The monthly hip-hop showcase The Thesis has, for the past seven years, been one of the best proving grounds for Portland’s rap community. Booked, in part, by local scribe and activist Mac Smiff and DJ Verbz, the regular event at Kelly’s Olympian has remained open to artists usually marginalized in this genre by welcoming in LGBTQIA and female voices on a regular basis, as well as regularly providing a platform for new talent.
Smiff, Verbz, and their team aren’t messing around as they kick off the new year. The lineup for the January edition of The Thesis is packed, with a high profile headliner in Prince Hyph, a rapper who tempers his reedy tone with a sinuous flow and swaggering rhyme, and promised appearances by established local sovereigns Mic Capes and Vinnie Dewayne.
But this eclectic bill is rounded out by some fresh faces worth arriving early for.
The rapper known as THE DOE FLOW got a bit of a late start in his career, cutting his first tracks about four years ago — well after reaching adulthood and starting a family. But it didn’t take him long to establish an aesthetic and voice born from absorbing multiple decades of hip-hop history. Early cuts like “Solo Dolo” and “Get It Right” are built from the same framework as Drake and Travis Scott as DOE slips between a pugnacious patter and melodic vocalizing.
His latest HOMMIE HOMM is his graduate dissertation, proving the depth of his knowledge and the growth of his writing. The tracks are all built from classic beats like Pete Rock’s liquidy groove from Nas’ “The World Is Yours” and the slinky snap of Roddy Ricch’s “The Box,” but topped with DOE’s bucking rhymes and mischievous singing. And true to the mixtape’s title and philosophy—”It’s not stealing, it’s paying homage”—DOE drops references throughout to hip-hop’s past, nodding confidently at the forefathers of the genre.
“I said I wanted to make some old school stuff so people can really go through the history,” DOE said recently. “But I didn’t want to be super heavy with it so I picked a lot of new school beats. Like ‘The Box.’ As soon as that drops, everybody knows what that is.”
DOE credits much of his creative development to the experience of bouncing between Portland and Sacramento, picking up on the regional styles and connecting with rhymers, producers, and music lovers in each city. He fooled around with rapping among his friends and family members, and enjoyed messing with language in his high school English classes, but it took a beloved cousin to get DOE to consider making his own music.
“He was like, ‘Okay, enough of this house rhyming, we’re gonna put this on a record,’” DOE remembers. “After I started making my first couple of songs, I was like, ‘You know what? This could be a thing.’”
Since then, DOE has been slowly building a fanbase in Portland, through his fiery live performances and racking up streams online. The attention is helping fuel his creativity—he says every night after the kids are in bed, he stays up late writing—and keeping himself ready when inspiration strikes.
“You can never have enough songs,” he says, “but I feel like I want it to be right. The right song may be something that comes to me next week and I’ll feel like, ‘This is dope. This has to go on my next project.’ So I gotta keep working.”
While DOE has some solid roots within the Portland community having grown up here, the members of The Gard3n are fresh transplants. The trio of rapper/producers — iVY, Chilifa Nem, and Neeks FM — met just a few years ago when all three were at Baylor University in Houston, Texas. iVY and Chilifa were on the track team and Neeks served as a graduate advisor for the athletes.
As they got to know each other better, the three bonded over music, comparing their tastes and sharing favorite songs and amassing an eclectic infrastructure of influences. When I caught up with iVY on the phone this week, she dropped names like soul singer Oleta Adams, fusion jazz group Spyro Gyra, and Elton John.
The music that the three have made together and individually does stay within the hip-hop and R&B milieu, but infused with the melting wax feel of psychedelia and downtempo’s LED-lit sensuality. To hear iVY tell it, it’s a mood and motion that seems to come naturally to the group.
“There’s not a lot of planning,” she says. “Our sound was based off of our initial connection with each other. Just being super cool and super laid back. The music comes in the moment. We really like to feel it and see what comes out. We know our own strengths and how well that works together. We just vibe with each other.”
The Gard3n’s easygoing approach has served them well, even as the trio relocated from Houston to Portland in 2021. It took them almost no time to find willing collaborators. Soon after all three arrived, the group signed with local imprint Never Home Music, which has shepherded the release of Strange Fruit, an EP of swimmy beats and snakey cadence, as well as their solo efforts.
“It was definitely shocking to me that everyone in the music community is super familial,” says iVY, who moved to Portland last June. “It was an amazing experience to connect with people and feel really welcomed.”
That acceptance within the Portland community is likely only to grow wider once the three hit the stage at The Thesis this week and hopefully stir up some more anticipation for what The Gard3n has planned for the rest of 2022.
“I mean, we’re only a few days into the new year,” iVY reminds me, “but a lot will be coming. We’re just trying to find more people to connect with and collaborate with and share safely in the connection of music.”
The Thesis is happening on Thursday, January 6 at Kelly’s Olympian (426 SW Washington St., Portland) at 9 pm. Tickets: $15 advance; $20 at the door.
Want to read more music news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!