I remember Nacho Picasso performing to a sea of Actual Pain and Flying Coffin snapbacks on 11th Ave and Pike Street in Seattle. It was 2012. Fans moshed and screamed to every word of his gothic, cocaine-fueled demon rap. His style was joyously dark, happily debauched, at peace with the area’s rampant seasonal depression. A new king on the scene.
Nacho’s music was crucially distinct from the PC raps of Macklemore, then just making his first millions. It was a change of pace that Seattle was hungry for.
If Seattle is now mostly known for not Mackling less, local rap has a long history, starting from a majority Black scene 40 years ago. For most of that time, it has existed outside the city’s rock-oriented music establishment, and save for Sir Mix-A-Lot, Seattle didn’t care about or acknowledge its own rap until it started aligning with white preferences in the 2000s.
A brief history: after the pioneering groups Emerald Street Boys and Girls made Sugar Hill-type records in the ‘80s, the Central District (location of Seattle’s Black Panther party) was where hip-hop lived. That remained true during the rest of that decade and into the ‘90s, as the CD generated Mix-A-Lot, Ishmael Butler, and the illustrious Tribal Productions crew, among many others. Additionally, an all-city compilation, 14 Fathoms Deep, was released in ‘97 on a label started by Stone Gossard from Pearl Jam and Regan Hagar of the band Brad—a rare team up between the rock and rap scenes.
Outside Seattle’s Black neighborhoods, however, rap remained a fringe concern throughout the city’s grunge years. Then in the aughts it experienced a conscious, suburbs-facing reboot with the Blue Scholars and their opening act, Macklemore.
The Scholars were more serious and socialist than Macklemore, but both packaged hip-hop in easy to understand thematic capsules. Each song was about a specific social issue, like how the city was built on indigenous land, or how white privilege works. Fittingly for their edutainment rap, they toured high schools and local college campuses to gain fans.
Their music took off in Seattle as an alternative rap subgenre focused on goodness: good values, good morals, good efforts. Young audiences understood the slang-free raps, and did the underground hip-hop arm wave at shows.
But as internet-era rap began to bubble around the turn of the decade, local tidepools generated oppositional sounds. Nacho rose as a star with his producers Blue Sky Black Death, creating a style on Bandcamp that was belligerent, corrosive and trance-like. Key Nyata came out of nowhere as the youngest in Raider Klan, a sunglasses-wearing teenager who self-produced throwback Memphis phonk and hung with Denzel Curry and Vince Staples. Then there was Keyboard Kid, a producer from Federal Way, just south, who was crafting blown-out classics with Lil B in the Bay Area. Their strange takes on hip-hop called into question the genre’s norms, and would be hugely influential on the next generation of underground rappers.
It summoned a digital wave that felt slightly disturbing, otherworldly, and weird. It also felt like justice—a counter-narrative to Macklemore blowing up and whitewashing Seattle hip-hop. Finally, Seattle was cool like everywhere else, rather than off on its own island, isolated from the national conversation.
If Blue Scholars and Macklemore were alternative, now Seattle had an alternative to the alternative. This was also around this time that THEESatisfaction and Shabazz Palaces sprung up––quickly becoming leaders of the city’s avant garde. The alternative to the alternative to the alternative. It was a heady time.
For a while things expanded. Nacho’s crew Moor Gang uplifted the CD and South Seattle. Key Nyata teamed up with West Seattle’s Mackned to form Thraxx House, the bizarre rap/witch-house crew which would eventually morph into Gothboiclique, which would incubate Lil Peep. Keyboard Kid was never correctly hailed in Seattle, but he looked outside the city and produced important songs for Main Attrakionz and Metro Zu, helping invent the subgenre of cloud rap––a key influence on A$AP Rocky, along with Raider Klan.
But eventually in the back half of the 2010s, the steam somewhat dissipated for Nacho, Key, and Keyboard. Not that any of them fell off. Nacho made efforts to become a larger force, teaming up with NYC producer Harry Fraud, but nothing really popped the way it should’ve. Key watched Raider Klan dissolve, and then Thraxx House fall apart too, leaving him a man without a country. Keyboard toured with Lil B but saw that the wider rap world was happier to relegate their movement to a footnote, instead of the paradigm shift it was.
