Colin Thinks: Emancipator is Portland’s Most Influential Musician of the Past 5 Years

Colin Hudson / February 5, 2015
Photo courtesy of Ben Moon

Recently, I was talking with some people about genres that get overlooked by the Portland media. This included jazz, hip-hop, punk – basically everything that is not indie folk/rock/pop. I casually threw electronica into that mix, not because it’s completely neglected, but it is misrepresented given its actual popularity amongst the music lovers of Portland and the big crowds that a number of well-known DJs can pull in when they come to town.

While redundant garage bands have been busy plugging up the local blogs and papers, Portland’s Emancipator quietly became one of the most influential electronic producers in the country. Despite the national recognition, Emancipator’s name is still unbeknownst to many local fanatics, in part because the lame stream local media would much rather blow loads over whichever violin squawking glam band is going to be the next Decemberists.

Portland is most definitely the weird town it claims to be; but just because the freaks here dig your ambient noise rock carnival side show doesn’t mean that they will in the hubs like LA, Austin, or Nashville. Yes, Portland has recognition as a musical town, but a lot less national influence than you think.

Artists like Emancipator were able to gain a lot of traction by focusing outside this region. You never saw him on the (God forsaken) Willamette Week’s Best New Band list, and he certainly wasn’t constantly nagging the talent buyers in this city to get booked at a premier venue for a $50 per night gig. He took his show elsewhere, not only to find new listeners but to gain experience in cities all over the States.

I first saw him at a small music festival in Southern Ohio about five years ago. His sound fit in effortlessly into the Midwest’s surprisingly diverse music scene. Emancipator has been a touring maniac since, crossing the continent numerous times and becoming a staple on the summer festival circuit. When I finally got to see him again, opening for Pretty Lights last fall, the music had flourished. The show had blossomed into something that could play to a huge audience at an enormous venue.

Around the same time, Emancipator put together a band to transform his electronic production into a live show. It was a daunting task which paid off. The Emancipator Ensemble was the best show I saw in 2014 – hands down. It was bold, smooth, cutting edge and something I never thought I’d see. Think of Thievery Corporation, but a lot more robust. It was just so damned sexy.

This happened at an Emancipator show once. Swear to God.
This happened at an Emancipator show once. Swear to God. Photo courtesy of Jess StewartMaize


Not only was Emancipator producing some incredible music, but he was collaborating. During his 2013 tour, he paired up with a new and relatively unknown electronic duo out of Seattle, ODESZA. They opened for him in most stops of the Spring 2013 tour. This jump started a hugely popular rise that recently sold out the Roseland and was named The Untz Best Emerging Artist from last year. Since then, the Seattle group has not been shy about giving credit to Emancipator.

This debate that I am starting (on a platform that doesn’t allow you to directly refute me) is about the past five years. I’m not going to start a debate about the aforementioned Decemberists or Modest Mouse, because both of those are clearly two whole notha’ beasts. But in the past half-decade, which Portland bands can hold their own?

Radiation City? Still have a ways to go before their no longer the influenced. Also, not my idea of cutting edge.

Shy Girls? No one listens to white people doing R&B outside of Portland. I wish this were a bad joke I am making, but it’s true. White people can’t do R&B.

Red Fang? For metal, they’re pretty good, but I know next to nothing on this genre so they don’t count.

Portugal. The Man.? Alright, I will call this a solid argument. One that I can’t refute with facts and will have to once again rely on my not-so-humble opinion. Here is goes: There are lots, and lots of bands that do things very similar as Portugal. It’s just the nature of the beast. Once you start playing radio friendly pop music, you’re replaceable. I don’t see them as influencers because if it wasn’t them, it would be the next band over (Grouplove, Fun., Belle and Sebastian <-There are probably better examples but I am way too cool to listen to the radio.) that would be laying down the influence.

Look, I’m not trying to say that Emancipator is the be-all end-all undisputed king of Portland music that should live on top of some imaginary totem pole (although, if there were such a prize, I would vote for him). Rather, my real point is that if a musician of this caliber with a laundry list of credentials as such can be grossly overlooked by the media in a town he’s represented since the beginning, that’s kinda fucked up.

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