Shabazz Palaces' Big Show

By Josh Feit October 21, 2011

Seattle's hip hop astronomers are back in town from tour just in time for the City Arts Fest, and they're playing tonight at perhaps 2011's most widely-anticipated Seattle gig. Shabazz Palaces. Tonight at the Triple Door.

I wrote a series of posts about Shabazz Palaces this Spring when they put out Black Up, their lo-fi, lo-energy art freak out, but—while I'll take credit for the bolds here— let's turn it over to the real music critics now.

The New York Times Jon Pareles:
Ishmael Butler, a k a Palaceer Lazaro, called himself Butterfly when he was a leader of the jazz-loving, Grammy-winning New York hip-hop group Digable Planets in the 1990s. Shabazz Palaces, based in Seattle, is far sparser and stranger, and darkly innovative. Mr. Butler and his collaborators build tracks out of glitches and crackles, deep industrial throbs and analog synthesizer chirps, thumb-piano plinks and ghostly voices. The beats aim only for the most distant corners of the dance floor, or elsewhere entirely. The calm rhymes juggle thoughts of black identity, paranoia, lust and possibility. Yes, hip-hop still has an audacious progressive fringe.

Rolling Stone's Jon Dolan:
In the Nineties rap trio Digable Planets, Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler typified hip-hop as a bright fantasy of Brooklyn brownstone stoops and hippiejazz vibing. Reborn as Palaceer Lazaro in Shabazz Palaces, the rapper still waxes poetic with the old boho bounce as he lounges in the club or decries the evils of American culture. But the beats are, as he says, "new off the spaceship" – noirish sound clouds that sweep in anything from African thumb pianos to trash-compactor solos, and nearly make up for drugged-out song titles like "Endeavors for Never (The Last Time We Spoke You Said You Were Not Here. I Saw You Though.)."

And, appropriately enough for Seattle's latest valuable export, the defining review of Black Up in Pitchfork from Seattle music critic Eric Grandy. Read the whole essay here, I'm posting an excerpt:
Most of these tracks end somewhere very different from where they begin. "Free Press and Curl" opens the album with a down but defiant rap ("Musically and bitch-wise, too/ I lost the best beat that I had") delivered over stuttering crunching drums and bass vibrations. Three minutes in, the tempo slows into a kind of galley song, a murky drift over which Butler fires off a couple of final, biblically imperative ("thou shalt...") verses. "An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum" (the album's track titles throughout are fascinating) begins as a playground chant stretched and smeared into a queasy loop over muffled kick and grainy snare. But then after a minute, everything drops out for a spooky mbira solo from Shabazz sideman and percussionist Tendai Maraire. "Youlogy" starts as a busy, druggy swirl-- a heaving bass, a synth wobbling in one ear, voices cut and pasted, echoing asymmetrically, everything dropping out on the word "high" in "to get you HIGH"-- and then breaks for some jazz trumpet and snippets of stylized dialogue, before proceeding as an altogether different, relatively cleared-out, bass-and-drum track.

That Shabazz Palaces' songs follow such inscrutable routes makes it all the more striking when they coalesce around a repeated word or phrase. "Free Press" builds up to the rousing chant, "You know I'm free!" over a ghosted gospel chorus. On "Are You... Can You... Were You? (Felt)", Butler exclaims, over ringing piano notes, wafting strings, and one great tinfoil handclap that swings in just half a beat later than expected, "It's a feeling!" "Recollections of the Wraith" glides in on two of the album's most effortless choruses, Butler first proclaiming/promising, "Tonight!" over a swooning, oohing female vocal, and then requesting, "Clear some space out/ So we can space out." That last one is about as involved as any chorus here gets-- these are hooks boiled down to their most essential.

Even forays into traditional structure end up typically idiosyncratic. The album's lone loverman song comes out a treatise-- well, actually, "A treatease dedicated to The Avian Airess from North East Nubis (1000 questions, 1 answer)". It's birds and bees rendered as bop poetry, working up to an insistently smooth come-on line that turns from astral to anatomical with the addition of one little two-letter word: "I want to be there/ Let me be in there." The record's dis track, "yeah you", snarls and bites but it also laments and ends as a breathless, headlong exorcism. All this is both in keeping with Butler's track record and indicative of his status as a hip-hop elder, an MC with some well-earned gray in his goatee. And it's deeply refreshing to hear an artist who exudes such depth and consideration.
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