For the past few years they’ve been somewhat victims of the blog era, leaders of a transitional phase in rap history whose only survivors seem to be Tyler, the Creator and A$AP Rocky, who’ve both now totally remade themselves. Wondering what’s next, Nacho, Key and Keyboard have been hovering, legendary but unsung, a generation older than new Macklemore acolytes like Travis Thompson, and somewhat out of step with a city that was never really built to support a rap career anyway. (Aside from Mix-A-Lot, Macklemore, and Ish, the only people who have been able to make long-term jobs out of rap in Seattle are producers like Jake One and Vitamin D, who work behind the scenes and can be located anywhere).
Snapping out of the doldrums, Nacho, Key, and Keyboard Kid decided to form a group last year, Cyanide Syndicate. With zero expectations, they created a breezy and bruising self-titled album. Listen to the choppy, spacey “Big Chips” and you’d have no idea that civilization was imploding. It’s a perfect day party anthem if such a thing could exist. The song is uncharacteristic of all their styles but meshes perfectly.
The change of sound partially comes from the other Cyanide Syndicate member Sango, a Seattle-via-Grand Rapids legend in the making, who co-produced half the tracks. Rounding out the Seattle supergroup status, the album was recorded in Macklemore’s old studio in North Seattle, and mixed and mastered in the CD by Vitamin D. With songs sounding alternately furious and completely relaxed, the album is a testament to the power of just trying stuff, and letting it rip.
In fact, the slow, beautiful center (“Decline” and “Sauceke”) was recorded as a joke, with both songs undergoing multiple revisions to finally approach seriousness. It was the levity that all three of them needed. In conversation, Nacho and Key both revealed they were pretty close to quitting music before forming the group, and this project changed that for them. Rap in 2020 is better for it. — Andrew Matson
Full disclosure: I worked with Keyboard Kid on his albums Digital Blunts and 10 Years Based.
First things first, why and how did this group come together?
Nacho Picasso: Why–because it was necessary. Just the state that everything’s been in; everybody sounds the same, looks the same. Everybody wants to pretend to be friends and shit––we really friends, we really authentic, and we originated a lot of shit. There’s people who have run off with the recipe, but we didn’t give them all the ingredients. We figured we’d whip up our own secret sauce.
Key Nyata: Me and Nacho just got together because, at a point in time, I was going to his house a lot because we were both at a specific point–he was damn near about to stop rapping, and I was about to stop rapping too. I was over there kicking it with him a lot and we just decided to start making some music, and it turned into a group.
Keyboard Kid: As far as me, we’ve always been friends like they said. Actually, me and Nacho did the Ralph Bakshi song, and we were already planning on doing a project. It was kind of just all timing.
Why were you guys about to quit rap?
Nacho Picasso: I’m still tired of it, but I had fun working on this project; it was like a rebirth for me. I hadn’t had fun in a while.
Key Nyata: I was just at a weird crossroads, and it was a very strange time for me. I wasn’t really going to quit, I was just taking a break, really. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
When did Sango come into the process?
Key Nyata: A little further into it, once me and Keyboard Kid and Nacho established that we were going to do a group project. We started thinking a little bit on how we could spice it up, make it a real powerhouse-city situation.
Keyboard Kid: Yeah, I’ve been knowing Sango since we were little, little kids. We grew up in this same apartment complex area in the south end of Seattle.
This is random but Nacho, were you in the movie Cats?
Nacho Picasso: I told everybody I was in Cats and they believed it. Actually, that’s part of the reason anybody watched the movie; it’s because they were looking for me. It was just a random rumor I started. I totally would have been in Cats though.
I feel stupid, but that’s really funny.
Nacho Picasso: No, it’s okay. I’m pretty sure they got a lot more views. People hit me like, “I watched the movie twice. I haven’t seen you yet,” and I’m like, “I’m the yellow cat, man. Watch it again!”
I had an idea for the rest of the questions that we would just go track-by-track through the album, because there’s no liner notes for the album, but it’s short enough that I feel like we can do that and call that the interview. The first one, “Steak Money,” that’s a Keyboard Kid solo production, right? Does anybody have any memories of recording that, or just anything special about that song?
Nacho Picasso: I had the beat from Keyboard, and I was going to hide it and keep it for myself. I wrote my verse and was like, “Okay, I think we need to start the project off with this” and got Key on it. It was kind of like an intro, kind of like a posse song, where we didn’t really have a hook on it. It was just a feeling, like we just let them know that we still got it, and this is how we starting off.
Key Nyata: It was just some bars, nigga.
At that point you already knew that you were doing a group and you were doing an album?
Key Nyata: At that point, we knew we were doing something.
Alright, track two–“Big Chips.” This song is a fucking banger.
Keyboard Kid: That’s one of my favorite joints.
Key Nyata: Yeah, me too.
