The catalyst behind one of Seattle's most innovative hiphop projects doesn't want you to know who he is. You won't find his name in the credits of local outfit Shabazz Palaces' two phenomenal CDs, nor will you find a Shabazz Palaces MySpace page. You will search YouTube in vain for any Shabazz Palaces clips. The group's official website contains no clues regarding the leader's identity. While most rappers bust their asses to get a sliver of shine, Shabazz Palaces' mastermind prefers anonymity.
With a Grammy earned 15 years ago and two classic albums recorded with the Digable Planets trio, this smooth, smart rapper will have trouble maintaining his mystique. But it's admirable that he's decided to let his art stand or fall on its own (prodigious) merits when he could easily cash in on his sterling legacy.
Let's call this Central District MC/ producer Shabazz, because it's a cool-sounding handle and, according to the man behind it, "It pulls from a lot of different cultures. Under that name, you can fuck with a lot of styles of music and it will all fit nicely. It's a tribute to everything you can associate with that name—all the obvious stuff, and also some stuff that only us in the group know about."
Right out of the gate, Shabazz Palaces' two cryptically and immaculately packaged CDs have garnered awestruck responses, including a rousing recommendation from Philadelphia DJ/musician King Britt, who worked with Digable in the '90s. "Shabazz Palaces is definitely some of [his] best work to date," Britt asserts. "He has always been a master of combining the languages of music, politics, and words into a forward-thinking, boundary-leaping, groundbreaking sonic explosion. Shabazz does just that. He always keeps me inspired, and he proves that it's quality over quantity. Malcolm [X] would be proud!"
Other listeners have chimed in with similarly breathless praise. Commenting on Line Out, The Stranger's music blog, Wazhma Samizay of Retail Therapy (a Capitol Hill shop that sells the EPs) observed, "The music is visceral; the lyrics are raw and poetic. Reminds you of a time when hiphop had meaning and talked about life and love." Also on Line Out, London's "Bro O" raved, "It is vicious, way ahead of the time and yet capturing the zeitgeist perfectly... It's sweet, but like a gunshot. No bullets, just stars."
I had similar tingly feelings upon hearing the two seven-track discs that surfaced in May like rare flowers. Hipped to Shabazz Palaces by shoegaze-rock icon/ producer supreme Erik Blood, who mixed the music at MRX Studios, I scooped up the releases and immersed myself in their otherness.
On the black CD featuring the patch with a saber stitched onto it—neither CD has a proper album title—elements rarely if ever heard on hiphop releases predominate. "Hottabatch" sounds like the most laid-back dancehall track ever. "Find Out" contains free-jazz horns and some ill bass frequencies reminiscent of the WordSound label. "Sparkles," Shabazz's most Digable track, is as tranquil and exotically eerie as Jon Hassell. "Chuch" possesses a forbidding quasi-dubstep beat and a loop of amazingly mesmerizing chants by north African women, which Shabazz found on a DVD. In a voice more clenched and tense than he revealed in Digable, Shabazz spits: "What's up with this bullshit that they be tryin' to sell us/what the fuck do we look like/cornyass niggas eating Jell-O in a crowd at a open mic/hail to the north/intelligent relevant/lotta survivors want to hear something elegant/you've reheated your beats and rhymes so many times, nigga, that's why I pine eloquent."
The brown CD with the patch featuring minarets on it continues the unconventional, stripped-down production techniques. "32 Leaves" combines an eldritch, Goblinesque keyboard motif and hard gun-clap beat. "My Mac Yawns" addresses "all my niggas home from corrections" to some woozy electro. The slow, menacing creep of "4 Shadows" includes deep, deadpan guest verses from his CD homie Silk, who appears on two other cuts. On "Blastit," Shabazz's Zimbabwean friend Tendai (aka Boy Wonder) plays an mbira (thumb piano), whose melody of delicate, unspeakable beauty creates a sublime friction when contrasted with the blunt, lackadaisical funk beats. The only other artists to whom you can really compare Shabazz Palaces are Clipse (for the minimal production), Zimbabwe Legit (emphatic delivery), and Company Flow (odd instrumental flavors).
Shabazz Palaces have been germinating for about four years. Shabazz has been mainly working with local producer/musician Bubba Jones and Blood, with the music composed of samples and live playing in a 50-50 ratio. When asked what chain of events led to Shabazz Palaces' formation, Shabazz laughs and pauses significantly.
"Well, I'm always inspired by what's going on in life and stuff like that," he tentatively begins. "Just looking at stuff going on in the current music industry and trying to figure out what I could do, where I fit in. I'm not really a cerebral music-maker. I find myself in musical situations, in moods, in feelings; the songs that come out of that are what they are. I don't give much thought to where I stand, what my sound is, how I should try to describe it. That's why there aren't any credits on the album, because I don't think that stuff matters. The only stuff that matters is the songs that end up happening and the people that they end up touching."
Shabazz Palaces have a very distinctive sound, so it would be interesting to know how it developed. Shabazz wishes he could discuss it, "But I think it's a little out of my range to be able to tie down where it came from, because it came from sooooo many influences over sooooo long of a period of time. It's nothing specific or mapped out sonically. I tried to go with my feelings—being in love with my life, with my kids, with my girl, with music and sounds—just as much Soulja Boy as Miles Davis. Also, visual art and film, good and bad times, losses and gains. All that kind of stuff is in there.
"I guess it's a reaction," he continues. "But it's also my attempt at just making actions and being spontaneous, letting me and the musicians I work with go from our instincts to the product without filtering it through too much other shit."
When pressed for examples, Shabazz says, "Take a film like City of God—when they shoot the little kid in the foot. The way that kid acted, it seemed so real. And I'm thinking, in that situation, what did they convey or impart to that kid to get him to understand what they needed him to do in that scene? As you start to think about the layers of beauty and determination and spontaneity around that single moment in that film, that's inspirational enough for me to create 10 or 15 little songs."
Shabazz Palaces are currently working on their third release and plan to play out when it's completed in August or September. They're talking to a few labels (none local) and will have substantial distribution and a publicist very soon. The mystique will fade, but Shabazz is too levelheaded and industry-savvy to get ground down by the machine. He's going to do this on his terms or not at all, which is great news for heads hungering for that Afro-eccentric sonic shock. That being said, of all Shabazz Palaces' many highlights, "Blastit," which is possibly the most beautiful track I've ever heard, rises highest.
"People I know and friends, they seem to like that one a lot," Shabazz replies. "That's how African stuff is. That's my thing: Those musicians very rarely are pursuing knowledge of the instrument to seek any kind of material gain from it. I feel that that joy, that selflessness, comes through in the music and makes it a happier experience. It's like giving, instead of creating something to hopefully succeed in something."