On the evening of Saturday April 29, 1989, Seattle’s upstart hip-hop label, Nastymix Records, throws an over-the-top soiree at the swank and historic Four Seasons Olympic Hotel (411 University Street).The town -- which boasts a long musical history -- had, of course, seen many a music industry party over the decades, but never anything similar as measured by size, scope, or extravagant style. The event’s purpose is to celebrate that the company’s premier artist -- and Seattle’s first hip-hop star. Rapper Anthony "Sir Mix-A-Lot" Ray (b. 1963), had recently achieved Gold Record status (500,000 units shipped) for his debut 1988 album, SWASS. Although the label and Mix would experience much more success in the years to come -- SWASS would eventually go Platinum (one million shipped) -- they chose to mark this early milestone in a very classy way: sharing the joy (and excellent food and beverages and tons of complimentary records, CDs, posters, and other swag) with his many friends, hometown fans, and a lot of the music industry people who’d helped him along his path.Mix Tape
At the dawn of hip-hop culture in the Northwest, the earliest sounds were all those imported from rap music’s place of origin, New York. By 1981, though, a few young local talents emerged and began performing at private house parties and small dances held in neighborhood community centers. The Emerald Street Boys were pioneers in Seattle and Vitamix began shaking Portland up. Those were days when no active local record label had any interest in releasing discs by hip-hop kids and the rappers were stuck issuing their own independent cassette tapes -- such as Vitamix’s Mixology.
Meanwhile, a 1981 Roosevelt High School (1399 NE 68th Street) graduate who grew up in a Central District home (19th Avenue and Yesler Way), Anthony Ray, was taking in all this new music. But he didn’t relate to all the violent lyrical imagery contained in many of the national hits emanating from New York (and now, Central Los Angeles).
Instead, he would soon apply his love for computers and technology -- and admiration for the synthesizer-driven New Wave sounds of rock artists like Kraftwerk, Devo, and Gary Numan -- and begin forging a unique strain of hip-hop under a new stage name of “Sir Mix-A-Lot.” Employing clever raps that referenced the reality of his life in the Northwest, Mix began recording some songs on some gear (a Commodore 64 computer, digital drum machine, and Korg and Moog synthesizers) in his bedroom studio. When issued on cassettes and given to a pioneering local KKFX (“KFOX”) Fresh Tracksradio DJ -- “Nasty Nes” Rodriguez -- Mix’s early tunes (including "7 Rainier," "Let's G," and "Square Dance Rap")got their first media exposure. His career was launched.
In 1985 Mix and Nasty Nes joined with local businessman (and former KYAC DJ) Ed Locke to form the Nastymix label. A few discs were issued -- with a novelty number, “Square Dance Rap,” suddenly breaking out as a hit in scattered markets including Los Angeles, San Jose, and Miami. The revenue stream from those sales buoyed the label -- which moved up from its humble offices off of Western Avenue and into deluxe digs in The Tower Building (1809 7th Avenue, Suite 800) -- additional acts were signed up, and Mix’s next recordings were issued.
In 1988 his iconic “Posse On Broadway” single became a solid breakout hit, and was, as The Seattle Times later noted, the record which “put Seattle on the rap map” (Wurzer). A left-field surprise hit, “Posse” -- which related the humorous tale of Mix and his crew’s antics while cruising Seattle’s streets -- miraculously achieved that success with almost no airplay or video exposure.
The tune’s appeal -- other than its dance beat -- was that it seemed to listeners anywhere a sincere rap about genuine life experiences in a real-world place. No fake gangsta posing, no gratuitous guns, hos, or violence, just normal guys out looking for fun -- Seattle style. As one chronicler noted, the record won fans “with virtually no radio play. It also proved that you didn’t have to pretend to not be from Seattle, that you could sing honestly about your life here and people across America could identify with it” (Humphrey).
