Photography by Carson Krank
“What exactly is the Seattle sound?” That’s the question the Seattle Times posed last month, as it tried to contextualize the rise of the enigmatic Highway, a 23-year-old rapper and producer born and based in South Seattle. “I don’t really work with many people here,” Highway tells me one August afternoon, situated at his desk in his Beacon Hill home. His admission raises an even bigger question: How does one of the city’s most promising emerging artists stand almost completely on his own?
The city of Seattle—commonly revered as the birthplace of grunge in the 1990s—has seemingly little to boast when it comes to its contributions to hip-hop at large. But lately, its underground scene is bubbling beyond more commercially visible acts like Lil Mosey and Charlieonnafriday, signaling a resurgence since tech-fueled gentrification ravaged the city’s cultural scenes a few years ago. There’s Bremerton’s Campana, and Tacoma’s Khris P and Glenn. The Toe Jam collective’s parties came and went, but then miraculously fought to relaunch better than ever. Even so, the city’s disparate output makes it the kind of place a budding rapper might look to break away from.
Six years ago, Highway, whose real name is Mekhi Rogers, relocated to a Georgia town two hours outside of Atlanta—rap’s largest exporter. Highway’s music is unmistakably influenced by the South: Beyond his dreamy production, his confident yet laid-back flow and soulful melodies liken him to a next-gen Future. In late 2020, Highway gained traction with the Ivy EP, followed by the release of jetsonmade-produced “Another Plane” off the full-length album The Way, and a steady stream of releases thereafter. But then, on his own account, he returned to Seattle just as his name began to buzz in Atlanta. “I feel like it'll always be important to me to make my city proud musically,” he tells me in a reserved, introverted tone, his locs covering half of his face. Right now, he’s in an incubator all his own, living by himself and taking things day by day on a mostly solo basis. “I listen to a lot of myself because I make music every day,” he discloses at one point. He plans to stay put, keen on putting Seattle on the map—and even if he prefers to work alone, the tide is clearly changing, as a recent nod from Trippie Redd suggests. “I would like to normalize the sound that we have,” Highway says. About a week after our conversation, he dropped “No Guitar,” a bass heavy, dreamy tribute to late Seattle legend Kurt Cobain, complete with guitar samples and “rockstar” references. “Eventually it'll make sense to people over time.”
Maintaining an air of mystery throughout our conversation, I’m still left with the firm belief that Highway is positioned to be Seattle’s next hometown hero. On the heels of the rapper’s self-titled project Highway, released earlier this summer, we spoke at length about his roots and moving back and forth, the city’s unique culture, the importance of maintaining his independence artistically, and more.
Let’s start by talking a bit about the project you just put out — Highway. What was the process of putting that together?
Well, it was produced by me and another partner I work with musically, Johnny. He'll send me loops and melodies and stuff. The goal at first was to make a bunch of beats with him, probably bring together like 10 to 20 beats, and just make an album out of those beats. But then it turned into song by song, he'll send me the melody or the loop, I'll add whatever to it. Drums, more melodies, more synth keys, whatever, to build an instrumental out of it and then record the song. I'll send it back to him, he'll be amazed at it and then we'll just keep going on and on. So it'll be like every day I'll make one song, sometimes two. I think that the project came together between November and January 1st or something.
Got you. I find it very cool that you're involved in the production process and that you produce music yourself. What sparked that for you?
Growing up, I always knew I'd be involved in music, but I just wanted to figure out what I would do. I was just a kid that always wanted to make beats. Hearing crazy beats on the radio when my parents would be playing music or in the car, I just loved the sound of it. Once I started, the process of learning how to do it was just amazing to me, because it's all done on the computer. I felt like anybody could do it. And then if anybody can do it, you have the musical abilities or skills or you understand melody or just anything musically, that just adds this whole aspect to it that makes it unique and it makes it yours
How did growing up in Seattle influence you? I feel like in our city, the rap scene is a bit scattered. We have pockets you can fit into I guess, is how I would describe it.
Well really for me, it started with the fact that I always went to parties growing up, and at a young age, I always noticed the trending music that everybody likes here.
Right. I remember in a previous interview, you mentioned how our city pulls influences from everywhere, which is true. We sort of listen to everything that's coming out and pull elements from there.
Exactly, and that’s still important to me. ‘Cause the music everybody likes here is good music. I grew up listening to these sounds, these different styles of music. It was as simple as saying, “This is good to me, this is what I like.” So, making that, contributing to that, the music that people like here, that’s important to me. Seeing people’s reaction when they hear my music, that was always important to me. And then just continuing on, and getting better, it turned into something. I feel like it'll always be important to me to make my city proud musically. Not just with my success, literally with the music they hear, the sound that they hear. That'll always be important to me. I think that's what drives me.
Yeah. Those influences are far ranging—you spent a few years in Atlanta and then you came back here. I find that interesting, considering that Atlanta is so musically connected. A lot of people stay out there to build their musical careers. Why did you make that decision?
It was really an all around life choice. It was music, but it was also things that were going on in my life. I just felt like it was time for me to actually build something in my city. When I lived in Georgia, I didn't live in Atlanta proper, I lived on the outskirts in Augusta. But I would be in Atlanta like every weekend, just trying to just make things happen.
