FAIRBANKS — In this town founded on fierce independence, backbreaking work and the eternally optimistic prospecting spirit, an Alaska hip-hop pioneer continues blazing trails and constructing musical gems.
Alaska Redd has minted a music career in the farthest reaches of rap’s radar. He’s done it all by literally doing it all. He’s an artist, performer, musician and producer. He owns and operates a music studio that’s recorded practically all comers for 20 years. He books national hip-hop acts, from mainstream stars to underground icons, for Alaska gigs. And he headlines his annual homespun, home state summer tours accompanied by handpicked Alaskan rappers.
“I always envisioned myself doing something musically throughout my career,” he explained. “I’ve worked diligently at it for many, many moons, so it’s awesome to see it come to fruition. And the focus is to keep going, pushing that line, keep doing music, and keep bringing the Alaska hip-hop scene to the rest of the world.”
With his current statewide summer tour backing his recently released album “O.G.A.R.,” Redd is now seated at the table among Alaska hip-hop’s all-time greats. The album’s title stands for “Original Gangster Alaska Redd,” with the shortened “O.G.” a term of reverence for esteemed elders who have been there, done that and continue doing it at an elite level.
“That’s saying a lot without saying a lot, and people can interpret it a few ways,” Redd said of his album title. “But it’s about my longevity in the game, my persistence in bringing Alaska hip-hop to the forefront, keeping it moving, bringing it to a bigger level. I’m a voice, something we need up here. I’m one of the longest-standing artists still doing things, staying relevant in the game, still promoting, still dropping albums, still doing shows. That’s the O.G. title.”
It’s a bold statement, but rappers make bold statements. Redd backs up any bluster with his sizable resume and undeniable legacy. Since the mid-1990s, he’s drafted a blueprint for Alaska rappers to follow; he’s among the first to tour across Alaska and Outside; he’s brought artists, and personal heroes, like E-40 and Tech-N9ne, up for shows and recorded tracks with them; and he’s maintained an all-consuming hustle that others emulate.
Anchorage-based rapper Tayy Tarantino is among those paying Redd respect. Tarantino may currently be Alaska’s most popular and relevant rapper, balancing a career between Alaska and the Lower 48, picking up steam, streams and shows. As a youngster, he looked up to rappers like Anchorage’s Joker The Bailbondsman and Alaska Redd, artists who embodied the dream of having a voice and career in hip-hop beyond the isolated north.
“I look at Redd as an O.G. and pioneer around here — and his album stands for that,” Tarantino said. “He has paved the road and even raised the bar for younger Alaska rappers, both playing in Alaska and the Lower 48, the studio he has going on … he has his hand in a little bit of everything. He’s just a dope dude all the way around.”
As a businessman, Redd is a hip-hop LinkedIn, creating, collecting, maintaining and nurturing decades of connections and communications with rappers, DJs, promoters and fans across the world. He’s also something of a rarity in the often-cutthroat rap game: an alpha dog on the mic who graciously shares his studio, spotlight, stage and wisdom. He records and mentors ambitious locals. When he brings up famous artists, he partners with Anchorage promoters and venues to expose even more Alaskans to high-level rap performances.
“Hip-hop is very competitive, and in my early days I was always looking at things like, ‘Who do I have to be better than?’ ” Redd said. “I always wanted to set the bar for what’s going on in Alaska hip-hop. That was important to me. As it grew, it became just as much about friendships and partnerships.
“I think it all comes back to networking, which as an artist allows you to spread your wings out,” he added. “It’s great to get local support and talk about where you’re from, but don’t localize yourself too much. Why limit it? The sky is the limit. … Then people start gravitating toward you. Helping you. Seeing you expand. It’s an amazing thing.”
While grounded in making ends meet and saving to fund the next big gig or album, Redd’s professional ambitions are far from selfish. In every role, he tirelessly represents Alaska with a golden heart. And that love extends to his fellow Alaska rappers.
“He’s one of the dudes that has reached out and pulled up the young artists — not a lot of artists do that,” said Tarantino. “I definitely respect him and he’s been nothing but supportive of me. He gives me little tidbits (of advice), connects me with shows. … Everybody looks at it like competition — you don’t want to be second best. But it feels like just because he shines, it doesn’t dim someone else’s light when he’s in the room.”
Redd believes that building relationships and supporting others opens doors for him. Helping rappers on the way up is another way he expands visibility and legitimacy of all Alaska rappers. Bringing a Lower 48 rapper to Alaska for shows can quickly evolve into his own learning opportunities, trading verses for albums, and even Outside gigs.
