Four : Forty Four
Meet the Portland hip-hop artist who’s been living 4:44
It’s 4:44am and Tron’s phone buzzes. It’s his 80 year old grandfather who texts every morning at the same time. The message reads simply, “4:44.”
By now you’re probably aware Jay Z’s new project entitled 4:44 which dropped this weekend. After a viral marketing campaign sprouted up in New York City and around the country — off-yellow advertisements, subway posters, and online banners, showing only 4:44 in large black bold typeset — rumors starting swirling on Internet forum websites like KanyeToThe and Reddit speculating (accurately, I might add) of a possible new album from the Brooklyn hip hop artist and entrepreneur. For many hip hop fans, the announcement of this project, a Tidal exclusive, which is linked to a film staring Mahershala Ali, Lupita Nyong’o and Danny Glover, was welcomed news. After all, this is Hov’s first album in four year since 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail. However, for one artist, Portland’s Old Grape God, the news wasn’t so welcomed.
“It was a strange feeling, as 444 never felt like something I’d worry about any other rapper or artist taking, much less one of the greatest rappers of all-time, for that matter,” Tron says. “I first caught wind of the rumored album when my friends started sending me screencaps of The Fader and Hypebeast with the 4:44 banners, along with captions, ‘who’s stealing your shit?’”
In the past four years, the half-Laotian, Portland, Oregon native, has released eleven projects and a slew of singles and features. Old Grape God, primarily known around the Portland hip hop scene as Tron, goes by a plethora of nicknames, but Old Grape God is more than just an artist and a musician — he’s a time traveler. I know, I know, I too was skeptical, but then I heard his music, I saw his art, and watched him perform. It sounds nothing like I, nor you, have ever heard before. His rhyme schemes are complex and unorthodox — to say the least. He sounds like no other rapper on the west coast, or the east coast, or any coast for that matter.
I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Tron over the past two years, and first starting writing about the artist in 2015. He is the definition of the word artist. He raps, he produces; he paints, draws, tattoos, designs and manufactures his own clothing line and hold art exhibitions under the moniker Tron 444; he does leather-craft as well. He even released an abstract coloring book in 2015 entitled Time Travel 444 (before Chance the Rapper released his Coloring Book in 2016, I might add), and this year started his own record label of the same name. Tron is, hands down, one of the most influential artists in the Portland hip hop scene. Every hip hop artist in the city knows Tron and his impact on the city’s budding music scene. He’s been featured in numerous local publications and earlier this year was named to the Willamette Week’s best new artists rundown. He’s even currently working on new music with Toro y Moi.
To label Tron’s music as simply ‘hip hop,’ however, is trying label something that isn’t intended to be labeled. The now defunct Potholes in My Blog was one of the first online publications to key in on Tron’s music. In the Willamette Week article, writer Chris Stamm described Tron’s sound as “All the voices in your head rapping simultaneously,” which, to be fair isn’t far off. The subject matter in Tron’s rhymes is somewhere between the melting clocks of Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” and an episode of Coast-to-Coast AM. His use of word and phrase repetition often takes the place of traditional hip hop hooks, but then again with Tron, very little is traditional. “I don’t have hooks,” Tron tells me, “I have motifs.” His live shows are even more wild, as the artist paints and raps simultaneously.
Tron is a natural performer and you never know who he’ll bring when he’s booked for a set. Performing with fellow Portland MC and EYRST signee Ripley Snell as Wine & Coffee, the duo’s shows fall more in the performance art realm, as they cathartically improvise off each other with a tongue-in-cheek approach to political and social issues. Tron also performs with producer Snugsworth, certified-Gold from producing Shabba by A$AP Ferg in 2013, as the Marbletop Orchestra, creating live improvised freestyle sets.
Tron’s relationship with 4:44 and his music goes back years. On November 8th, 2013, Tron released his own project entitled 4:44, with long time producer and collaborator Skelli Skel, in which each track clocked in at four minutes and forty four seconds in length. The project was dropped at 4:44am. The first purchase of the album came from Toonami cofounder and VP Jason DeMarco. His most recent project Tr⌀nt⌀n⌀m⌀ Bay, was released earlier this year and sold for $4.44 a cassette. This summer, Tron drops Paint Soup 3, the highly anticipated follow-up collaboration with fellow Portland MC Slick Devious and Skelli Skel.
For Tron, 4:44 is more than just a simple fascination with a number, it’s a way of life — a spiritual frequency the artist uses to anchor himself as a time traveler. “My mom is a psychic medium that has three fat cherubs that roll with her and she always said they look like ‘4:44,’”, he tells me over text. “It’s an angel number that my mom and I would always call out to each other. It’s a synonym for peace, as well as acknowledging your own time and place and the context of the moment as you experienced it.” Tron compares it to Flava Flav’s clock, or Leo’s spinning top in Inception. When it occurs organically,” Tron says, “it is a sign that I am on the right path.”
Tron’s twitter is full of these organic occurrences — from people tweeting at him pictures of 444 city buses, to street addresses, to flight times and everything in between. At 4:44 every afternoon, Tron, and those who happen to be occupying the twitterspehere at that time, tweet out what has becoming Tron’s calling card — 4:44. He even receives tweets from all over the world in various timezones including China and France at 4:44 am or pm. Since the announcement of Jay Z’s new project, twitter has been full of responses to the album’s name. My favorite: “4:44 belong to Tronfucious.”
“4:44 has always been my shit, and in my small world as an independent artist, it is a little heartbreaking to see my shit being used by an artist 1000x more popular than me, and that people would associate 4:44 with Jay Z before me,” Tron admits. “4:44 means so much to me, it’s my frequency, and as I’ve loved sharing that part of me with whoever meets me or experiences my art, because 4:44 is deeply personal, far beyond just an aesthetic.”
In the current art / music climate, plays, views, reputation and following are middlemen to artists getting their work in front of people. Most compromise to sell proven-products in hopes of slipping into mainstream success. Tron is prolific in his own style, with a long-term vision that is non-negotiable. It’s about more than “blowing up” to Tron, it’s about inspiring people by setting the example of originality. He may never get the credit he deserves, but that doesn’t take away from the power he has or the legacy he leaves. Tron can only wonder what 4:44 means to Jay Z, but hopes it means as much to Hov as it does to himself.
“I’m not bitter about him using 4:44, as I’m sure he has his own personal reasons and has never heard of my local-rapper-ass. In my heart, I only hope that this coincidence means we’re on the same frequency and may have some soul in common.”