Rapper Jay Z was managing a basketball team. So, the joke went, former Trail Blazers shooting guard Martell Webster might as well step into the music business. That’s how producer Neill Von Tally recalls the genesis of Eyrst, the record label he cofounded with Webster in 2014. In the three years since, Eyrst has produced dozens of releases from artists including rapper Myke Bogan—his new record comes out this month—R&B soul singer Blossom, and the squeaky-voiced hip-hop phenomenon the Last Artful, Dodgr, as well as Webster’s own accomplished rap.
Earlier this year, Webster departed as Eyrst’s primary investor; the label moved operations from his West Hills home studio to a cozy downtown space with a system boasting thousands of tracks in various states of completion blinking with promise in the control room. There, a communal ethos rules: ask to talk to one member of the team, and it’s likely you’ll end up with some combination of Von Tally, company president Taylor Dutton, engineer Justin Longerbeam, booking agent Sean McDonald, and a label artist or two for good measure. During a recent visit, musician Ripley Snell recited lines in Old English to explain the label’s name. (It comes from a 1,400-year-old poem called “Caedmon’s Hymn,” if you must know.) Snell’s presence was part of the deal: Eyrst prides itself on its collaborative spirit and ensuring artists feel part of a shared endeavor.
“We just had to figure out, from not much of a blueprint, how we were going to serve the community as a record label when the model for labels, historically, has not favored artists,” says Von Tally, whose sonic imprint is all over many of the label’s releases, not least his own. The solution has been “nontraditional” contracts with artist-friendly terms, says Dutton. It’s an approach that has attracted an impressive roster of artists to the fledgling company, which marries layered, ambient soundscapes to muted beats, and shouts out to “equality” and “activism” on its manifesto.
Now they’re reaching a national audience. Not just through write-ups in the likes of Pitchfork and Forbes, but with the Last Artful, Dodgr’s presence on Spotify’s Fresh Finds playlists and the 860,000 listens Myke Bogan can boast for one track alone on the platform. At last year’s South by Southwest, the entire Eyrst posse drove together to the festival and showcased their wares in a string of shows to audiences from all over.
It helps, too, that Portland is embracing the label’s hip-hop output in a city once dominated by indie rock. At a recent sold-out Crystal Ballroom show, the Last Artful, Dodgr brought down the house, a reception Von Tally sees as one of the label’s biggest successes to date. “It was a pretty cool and successful moment for all of us, just to feel that recognition in Portland is possible and is happening.”
The city seems ready to listen, and Eyrst has ambitions that aren’t only musical. “Goals for us as a label are to serve the community, to hopefully be a part of creating a space in Portland where all different types of people can feel safe and comfortable to express themselves,” says Von Tally. “You have things like the MAX stabbing and other racially motivated, questionable happenings in the city, and it becomes really important to have someone like Dodgr or Ripley being seen as important and powerful and valued.”
For Snell, one of the first artists to record on the label, there’s also a role in this city’s evolution. “This music plays as a beacon, too,” he says. “This is where you can find the resistance.”