Sapient returns to Bend

Oregon hip-hopper does it all

By Ben Salmon / The Bulletin / @frequencyblog

If you go

What: Sapient, with Illmaculate, Goldini Bagwell and Jay Tablet

When: 9 p.m. Thursday

Cost: $5

Where: Astro Lounge, 939 NW Bond St., Bend

Contact: www.j.mp/sapientbend

I want to interview Oregon do-it-all hip-hop artist Sapient by phone.

And Sape, as we’ll call him, is down to chat, but he wants to do it today — a Friday — if at all possible, because next week’s a big one at his house: His younger daughter turned 1 on Monday, and his older daughter turned 5 Tuesday. (His son splits the difference at 3 years old.)

Balancing a career in underground rap with being a father of three is tricky all the time, but especially in a week with two birthdays.

“It’s that and it’s this and it’s that,” Sape said. “Things are hard around the house, but at the same time, we try to keep perspective. Like, we all have all our limbs and our health, besides runny noses. And we live in the greatest place you could probably live.”

Sapient — real name: Marcus Williams — has been one of the brightest talents in Portland’s hip-hop scene for a decade, and on Thursday, he’ll return to Bend to rock a show (see “If you go”) and celebrate his excellent new album, “Eaters Volume Two: Light Tiger.” He grew up in a musically inclined family in Eugene, with a classically trained violinist for a mom and a guitarist dad who “always wanted to be a rock star back in the ’70s,” he said.

In the mid-2000s, he moved north to Portland to jump start his music career, initially as a rapper and beatmaker. He had been exposed to hip-hop in high school, then turned on to underground stuff like The Grouch and Hieroglyphics through skateboarding videos.

“In the era of Napster, I was one of those kids who had … all the stuff that was way small,” he said. “I was just absorbing all the underground hip-hop. Anything that was different from the mainstream.”

In 2004, Williams began releasing Sapient albums, quickly building his reputation not only as a clever and skilled MC (and able singer), but also as a producer with a gift for interesting and unconventional — but still banging — beats. In 2008, Seattle hip-hop guru Larry Mizell Jr. called Sape’s “Letterhead” album “supersneaky brilliant” in a column in the alt-weekly The Stranger. A year later, Mizell cited Sapient as the “foremost major threat” in Portland’s respected Sandpeople hip-hop collective.

But two years ago, with momentum still building, Sapient disappeared, relatively speaking, from the public eye. His growing family was part of the reason.

“I had babies and I wanted to stay home and bond with them,” he said. “It wasn’t worth it for me to tour. I just wasn’t willing to sacrifice that part of my life.”

There were musical factors at work, too. Looking back, Sape’s 2013 album, “Slump,” a collection of indie-pop-rock with no rapping, was a hint.

“To be honest — you can say this on record, too, or whatever — I got kinda tired of hip-hop for a little bit. I got tired of making it,” he said. “I felt like I had said what I wanted to say. I got tired of hearing it.”

He offers a deeper peek into the restless, hyper-talented artist-mind: “My peers and my close friends are some of the best writers and rappers on the face of the Earth, (and) I’ve written so much focusing on such intricate rhyme schemes for so long, that when I hear (hip-hop) … it turns into a process in my mind,” Sape said.

“I just hear processes and I lost the enjoyment that I used to have from hearing it as a whole. It just wasn’t stimulating enough. I felt that hip-hop wasn’t gonna be able to give me the format to explore the musicality that I needed to.”

In other words, paternity leave came at the right time, and gave Sapient a chance to scratch a certain musical itch. It’s an itch he’s going to keep scratching with his new band, which is in its formative stages and will play “Slump”-style pop-rock.

“There’s something I get from the band that I can’t get from hip-hop,” he said. “But there’s something that I get from hip-hop that I can’t get from the band.”

And so, it’s time to put hip-hop back on the front burner. “Light Tiger” isn’t so much an album as a highly evolved beat tape, featuring all original Sapient tracks, some with vocals and some without. It is typically eclectic; “Dents” is built around a gentle acoustic guitar riff, while tracks like “Mansion” and “Gone Defcon” are fuzzy, woozy and endlessly catchy. “Heights” begins with a simple rhythm and whistle melody before shifting into synthesized chaos that bounces from idea to idea as Sape raps: “While you turnin’ up, I’m underneath the dirt with the worms and slugs. Churning my brain while I work on something to make the surface rumble until the earth erupts.”

Back home, Sape is preparing to go on tour. He has packaged up “Light Tiger” pre-orders and shipped them out. In addition to making his own music, he sells beats to other artists (a “heartbreaking transaction,” he says); records, mixes and masters music; produces and edits music videos; and does custom illustrations for posters, album covers and the like. (He did the “Light Tiger” cover art.)

It’s a serious DIY hustle, but it’s necessary when you have birthday parties to put on.

“I try to keep my own music and my own career as Sapient as primary, but I’ve got a lot that I’m supporting so I supplement with all these other things,” he said. “I don’t have it all super mapped out in my head (and) sometimes I don’t know where the money’s gonna come from, but as long as I have faith … and I work hard and try to be as humble as I can — even though I’m super cocky — it still comes together.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0377, bsalmon@bendbulletin.com