How Seattle Hip-Hop Could Take a Hint from Oxford’s Blessing Force

Bebe Besch / September 14, 2011
Image courtesy of Blessing Force's Tumblr page

This spring, Seattle emcee Macklemore asked his fans via twitter “I’m interested…what label could you guys see us on? Major or indie?…Or just continue to put it out ourselves?” He received a handful of answers – a few suggested Seattle’s Sup Pop Records, but Macklemore seemed particularly to favor one reply that he retweeted, which said they (he and Ryan Lewis) should start their own label. Barring the Sportn’ Life community and the couple avant-rap artists signed to Sub Pop, the majority of Seattle hip-hop artists are unsigned. They have helped support one another with their successes, while also using fan support systems such as Kickstarter campaigns to help propel projects. With the massive foundation our hip-hop scene has under its feet without the help of major record labels, this dream of creating a label from the ground up is not that far out of reach. In Oxford, England, a similar community of artists and musicians calling themselves Blessing Force have already made this their reality.

An excitement has been stirring in Oxford ever since the band Foals began to see success, having started out as a band that played local house parties.  They did sign to Sub Pop Records in Seattle, and their accomplishments have helped bring rightful attention to other emerging artists from Oxford, many of whom Foals share personal ties with. Blessing Force is a group of some of these artists. Originally, they weren’t sure what to call themselves. “Collective” didn’t fit, but the term “community” works close enough, because Blessing Force is made up of friends who support one another. Currently, Blessing Force consists of musical acts Jonquil, Neon Pulse, Pet Moon, ODC Drumline, Trophy Wife, Chad Valley, Solid Gold Dragons, and Rhosyn.  Blessing Force is also home to visual artists Charlotte Freeston, Amy Honour, Sebastian Thomas, Caleska Hykel, and Tinhead.

Tinhead's shed from Blessing Force 2, which he destroyed at the event and reconstructed into new pieces for Blessing Force 3. Photo from Tinhead's Tumblr page.

Together, since last winter, they have hosted four Blessing Force events, which some are calling Blessing Force Festivals. Their fourth event just wrapped on September 10th, before Hugo Manuel (of Jonquil and Chad Valley) set to begin his tour of Canada and the US for his personal electro-dance project, Chad Valley. Hugo Manuel, along with Andrew Mears (of Pet Moon and previously Youthmovies and Foals) are both founding members of Blessing Force. On September 1st, 2011, Blessing Force announced the launch of their label. SSG Music had the opportunity to ask Hugo Manuel about the work Blessing Force is creating, the benefits behind self-sufficiency and the formation of the label with friends:

“We just wanted to create a kind of informal support group for all of us bands in Oxford. We originally just planned to put on events in Oxford occasionally, but it very quickly became more than that, and I think the best thing about BF is the attention we can share with other members. Just the very fact that you are here interviewing me about Blessing Force is indicative to this. It’s like a way of raising awareness of our friends’ bands, in a very simple way. People easily forget this side of things, and just see it as some kind of elitist cult (at least that’s how a lot of people in Oxford see it), but at its heart it is a very supportive network of artists, just helping each other.

The reason the label came about was more out of necessity than anything, which is great because it’s exactly what BF is best at, being a support group! We are here to help each other when, for example, one is left without a record label.”

Blessing Force’s first label release will be Trophy Wife’s Bruxism E.P. on October 17th, which features their song “Wolf,” produced by Yannis Philippakis of Foals. The E.P. is available for preorder here and is a limited release of 250 hand numbered copies on 10” vinyl.  The E.P. cover was shot by Foals’ photographer and videographer Dave Ma (also affiliated with Wild Beasts and Delphic), and features Tinhead, who is Foals’ graphic designer/illustrator and fellow Blessing Force artist.

Blessing Force does not consider itself exclusive, and will continue to support other Oxford creators. Hugo Manuel says:

“[Blessing Force] always makes a point of inviting non-Blessing Force bands to play at our events. We never wanted to be insular, and I think people in Oxford thought that was somehow the whole point of BF.”

On the contrary, at their last event, Blessing Force 4, there were performances made by non-label musicians such as Friendship, Sisterland, Bagoll the Traveller, Lee Riley, King of Cats, Maraschino, and the final performance of band Ute.

So what does the future hold for Blessing Force? Big things apparently, as Andrew Mears told Music In Oxford, “We have more multimedia shows lined up over Christmas, and a long exhibition in February…we’re beginning to establish a routine which at the moment is working for us. Certainly the idea is to carry on with, and improve, the shows, as well as the label and our publishing arm. We do have some pretty big plans for 2013, but that’s for another time…” Sadly, these plans do not include a USA tour, as Hugo Manuel told SSG Music that a Blessing Force tour here would be “pretty much impossible due to USA’s visa regulations.”

The success that Blessing Force is just beginning to experience with each other is the result of multi-talented creative minds, and a solid base for approval and support. Seattle has been a thriving city for music and art alike for many years, and is no stranger to the ‘do it yourself,’ or ‘DIY’ mentality. Community and loyalty is formed through this independent process, as most recently seen throughout our local hip-hop circle.  Like Blessing Force, Seattle hip-hop supports local artists. Blue Scholars frequently utilize the talents of Zia Mohajerjasbi (Sabzi from Blue Scholars’ brother) as their videographer, and the help of photographers Jordan Nicholson and Greg Nissen, amongst others. Geo from Blue Scholars even takes time with Thig Nat from The Physics to host gallery events of their photography work on Seattle’s First Thursdays, which are open to the general public. Thig Nat has collaborated with emcee Grynch additionally by shooting the photo for the cover of his Mr.Rogers single.

The proposition: Does Seattle hip-hop have what it takes to go bigger with their collaborations, possibly expanding their own label prowess, like Blessing Force has? The talent and drive is undeniably there. Hugo Manuel says to our community, “JUST DO IT! There is strength in numbers.” Here’s to hoping!

See Chad Valley (Hugo Manuel) on tour on the following dates below with Active Child. Hugo Manuel says he’s been talking with Blessing Force artists Amy Honour and Charlotte Freeston about creating projections for his live Chad Valley shows in the future, so keep an eye out for that. In the meantime, be sure to catch his Chad Valley show at The Crocodile in Seattle on 9/23!

9/14 Toronto @ Garrison
9/15 Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Tavern
9/16 Chicago, IL @ Schubas
9/17 Minneapolis, MN @ 7th Street Entry
9/19 Denver, CO @ Hi-Dive
9/20 Salt Lake City, UT @ Urban Lounge
9/21 Boise, ID @ Neurolux
9/23 Seattle, WA @ Crocodile
9/24 Vancouver @ Electric Owl
9/25 Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
9/28 San Francisco, CA @ Bottom of the Hill