Last month, Rockwell Powers & DJ Phinisey dropped “Build,” a pastiche of pensive rhymes, lush beats and poignant spoken word poetry that's among the best hip-hop CDs to come out of Tacoma this year.
The disc is available locally at King's Books, Bleach and Feather & Oar, and fans can next catch the duo live on Nov. 7 at Feather & Oar, 759 Market St. Recently, Zach “Rockwell” Powers broke down the sentiments that informed his new cuts.
TW: How did you two meet and what made you click musically?
Powers: Phinisey and I met in 2007 when we were living the same dorm at PLU. I had been making music just for a couple of years, trying to be serious about recording, and I had been doing shows in Alaska before I moved here. He was at PLU, actually, on an opera scholarship. … He kind of caught the buzz of beat making and audio recording and set up in his dorm room, and we used to work together on an extremely amateur level. But he fell in love with it and he left after a year to go to audio engineering school in Arizona.
He came back two years later and started his studio, which is called Remedy Recordings and has grown into one of the higher quality hip-hop studios in the region. … I feel like I'm kind of catching him at a time where he's gonna be embarking on doing some interesting things nationally.
TW: You have an interesting cross section of collaborators, and not just from the hip-hop scene; everyone from Ra Scion (from Common Market) to Aaron Stevens (indie-rock band Goldfinch) and Grace Sullivan (Apartment Lights). How did you assemble this team of people, and how did it affect the sound?
Powers: A lot of that is just a reflection of my community as a musician. I still have a lot of good friends in Seattle hip-hop. And then people like Grace and Aaron I've just met through music and art in Tacoma. I like their music. They like my music. It just worked out.
TW: How do you feel your sound has grown with this recording?
Powers: This album is very much me as more of an adult. (I'm) more secure in myself. It just reflects where I am in my life. I'm married and have a job and I'm in a vastly different place. ... I think that it sounds like an older album to me because the content is much more mature. It might just sound that way to me.
TW: I wanted to ask you where you were coming from lyrically on songs like “Denial.” (The dubstep-inflected track alludes to the February 2012 slaying of Trayvon Martin.)
Powers: A lot of folks know I've managed political campaigns for the last three years in Tacoma. I'm pretty involved in the political community. But I didn't want the entire album, though, to be a political rap album. I wanted to sort of load up a couple of songs. … I wanted to unload on a song, and that was the right one to do it on.
I wrote most of that song the week after the actual killing of Trayvon Martin. I was so frustrated that people weren't talking about the fact that if Trayvon was white … this wouldn't even have happened.
I think I'm surrounded in Tacoma by a lot of folks who are a certain place on the spectrum of being aware of their white privilege, but they think they're a lot further. … I'm not saying that I'm so far on the spectrum, but that's where the song is written from.
TW: There are also the songs that express your 253 pride, like “Strong” and “No Bull.” So where is Tacoma compared to other regional hip-hop scenes?
Powers: That's something that's always going to be a part of hip-hop, city pride. … It's one of the historical content things in hip-hop that I still really resonate with. That's why I wanted those songs in there.
I think Tacoma hip-hop's in a really great place. You have multiple groups and artists making the actual art on a really high level, representing a lot of different types of hip-hop. You have two or three artists that are touring and building fan bases throughout the country – the Breaklites and ILLFIGHTYOU being the two bands with the biggest followings from Tacoma. In terms of that part of it, it's probably in a better place than it's been in a decade.
TW: Your show is at Feather & Oar, which isn't a typical music venue.
Powers: It's their one-year anniversary, and it's going to be just kind of a party and gathering of people to celebrate the success of a really cool, young business that's owned by a couple of guys in their '20s.