Nacho Picasso: Same, same. Mainly because that’s the first one me and Sango collab’ed on.
Key Nyata: I pushed very hard for that beat, because at first it was just an idea–I wouldn’t say nobody was taking it seriously, but I really really really liked that idea, and I was like, “Yo, we absolutely have to do that.”
Nacho Picasso: Yeah, I remember, because Sango was in there cooking the beat; we was just in there, we was just all vibing too, like when Sango came to the first session.
Where were you?
Nacho Picasso: We were at the old Ruby Room, and we were recording with Seth, Seth From Above. Shoutout Seth. He helped us out; he recorded the project for us.
Key Nyata: He was the one, bro. He made sure we stayed on it, because he knew how our moods and shit were, at the time. We were, I wouldn’t say depressed, but just in a weird mind space, so he just kept us focused on the music.
Nacho Picasso: For me, when I heard “Big Chips” the first time, I was feeling it. It’s a beautiful beat, there’s so many layers to it, but if you’re familiar with my old shit, it’s a little out of my comfort zone.
Yeah, you can’t usually dance to Nacho Picasso songs.
Nacho Picasso: No, not at all. It was a little up-tempo, so I figured I had to tap into a different part of myself, because I’m not all dark and creepy; I like to have fun. Luckily, I had just bought a new car when they had sent that beat, so I was in a good mood. I was like, “Okay, hello coupe,” that new little foreign engineering. I said, “Oh yeah, I can do this all day.”
Big up. Which one?
Nacho Picasso: A BMW 428i. It’s fast.
Who is Twelv’len? How did he get into the mix?
Key Nyata: That’s one of my homies. He’s from Florida. I actually put the whole gang onto his music, before we collabed with him. He’s really really really good, and he’s really talented. I actually met him through Denzel Curry, and he became a really good friend of mine. I’m actually at Denzel’s house right now.
Keyboard Kid: He’s the icing on the cake with it.
Nacho Picasso: He showed me his music, I must have woke up to one of his songs every day for a month after that motherfucker. He had them slaps, I was like, “Man, bruh, yeah. We need him on it.”
Key always has his ear to the underground.
Key Nyata: Absolutely.
Key Nyata: I’m going to say this about “Blueprint:” that’s my favorite song. I helped Sango and Keyboard Kid with the direction of it. I wanted a specific type of beat that we had to do on this album, because that type of sound right now, it’s West Coast, but it’s also been revamped, so it’s in right now and shit like that. That’s me and Nacho’s roots, so it’s easy for us to do stuff like that. Sango’s from Michigan, so he added that Detroit-upbeat-tempo-shit, and Keyboard added the West Coast/Bay Area-claps, and that shit just goes crazy. That shit bounce.
Keyboard Kid: Key had full creative control on sculpting that song. I just kind of took his lead with that one. I just said, “Leave me a blank spot, and I’ll…”
Key Nyata: He killed that shit too. That shit was perfect.
Nacho Picasso: I asked my sister for her favorite song, and my sister, she don’t normally like my music. She’ll listen to a lot of Messy Marv, that hard Bay Area-shit–and she couldn’t stop bumping that song. I knew that was a hit when she told me that was the one. I was like, “Wow.”
Key Nyata: Shoutout to Vitamin D on the mastering too, he brought that shit to life.
Oh, wow cool, it’s really a Seattle affair.
Key Nyata: Oh yeah, a Seattle affair. We’ve got to have the OG.
Nacho Picasso: And IMDB recognized it as a short film, which it actually was.
Key Nyata: Which it actually was. We flew out to Nebraska to shoot.
What’s in Nebraska?
Nacho Picasso: I had filmed a movie earlier last year.
What is it?
Nacho Picasso: It’s called La Flamme Rouge; it’ll be out this year. It’s a thriller-type movie. Majin Buu, the actor who does Majin Buu’s voice on Dragon Ball, who was in that video, he was in the movie as well, and he was the steroid dealer in the movie, and I was his goon.
Key Nyata: The dude is a crime boss and Nacho’s his right-hand man.
Nacho Picasso: I had a small part in the movie, but it got extended once they actually met me. I didn’t have to act much; it was pretty fun. When I did that movie, they flew me into Nebraska, and there’s no filming tax–it’s like an art state. Where we were filming, we had more resources; no filming tax, and we actually, the directors of that movie that I’m going to be in, the Maze brothers, actually shot that video for us. It seemed like, “Look, we going to Nebraska.”
