There’s been a recent resurgence in west coast hip-hop, but even with the new wave, a pretty glaring geographical hole remains: Portland, Oregon. Until last year, the superstar-making apparatus of the world kept their attention fixed on what was happening in LA and the Bay Area, and fixed patiently any talent from Seattle that might be drafting off of Macklemore’s Grammy-winning success. Through their lens, Portland, the city that geographically and culturally lays between those two extremes, didn’t exist.
The focus shifted a bit in 2016 when Aminé dropped his single “Caroline,” a track that landed at #11 on the Billboard pop charts and whose video has racked up an astonishing 161 million plays on Youtube. It’s also the track that brought the young rapper to The Tonight Show last November, and he didn’t go there alone. Paying the ultimate respect to his hometown scene, Aminé brought with him two other rising stars to be backup vocalists: R&B singer Blossom and a fellow rapper who performs as The Last Artful, Dodgr.
Sitting in a bustling cafe one misty morning on Portland’s uber-hip Mississippi Ave., Dodgr (née Alana Chenevert) shakes her head, still in disbelief that just six months ago, she was within a stone’s throw of Jimmy Fallon and The Roots.
“That Tonight Show look?” she says. “Shout out to [Aminé] for hitting me up on FaceTime and being, like, ‘Dodg, I want you to come out and perform with me. He didn’t have to do that. That happened so abruptly that the rush after it has been intense”
That’s not hyperbole. In the months after she made her network television debut, Dodgr was interviewed and freestyled on SiriusXM’s Sway In The Morning, landed a new management deal, and was recently invited to write some material for a hugely popular R&B artist whose name she won’t say on the record.
In February of she released Bone Music, her first full-length album. Co-credited to producer Neill Von Tally, the record is a minimalist spectacle with barely-there beats that feel like they’re about to be overtaken by the scratchy, gloomy atmospherics and bass drones. Inspired by dystopian science fiction and the grinding drudgery, and small delights, of modern life, the record explores the variations available in its title as Dodgr raps and sings about working oneself to exhaustion on the job or between the sheets.
Dodgr’s distinctive voice manages to consistently cut through the sonic tapestry. Her vocals are nasally, raspy yet undeniably melodic a la Macy Gray or Andre 3000. It’s a new move for her, too, as her previous efforts like 2013’s <199NVRLAND finds her working in a much more direct, natural, yet indistinctive fashion.
“It’s something that came out early but I’ve just honed it,” she says. “I would spend hours and hours when I was growing up trying to hit every note like Lauryn Hill or making sure I could every single note of Usher’s “Climax” and I could sound like a normal singer. But I knew I wanted to take Bone Music to a different level. I didn’t want my voice to sound like anyone else.”
Her desire to stand out from the fray isn’t a difficult thing to do in Portland. That’s part of the reason why she moved here in the first place. Born and raised in the heart of Los Angeles, close enough to the ‘92 riots to see the chaos from her front window as a child, Dodgr would have surely been just one voice in an overcrowded field of up-and-comers had she stayed. Instead, after college in 2013, she followed some friends further up the west coast.
What she found in Portland was a hip-hop scene that had spent the last three decades slowly simmering but never boiling over, apart from a few outliers that caught some international attention — The U-Krew and Lifesavas to name a few. Much of that had to do with the city’s long-standing contentious relationship with the music. It’s an issue that came to a head in 2014 when the police shut down a performance featuring rising star Illmaculate citing overcrowding issue, but what many view as a blatant attempt to shut down minority voices.
For all the olive branches that Portland’s government officials have handed out in the years since, including starting an annual “Hip-Hop Day” which featured live performances by Mic Capes and Vinnie Dewayne, and in spite of the many monthly hip-hop showcases that have popped up in venues around the city, there’s still an underlying tension.
“Portland was hard to adjust to,” says Dodgr. “I knew I would be surrounded by likeminded people pursuing their dreams, but I didn’t realize how backwards it was socially. In LA, everyone hates each other so there’s no real racism and real prejudice. Here, people like to be passive in their hatred of other people. They like to dust it under the rug and pretend it’s not there.”
Beyond wanting to do for someone else what Aminé did for her, and reach an appreciable level of commercial success to pull other local talent up with her, Dodgr sees a much greater role for herself within the city. Putting her sexuality and gender up front in her music and in her day-to-day interactions, she says she’s looking to help bring a long overdue shift in perspective for the people of Portland and beyond.
“I can’t only speak from my point of view because I represent so many people,” she says. “It’s harder to be a woman in America. But to be a black, queer woman in America is quite a trip, but I’m on it. Best trip of my life.”