It’s a late afternoon in San Francisco’s Mission District and Seattle emcee Gabriel Teodros is hard at work shooting a short film. Just a few days ago, he was in Seattle performing at the release party for his second solo album, Colored People’s Time Machine, probably the most anticipated hip-hop album out of the Pacific Northwest so far this year.
In somewhat typical fashion for him, rather than staying in Seattle, doing more shows and “working the record,” in the traditional sense, Teodros hopped a plane the same night of the party and got right back on the road, where his head and heart remain most of the time anyway.
Growing up in South Seattle to parents of Ethiopian and Irish-Cherokee backgrounds, he was aware that his very existence represented three continents at once. Many of his neighbors were first generation immigrants like himself, and when you listen to the music Teodros makes those early demarcations of identity remain. It’s something he laughs about whenever he’s forced to think about it, which is what he’s doing on the phone at this very moment as I check in with him in San Francisco.
Colored People’s Time Machine isn’t meant to be a catch-all “ethnic” album by any stretch. But given that Teodros grew up in the same South End community that was recently determined to have the most ethnic backgrounds living within one zip code in all of the United States, it’s no surprise that the album seems to find a way to encompass the stories of people of color in general.
When asked how many ethnic backgrounds make appearances on Colored People’s Time Machine factoring in the guest artists, Teodros pauses before an answer that dips between language and ethnicity.
“I’m not sure… Ethiopian, Punjabi, Korean, Haitian, Filipino [pauses some more] Puerto Rican, Mexican, black, white, Thai and Jamaican,” he says. “Oh yeah, Palestinian too! That’s what my music is, that’s what my life is. There’s nobody on the album that I don’t hella love or build with on the regular. I didn’t go out of my way to get a single collaboration. Everybody is family and it just so happens that everyone comes from different backgrounds and speak different languages.”
For many Seattleites, especially those educated in the city’s myriad public schools south of the Ship Canal, life is one giant melting pot anyway. Why shouldn’t that be projected in the music of an artist who’s job is to reflect and comment on the society in front of him?
“Growing up in my neighborhood, early childhood… it was like, my fam was Ethiopian, and then an Eritrean family lived right over there, we had a Chinese landlord, Native neighbors, Filipino neighbors, Mexican neighbors. Everyone spoke a different language at home, but when we’d play at the playground, we had to find a way to communicate,” Teodros explains. “[For some] it was music, it was fashion, it was basketball, or whatever. We had to make it work.”
But that doesn’t automatically make everything idyllic bliss either. Teodros will be the first to tell you melting pot societies don’t always come from positive situations. They’re often byproducts of egregious dictators or crippling U.S. foreign policy, the things that many people, rappers especially, tend to omit. Which is why music fans in Seattle should be glad someone like Teodros calls things for what they are in his material.
“I don’t want to romanticize it too much either,” Teodros adds, “because it’s also wack that we had to leave our homelands to begin with, much of it forcibly, for economic reasons or otherwise, and so many people don’t get to go back. It’s beautiful and ugly and painful and complex.”
Last year, Teodros set his feet on African soil for the first time and spent a month in his mother’s homeland of Ethiopia. Much of his time was spent touring and performing as part of the Arba Minch Collective. He rocked over a dozen shows across the country. It was a transformative trip, and he’s already in the process of having a new record mixed and mastered in Addis Ababa right now.
For Teodros, the world feels much smaller than it used to, before he spent so much time on the road. He says he’s entertaining the thought of keeping a part time base in Addis in the near future.
“That’s the plan right now,” he says of his inevitable move to Ethiopia in 2012 if all goes well. “Not permanently, but to spend a few months there at a time, tour and see what happens. Connecting with people in other places around my music is one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever experienced.”
Colored People’s Time Machine hits the shelves at Sonic Boom, Easy Street and The Station coffee shop on Beacon Hill today, and will be available for download on iTunes, Spotify and Amazon next week.