Key Nyata: We went to Nebraska, they had us on set, we was outside freezing our asses off, running around in costumes, getting makeup and all types of shit painted on me; we did all types of fun shit, man. She [the makeup lady] worked with Samuel L. Jackson.
Nacho Picasso: She was telling us old film stories, and she’s been in the game for years. It was cool; it was a new thing. COVID was going around, so we wanted to make the most of what we could without using hella people. We were acting our ass off. We were out there for like a week and did what we had to do.
Key Nyata: Yeah, that shit was fun too.
Yeah, it definitely doesn’t look like other people’s videos.
Nacho Picasso: Nah, it’s a creature-feature – ode to the ‘80s, Grindhouse-horror, midnight cinema.
That’s your chamber.
Nacho Picasso: Exactly! And, I think if they ever remake Toxic Crusaders, I need to be the new Toxic.
Put it out there, manifest it. Alright, “Decline” – any big stories about “Decline?” I feel like “Decline” and “Sauceke,” I really like the sequencing here because both these slow songs sound really good right in the middle. You start smoking at the beginning, all of a sudden, you’re super high, and then these songs come on.
Nacho Picasso: “Decline” kind of started as a–I was just kind of trolling at first.
Keyboard Kid: Yeah, it started off as a troll, for sure.
Nacho Picasso: It was definitely a troll song, and then it just got kind of catchy, and I was like, “Yo, we could go make this an interlude.”
You’ve made some slow music before, but it still sounds kind of new from you; it was a different flavor.
Key Nyata: Yeah, it was a different little bounce. It’s not a bounce that you really get from Nacho.
How about “Sauceke?” I fucking love this song.
Key Nyata: Now that song, man, that is an interesting song.
Let’s talk about it.
Key Nyata: Have you ever heard this man sing before? That’s the first time that he’s ever done that; literally getting outside the box. I did some background vocals, all types of shit. It was fun making that song. We were really really high; we had a good time doing that.
Nacho Picasso: In the first version, I sung in a Kermit the Frog voice.
Key Nyata: Yeah, the first time, yeah.
Keyboard Kid: It was a whole troll.
Nacho Picasso: It was a whole troll. Then Key got on it, and was like, “Oh shit, is this a real song?”
Key Nyata: I did the backup vocals. I did them all serious and shit; I was harmonizing.
Nacho Picasso: I was like, “Let’s do this for real then,” and I took the Kermit the Frog voice out. It kind of dusted my verse a little bit so it wasn’t such a troll. Then, we layered that motherfucker out until I kind of sounded normal, and then once Key got on it, it started coming together more. I was like, “Oh, okay. Let’s do this, let’s do that.”
That’s my favorite Nacho verse on the album. My favorite Key verse is on “Big Chips.”
Nacho Picasso: That’s lit. Hell yeah.
I’m thinking about how you guys said you were at low creative points, because at this point, on that song, you guys are just wilding out and just acting like–it’s truly not giving a fuck.
Nacho Picasso: The pressure is off. It’s 2020, a lot of weird shit’s going on, I don’t give a fuck about anything but my peace.
Key Nyata: I would say, when we were making “Sauceke,” we were fully into the project. Our worries were probably minimal–weird life stuff, obviously though, but other than that, we wasn’t worried about shit. We was just making music, going to the studio every week, at least once or twice. We had a good rhythm.
Okay, “Bad Guys?”
Nacho Picasso: That’s obviously–I had full creative control on that song. I had to give them something to let them know I ain’t go full-soft. It’s in me, not on me, so I tapped into it, back into the dark side. I got my boy, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire. I got him to hop on the track because I wanted it to be three niggas.
Key Nyata: That’s the homie too man. People don’t even know–I produced for him back in the day, back when I was in Raider Klan.
Key Nyata: Yeah, I’m on his album Kismet. He got a video for one of the songs I did for him.
Nacho Picasso: So that was nothing, it was an easy reach-out. You ever have a need for anything, he got it. We wanted to make a crazy song, we wanted to give them something to fuck shit up to.
Yeah, there’s definitely that energy on the second half of this album. Okay, “West Nile?” The old virus that we used to care about.
Keyboard Kid: The beat dictated that whole song.
Nacho Picasso: It was super hardcore, West Coast.
Key Nyata: I actually suggested that he put in that swing.
Keyboard Kid: He heard it and was like, “That shit’s hard,” but he’s like, “Yo, bring the swing up and see what that sounds like.”
Key Nyata: It kind of reminds me of an MC Eiht beat or something.
Keyboard Kid: I turned up the swing, and he was like, “Oh, shit.”
