Black to the Future
Shabazz Palaces Drop the Decade's First Hiphop Masterpiece
Back around 2002, I'd walk from 18th and King (where I lived) to 11th and Pine (where I worked and still work). This walk took about 25 minutes and burned 100 or so calories. Sometimes during these walks, a Jaguar would appear, approach me, and stop. Inside the car was Ishmael Butler. He had just moved back to Seattle and was making plans for a new musical direction. The glorious days of Digable Planets were behind him, and the future was in the works. The driver's-side window of the Jaguar would roll down, and Butler would offer me a ride.
In the car (brown leather seats, a state-of-the-art audio system), we would talk about and listen to music. At that time, Butler was deep into the Helio Sequence, an indie-rock/electro band that formed in Beaverton, Oregon, in the late '90s. The record that captivated him was Com Plex. It was dreamy to listen to dreamy tunes ("Stracenska 612," "Just Mary Jane," "Stitches Sewing") while sitting next to one of the dreamiest rappers on this planet.
Six or so years later, Butler began a conversation with the mbira master/hiphop entrepreneur Tendai Maraire. I caught parts of this conversation at Liberty, particularly on Tuesday nights. Butler and Maraire, two very talented and experienced musical minds, would exchange ideas over cocktails. These exchanges were not loud and lasted for hours. I had no idea at the time that they would lead to a twin set of groundbreaking EPs. In 2010, Butler would be the first rapper on the cover of The Stranger, receive high praise from every Seattle music critic, and win this paper's first Genius Award for music. In those conversations was the dream of Shabazz Palaces.
One day in 2011, I leave Trader Joe's on Madison (a Greek salad and lamb vindaloo for lunch; a bottle of Côtes du Rhône for after work), and a car honks at me. It's a black BMW. Its driver is rapper/hiphop entrepreneur Jonathan Moore. He now manages Shabazz Palaces. He is leaving for SXSW the next day and wants to give me a taste of Palaces' latest, Black Up, which will be released by Sub Pop. I enter his car (black leather, state-of-the-art audio system), listen, and immediately hear something that wasn't on the first set of EPs. It's the influence of a band that's also signed to Sub Pop: the Helio Sequence. And not just the Helio Sequence as a whole, but Com Plex in particular.
Some of the sounds and effects on Com Plex are reflected in tracks like "Are you... Can you... Were you (Felt)" and "The King's new clothes were made by his own hands"—that warm and dusky electronica, those sudden robotic eruptions. But Black Up, which includes contributions from MCs THEESatisfaction and producer Erik Blood, is much more than that. The Helio Sequence is just one way into an album that has many levels, many points of entry—there is the cinematic mbira of "An echo from the hosts that profess infinitum," the Afro-futurism of "free press and curl," the traditional hiphop of "Swerve... the reeping of all that is worthwhile (Noir not withstanding)." I'm just going to say it, because the truth needs to be said: Black Up is a local and global hiphop masterpiece.
Ishmael Butler is not a young man anymore, but his music is still fresh, still sounds new. Now, there are two ways for a veteran hiphop artist to stay relevant. He/she can never grow up, keep up with the trends, perpetually adapt to the changing conditions of the market. The other way—and a way I believe is taken only by Butler—is to grow up, to become an adult, and to make music that sounds great but also sounds like your age. The hiphop Butler is making today is not the same as the music he made 20 years ago. It is another music. Butler could not make Black Up in the early '90s. He simply didn't have the experience and that kind of emotional depth.
Compare the politics of Digable Planets' Blowout Comb with the politics of Black Up. The former is direct and uncomplicated—a youthful politics. The latter finds direction by indirection—a mature politics. Blowout Comb is Bob Marley (the dawn of a black revolution); Black Up is Tricky (its dusk). In the words of Butler: "Deception is the truest act."