Porter Ray puts history into his music.
In his mom’s basement, Porter Ray Sullivan is listening to a warm beat drifting through studio monitors. Like most nights, a small group of close friends—beatmakers, DJs, confidants—huddle in this cramped room below a house off Genesee to drink Hennessy, share joints and clown each other. They also make music—namely Sullivan’s debut album for Sub Pop.
Periodic knocks on the window signal new arrivals. Upstairs, Porter’s mother, Debra Sullivan, works on her third book, this one about nurturing the genius of black children.
By his very makeup, Sullivan—who raps as Porter Ray—is a nexus of worlds. He started his life on Capitol Hill with a white father who deeply appreciated black culture—Funkadelic and Parliament were staples—and a black mother who preferred the Beatles. When his father died from a rare form of multiple sclerosis, Sullivan and his brother, sister and mother, who works in early childhood education, moved to this house in Columbia City.
Sullivan found himself pivoting between privilege and pain. A day spent soaking up the streets of the Central District might end with a party in a Capitol Hill mansion. He maneuvered fluidly among environments, but not without resistance. His skin was dark enough to earn attention from police and hesitation from friends’ families but light enough to attract hostile questions in the CD. In between, Sullivan stitched together an identity, choosing to embrace the whole rather than partition the parts.
“When you’re in street situations, you’re hanging out, but everyone’s head is on a swivel,” he says. “You’re looking out for the police or a rival. I got to grow up knowing that there was this leisurely life that you could tap into. I didn’t have to be surrounded by concrete all the time.”
In 2009, when Sullivan was 21 years old, his younger brother Aaron was killed amid a dispute when a white shooter fired through the back window of his car. He was unarmed. Rather than reinvest his pain in the streets, Sullivan filled pages with verses, couplets and phrases. A glance at the basement floor reveals 11 composition notebooks, 80 pages each.
Sullivan writes in collage. He pulls pieces from the past and pastes them into the present. The vibes and textures of a beat evoke new words in the moment, but they also send him flipping through notebooks and scrolling through his phone on a hunt for the right diction or rhythm. Once a rhyme is used, it’s bookmarked and color-coded—a new verse might contain three or four words written in 2008. The result is a specificity of language associated with hip-hop’s master writers like Nas and Scarface. Sullivan doesn’t tell stories linearly as much as he builds them layer by layer, image by image. For his as-yet untitled Sub Pop project, due this fall, Sullivan plans to dig even deeper.
“I’m pulling rhymes that aren’t in any of those books,” he says. “I’m going back to my journals, trying to pull every little piece that I can. I’m even going through my brother’s old books to see what I can take from his shit and blend into mine.”
These remnants of the past gain further force in light of his primary subject matter, the Central District. The rapid pace of the area’s change threatens to silence its stories, an erasure Sullivan takes seriously. “I always had in mind that my story wasn’t a singular story, and that to understand my story you’d have to hear the stories of my friends and the people I grew up with,” he says.
As Sullivan spoons his young son Aaron some yogurt, he tells me to check out his vocal booth down the hall. It’s his brother’s old bedroom. Here the walls and ceiling are covered with layers of signatures and graffiti tags accumulated over years, names and stories from an entire community, ready to be told.
Photo by Ray Jay Scroggins for Articulate Flavor
Best New Music 2015
Beat Connection | Gazebos | Bruce Leroy | Sax G | Mammifer | Constant Lovers
Porter Ray | Sisters | Smokey Brights | Sick Sad World | Maiah Manser