Key Nyata: Shit was hard.
Keyboard Kid: He just started writing a verse.
You guys really made this stuff together organically, same room…?
Key Nyata: Oh yeah, definitely.
Nacho Picasso: We met once a week, just about. A lot of the sessions, Sango came in and we all just shared our views on it, and just buckled down and had fun. No pressure, no worries, no labels making us do no damn project.
Key Nyata: A lot of Burgermaster, a lot of BLT sandwiches, that grilled cheese, you know what I’m saying, with the milkshake and the good weed. We had it going on.
Keyboard Kid: It was good vibes. No egos; family shit, just having fun.
It’s a real lesson for younger people who are so stressed out and want to go viral and do some big shit out of nowhere. You guys are experienced, and you just put nothing on it.
Key Nyata: We really do this shit, so it’s like, it’s nothing for us to just do it. At the end of the day, that’s how we got here, so just fucking do it.
Nacho Picasso: I still like creating music. I realized I started to not like doing music no more, but that’s not what it was. What it was, was just everyone else, just expectations, outside opinions and influences that I didn’t like doing. Then, when I got sober, I realized, “I don’t know if I like people that much, anymore.” I don’t think that I do. I really don’t at all anymore like that. Now that I don’t expect anything from the human race, I don’t give a fuck what they think either, so I just do whatever I want. If they don’t like it, that’s okay because they human and we ain’t big.
Nacho Picasso: It’s definitely for the people that want to hear it, and if it inspires you, be good for a minute; if it helps your day go better, if it helps you fucking fight through some shit, that’s who it’s for. It’s not for nobody else. It’s like the Neverending Story book–nigga, if you reading it, you ain’t reading it on accident nigga, nigga you out for a reason.
You were chosen. Final song – “Lice.” This is going to be a single.
Nacho Picasso: Yeah, I’m excited about this one. This ain’t even a rap song.
It’s a punk song.
Key Nyata: Originally, we were going to get Denzel Curry on it; we were going to get him on the hook. I had a verse on the song, originally, and he was busy with touring and stuff like that, so he wasn’t going to be able to get it to us in the timeframe, so I just said, “Fuck it. I’ll do the hook,” and that shit sounded crazy. Nacho came in with a crazy-ass verse, and it was really long at first, because it was some punk shit, we were just doing whatever.
Keyboard Kid: It was a whole different song–the same idea, but it was a different song at first. He had a verse, Nacho had a whole different verse, because I remember…
Nacho Picasso: I wasn’t even yelling.
Keyboard Kid: He wasn’t doing none of that. It really developed, because after Key did the hook, then it was like, “Okay…”
Key Nyata: There was like four versions of that song. It was one of those songs we really worked on and crafted.
Keyboard Kid: Right. And I had missed the session, and I remember I came back, and Seth was like, “Oh yeah, check this out. We did this last time.” He played the shit, and I was like, “What the fuck.” I was like, “Damn. This shit hard.”
Key Nyata: And that’s another solo-Keyboard one too.
Keyboard Kid: Actually, we need to get that shit on some video games. I’m putting it in the universe.
Key Nyata: We need that in movies; we need that everywhere.
Nacho Picasso: We’re trying to do a couple things with that song. That speaks very clear for what’s going on, and how everybody is feeling. It’s frantic, like we don’t know what’s going on; we ain’t got enough power right now.
Nacho Picasso: No. It’s just rage.
And confusion. Chaos. To wrap it up, I would like to hear, from you guys, just some heavy shit that you’ve learned from being in music for over 10 years, like some big lessons. To me, you guys have a lot of experience and are definitely underrated and definitely made a lot of waves that a lot of people followed and stuff, so I just wonder, with all that you’ve done, what sticks out as something you’ve learned?
Key Nyata: I would say cherish the real ones you meet in this shit, because those are the only ones that you’re going to need; be yourself 100% of the time; and watch out for the niggas that want to be around you. Not the ones that are naturally around you, because that’s going to be how it is, I’m talking about the ones that want to be around you. Take care of your business, that’s it.
Nacho Picasso: I learned don’t do cocaine. Drugs are bad.
Keyboard Kid: For me, it’s don’t expect shit; just do it, and fuck the rules.
Nacho Picasso: Oh yeah, fuck the rules.
Key Nyata: Make your own rules yourself.
Keyboard Kid: Don’t second guess either; if you have an idea, just put it out there. You really don’t have to mull over the shit like you think you do. It’s fun to do it and have intent, but just put it out there.