Nastymix followed up with the release of Mix’s debut album SWASS (“some wild-ass silly shit”) and the rapper and his posse of B-boy breakdancers increased his national profile by making a tour with New York’s Public Enemy, and other concert dates with leading West Coast hip-hop stars, N.W.A., and Ice-T. Back in Seattle Mix solidified his stardom with a headlining gig at the Seattle Center Coliseum (305 Harrison Street) -- a show that marked only the second time in its decade and a half history that the Bumbershoot arts festival booked a rap artist.
Word broke in February 1989 that SWASS had moved 500,000 units and would thus be the recipient of a Gold Record award. The historical import of this occasion did not pass by unnoticed by local media. The Rocket magazine gushed: “As everyone in Seattle who listens to music no doubt already knows, Mix-A-Lot’s LP SWASS has just gone gold, a feat which hasn’t been achieved by a Seattle artist on a local label since the heyday of the original Northwest rockers of the ‘60s” (Boyd, The Rocket). It certainly was true that -- of the many Northwest musicians (ranging from the Kingsmen, to Paul Revere and the Raiders, to Merrilee Rush, to Danny O’Keefe, to Heart, to Quarterflash, to Robert Cray) who had enjoyed national hits on non-Seattle-based record companies in recent decades -- no one had scored for a local label since the Fleetwoods’ 1959 hits with Seattle’s Dolton Records.
Party Like It's 1989
In the wake of this breaking news, Nastymix got busy planning a big shindig for April -- but the excitement only grew, as by that time the figure had bypassed the 700,000 point. This level of commercial action now placed Mix among the first American rappers -- including M. C. Hammer, Eazy E., and Tone Loc -- to achieve that level of success.
The success of SWASS "will be officially celebrated at a gold certification party at the Four Seasons hotel, which will be filmed by MTV (their second visit to film Sir Mix-A-Lot this year)" (Boyd, The Rocket). The party itself was one for the ages. Unlike so many record release parties thrown by countless local bands over previous years, Mix’s soiree was glamorous, fun, a watershed moment in the Northwest music biz -- and it remains an indelible memory for many of us attendees.
The Spanish Ballroom of the posh Olympic Hotel (411 University Street) was a truly remarkable choice for a loud, flashy hip-hop party. One indication of its mainstream establishment orientation is that the music offered in the venue’s other rooms that same week were easy listening lounge pianist, Primo Kim, and the old-school jazz of Seattle’s Fred Radke Quartet. But the SWASS event was no low-rent ghetto house-party and Nastymix pulled out all the stops: As local music KCMU Shock Frequency DJ / journalist -- and early Nastymix employee -- "Shockmaster" Glen Boyd later recalled: "the scene was one straight out of Hollywood. A who’s who of the local and national music business lined the block decked out in tuxedos and furs as cameras flashed and limos circled the street. Representatives from retail, radio, MTV, BET, and more were flown in at label expense from around the country."
Upon entering the ballroom, attendees were immediately reminded about the Gold Record purpose of the party: golden balloons were floating everywhere -- and they had even been amassed into giant arches that the guests walked under. A red-leather-clad gatekeeper/toastmaster then proceeded to grandly announce each impending guest by name to the room. The crowd itself was an amazing mix of music industry veterans, radio and print media representatives, and B-boys and B-girls -- and everybody enjoyed the fabulous drinks and delectable proffered by a legion of roving waiters.
Meanwhile, at the far end of the hall the evening’s entertainment commenced on a stage surrounded by flashing light systems and massive columns of sound reinforcement gear. Speeches were offered in tribute to the label, its artists, and supportive media and industry figures. A good number of Gold Record awards were presented and live performances were made by rappers including, Tacoma’s High Performance, Whiz Kid, and Adrienne. The music of the label’s biggest star, Sir Mix-A-Lot, was represented with a video of his newest single, "Iron Man."
Nastymix had qualitatively and irrevocably raised the bar for such events. Seattle would, of course, later see numerous Gold Record parties in the Grunge Era that soon dawned, but the grandeur of the SWASS event just couldn’t be duplicated. As Boyd accurately concluded years after the fact: "Nastymix’s 1989 'Gold Party' was not only the moment which defined Northwest Hip-Hop’s arrival as a force in the local music community ... . It was arguably the greatest industry party in Seattle music history."