An eye for an eye might leave you toothless,” he raps on “Survival.” “Inebriated reality, the environment remains proofless.” The series of mixtapes he released in 2019 slow dripped with psych-soul influences, often sounding like a warped copy of a classic Funkadelic album slowed down to 16 RPM.
His most recent full-length 4th Wall Broke Me feels like a pure response to the long hours of being cooped up indoors. The music feels loose and tipsy while Old Grape God feeds his frustration and confusion at the pandemic era into rhymes about minor online grievances or the stuff that falls into his eye line while he’s recording.
“‘Shit Like This’ was a freestyle repetitive thing about an Instagram post that I thought was fucking lame,” he says. “I was like, ‘Fuck you, you’re bored. Stop putting bored energy into the world!’ I just went off on that. By the end of the album, I’m singing some disco track about a box of Cabernet on my desk.”
Old Grape God is self-aware enough to know how ridiculous that all sounds—and to know that not every piece of music or painting he has made over the last decade is a masterpiece. The point isn’t perfection. It’s to keep creating, no matter what. Or as he puts it, “It’s long-term shit. I care a lot about what the fuck I do, but I don’t think it’s more important than anything else. Let the shit just exist and the people that want to interact with it will.”
A lifelong Portlander, Old Grape God grew up among family members with artistic streaks they kept as a side hustle. His grandfather was a lawyer for most of his life, but when he retired he leaned into creative pursuits–like starting the apparel company Dirt Bros. with some of his fishing buddies, and tinkering with a book called Who The Hell Signed Me Up For The Class?: If You’re Looking For God’s Footprint, Check My Ass.
Old Grape God also points to his uncle who, at age 19, set off to Nashville in hopes of making it as a songwriter but was killed in a car accident. “I’ve always felt like I wanted to finish what he was pursuing and what my grandpa was pursuing,” he says. “Like I was trying to inherit any dreams that they could have had. Not as a burden but more than they didn’t get to see the full fruition of their lives so I gotta go hard all the time.”
He also insists that he’s tapping into a vein of creativity that exists in some nebulous realm between our world and another. It’s a sense informed by his mother’s work as both a matchmaker and a psychic medium. “She catered that to work with relationships,” he says, “because she’s like, ‘If the angels are talking to me, I might as well use it in a more conducive way than just trying to connect you to lost relatives or whatever.’”
Old Grape God feels those same spirits giving him a headstart on his art. The reason he called his first EP (and subsequent mixtape series) Time Travel was because he would show up to his early recording sessions with his verses already written—before hearing anything his frequent collaborator, producer Skelli Skell, had done. “I’d always be like, ‘I heard the beat before you made it,’” he says.
Those journeys through time and space have helped generate a lot of attention for this young artist. In 2017, he landed in Willamette Week’s annual Best New Band poll behind superstar rapper Aminé and folk-pop sensation Haley Henderiickx. Two years later, his work was featured on a mixtape put together by chillwave artist Toro Y Moi. Old Grape God’s fan base may have been slow to arrive, but the folks that are coming around are connecting with it on a deep level.
“I’m constantly having more people come along and find my shit,” he says. “I’m getting genuine fans that are actually into it. And that’s so much tighter than empty shit from fake fucking people.”
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