Rapper Porter Ray Remembers a Neighborhood Crushed by Gentrification

Porter Ray performs in Colorado May 16-17.
Porter Ray performs in Colorado May 16-17. Jay Scroggins
Porter Ray, a 29-year-old rapper, is no stranger to loss. In January 2005, multiple sclerosis took his father's life, and in 2009, Ray's brother was shot and murdered. Ray grew up in Seattle's Central District and was priced out alongside many in the historically black community. In the wake of those struggles, he released his debut mixtape, BLK GLD, in 2013. 

“That was the first time that I felt like I took myself seriously as a rapper,” says Ray. “[It was something I felt confident enough about to put out there] for people to comment on and critique and see what would happen.”

This year, death continued to follow him. A week after he released his 2017 Sub Pop debut EP, Watercolor, he learned that his son's mother had been killed in a car wreck. Despite this significant setback, he's continuing on his most recent tour and will be playing two shows in Colorado this week. For Ray, music has the power to heal – himself and others.

He was born Porter Ray Sullivan in Seattle's Central District; his white father, Scott, was a lawyer, and his black mother, Debra, founded a college, the Praxis Institute for Early Childhood Education. Debra pushed Ray academically, and to this day he is an avid reader, which informs his creative work.

Ray attended private school, where he made some friends, but he made others out of school and was struck by how many of those youth struggled with harsh realities he was largely buffered from. At school, he learned life was more than "bullshit in the streets or getting caught up slinging drugs or committing robberies,” he says.

Growing up, Ray found himself in some trouble, but was encouraged by family and friends to focus his rebellious energy on creative work.

He accessed recording and sampling equipment from his peers, and before releasing BLK GLD had written upwards of 100 songs. Even so, as a youth, Ray never really saw himself pursuing the rap game with any seriousness. For him, working at the shoe store Laced Up, fashion seemed a more realistic option than music.

“It just seemed it would be easier to design T-shirts and get a clothing line going,” says Ray. “Especially in a store that I was working at, rather than standing on the corner peddling my mixtapes and going up to people and asking, 'Do you like hip-hop? Give me a try.'”

But fashion didn't satisfy his creative urges like writing stories, poetry and lyrics. So he produced BLK GLD and has been building his career as a musician ever since, releasing three mixtapes and two albums, all with hints of his real life in the lyrics.

On his latest endeavor, Watercolor, Ray does more than hint: He tells painful stories from his life. And for the first time, thanks to friends B-Roc, Kmtk, Dez Anthony and Tele Fresco, the music wasn't made up of R&B samples, but original music that nodded to the spirit of samples.

Between mentors and a particularly honest manager, Ray produced a record he hopes will immortalize the Central District of his childhood, now largely gone, a victim of Seattle's gentrification. Ray collaborated on the album with old friends and his mother, and hopes it alleviates the suffering of others dealing with despair and loss. For him, the music is a form of therapy that honors people in his life who nurtured and sustained him along his journey.

“I wanted to give everyone around me a chance to be a part of history and be on a Sub Pop album,” says Ray. “It was a cohesive effort to produce a piece that's sort of my story and all of our stories, being that we grew up together and we're all from Seattle. Also, because I felt that if all the producers are from the Northwest, we'd be able to paint the picture much more vividly and give the listener a real feeling for the city and our collective story.”

Porter Ray, with PDF and Low Hanging Fruit, 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 16, Cervantes' Other Side, $10-$12, 303-297-1772, 21+; Porter Ray with Toke, Chris Davis and Manny Moonz, 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 17, Hodi's Half Note, Fort Collins, $10-$12, 970-472-2034, 21+.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.