North Portland rapper Illmaculate was about to go onstage at a 2014 “Hip Hop Heavyweights” show at the Blue Monk when a swarm of police arrived with the fire marshal in tow. Outside, squad cars lit up SE Belmont and patrons were blocked from reentry, with authorities citing excessive capacity. Illmaculate grabbed the mic. Instead of performing, he ended the show.
“I will not perform in this city as long as the blatant targeting of black culture and minorities congregating is acceptable common practice,” he posted on Twitter later that night.
His words set off a flurry of media headlines and helped spark an unprecedented Independent Police Review investigation into the Portland Police’s dealings with hip-hop. In the midst of this moment of reckoning, the Thesis was born.
Nearly six years on, the hip-hop showcase has become the de facto nucleus of Portland’s eclectic and growing rap scene, enduring where others have failed—even as a pandemic has shut down the showroom at Kelly’s Olympian that had become its home.
Cofounder Mac Smiff says the secret was finding a sweet spot: short shows and high-caliber talent. “You’d have these super-long shows that nobody wanted to stay for,” says Smiff, a retired rapper himself. “It didn’t help that you had a lot of wack rappers on these shows.”
While that formula has remained largely unchanged, one of the most notable shifts is who Smiff and co. have prioritized to grace the stage. “One thing we did was focus on women artists and [different] sexualities, and I think that helped us find a niche,” Smiff says. “Not just doing women-only shows, but having women on every show. It was a huge change for us, and a positive change.”
Now based in LA, Illmaculate flew to Portland last October to perform a new track (fittingly called “The Thesis”) from rising star Wynne’s debut mixtape alongside veteran Vursatyl and KayelaJ. (On wax, the track also features Dame DOLLA, a.k.a. Trail Blazer Damian Lillard. He didn’t make it to the show.)
“I brought the squad up. Everybody being able to celebrate themselves—having dedicated so many Thursdays, months, and experiences to this event—it was like being able to celebrate the event itself and the lineage of that,” Illmaculate says. “It’s really important to have these events that have historical roots in the scene continue to be able to grow. The Thesis has been really important to put on new talent in the city, and I’m excited to see where it goes from here.”
As it turns out, the Thesis—like everyone else—is trying to figure out how to survive as a digital entity. “This COVID stuff has us really rethinking our business,” Smiff says. “Operating a concert series without concerts is difficult, to say the least, but we’ve been using Instagram Live on First Thursdays and kind of letting some organic things occur.”
“Last night, instead of sulking over the state of the world, a bunch of @TheThesisPDX’s crew jumped on IG Live,” said Thesis resident DJ Verbz on Twitter in early April. He tagged some performers, including 1 Young Micah, YoungShirtMayne, and Bocha. “Felt good.”
“As a team, I think we’re still learning,” says Smiff. “Two months in, we really don’t have a handle on this yet. I think we’re all just kind of looking forward to a return to normality, while not trying to rush back to normality, if that makes sense.”