“I’ve always been excited to hear what’s new, who’s the next up-and-comer, see if we can come together on a common bond or project, or put people on my shows,” Redd said. “It’s an O.G.’s responsibility to teach game, spread it on to the youngsters, spread positivity, the right way to do things, help people. … An important thing I tell people, when you’re not able to necessarily get down with everybody’s functions, start your own parties, create your own lane. I was tired of not getting into a studio, so I started my own studio.”
And when he wanted to get more eyes on him and ears on his music, he started his own summer tours, which are now legendary and annually anticipated by diehard hip-hop fans. They’re typically scattershot dates spread over a summer calendar at venues across Alaska, from festival spots to headlining off-the-road-system communities with stages that have never hosted hip-hop. He’s been from Utqiaġvik to Valdez, Ketchikan to Tok, Fort Yukon to Homer. No matter the place, they all get a taste of his fine-tuned, high-energy performances and cash in on his investment of exceptional sound and lighting equipment.
“That’s my job, man, and it’s very important for me to spread my music,” he said. “I feel like I’m a beast on stage, I’m a stage killer. I really focus on entertaining people when I put a show together. I practice religiously. I get in front of a mirror. I do what I’m supposed to do if you want to be sharp.”
About touring Alaska, he beamed, adding, “That’s all about being an Alaskan — being able to play shows for people across the state, and I can get out there, do my music, enjoy my state, and do things I love to do. We get to see all of these cool places and it’s amazing out there. So I’ll jump in my van, in a car, in a plane or in a boat and I’m there!”
The music, the monster
Ultimately, a rapper’s credentials boil down to their skills. If “O.G.A.R.” wasn’t Redd’s best album yet, fellow rappers would look at him as a studio owner and promoter who makes music as side projects. Yet he remains an artist first, with the rest of his professional ambitions complementing his music.
He’s grown and expanded from album to album, from lyrical content, song structure, storytelling and his ever-expanding grab-bag of ferocious flows. “O.G.A.R.” is Redd’s sharpest and most diverse from his long catalog, and he delivers on the album title’s promise: turning into a monster when he grabs the mic. Focused and ferocious. Witty and dead serious.
“This newer stuff is more me grown up, being more of an adult, more of a man,” he said. “There’s definitely an elevation in my lyricism and concepts of the songs, but it still has that undertone, that grit and grind that I’m known for. That was important to me.”
Like always, his songs’ moods follow Fairbanks’ seasonal ebb and flow of serotonin-spiking sunlight and edge-of-depression darkness. It makes up his outlook, fuels his grind, feeds his lyrics. While he calls “O.G.A.R.” a “dark” album, there are also rays of hope, life lessons, inspiration within life’s struggles, a celebration for every defeat.
“That definitely comes with the growth — there’s going to be darkness, but there’s also going to be light,” he said. “You can still encourage people, still shed light on social issues, uplift people through your music. … I always feel it’s important to show a different side of things.”
The album certainly caught the critical ears of Tarantino.
“You don’t hear a lot of dudes this late in the game that still progress and get outside of their box,” said Tarantino. “He’s always trying new things, pushing the envelope. With where he’s at in his career, this new album has sounds I hadn’t heard from him before. So yeah, I loved it.”
Even this deep in the game, this O.G. still gets chills of a first-timer hearing a beat he can freestyle to or breaking new ground for Alaska rap. Upon its release, songs from “O.G.A.R.” were played on a commercial radio station in Fairbanks, something unheard of for a local artist, much less a local rapper. It was more validation for Redd and his music. It was payoff for his hustle and relationships. And yeah, it was pretty damn cool.
“Oh man, it’s the most amazing feeling ever — to break it on Fairbanks radio, that was 20 years in the making,” he said. “It sucks that it took so long, but the reward was so worth it. ‘Look mom, I made it! I’m on the radio, in my hometown. Top 40 is spinning my record, three of them, multiple times!’
“My career has been bountiful with a lot of great memories,” he added. “A lot of people consider success a monetary thing, but I never looked at my career that way. I’d love to be wealthy, but I’ve done some things that most artists — literally — will never do. That humbles me. I’m proud of that. Like, wow — that’s pretty freaking cool. And I strive to keep doing that.”
Upcoming Alaska Redd “O.G.A.R.” Tour dates
July 15-16: Alaska Canna Fest, Fairbanks
July 22: Trophy Lodge, Delta Junction