Victor Shade: Seattle’s hip hop superhero


Ryan Abeo is suffering an identity crisis, but it’s not what you think.

The heavily tatted, bearded and pierced MC is best known as Ra Scion of Common Market, one of the few Seattle hip hop groups that tours nationally. He’s one of the most visible figures in local hip hop and he’s transforming the identity he’s forged for himself as the socially conscious rhyme-spitting Common Market frontman into Victor Shade, a cape-wearing, world-saving superhero that’s getting released onto the masses Saturday when the Victor Shade album is released.

Musically, the Victor Shade material shows a harder, more visceral side of Abeo’s pointed and aware rhymes which are accompanied by slick production that conjures up aural imagery of superhuman feats. The name of Abeo’s new MC alter ego comes from the Marvel Comics character The Vision, an android that is a member of the superhero collective called The Avengers. The Vision’s alias is Victor Shade.

“It’s definitely rooted in a concept and that concept comes from in the comic. Ultimately it is about an identity struggle. You have the alter ego of the super hero which is Victor Shade and you have the superhero which is The Vision,” Abeo said about main theme of the Victor Shade record. “With great power comes great responsibility and at some point and time you say you don’t want that responsibility, you just want to be a regular dude. You don’t want to be The Vision; you just want to be Victor Shade. So it’s about that internal struggle. It’s about being a part of this (superhero) world in a bad way and recognizing your superhuman strengths, if you will. That’s what makes us spiritual beings I think. We all possess this superhuman capacity and that’s what we call spirituality.”

Spirituality is one of the many topics often touched on in Abeo’s role as Ra Scion. Common Market has become known for spreading a socially conscious message and the group’s records have tackled topics like the tobacco trade in the South (2008’s Tobacco Road album) and post-Katrina New Orleans (2009’s The Winter’s End EP). Abeo said the messages might sound different coming from the perspective of his superhero alter ego but they’re present on Victor Shade.

“To that extent people expect to hear that from me as Ra Scion, right? They expect to hear me rap about religion or politics or the economy and it’s all in there, it just sounds different,” he said.

So how different does Victor Shade around compared to Common Market’s past material?

For starters it’s pretty obvious Sabzi (Common Market’s producer) isn’t handling the beats. Sabzi’s jazz and world-influenced production is replaced by a varied array of stylish horns, electric guitars and other non-Saba flourishes. MTK uses his beats to transport you into the superhero world of Victor Shade instead of relying on trumped-up 1980s cartoon voiceovers or hyperactive kung-fu sounds to get the job done like other big-name rap productions (Yes I’m talking about you MF Doom and certain members of the Wu-Tang Clan). This creates the perfect setting for Abeo’s verbal sparring and makes Victor Shade not just one of the most unique local hip hop albums of the year but also one of the year’s best local releases period.

“The music itself is different so people respond to it differently right off the bat … The second you hear that first Victor Shade beat you know it’s not Common Market material. It doesn’t sound like Sabzi’s beats,” Abeo said.  “The delivery might sound more aggressive to some because it has that sort of (aggressive) relationship with the beat.”

Abeo and MTK had been working together off and on for three years and spent time tossing around various ideas for a project. Abeo said he received more than 100 beasts from MTK over that three-year period and some of what MTK sent his way gave him the perfect sonic backdrop for lyrics he’d been working on that wasn’t quite right for Common Market.

Initially Victor Shade was meant to be an EP set for release in October of 2009, a few weeks after MTK and Ra Scion gave Victor Shade its public debut. Fast forward six months and it is now a 13-track full-length album.

“The length of the album changed when I started hearing more and more of MTK’s beats. He is one of the most prolific producers I have ever known,” Abeo said. “He just cranks out beats. There is such a wide variance in the emotion of his beats and it just made it easier to write more and more material.”

The concept of Victor Shade came after Ra Scion’s brother-in-law Jimmy, who was a huge comic book collector, passed away. Before his death Jimmy created a list of friends and family members and gave them all superhero identities complete with a detailed breakdown of why he thought the superhero was appropriate for each person. Abeo’s superhero was Victor Shade. Abeo made Victor Shade the album a tribute to his fallen family member and when he debuted material from Victor Shade he wore Jimmy’s childhood Superman cape during the performance.

“Shortly after his death I started doing some research into the comic book character The Vision and I was amazed at some of the similarities I found between his characteristics and my own,” Abeo said. “It really made me think Jimmy put a lot of thought into this process, so this project is like an homage to him.”

Although the project has a superhero connection, Abeo is quick to point out it is not another mashup of hip-hop and comic book cultures.

“I hope people don’t mistake this effort as another attempt to bridge those two worlds. I know nothing about comics and I wouldn’t if it wasn’t for Jimmy. I really only got into this one character and it is only because of the relationship I had with my brother-in-law,” he said. “It’s something I think people who are into comics will appreciate but hopefully nobody gets the impression that I am connected to this culture because I’m not.”

If you want to take the album’s identity struggle theme one step further, the Victor Shade project could also be seen as a metaphor about the duality of MC identities of Ra Scion and Victor Shade as they battle to see who comes out on top. Last year Sabzi moved to New York, which created some downtime for the group but also freed up room for the birth of Victor Shade. Since Sabzi is absent fans might view Victor Shade as a solo project that could signal Common Market is kaput. Abeo says that isn’t the case.

“I have no idea what the future holds for Common Market. I’m not saying we aren’t going to be making music or that we have plans to make music because neither of those things are true,” he said. “We’re just taking it as it comes and if we have the opportunity to do another project we are both open to it, it’s just that we aren’t actively working towards (another project) right now.”

Aside from Victor Shade’s superhero identity crisis, a producer who isn’t Sabzi and Abeo’s more biting, direct flow, another big difference between Victor Shade and Common Market lies in Vic Shade’s DIY approach. Abeo has the support of a label, management and booking agency in his role as Common Market’s Ra Scion. When he dons the Victor Shade cape he’s doing it on a DIY level. He said he has yet to spend a dime on the project, which is part of why it has taken so long to see the light of day.

“People don’t accomplish things because they say they don’t have the money to do something, or they say they don’t have the time,” Abeo said. “The truth is you can hold down a full-time and part-time job, be a husband, be a father, be engaged in social and political activities, express yourself creatively and put out an album while not spending a dime.”

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