Calvin Valentine fancies himself the rap Larry David. Sure, the two are more than 40 years apart in age, and feature wildly different hairlines, but somehow the attraction is still there for the 32-year-old rapper from Eugene, Oregon. Granted, David’s only experience in the rap game involves being threatened by a fictional rapper named Krazee-Eyez Killa, but it’s still nice to imagine David and Valentine hanging out, bumping De La Soul and smoking a blunt. That’s how Valentine pictures it, at least.
Valentine’s relationship to Judaism is cultural, the product of growing up with hippie parents interested in letting their kids figure out how religion would function in their lives. “Half of my family is Jewish and the other half’s not. We’re East Coast, New York Jews. It certainly was the side of the family I related to a lot better and felt way more comfortable with,” he said. “My parents were Buddhists for a while when I was growing up. I was Jewish and Buddhist, but I didn’t get bar mitzvahed or anything like that. My dad went through all that, and he was just like, ‘Man, if you guys want to do it, you can, but I’m going to leave it up to you.’ He wasn’t pushing it on us.” As such, Valentine’s relationship to Judaism is one based on nostalgia, for family dinners and communal interaction. It’s the vague recollections of signifiers, which is perhaps why Valentine has embraced his role as rap’s Larry David. “I rap like Larry David does comedy,” he said. “It’s funny, but I got the talent, too.”
The liberal enclave of Eugene, Oregon, was a surprisingly rich breeding ground for Valentine’s rap roots. From the age of 10 he was playing the drums, concocting beats that he and his friends would then sing over. At this age, it was all nursery rhymes and playful jabs, but the groundwork was established during long summer days and after-school hangs. “Shit, man, I’ve been rapping from the jump,” he said. “I lived out in the countryside and I have an older brother who still does all the scratching on my albums, named DJ Celly. We had a neighbor, and we’d walk along the creek behind our house and we’d go to his house. His name is Lafa Taylor. He’s a rapper as well and a producer, and he’s done a lot of great things.” Out in Eugene, Oregon, hardly a hub for rap music, a small community of kids obsessed with rap culture began to congregate; the odds that all would have careers in music is nearly unfathomable, but 20 years later, Valentine, his brother, and Lafa are all unimpeachable artists. Valentine’s obsession with rap began even earlier than this, though.
“I was listening to Kris Kross when I was 2, 3 years old. I went to preschool, wearing my clothes backwards and shit. It was just my brother, Lafa, and me all hanging around listening to Coolio tapes and Doggystyle and shit that I was way too young to be listening to,” he said with a chuckle. While the image of a 4-year-old wearing backwards baggy clothes to emanate his favorite rap duo is cartoonish, it’s precisely this obsession with the genre that has allowed a white Jewish kid from Eugene to become a tastemaker in rap music.
After high school, Valentine moved to Portland and began his rap career in earnest. He began working with EYRST, a label that has helped establish Portland’s still-growing rap scene. It’s a city known for white hipsterdom and an overabundance of food trucks, but artists like Valentine, Ripley Snell, and The Last Artful, Dodgr have turned the city’s scene into a desirable outpost for independent artists.
After nearly a decade in Portland, Valentine began growing restless and moved to LA, his first time ever living outside of Oregon. When I asked what prompted the move, it was precisely this lifetime in Oregon that had him itching for a new challenge. “In Eugene, I was in this band Medium Troy and we did the Warped Tour. When we got off the tour I was like, ‘All right, let’s move to Portland or let’s do something bigger.’ They said, ‘We want to stay here, grow weed and get our money.’ I moved to Portland and did the same thing there. I started a group, worked with all the artists I wanted to work with from Portland, and we started doing a bunch of shows. All of a sudden, we had played every venue we could and we were at that same point.” Valentine’s restlessness was never born out of a desire to leave Oregon as much as it was to expand and grow as much as possible. His community was intent on building and growing within smaller confines. That was never the goal for Valentine, who had ambitions of working with rap royalty.
“Red Bull was sponsoring us and I was like, ‘Hey, let’s take this and let’s go to the bigger market.’ My crew wasn’t in the position to do that. I was just like, ‘Fuck it. Let me just go out on my own and take this leap.’ I had a real nice house in Portland, and everybody would come through all the time, but I just felt too comfortable,” he explained. “I felt we had already hit the ceiling and I didn’t see where we could go from there, besides going to a bigger market.” So Valentine moved to LA, where he spent his first few years becoming an in-demand producer for some of the stars he grew up idolizing.
“My first pinch-me moment was when I produced a beat for De La Soul and Nas. It was crazy that I could even get a hold of Posdnuos [from De La Soul]. I literally just hit him up on Twitter. I saw him say something like, ‘Oh, we’re going to start working on a new De La album.’ This had to have been in 2013 or something. I just hit him up being, ‘Yo, I got beats.’ He gave me his email and he liked one of the beats. It was crazy,” he explained. Valentine has also worked in significant capacities with J Dilla’s brother, Illa J, in addition to Planet Asia. While he derives great joy from these types of projects, his heart is still in rapping, and his days as a producer first and rapper second seem numbered.
“It can be frustrating, being known as a producer, but I don’t really feel like I’ve hit my stride with writing. I was hesitant with Eugene and Keep Summer Safe. I was toying around with the idea of, ‘Oh, maybe I don’t want to be a rapper, maybe I should be a singer, or maybe I should do something else.’ By the time I made Napkins I was, ‘Yo, this is me. I just need to do what I want to do.’ On his latest project, Save the Planet, which was released on Earth Day, Valentine is sharp and witty, churning out weed-laced bars and cleverly describing his best fits. Lyrically, the EP has little to do with the holiday, but Valentine has always considered himself an environmentalist.
“The environmentalist lifestyle has always been a part of my upbringing, with making sure we eat healthy and taking care of the environment as best we can. I made this project in August or September, somewhere around there last year, when all the fires were breaking out in California and Australia,” he said. “I thought that if I called the album Save the Planet, maybe I could bring a little bit of awareness to climate change. I had already planned to release it around this time, and obviously with what we’re going through, it makes even more sense now.”
The album is an excellent starting point for anyone new to Valentine’s discography, which grows in scope and style with each release. He’s an in-demand beat-maker, and has been consistently growing a passionate fan base for his skills on the mic. Save the Planet is loose and easygoing, the perfect accompaniment to a blunted afternoon or a late night drive. Above all, though, Calvin Valentine views himself as a balm for these excruciating times. “I want to make some stuff that you can get stoned to. You can feel good, you can put on your favorite outfit and go drive around and feel a real player for a second,” he said. “I’m just trying to lift up spirits. I want people to be happy.”
Will Schube is a writer and filmmaker based in Austin, Texas.