Ryan Abeo, the heavily tatted, bearded, and pierced MC best known as Ra Scion of Common Market, is one of the most visible figures in local hip-hop. But when he takes the stage as his new persona, Victor Shade, he transforms from the socially conscious, rhyme-spitting Common Market frontman into a cape-wearing, world-saving superhero.
Sounds cheesy, yes. But like everything Abeo has done in the past, his Victor Shade project is serious, and it is layered with lyrics containing dual meanings that tackle weighty subjects like drug use, suicide, and spirituality.
Unfortunately, like every good superhero'ês back story, Victor Shade'ês tale begins with a tragedy. The concept of Victor Shade came after Ra Scion's brother-in-law Jimmy, who was a comic book collector, committed suicide.
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'ês superhero was Victor Shade, an android that is a member of a collective called The Avengers, and Abeo decided to make Victor Shade into a hip-hop tribute to his fallen family member.
'êShortly 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,'ê Abeo said. 'êIt really made me think Jimmy put a lot of thought into this process, so this project is like an homage to him.'ê
The biggest challenge for Victor Shade going forward will be forging an identity for the project beyond Abeo'ês ties to Common Market. It'ês a tough task, considering both acts put the unmistakable Abeo front and center — and Common Market has long been a staple of local hip-hop. Luckily there are distinct sounds that differentiate Victor Shade from Common Market, courtesy of local producer Matthew Crabtree, who does production under the name MTK.
Compared to the world music and jazz-influenced production of Common Market, the Victor Shade material allows Abeo to showcase a harder, more visceral side of his pointed and aware rhymes, thanks to Crabtree'ês slick production.
Unlike big-name rappers who use superhero personas, Crabtree uses his beats to transport listeners 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. This creates the perfect setting for Abeo'ês verbal sparring and makes Victor Shade'ês self-titled debut, which was released in March, not just one of the most unusual local hip-hop albums of the year but also one of the year'ês best local releases period.
'êI think once people hear it you can tell the difference. There'ês definitely the connection there with Ryan and Common Market, but it'ês clear that Victor Shade is something completely different,'ê said Crabtree.
Abeo agrees that there is a noticeable difference between Common Market and Victor Shade.
'êThe music itself is different so people respond to it differently right off the bat 'ê¦ The second you hear that first Victor Shade beat you know it'ês not Common Market material.'ê Abeo said. 'êThe delivery might sound more aggressive to some because it has that sort of (aggressive) relationship with the beat.'ê
Abeo and Crabtree had been working together off and on for three years and spent time tossing around various ideas for a project. Crabtree said working on Victor Shade helped him through some difficult times, as it did Abeo.
'êI was going through some rough patches in my life at the time, and I would use that as inspiration for the beats,'ê said Crabtree. 'êI was channeling how I was feeling which was really dark and really aggressive at the time. It ended up being really dark and it spoke to Ryan with what he was feeling having lost his brother-in-law.'ê
When he'ês not on stage, Abeo works a day job as a maintenance supervisor for a property management company on Capitol Hill.
Demands at home, work, and his obligations with Common Market made creating Victor Shade a lengthy process. Also adding to the difficulty of creating a new hip-hop identity was the independent nature of the Victor Shade project. With Common Market, Abeo had the support of a record label and management group to help promote and market his work. He took a DIY approach and opted to go without management or a label while working on Victor Shade, which is something Abeo said he found rewarding and challenging.
'êPeople don'êt accomplish things because they say they don'êt have the money to do something, or they say they don'êt have the time,'ê Abeo said. 'êThe 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.'ê
While Abeo and Crabtree are still working to establish Victor Shade as a separate entity from Common Market, critics and promoters have taken note of the project. Victor Shade performed most recently at the Capitol Hill Block Party. And the bills and venues are only getting bigger. The next two Victor Shade shows will be the group'ês biggest, when Victor Shade performs at Bumbershoot today (Monday, Sept. 6) and as party of City Arts Fest next month.
'êIt'ês been great to watch it grow, and I'êm looking forward to seeing where it goes from here,'ê said Crabtree. 'êI can'êt say when there will be another Victor Shade album but I do know it will sound completely different. It'ês almost like we'êll be starting a new chapter because everything has changed since when we set out to create Victor Shade.'ê
Victor Shade performs at 12:30 p.m. today (Monday, Sept. 6) on the Fisher Green stage at Bumbershoot.