I didn't go to Atlanta just like, “Oh, I got to make something happen musically.” I was in Georgia ‘cause my mom literally said, “You got to go.” I was out the house and that's where my dad was. So I just went over there and stayed out there. And that's where I focused on music, because I was really in the country. I just took everything I knew musically and what was going on in my life at that time, and I just built my sound off of that. Once I was there long enough, it was like, “Okay, now it's time to make something happen. Atlanta's not that far away. I'm going to just start going there on the weekends and just see what I can come up with.” I met a few people who helped me make a few good things happen, but overall it was just like… it was regular. When I came back to Seattle, that’s kind of when things started to spark up in Atlanta for me. So I started going back and forth between the two cities.
Were there specific people that you were working with out there?
For sure. Every time I went to Atlanta, it was just enough motivation to keep going. Especially once it became a demand, like, oh, “Highway is here, we want to work with him.” Once I started getting around Seddy Hendrinx, I'd meet even more people. He'd bring me the GenerationNOW studios and I’d get to be around DJ Drama, and watch DJ Cannon make beats for Seddy and his sessions. That was inspiring. That definitely kept me going.
I guess now that you're in Seattle, who would you say are some of the main people you work with and how would you describe the scene musically out there?
Seattle? I don't... it's not really like I work with many people here.
Yeah. I want to get to that point, but you know, Seattle's, it's just not there yet. I won't say I work with many people. The air in Seattle just keeps me going. I just like to be on Capitol Hill, go to the record store, buy records, get t-shirts. There’s all these block parties and stuff going on around that area. And for people that don't know what Capitol Hill is, it's like the area where—I don't even know, it's like a weird area. You can be anything you want to be there.
I know exactly what you mean, I used to hang out in Capitol Hill a lot in college, I miss it there.
Yeah, there's always like block parties going on there and just different stuff. People selling clothes, vintage clothes. So I like to be around that and just do my own thing. But other than that, the only thing I do musically in Seattle is when I make music. That's at home. But I go to shows, I love doing shows in Seattle. This is my favorite place to perform.
There’s definitely a sense of community here when it comes to live music. But how does that work—not collaborating with people locally? How do you navigate that as an artist?
I don't know. ‘Cause that’s kind of how I started out. I remember the first time I ever made a song, it was with somebody else's equipment. They mixed it on their computer. I was around other people, they heard the song, they wanted to get on it and it was fun making the music, but there was still the aspect of like, it's not a hundred percent mine. I always felt like the music I create should be a hundred percent me. Unless I create something that I feel like another artist can be on—like, if I make something for a collaborative purpose, then that'll be that.
Yeah. I mean, there's bravery in that, making your music completely your own. But I’ve seen you produce for people like Chief Keef, for example. There’s clearly still some collaboration going on. How do you go about deciding when that happens for you—how do you choose those people, while still preserving your craft the way you do?
I'm not going to lie. It is kind of hard. But I'm learning, I'm learning it now because I feel like it's time for me to have those bigger features and have bigger names involved in what I have going on. But it is hard because of the way I do things. I’m trying to learn how I can keep doing what I'm doing, but still have others involved. I'm starting to get better at it. It's not so much something I've struggled with, I just never tried. But I feel like it's definitely possible.
Yeah. Would you say you're introverted? Do you think that's part of it as well?
Yeah. I'm very introverted, but then I can also be extroverted in different ways. I get around some people that are introverts. I'm like, “Wow, I'm not like this at all, I'm probably talking too much,” or something. I guess everybody's different. Even when I'm around people that I'm not comfortable with, it's like I'm introverted in a different way. I don't know how to explain it. Maybe I won't get personal with you, but I'll be able to still conduct business.
Definitely, and I know that building something for our city is something that you’ve expressed is at the heart of what you want to do. So what do you see for our city in terms of where hip-hop is headed? What part would you like to play in shaping the scene and shaping the sound?
I would like to normalize the sound that we have. Everybody from Seattle is like hippies, but in their own way. It doesn't matter what you do or who you are. And I feel like other people aren't used to that. When you're that way and it’s mixed with whatever you do musically, it can come off like, “We don't understand this.” I want to normalize that. When people see more of how I am, they'll be able to understand what's going on here. I'm not necessarily saying I'm a good representation of all things Seattle, but I'll still make an effort towards this stuff. Eventually it'll make sense to people over time.
What’s next for you personally?
More videos, singles. A project this year. Definitely more features and collaborations. More SoundCloud drops. I want to just be able to drop a song on SoundCloud. Just throw it out there, whenever I just feel like it. Not a lot, but just, I feel like my fans really like that. I don't ever want to lose that. A lot of artists get big and they stop doing that, but I don't ever want to stop doing that. I want to do that my whole career because SoundCloud has been the biggest contribution to my career. Tour is in the conversation too.
Honestly, I want to just keep doing what I do, just at a high level. So whatever I have to do to make that happen, that's what I want to continue to do. I like how things are right now. I'm still in the spotlight of where I'm at, but I don't have to be physically there or active 24/7 as long as I'm dropping music or I got shows or things lined up for me. So, doing that and then just continuing to reach new levels as I do that, that's most important to me. I want to be at the highest level just doing what I do. So, that's the main goal.
Yeah. I think that's beautiful. It's like the importance of quietly building something and things will come in due time.
As long as success is constant, as long as it's steady coming in and flowing, I'm happy with that. I have goals for growth and like if I want a new follower amount or a new monthly listener count, I can set goals like that—like if I want to average a hundred thousand, every time I drop in the first month, I think those sorts of goals are realistic.
I think the first time I heard about your music, it was when I stumbled upon the video for “Another Plane.” I think it had a thousand views. Things have definitely come a long way since then.
But it's not even only about that, the numbers. I feel like in due time, the overall goal is to just reach the highest level. Be the biggest star possible, but in my own way. For now, Livin’ Like That on the way. That's it.
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